Fragments on Faces

Thoughts on cosmetic surgery, vanity, selfies:

The summer of 1999 dazzled and spoiled, sweltered and suffocated me. I had barely reached puberty then: I didn’t know this would be over a decade before I would visit Korea again.

The cliché is that Korean maternal figures show their love by feeding you. But the women in family didn’t just do that (“Eat more, eat lots. You’re a very good eater.”)—they would also peck and pinch my legs, my arms, my cheeks. They looked at my hands and my ears and my eyes and my teeth. “She’s still a baby so she’ll lose this fat” – “Her ears are shaped nicely, but her feet look fans” – “This can be removed with laser surgery, right?”

Later in the summer, my aunt offered to pay for creased eyelid surgery.


I’ve been consciously taking more selfies lately. I haven’t been using hashtags like #feministselfies2014, but the hashtag was the inspiration for a little self-experimentation.

I find that as I post more to Instagram (and I rarely cross post elsewhere, because I’m still struggling with how I feel about the pictures), the more I feel that I have to write apologetic or sarcastic descriptions. There’s nothing wrong with a smidgen of ironic distance, but the compulsion to separate myself from my face is strong.

I’m not sure whether it’s internalized misogyny, residual Protestantism, or lingering insecurity about my monolid eyes. I’m uncomfortable in the moment I frame myself in the front-facing camera, when I indulge in tilting my head just so, or pouting my lips like that. I don’t like the pictures where I look bad. I don’t like the pictures where I look good. I’m afraid to remind the internet that I have a face.


What bothers me about the knife, anyways? And about the angular face shape, the high cheekbones, the narrow nose, the big doe-like eyes that repeat over and over again, on the television screen and on the street? The colonialism of it is certainly appalling, but what makes any individual surgery, any dye job, any pair of colored contact lenses an act of betrayal or Westernization? I believe in bodily autonomy for women, and am deeply suspicious of any attempts to impose a false consciousness or victimhood on women who insist on their informed consent.

Are my cousins victims?

Is the entire female population of South Korea victims?


Every narrative about cosmetic enhancement has to be interrogated for implicit misogyny, implicit transphobia. The idea of the “natural” is a fleeting specter, a strawman for other cultural norms. I’m reminded of Dean Spade’s Dress to Kill, Fight to Win:

“More importantly, when we appeal to some notion of an unmodified or undecorated body, we participate in the adoption of a false neutrality. We pretend, in those moments, that there is a natural body or fashion, a way of dressing or wearing yourself that is not a product of culture. Norms always masquerade as non-choices . . .”


I line my upper lash line in black. I have to draw it thickly, because the lid rolls over it and hides my work. I don’t line my lower lash line; my lashes are so sparse that the effect is more raccoon-like.

I have to be careful with foundation or powder. It was harder in the old days, when I used to play with my mother’s make-up: cosmetics all had pinkish rosy undertone. She never seemed to get the color just right—it was either too pale or too dark, and never golden enough. Today, even drugstores sell a wider range of colors to match non-white skin. L’oreal calls my skin “Natural Beige,” to be distinguished from the rosier “Classic Beige.” I don’t know what that’s supposed to mean.

Bronzer goes under the cheeks in a couple of light sweeps, to narrow my round face. Blush goes on slightly higher, with more build up to the sides, to create the illusion of shadow. Highlighter goes on the tops of my cheekbones, and along the center of my nose, and on the tip of chin, as though the light is shining on a much pointier face than I actually have.

When I take it off, my face is softer, fatter, rounder, smaller-eyed. I look tired. My nose is flat and pink, my mouth is thick and pale.

I have never gone under the knife, but I sharpen my face every morning.

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