Where The Fat Girls At? On Body Image in South Korea

I was waiting for my mom’s flight to arrive at SFO, she was flying in for my graduation and then we would embark on a three week trip back to Seoul, her current location. My nerves were going all crazy, mainly because my mom makes me nervous and I had consumed a stupid amount of coffee beforehand. When she walked through the gate, past customs, I started crying. My mother was here for my college graduation, something that seemed like it would never happen, and seeing my mom is always a constant reminder that she is the only parent I have, a hard pill to swallow. After a long embrace, some hard slaps on the back (a sign of Korean parental love), and a few hand squeezes we walked to to the car. The conversation that I was dreading soon started, “You didn’t say anything about my face!” she exclaimed. My mom had recently gotten laser surgery to “erase” some age spots and she was quite happy with the results. I turned and examined her skin, “OH! looks so smooth, like baby skin!” Silence ensued during the drive back home and then out came, “Your arms are so fat. Like your aunts. Aiya!”

This conversation continued on for the next three weeks.

Things about my mom we should note: She’s never weighed more than 120 in her life, even during pregnancy. She loves to tell people this. 

So, my mom has always been like this and even though it’s hard to deal with, I just let it go and move on. Sure, it’s totally fucked with my own ideas of health (cigs and coffee are great meal supplements!) and I know more now. I eat whatever the hell I want. 

But there was something different about my mom now, weight held such power over our conversations that nothing else could be talked about. Once we got to Korea, I totally got it. 

On our first day out we decided to go shopping at a local outdoor market. This meant an hour, 3 transfers long subway ride. We settled down in our seats and as I scanned around the car I noticed how many women were looking at their reflections in the window and their cell phones. At one point one woman busted out a handheld mirror. Were not talking compact mirror, think the mirror from Beauty and the Beast. I saw this happen EVERYWHERE and on a daily basis, in a Starbucks, on the street, at the mall. 

In addition to these events, I found several weight loss advertisements on the subway. But more than weight loss programs, plastic surgery was the number one culprit. Plastic surgery is so huge in South Korea and everyone acts like it’s no big deal. I had read this article on Jezebel about plastic surgery in Korea a couple months before my trip and had mixed feelings about it. 

Western beauty is such an ideal in Korea and success is measured in how well you achieve it. In Korea, my body is fat. I can’t fit into most of the clothes, XL (the largest size) is too small for me. My mom made me wear loose fitting clothes that made me look like I was wearing a tent. However, most times when I met someone new, they would say how beautiful my face was. At first I didn’t quite understand why, I wasn’t fully Korean nor do I display any “Asian” physical qualities. And then I understood how my race played into the equation after seeing one too many TV programs. At birth I had achieved the beauty ideal that most of these women were playing into. I had “american” eyelids, a big enough nose with an actual bridge, and a slimmed down “v-shaped” jawline. It was a startling realization. While I was in Seoul, I had emailed my old boss from an internship at About-Face telling her all of the things I had discovered during my trip. She emailed me back with a link to an episode of This American Life where an American teacher shares their experience with body image among Korean high schoolers. Everything I had heard, I had witnessed. I wasn’t crazy! I’m not saying that femme’ing yourself up is a bad thing, femme it on up! But if i’m not, and not going to lengths to be this way, there should be nothing wrong with that. Jobs should be widely available to you and nobody should doubt your ability to be a member of society if you’re fat. 

Towards the end of the trip I started to get frustrated. I wanted to see people loving their bodies, embracing what they’ve got or lack of. I would walk down the streets asking myself, “where are the fat girls?” Cause I wanted to hang out with them, not with my family who kept body shaming me and my cousin. 

I think that this push for weight loss, plastic surgery, and beauty ideals comes from a long time internalized effect of colonialism. This shit doesn’t happen automatically or overnight, nor does it occur in a vacuum. People are taught that the less space they take up, the better you are. You can almost be a ghost, weaving in and out of the world, and the less someone notices you the more success you have achieved. There is something so powerful in taking up space, literally and figuratively. Now, I am not advocating for anyone to go to Korea and save these poor women. My point is that beauty and body image happen differently in different spaces and that we should ask how race and colonialism play into this equation before we start pointing out how “bizarre” this is.



One thought on “Where The Fat Girls At? On Body Image in South Korea

  1. I like this idea about taking up literal and figurative space. Great piece although I must admit I’m a bit sad you don’t have any pics of the Beauty and the Beast Mirror ladies on the train.

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