Friday, June 17, 2011

An American In Korea: Korean Beauty and Body Image

Inspired by Gala Darling's post on body image in fashion blogging over here. She's way smarter and cooler than me so if you haven't heard of her (gasp!) what are you waiting for?? I'm definitely not going anywhere, haha. It seems to be a multi-parter kind of thing so check back tomorrow for more.

Anyway, Gala Darling has a lot to say about the world of fashion blogging and how appearances are coming into play in a way that's kind of sad and somewhat contrary to what's so amazing about fashion blogging in the first place. I agree with a lot of her points! Fashion blogging is particularly inspiring to me because you get to see so much more personalization and style than you ever would in a magazine or on TV, and because you get to see how a normal person dresses and uses a particular item over and over in so many different and creative ways. I follow a lot of fashion blogs but my all-time favorite would probably be Sal of Already Pretty, even though my personal style is really different from hers. But Sal's credo of feeling fabulous every day without going over budget and her super useful everyday tips and advice let her reach people of all body types and all styles, because her blog really is about recognizing that you are already pretty, you just need to bring it out. This is something I've always tried to emulate in every way possible! I never buy or wear something that I don't feel comfortable in and look fabulous wearing.

America has this huge sweeping movement to accept your body the way it was made and to love yourself. You're not a size 0 blond girl with legs three miles high? It's okay! You're made the way you're made for a reason and there's nothing wrong or ugly about that. It's okay to have a muffin top or love handles or bat wings or whatever the cutesy terms are right now. You're not plus-sized, you're curvy or goddess-shaped. I don't agree with every instance of this kind of mentality (have you Googled goddess? they're all hangers with boobs!), but I do support body acceptance and prioritizing health over size.

So, coming to Korea was a bit of a shock.

Before coming to Korea, a friend and I watched this amaaaazing drama called Dream High, following the lives of six teenagers who attend the prestigious performing arts school Kirin Academy. Naturally there are love triangles and rivalries, but the surprise show-stealer was seventeen-year old IU who played sweet, talented, fat Pilsuk.

Pictured: The stuff of Korean girls' nightmares
Despite possessing a voice amazing enough to stun the judges into silence, Pilsuk ends up being dropped into the bottom class and told she has no hope of ever signing with a talent agency. (According to the rules of drama, the kids in this class are by far the most musically talented in the school.) She's told that unless she loses approximately two hundred pounds, she will never succeed, and though she tries, she just can't do it and wants to quit. It isn't until her love interest (Jason, played by the amazing and adorable Wooyoung) overhears people saying that without beauty success will never arrive and encourages her to keep trying that she really starts getting down to business.

This is what she ends up looking like:

Someone, somewhere, looked at this girl and thought: she should play the fat girl
How does she do it??

She asks one of her teachers for help, and gets told this:
There is no such thing as ugly people, only lazy people.
My reaction: YES YES YES.

Asians get a lot of flack from Americans by talking about their weight constantly. I used to stand around in dressing rooms with my friends and we'd pinch our belly fat and talk about losing weight. In a group of Asians who are unfamiliar with each other, the conversation will inevitably turn to wanting to lose weight and reassuring each other that you're beautiful and don't need to, but oh my god look at this fold in my stomach I am so fat! I'm a pig! To an American or someone who isn't used to this sort of conversation, it comes off as neurotic and obsessive, but it's really not; it's just a way of making conversation, a sort of universal topic that's safe and makes you feel good.

But the above quote demonstrates the core of the difference between American and Korean beauty philosophies: Americans promote acceptance, while Koreans promote self-discipline. Don't get me wrong, there's definitely overlap between the two (both assume that the beauty is already there, you just have to get all archaeological and hire a team of fitness professionals, plastic surgeons, and gay stylists to excavate the shit out of it. Or, if you're like Pilsuk, stop eating bread and start jumping rope).

When I came to Korea, I already knew that I was going to get some flack for my weight. I'm a European size 28/29, and I'm naturally pretty heavily built for an Asian. One of the first things my dad said to me at the airport was: "Oh, you're not as fat as I thought you would be." The next day, he and my aunts decided that I needed to lose about twenty pounds by the end of the summer to reach an acceptable weight.

That didn't annoy me; I was expecting it. What really annoyed me was all the comments about how I never exercised and ate nothing but sugar. Not true! I eat a lot of vegetables and fruits, and until I started getting complications with my health, I spent from an hour to an hour and half every day doing intense cardio workouts. My great indulgence was probably bread and rice, which while high in carbs isn't exactly a terrible thing, since I burned off an average of 800 to 1000 calories per workout session. I was big, yeah, but not a whole lot of it was fat.

The Korean ideal body, known as the S curve, achieved with some spine twisting and a padded bra
If the dark side to American beauty philosophy is the risk of laziness leading to over-indulgence and obesity, the dark side of Korean beauty philosophies is the lack of room for body types and different metabolisms. If you're fat, then you're lazy and eat badly; if you don't, then how can you be fat? It's this ultimate democracy that can be frustrating and make me long for America's obese, greasy shores. Weight means so much in Korea. It says a lot about you as a person, and strangers feel like they're allowed to comment on your weight in public (I was out with my cousin's husband and he saw an extremely overweight girl and started shaking his head and tsk'ing under his breath; once an old woman sadly told me I was wasting my face). I can't even claim to be totally exempt from it - every time I see someone fatter than me on the streets, I want to take a picture of them as proof. Once I was frustrated and pointed out one of these people to my dad, who just told me that she was a special case, special clearly implying not allowed for my daughter.

It shows up in other ways too! The current clothing trend is huge baggy shirts paired with leggings, tights, or skinny jeans. I have big shoulders and stubby legs, so both of those look terrible on me, but after I moved in with my unni, she went through my closet and then decided nothing was acceptable and took me out shopping. Some oversized shirts I can pull off, but skinny jeans are pretty much a no now and forever. But not wearing these clothes gets some fairly derisive looks; being a "fashionista" is super important.

So is this really all that okay? I don't know! I love the idea that you and you alone are responsible for the way you look, but the idea that there is only one beautiful body type bothers me so much. Maybe I'm just too American, or maybe Korea needs to open its eyes. No one has to be ugly if they don't want to be, but there shouldn't only be one type of beauty, one type of body. We're not all built to the same template.

Human cloning at its finest. Also, are those rollerskates?
What do you think? What about other cultural beauty standards?

Peace <3


panda53013 said...

I want to go to korea so badly but i know i wouldnt be accepted. Im american and not fat but i could certainly lose some weight in a certain area. Can I have your email? I want someone to talk to about korea and how to be accepted there.

Nana 7 said...

Hey. Wow, Nice blog! Really nice of you doing this. You explane a lot and it's very interesting. Sorry, my english is not so good. Keep writing! We need more of you in this world.
thank you

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