Saturday, September 20, 2008

the mirror is god

After reading Carol's post I think I felt - as I am sure many who read this will also identify with - that indeed so much of our world focuses on the ageless, gorgeous super woman that those of us who - oops - just happen to fall into the category of err... 'normal' need to be reminded that we are the majority here - and hell, ageing and being obsessed with something a little more meaningful than your appearance is not only ok, but should be encouraged!

This got me thinking about my day today. In particular my lunch appointment.
I had an interesting lunchtime conversation, with a very dear woman who just happens to also be the mother of the man who I quite like. The man I quite like is Korean - yet he was born in and lives in America, so like me, we both feel a part of Korea and yet we are not completely accepted in Korea. I think this is one of the reasons we connect.
Anyway, back to lunchtime. The woman in question who I will refer to as M, is I guess the closest thing to an almost mother-in-law, almost mother, almost all knowing one on all issues of Korean and overseas importance I have, and I know she cares about me and looks out for me - this much is quite obvious - which is a great and wondrous thing when I sometimes feel my family is very far away.

M's first comment when she saw me today was "Oh you look so pretty!" I liked this. "Wow, thank you!" I replied - really feeling that this was a genuine compliment, not just like the shop assistants who tell you everything you try on is pretty (which I am quite willing to believe until I notice they are not even looking at me when they say it...hmm...hang on a minute...) M's eyes lit up, she reached out for my hand, and the next compliment was fast on the heels on the first. "That's a nice hairstyle - it suits you!" Wow! This was just great. I remembered at this moment just how much I do enjoy meeting up with M.
It was later that I remembered that this is how we always start, and then as we get more familiar and cozy with each other again over lunch - after we have caught up on each other's lives - another dimension of conversation intimacy starts to surface. The no holds barred, honest-put-it-out-there intimacy that sometimes is not all that comfortable for me.

"Why aren't you eating?" she asked. "I am eating!" I replied. "See?" I took another mouthful. "I am eating, and mmmmm, it's delicious!" This was true. Lunch was delicious, and although I know she knows I am quite a slow eater, it seemed today that my lunch and the amount I was eating and the speed at which it was disappearing was under very close scrutiny. It was putting me off my food.
"You need to eat more." was her reply. And everytime I opened my mouth to say something, she would look concerned and repeat again "Eat!" which I think was my cue to stop talking, 'cos this was not talking time, this was serious eating time.
This is not all that unusual. I know whenever I eat with my Korean friends - especially the older generations - even by the ahjuma serving the food at restaurants - I am told to eat up, to eat more, to eat until I can barely roll myself away from the table. Constant plate to mouth contact needs to be made, with hearty mouthfuls and lots of "Mmmm, delicious!" sounds accompanying the meal. Only then can most Korean women - especially ahjuma and halmoni - feel happy. This I can understand.

What I was not sure I completely agreed with was the direction of our conversation.
I was supposed to eat and eat a lot. This was because if I ate a little bit, I would get fat, and apparently I am already on the cusp of or maybe even have tilted right over in to the world of big fat person, and this is a major concern. I can see it in her eyes, and I can read it on her face. Actually I don't even have to be that socially on to it, M usually feels quite comfortable just telling me. " You are a little bit fat. You need to lose some weight and then you will look so pretty - even more pretty!"
Ok, I do agree that being healthy is great. I am all for that. But I want to be a healthy weight to be healthy...not to look pretty or even more pretty. And to tell the truth, I don't think I am in the dangerously obsese category just yet.
So, the theory continued that eating three big meals was going to get me thinner. Thin people eat a lot. Fat people will just get fatter if they don't eat much.
I wasn't sure how to argue around this, but I did manage to interject that I was full right now, so that's why I had stopped eating. She looked worried. If this was indicative of my usual meal size, I was on the way to being a big fat mama in a very short space of time indeed.
"But you have stopped eating chocolate now, right?" This was delivered with the continuing concerned look in her eyes as M looked from my plate to my face, then back to my plate. I felt that if I couldn't say yes to this, it would be serious disaster zone. Red alert red alert, not only is she not eating big meals, but it seems she is supplementing these with the occasional(or not so occasional) piece of chocolate!
"Yes I have," I replied, and I could see the instant relief. The chocolate consumption had been a huge concern for a while, and when I said I was quitting chocolate - something that I had decided to do quite independent of the worried looks and the not so subtle hints dropped by M over the last year or so - I could tell that she felt her hand in this, and that now she could relax a little. Maybe there was hope for a thinner, even more pretty me.

The conversation continued in this vein for most of lunch. I didn't really know how to take a lot of what she said, although I am used to talking with her like this. I guess what I didn't like about it all, was that these comments are hard to ignore, and instead of leaving the restaurant feeling great after a good catchup with M, I came away feeling doubtful of myself, and convinced that there was something wrong with big fat me.

I don't want to make out that M is an evil character, she is not. Her way of looking at appearance and judging me accordingly is hard to understand. Hard for me to understand.

I find myself comparing her style with my own parents, and the way they have always reinforced that appearance was not important. What is inside you is the biggest part of you - and should be constantly worked on, developed and treasured. Being healthy is cool. Staring in the mirror for extended periods of time (as in longer than it takes to brush your teeth) is not. The outer you will shine if you are healthy on the inside...well, that's another one of these theories anyway, and one that I am more inclined to believe.

So, I just wanted to comment that although I do feel that living in Korea your appearance is placed under a ridicuously powerful microscope, I can't let it control my own feelings of fab-ness and self-worth. And if anything, hopefully this can provide an alternative for Korean women who are equally - if not more so - bombarded by the images of thinness and beauty - often unrealistic and unobtainable.


Whitey said...

M needs to find some light conversation fodder for lunch.

Generally speaking, if a Korean I'm eating with is talking about food -- the taste, the spiciness, the calories, the health benefits, -- I'm bored.

I agree with you that M is not really rude, but she does sound uncultured.

Cat said...

I don't know. In my experience, older Korean women I know tend to try to exert this sort of not-so-subtle pressure to conform to the accepted way of being.

I've become rather close to my daughter's nanny (she is roughly my mother's age) and she is always making what I would consider borderline rude remarks about my weight, cooking, the amount my daughter eats, how much this must cost my husband, etc.

I think that M (and my nanny) think that they are being helpful. In my (admittedly not totally well-informed opinion) I think this is how conformity and group cohesion and the social hierarchy are enforced here. This sort of constant subtle shaming with regard to any deviation from the accepted norm.

In the case of my daughter's nanny, H, I think it's the way she would interact with a daughter-in-law or younger female coworker, etc. And, it's behavior she has learned from older women in her life.

Cat said...

My previous comment should not be interpreted to mean I approve of this kind of behavior. I don't. It sucks. But, you need to find whatever way of dealing with it that works for you.

Just to offer my opinion on what's going on with the conversation.

lollybat said...

Thanks Cat!
I think it sucks too...heehee...but your opinion and comments duly noted and think you might be right. It's something - that whole "not standing out" thing - that is really hard for people who have been brought up in a "be whoever you want to be" kinda mould, to accept. But I'm working on trying to understand it all!