Why do girls compete with each other about who is the prettiest?
The question of competition and appearance reminded me of an essay by Julie Yoo, a Korean-American writer who has spent time documenting the beauty phenomena in South Korean, an area that is heavily influenced by American popular culture. According to her, South Koreans idealize big eyes, a pale clean complexion, a tall slim stature, and petite facial features (2006). It probably doesn't come as a surprise that this disproportionately impacts Korean women.
South Korean men and women are not only forthright about the fact that beauty matters, they're forthright about why it matters. It's widely believed among men and women that good looks increase the odds of landing a better-looking partner and subsequently having better-looking children (Yoo, 2006). Good looks are also believed to result in a more fulfilling lifestyle and more financially gratifying and powerful jobs like those in business and banking sectors (Yoo, 2006).
There is one notable difference between South Korea and the United States, South Korean society no longer hides its preoccupation with physical appearance or its collective belief in beauty as a direct path to happiness and success. It's commonplace to include a photograph on your resume or college application and normal to have multiple weighing scales and full-length mirrors in high schools. There is also a number of websites that allow men and women to post beauty photographs of themselves that can then be ranked by users (Scanlon, 2005).
In the last two decades there has been a cosmetic surgery explosion in South Korea. The number of practicing cosmetic surgeons has doubled in the last decade alone and the 'beauty belt', a dense constellate of some 4000 cosmetic surgery clinics line the streets of southern Seoul (Sang-Hun, 2011). Americans take a different approach. Instead of calling a spade a spade, Americans try to muddy their obsession with physical appearance using 'sexy' pseudo-feminist rhetoric about self-empowerment, self-love, personal choice, and individuality.
When a woman wants to be taken seriously in both professional and non professional settings she should buy the perfect dress for her body type, the right undergarments to disguise the areas of her body that she doesn't like, and “love herself,” enough to use anti-wrinkle creams and apply the perfect shade of red lipstick. Women are pressured, by their own peers to use beauty as a way to achieve their goals.
When happiness, success, and ultimately liberation is contingent on physical beauty, something that subjective, temporary at best, and most definitely skewed towards the middle and upper classes, it becomes easier to understand how women could turn on each other to be “the prettiest.” What troubles me most is that many women are perpetuating the cultural link between beauty and success. It's not just something being done to them; it's now something that they are doing to themselves as well.
It isn’t even necessarily bad that women compete with one another, competition is just part of being human. It doesn't have to be a contest with only one top spot. Competition can also be an opportunity to cooperate, and women do cooperate with one another. There are numerous examples of how women actively support and encourage each other's skills and contributions in business, in politics, in health. Just somewhere along the way, and partially thanks to consumer and celebrity culture, physical appearance always seems to make its way into the conversation, even if benignly. I'd like to think that women know, I mean really know, that they're more than the shape of their thighs, the look of their face, and the labels they choose to wear. I don't know if we'll manage to break the link between beauty and success. The collective consciousness is powerful and tough to beat. I say that change lies in the continuous and shared efforts of women who celebrate ideas that don't involve physical appearance and fashion labels, as well as the efforts of women who make it their mission, through organization and demonstration to showcase their ideas to the world.
Sang-Hun, Chloe (2011) In South Korea, Plastic Surgery Comes Out of the Closet, in: NY Times Online, Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/04/world/asia/in-south-korea-plastic-surgery-comes-out-of-the-closet.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0, [Accessed on: 03/21/13]
Scanlon, Charles (2005) The Price of Beauty in South Korea, in: BBC News Online, Available at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/programmes/from_our_own_correspondent/4229995.stm, [Accessed on 03/21/13]
Yoo, Julie (2006) Beauty: The Korean Way, in: Culture Shock, Available at: http://web.mit.edu/cultureshock/fa2006/www/essays/koreanbeauty.html, [Accessed on: 03/18/13]
Tara is a researcher and writer with interests in gender, disability, the body, and media.
She received her Masters degree in Sociology of Health and Illness from UCD, Ireland. Her research explored how media representations of the feminine ideal affect body and self image of visually impaired women. She's currently pursuing her PhD in similar areas. Her other (diverse) interests include the social and cultural significance of food and the history and myth of the American Dream and its relationship to contemporary American life.