Last week in Beijing, I was trying to find a place to eat with a friend. We came across a place called 首尔年糕798 (Seoul Deokbokki 798). My friend is Korean, and the restaurant had good online reviews, so we decided on it.
We didn’t even make it into the restaurant’s small entrance when an eager looking girl rushed up to us.
“Would you like to try out Seoul Deokbokki 798? It has delicious rice cakes and –” she whipped out a flyer, “if you can do this, you’ll get a free fruit parfait platter!” At first glance, the flyer looked like an porn advertisement. I’m talking seductive girls with pouty lips and huge boobs all caressing their stomachs in a weird fashion. I immediately furrowed my brows at the girl and said, “What do you mean?”
She must’ve had a long day, as she got slightly impatient. Pointing at the models on the flyer, she explained: “if you can pull your right arm across your back and wrap it around your waist so your finger touches your belly button, that means you are in good shape! You are quite skinny, I’m sure you can do it — all the girls who can manage to do that gets free dessert.”
As you can imagine, I was shocked. At a restaurant – a place where people eat, for god’s sake, they are trying to reinforce an unrealistic beauty standard? If it wasn’t for my friend’s insatiable desire to eat Korean cuisine, I would’ve completely boycotted that place right then and there.
To be honest, once we sat down and our food came in, I’d sort of put that event at the back of my mind – the deokbokki was out of this world delicious, with just the right amount of squishiness in the rice cake, just the right amount of sweet and spicy sauce. It was heavenly.
Then, as I surveyed the crowded room, my eyes settled on an obviously underweight girl who had just been served a huge fruit parfait platter. Instantly, a fire raged within me as I looked at her expression – filled with pride, with a contemptuous pride. Her girlfriends all clapped their hands with forced smiles and complimented her body shape, and although she didn’t smile, her eyes were literally glittering. My friend shook her head as I tried to wash my anger down with water. She told me that this isn’t the worst thing she’s heard of. “In Korea, they say it’s like a trend. There are bars where you walk into a ‘beauty machine’ that ‘objectively’ tells you if you are pretty or not. If you get approved by the machine, you get unlimited free drinks until closing time.” I was utterly horrified.
Although unfair beauty standards are universally practiced and promoted, this is the first time I’ve come face to face with this uniquely Asian practice of these standards. It’s one thing for a bar to say loosely that “pretty girls will get free drinks”, and another for a bar to actually install a freaking machine that will calculate how much beauty one has, whatever that means. This also shows how cruel body image standards can be: a lot of my American friends say that Asians have it lucky because they are naturally skinny – and I think it is true to a certain extent, because we absorb carbohydrates more efficiently. Does this mean we have conquered the beauty standard for being skinny? Nope. Asian girls don’t want their naturally slim bodies anymore. They want to be straight up underweight. When they go on a diet, the trend is not balance. It’s starvation. This goes to show that the beauty standard can never be achieved – that’s the power of it. I bet that if one day, 75% of Asian girls are “successfully” underweight, the new beauty standard would just demand even skinnier bodies.
I’ll admit, I tried the fingers touching the belly button thing – I tried very hard but I could barely reach it and that, to be completely honest, immediately lowered my self-esteem, even though from the start I was extremely critical of beauty standards. Imagine what it can do to a girl who hasn’t learned to be critical, and just lays all the blame on herself.
I know compared to the total number of restaurants in Asia, only a few do this sort of disgusting stuff. But still, it’s managed to become a trend.
Come on Chinese restaurants. Your food is so good, but your mentality isn’t. Step it up a bit. Besides, it is a bit ironic to cultivate a desire to be underweight in order to grow your restaurant business.