Being Plus-Sized in Korea

Asian Boss from YouTube recently uploaded a video titled “Being A Plus-Sized Model in Korea” and being a plus–sized Korean myself, after watching this I had a few thoughts I wanted to write down.

As I mentioned before, I am big- I’m 5′ 7″, or roughly 172 cm, and normally wear a US size 14. For a Korean, this is abnormal. Korea has one of the lowest rates of obesity among developed nations today. But, I’ve been chubby for as long as I can remember and grew up listening to relatives say, “You’re tall so you would be so pretty if you just lost weight!” or, “Have you ever heard of so-and-so diet/exercise plan? You should try it out.” I was bullied for being fat only when I was around other Korean children, mostly at church. The reason why I hate churches now is because of the people I associate with it. Growing up this way made me hate myself. Why am I fat? It’s not like I eat more than some thin people. I’m abnormal. Being fat is bad. I should hate myself because I’m fat. And this mentality still sticks with me today.

When I lived in Korea, the fat-shaming culture I witnessed was depressing. I’ve been through almost everything the woman in the video went through. Shopping for clothes was impossible when the largest size carried in most stores is the equivalent of a medium in the US (Don’t get me started on shoes). I could only resort to UNIQLO and even then I could barely squeeze into their biggest size, XL.

When I was wandering and window shopping with friends, I saw a cute sweater and went inside the store for a closer look. The lady in the store immediately came up to me and said, “That sweater will not fit you. It’s a crop top so it will not look good on you.” I felt so angry and embarrassed. Obviously I knew it wasn’t going to fit, but that wasn’t the reason I went to get a closer look. My friend thought it was cute too and we went to look at it together. Or, what if I wanted to buy it as a gift, as I so often did, for my mom or sister in the States? I could only scoff and walk away in a hurry. She would just lose out on money because I was willing to spend a lot on gifts.

Here’s another story. At my school, the teacher’s offices offered snacks, such as small cakes or cookies, for all staff to enjoy. I usually brought my breakfast with me to school, like an apple/banana or yogurt, but on that morning I was rushed and had no time to pack anything. Being famished, I reached for a cake. A fellow teacher look over and said, “Oh, Rei teacher, you shouldn’t eat any sweets! What will you do about your figure?” I didn’t know how to respond and could only laugh it off as I ate.

Plus, lunches in Korea are served buffet-style, which is self-serve. You can get as much or as little food as you want. On most days, I would serve myself just enough to be full and satisfied for the day. But, on some days, I would miscalculate and be left hungry. You are certainly allowed to go back for more- some teachers do this on days when particularly special dishes were served- but I would always be embarrassed because I didn’t want to feel fat and just be hungry for the rest of the day. I would rarely throw out food while other teachers often threw out bowlfuls. It was a standard I kept only for myself because I knew how Korean society views big people.

Luckily, I never encountered someone who said something as nasty as what was said in the video along the lines of, “Ugh, I just saw a fat girl. My whole day is now ruined.” I mean, most people won’t be as rude like that to your face. But, in Korean society, the image of a perfect woman, like an idol, is worshiped above all. Being so thin that you can’t stand at times is also praised. Many female celebs have been known to collapse because they’ve been starving themselves and are applauded for it.

To be honest, I’m thrilled that business for plus-sized models in Korea is starting to grow. But that’s just it. It’s only the beginning. Korean beauty standards are so harsh (plastic surgery is given as graduation gifts to middle schoolers!) and I am concerned and confused as to how this will ever change. Peoples’ views are not so easily changed. Fat people in Korea have always been the butt of jokes and have never been seen as beautiful. And of course, disclaimer: I’m not saying that all Koreans think like this and I’m also not saying that Korean society sucks. But, I will thoroughly support those plus-sized models and applaud their courage for standing up for themselves and others in a collectivist society where those who stand out are hammered down. I can only hope that in the future, Korea (and the rest of the world) will let go of impossible standards and realize that all bodies, even large bodies, are beautiful.