Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The Fold: Who Decides The Standard of Beauty?

The Fold
An Na
Putnam Juvenile

Joyce stepped back to the mirror and pulled out two sheets of tissue from the dispenser on the counter. She leaned forward, raising her tissue-swathed index fingers to her face. The huge zit pulsed with pain, but she held her breath and gave it. One. Last. Push. Eye-rolling, teeth-clenching, nausea-inducing, searing pain flooded her body, but in the mirror, Joyce could see the beginnings of a white nugget like a tiny grain of rice oozing out from under her skin along with pus-streaked blood. Joyce gasped and watched with revolt and glee as the alien seed emerged from the mother ship that was her temple. She got it.

That is part of the perfect beginning to a novel about the different images of beauty and society's preoccupation with them. We are introduced to Korean American Joyce Park through an opening chapter where she is obsessing over a zit because she wants to look her best when she asks her very popular and very hot crush to sign her yearbook.

Joyce is always compared to her beautiful, sexy, intelligent, and overachieving older sister Helen. Living in Helen's shadow makes Joyce angry at her sister and insecure about her own looks and abilities. Joyce's aunt, Gomo, is obsessed with looks. Gomo has gone through so much plastic surgery that Joyce and her younger brother Andy call her "Michael" (after the singer who has altered his appearance beyond recognition). When Gomo wins the lottery, she gives her family gifts that will help them improve their looks. She gives Helen an expensive and gorgeous traditional Korean outfit. She gives Andy shark liver extract pills with a special Chinese root for growing taller. Joyce's father gets a sharp new suit and shoes with lifts in them to make him look taller. Joyce's mother gets permanent makeup tattoos. Gomo offers Joyce free plastic surgery: blepharoplasty, the eyelid surgery that many Asians undergo to give their eyes folds.

Gomo's plastic surgeon, Dr. Reiner, glues back part of Joyce's eyelids to create the effect of the double eyelid fold surgery. This is temporary and is meant to help Joyce decide whether she will go through with the operation. Joyce feels prettier and more confident while trying "the fold" on a trial basis. Maybe with the permanent fold she will have a chance with her infatuation, the half-German, half-Korean, all-American John Ford Kang!

The Fold does not bang us over the head with its commentary on the different notions of and attitudes towards beauty. Neither does it force-feed us ideas about whether plastic surgey is right or wrong - or even about whether a preoccupation with looks is right or wrong! (Though it does come dangerously close to doing those things a couple of times.) The different notions of and attitudes towards beauty are embedded in the story and gently explored.

In addition, I was truly fascinated by the beauty of the Korean/Korean American culture shown in The Fold. Best of all, by the end of the novel I was teary-eyed because I realized that it is also about the beauty of family.

I would love to discuss this book with high school girls. It is the perfect novel to use to encourage teenagers to think carefully about their physical insecurities. It is also the perfect novel to use to encourage teenagers to think carefully about Western and Eastern standards of beauty and how the media defines and portrays beauty.

As an Asian, I know several other Asians who think that their eyes are ugly because they have no eyelid folds. I never did understand why they do not like their eyes. :( I like their eyes just the way they are! In fact, I think the absence of the fold is BEAUTIFUL.
Tarie is a reader, grad student (major Anglo-American literature), editor of EFL instructional materials, and former (and future) English teacher in the Philippines. She blogs about literature for the young and young at heart at Into the Wardrobe.


Nymeth said...

I had no idea that the lack of eyelid folds was a source of insecurity, but it only makes sense that if people are constantly hammered on the head constantly with an unrealistic standard of beauty, they will feel bad about every detail that doesn't fit into it. Especially when they're young and struggling to fit in. This sounds like a very interesting book. Thank you, Tarie.

Tarie said...

Hi, Nymeth!

You wouldn't believe the number of people I know who think their fold-less eyes are "ugly." I am still baffled by it. When I let them know that I think their eyes are SEXY, they say things like, "Easy for you to say. You have big eyes." Whaaat?!

There are different kinds of beauty and doesn't that make things much more interesting? It would incredibly boring if we all had the same kind of hair, eyes, etc.

Thanks, Nymeth!

tanita davis said...

This book sounds fab, though I am still squicked out by the topic. I know Korean girls who don't like their legs enough to get the bone filed down, so that their legs look less stumpy and more "Western." The eye fold thing stresses me out, because my sister has no fold. I don't want her to EVER feel this way. But, it's so good that there's a book for girls who do care about that, to think the surgery through, and look at pros/cons. Great review.

Tarie said...

Tanita, OMG, I didn't know about the bone filing to get more "Western" legs! That sounds painful and downright unnecessary. Gosh. But that's just my opinion. Girls are entitled to that choice and it's important that they really think the surgery through!

Summer said...

I read this book and I enjoyed it. I enjoyed your review too. It's a very honest book. I remember the scene where she's on the beach after taping her eyelids back feeling very cool and fancy-free before the glue starts wearing off. Before I read this book I had never really thought about eyelid folds. I looked at myself in the mirror and I was like eeek, there's a thousand creases there. But it's not different than... wishing you had straight hair or lighter skin or maybe tanner skin or green eyes... it's something almost everyone can relate too.

Anonymous said...

Truly interesting read. I had it in my hand at the bookstore a while ago, and then read a whole chapter. Then, I didn't buy it. I'm not sure why. I think perhaps I've seen so much online blogging about "the fold" issue that it's interesting, yet not new to me. However, the writing was very sharp and crisp. Perhaps I'll have to rethink going back and picking it up. Of course, it isn't at my local library.

Tarie said...

I really loved this book. I was so impressed by the subtle exploration of themes. An Na ROCKS!

Summer, you're right. There is always something: I wish I was thinner... I wish I had bigger breasts... I wish I was taller... I wish my nose wasn't so flat... And on and on and on and on. :o(

Noraebang, oh no! How could it not be at your local library? I think that is sad. :o( More people need more access to this book!