Monday, July 20, 2015

7 Things I've Learned Being a Fat Girl in Korea

Hi lovelies! I'd like to talk briefly today about a subject that's very close to my heart, especially as I'm in the middle of a career transition. Many people fall in love with Korea after being hit with the hallyu wave and inundating themselves with K-pop and/or K-dramas. I'm no exception! I was dazzled by how beautiful the men and women on the screen were, and I was very vocal in my praise (much love to my friends and family back home who put up with my fangirling for so long lol). 

For a number of reasons, I decided I must go live in Korea--that was the country for me. I devoured all the info I could on expat life in Korea, but I was disturbed by reading some miserable experiences of overweight expats here. If you read those stories, please don't be scared off! I didn't let them me put me off, but I came to Korea four years ago expecting the worst. I'll relate some of things I discovered in that time without judgment. 

First of all, when you're watching your K-pop MVs and feeling bad about your body, just remember...

Not everyone is as beautiful as the celebrities we see on TV. I think that Korean people are in general very attractive and that Korea probably contains more good looking people on average than many countries. I'm biased, however, and have a definite preference for Korean features. The fact that not everyone looks like the models and K-pop idols won't stop them from TRYING to look that way though. Again, I don't mean everyone--some Koreans are perfectly happy with their appearance without constantly comparing it to the ideal. But that's the thing: there is a very specific "ideal" of beauty and it's pervasive in Korean society. Everywhere! On the subway, on the TV, walking down the street you'll get reminders that...

Beauty ideals are extremely specific. It's not enough to have a nicely proportioned and symmetrical face. You must have the V-line (jawline shaped like a 'v') and a small face. I still don't completely understand the small face thing after all my time here, but I know some friends who get made fun of for having large heads. That's just something that I never noticed, having grown up in the States where it's not something we're taught to notice. Even if you have the face shape down, skin tone is important for Korean beauty standards--the lighter the better. Also, having a "high nose" and big eyes is desirable along with those enviable straight brows. 

If you get frustrated, the many plastic surgery ads around Seoul offer suggestions lol.

As for your figure, slender bodies are preferred on men and women, though a woman should have as large breasts as are reasonable on her slight frame (that's flexible though--there are plenty of slim women with A-cups who still fit the ideal). Also, one should work out to make themselves slim in a way that doesn't give them big calves. Heaven forbid we see muscles on an in-shape set of legs (ok, I got a bit judgy there after all--sorry).

As there is a different cultural standard for beauty...

There is a different standard for politeness regarding weight. I can't recall a specific instance of this happening to me, but it probably has sometime in the last four years: a well meaning Korean colleague or friend will take you aside and kindly inform you that you really need to lose weight for your health. They don't mean to be rude at all, only helpful, and will offer to assist you or make suggestions of nutritionists or Chinese medicine clinics. The funny thing is that most of the friends I hear this anecdote are not really overweight, but are only fat by Korean standards (larger than a size 6).

Oh, wait! The first time I got a physical here the doctor had a very serious talk with me about my weight and suggested how many kilos to lose. Also, though it would hardly be spoken out loud, companies might hesitate to hire someone based on their weight. All jobs require recent photos submitted with the resume even before an interview, so prepared. I've yet to lose out on a teaching job because of my weight, but now that I'm doing other things I'm mentally preparing for the worst because...

Korea isn't made for overweight people. First of all, it's very difficult to find plussized women's clothes in stores. Maybe it's easier online, but many foreigners' limited Korean skills makes that difficult. Also, as we plussized folks know, trying on clothes to check the fit is very important. More than that, however, many places and features are designed without large people in mind. I've many a time feared breaking a tiny stool or wobbly looking chair at a cafe.

Me at Lotte World

Public transportation and theme parks can also be difficult for people over a certain weight. I haven't personally gone on a ride a couldn't fit into, but it's been tight a few times. Some folks a little bigger than me can't fit into some rides at all. And yet...

There actually are overweight people in Korea. You certainly wouldn't know it from the Korean media, however, where the only overweight actors are comedians or gag men. Korean television is very careful to promote the idealized Korean beauty standard as, if not the norm, then something to aspire to. Nevertheless, there are walking, talking, breathing overweight people in Korea. As an overweight or obese person, you won't be gawked at like a circus freak in a country full of supermodels. I promise! There might be some uncomfortable moments, but as long as you're prepared for that, you can let it roll off your back. 

The hardest thing to get used to as a fat person in Korea is the constant expectation that someone will make a comment or be rude about your weight when meeting someone new.

Just know that, even though the dread is always there, it rarely ever happens. My most awkward moments have come from when I was teaching: children have no filters, or from random old women making passing comments to my friends. Something along the lines of "Oh, your friend would be really pretty if she lost weight!" I just do my best not to feel insulted and agree that I would indeed be prettier (at least according to the Korean standard) if I lost weight. But even if you feel unattractive sometimes, don't worry...

You can still date Koreans. For those of you who want to come to Korea and find a nice Korean bf/gf (for whatever reason, no judgment), don't get discouraged. If you don't let your self esteem get ruined seeing all of the beautiful, thin Koreans around you, it's absolutely possible to find a boyfriend/girlfriend no matter your body type. I'm a size 16 and have a wonderful boyfriend who, though having grown up with those specific ideals and expectations of beauty, loves me regardless. We have an open dialogue about my weight loss struggles, but I still know he thinks I'm beautiful and he wasn't the only one. I've seen people bigger than me dating Koreans and being perfectly happy. 

I think I started taking better care of my appearance in general, and specifically to makeup, hair, and skincare, since I got to Korea because those were aspects of my appearance I could immediately control and improve upon. Weight loss takes time, a good makeover doesn't. For me, making sure I'm put together every day gives me the boost of confidence I need to feel attractive in a country where my body is so far from the ideal.

I think that if you feel comfortable and let yourself be lovely, it will attract the right people. And even if it takes time...

It's so worth it. Despite all of the challenges, I find myself more motivated than ever to lose weight! I'm certainly more motivated than I was living in the States. For me, it took getting out of the routine and comfort of my own country to truly begin my weight loss journey. Even if I wasn't trying to lose weight, however, my love for Seoul and my life in Korea would make any number of unpleasant observations or suggestions related to my weight worth it. Do I think life will be easier in Korea if I lose more weight? Of course. The shopping options alone will change my life! However, even if I never lose another kilo, I wouldn't give up my life in Korea. I'm not naive enough to expect the strict standards of beauty here to dramatically change any time soon, but I sincerely hope people are not scared away from coming to Korea because they don't fit that standard. 

I've found my happiness here and am happy to share it with the world! Wherever you settle, please feel lovely in your own skin and trust your good qualities to recommend you to people worthy of your love! Feel free to comment with any questions about being overweight in Korea or any stories of your own. Have you had any unpleasant weight related moments in your time here? Let us know~^^



  1. I found this a very interesting read and similar to what I'd heard from other sources. The only point I'd make is that the only fat people you're likely to see in Western media are the same types as in Korean, you're only allowed to be a fat person on TV if you're exceptionally funny even here.

    1. That's true! I think there's still a bit of difference in what we consider fat though. There are plenty of actresses north of size 6 in the States and only a handful here. I agree, though, most of our TV personalities are super thin as well. My favorite exception is Christina Hendricks from Mad Men--she's not at all fat, but she's over a size 10 and not ashamed! ^^


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