“Who is your favorite person?” This seemingly innocuous question triggered shame in me that traces back to my high school years.
My friend Wilson’s answer was our mutual friend Grace, which I completely understood. I could have picked Grace because I like her very much. But my emotional reaction was dark. I felt angry, bitter, sad, and hurt. After a few hours of reflection, I told Wilson that our conversation revealed my insecurity. After a few days of reflection, I realized that my emotions ran deeper than insecurity: I felt inferior to Grace. Why though?
The reasons that came to mind were:
She is young.
She is happy.
She is confident.
She is skinny.
She is pretty.
Her White face is pretty.
Her blonde hair is short AND pretty.
Her skin is clear white.
She dances well.
She is cool.
I know there is no competition. Grace and I are not comparable; we are unique individuals, neither superior nor inferior to each other. Yet, this list reveals a lot of toxic ideologies in my head. It shows which values are regarded as superior, standard, and normal.
I learned a new terminology this week from Resmaa Menakem, a therapist and trauma specialist: White body supremacy. He explains that “White body supremacy elevates the white body above all other bodies. The white body is the ostensibly supreme standard against which other bodies’ humanity is measured.”
When I was living in South Korea at a young age, the White bodies I saw were lingerie models in women’s magazines. Later I learned that the products were imported from western countries, and the companies used the original advertisements with add-on texts in Korean. Growing up amongst other Koreans, I barely had developed a concept of a race. I knew the Korean words for White people (paykin*) and Black people (hukin) as well as a derogatory term for the latter (kkamtwungi). It was much later that I learned Korean words for Asian (tongyangin)and Mongoloid/Yellow race (hwangincong), which refer to my race. Without understanding the racial complexity in the world, the only thought I had about those models was that they looked beautiful. Their skin glowed under the studio light. Their blonde or brunette hair gleamed more than my black hair. They were taller than Korean models, and their limbs were longer.
*I used Hangul to Yale Romanization Converter for Korean words in this post.
South Korean Advertisements of Scandale Paris in 1990s
My crushes used to be Korean-looking people for a while even after I moved to the US, but gradually they changed. Nowadays most people I feel attracted to are White, occasionally Far East Asian, rarely Black or Brown. I am not surprised by this tendency of my attractions. Racism and colorism are rampant in South Korea, where I spent the first 15 years of my life while shaping the idea of what constitutes beautiful. I came across a posting while searching for old lingerie Ads on Korean websites. Posted on “Funny” forum as “Underwear Ads 1999 vs 2019”, it compares Calvin Klein billboards of a skinny White woman in 1999 and a fat Black woman in 2019. One of the comments sums up the shared opinion of them all: “Wild boars took over the world.” My younger self could have Liked that comment. I might have sensed it was cruel, but at the same time, I would have thought she deserved it. For a long time, I thought fat was ugly and White was beautiful. Well, my subconscious mind still thinks so.
Brené Brown, a professor at the University of Houston, studies the damaging effect and universality of shame. It makes people feel unwanted and unworthy of belonging, and most people in her research confess that their experience of shame started during their tweens and teens. In middle school and high school, I was fat and I was bullied. Nobody beat me up or locked me in a cabinet. But the girls who used to be my friends stopped talking with me one day and instead started talking about me, in the back and front. Contemptuous stares were easy to detect when I could hear my name in their whispers. I felt like the world had turned against me when I ate lunch alone among 55 classmates eating cheerfully in clusters.
Such a painful experience became a painting of shame awash in White body supremacy and hangs on my inner wall permanently. I don’t brood on it every day, but occasionally it slides up right in front of me without a warning, like when Wilson picked Grace as his favorite person.
He chose her over me.
This narrative is not an accurate portrayal of what Wilson did, but it is an accurate one of what my friends did in middle and high school. How much did I agonize to be someone’s favorite friend? And how much did I envy the person who gets to choose?
As I matured, I learned that I don’t need to be anyone’s favorite person. I can seek love from myself. In high school, I didn’t even know the Korean word for self-love. It was non-existent, at least in my world. The closest one was caconsim, which can be translated to self-esteem, self-respect, or self-regard. But its use was limited to a specific context, as in “don’t you have any caconsim? Why do you go after the boy who is not interested in you?” It definitely didn’t apply to loving our bodies. They didn’t deserve love unless they fitted the beauty standard set by White bodies, which was not limited to skin color. It was all the praised features of White women in Hollywood movies: fair skin, double eyelids, small face, small head, and skinny body.
Girls around me did what they could with the limited resources they had. They used the tip of a pen without ink to repeatedly draw a line over their eyelids to create a crease. Blessed with natural double eyelids, I was glad I didn’t have to join them. Still, I owned a skin compact that was popular with teenage girls. The key was choosing a shade that was lighter than your skin tone. It was only a few dollars at the time, which was all we could afford. So when I saw a zero-cost diet tip on a teen magazine, I excitedly shared it with the girls: pinch the unwanted flesh until it bruises. Then the flesh will use the fat in the affected area to repair the bruise, leaving it in a more desirable shape.
Brown claims that adolescents develop the following strategies to cope with the shame-based pain, which often stick with them into their adulthood:
using shame on others to fight shame within oneself
I have used all of these strategies. I hid my body in big box T-shirts and baggy pants. I got a haircut that covered my chubby cheeks. I refrained myself from speaking my mind to avoid conflicts. I ostracized a member of my student group by blaming her for causing trouble with other members.
My round face was useful for an article “Hairstyle to make your face smaller” in a teen magazine
Thanks to years of counseling therapy and learning about mental health, I have attained a better understanding of my shame. I still experience shame frequently (I am a bad teacher because I don’t want to grade. My belly and thighs look gross after gaining weight during the quarantine.), but I am able to recognize it as a shame response. And instead of pretending to be someone else, trying to change myself, or diverting my shame toward other people, I talk about it with my partner, friends, and you. According to Brown, shame keeps control over our lives by making us feel miserable talking about it. The quarantine not only brought me bigger belly and thighs but also more time to grow compassion and courage to be vulnerable through writing.
So join me in talking about shame. What do you feel ashamed of? Your body being fat? Being White? Not being White? Being who you are?
P.S. White body supremacy is not the only basis of my shame. Others include hetero-normativity, ageism, ablism, and unrealistic beauty standards in media. I chose to focus on White body supremacy in this letter because it was most relevant to what I was experiencing at the time of writing.