Young Korean feels the pain of anti-curl bias especially harshly

By Special Contributor Helen Hyun-hwa Lee

korean helen lee

Helen Lee, with straight hair.

I have naturally curly hair. I inherited the trait from my father, whose hair neatly bundles up to sophisticate his demeanor.

My curvaceous locks are tangles when brushed numerous times, and a bush when I awake in the morning. My friend Yoon-joo claimed the tangles formed a frizzy iron pot scourer, making me look like a North Korean who crossed borders to escape poverty (a nasty joke, given the distress above the 38th parallel). With its suggestions of rustic backwardness, the North Korean nametag was something I naturally wanted to dispel. So I took 40,000 won to the neighborhood hairdresser, who ironed my crumpled hair into slick conformity.

I used to flaunt my curly hair with great pride. I thought the coils were cute, as did my loving parents (but of course what part of you isn't cute to them). But my love for my mane was challenged when I came to Korea after having lived in Chicago for the bulk of my childhood. The glossy, regular curls celebrities donned were all right, even beautiful, but my unruly, outspoken (pasta) were out of the question. They had to go.

At first, the girls simply implied: "Well doesn't (put celebrity's name here)'s straight hair look amazing?'' Then their objections grew in volume until they outright said, "Your hair's really ugly.'' I was indignant, I was hurt, but I wasn't stupid enough to brush away their advice. Korean communities are so tenaciously interwoven that peer pressure is a dominant driving force in many decision-makings; this one was no exception. I thanked them for their selfless advice.

By razing my hair with a steam hair straightener, I not only burnt each tip ― severe hair damage that took years to recover ― but also flattened my self-esteem and distinct identity, that quirk I had thought so characteristically me. Self-consciousness and individuality are prized above all in the American classroom, where the best advice a teacher can give is, ``Be yourself, not what people tell you to be,'' but I had been brainwashed into believing that I wasn't good enough ― nor was my frizzy hair.

While living in Korea, I felt as if every opportunity was bent on repressing my individuality, my inherent desire and need to be different. I'm too outspoken. I use my chopsticks incorrectly. What's wrong with my brain? Don't I know what I must do? Every time someone corrected my ways, I could feel my anger gauge rising to the tip of my head, but Korean values had swamped me by the time I was full to the brim. The anger just oozed out with no particular violence or vengeance, but a sweet resignation. A white flag.

Of course, I remained different. Simply taming my Medusa didn't restructure my genetic makeup, which ensures that I differ from everyone else (even if just by the slightest). However, I wasn't who I was "made'' to be. This distortion of self was perhaps inevitable. It wasn't just my friends, but an entire societal juggernaut out there to get me (no, I'm not paranoid, thank you very much). The Korean education system enforced homogeneity ― uniforms; hair length restrictions; no makeup, high heels, or unconventional ideas. The message inculcated was "Study, study, study, get rich, be polite, don't talk back to elders.'' I was told what to wear, what to say, what to do ― basically, how to live.

The uniformity enforced in society had spilled over into cosmetics to nag me about my curls.

There are ideal models of beauty in all societies, suggested to the unknowing teenager through jean commercials, magazines and television shows like Gossip Girl, but none so enforced as the Korean.

You want large eyes, with double eyelids; a large, pointy nose; luscious lips; a V-lined, egg-shaped face and a slender, graceful figure complete with large breasts and a tempting derriere. The celebrities that teenagers are typically exposed to look virtually identical, as if stamped and assembled on a forever busy conveyor belt.

The situation's not so different for teenage boys. Slick cars, six-packs, tall height, wide shoulders, gorgeous face ― these are the criteria for male perfection in Korean society. No wonder Korea's infamous for cosmetic surgery. I don't want to be overcritical of my own nation - I'm actually quite patriotic ― but that doesn't change the fact that change is urgent. I want to live in a nation where curly hair, ugly faces and obesity aren't looked upon with disdain, where the community embraces individuals as they are. Individuality, rather than uniformity. Is that too much to ask for?

Well, I guess it's "I once had curly hair.'' I've ceased to straighten my hair, but the past can't be unwritten. I hate to admit it, but the straightening became addictive, until I couldn't control myself when the slightest curl led me to the closest hairdresser. My curls are now limp, verging on nonexistent. They will never be as curvaceous as they once had been. I suppose this is the price I pay for conforming.


The writer is a senior at the American International School of Guangzhou, China. She has lived in the U.S., Korea and China, and can be reached at 98leeh@aisgz.edu.cn.