Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Body Image in Korea (Part 1)

This post has been a long time coming. I knew I would write it eventually, and even though I'm far from qualified to give a good, detailed analysis of the subject, I think it's time to share my experiences thus far. (Although I have called this entry "Part 1" because I expect I'll have a more seasoned perspective to share later.)

Two weeks ago I taught my kids about Chicago as a way to learn about how to speak about locations, specifically cities. I spent some time on Chicago food, and of course I had to include deep dish pizza. After I showed them a picture and explained it to them, some of my more...obnoxious boys asked me:

"Teacher, is deep dish pizza why you are so fat?"

Last week, to continue my lesson on travel, I taught a bit about England and showed them pictures from my time living there. Those same boys posed this follow-up question:

"Teacher, why are you so much skinnier there?"

I love my students.

There's no way to respond to comments like that except to laugh it off and move on. The thing is, comments like these aren't rare - or even rude - in Korea. Koreans are generally very frank, as they themselves have told me. Fumbling with a piece of kimchi? "You do not use chopsticks very well." Didn't put make-up on this morning? "You look sick today." Fortunately, it works the other way too. Have a new outfit on ? Wearing your hair down? "Oh, Teacher, so beautiful!"

Anyway, once you've accepted that comments like these are part of everyday life, you get used to it and just let them go. After all, they aren't telling you anything you don't already know (probably). But that doesn't stop the negative remarks, particularly the ones about weight in my case, from stinging. It is not easy to be anything other than stick-thin in Korea. My loud, obnoxious, and very funny students told me after their skinnier-in-England question that the average weight of girls in Korea is around 45 kilos. That's not even 100 pounds. It's not that most of these women are sick - many of them really are naturally skinny and short, resulting in low body weights. However, at the same time, appearance is even more important here than it is in the United States. You don't see many people, both men and women, walking around in sweat pants. They have their cute, put-together outfits on all the time. Plastic surgery is remarkably common. And then there's the importance placed on having a nice body, on having what Koreans call the S-Line, on maintaining that 45-kilo frame.

I've had a number of truly tiny adolescent girls tell me they need to lose weight. I'll always remember walking around one of the classrooms in my first week and seeing the word "DIET" written in white-out on the corner of a girl's desk. When another girl wrote her self-introduction, she included these phrases (truly, some of the most heart-breaking words I've ever read): "My goal is beautiful girl. So I will hard diet." And I know how they feel. It's hard enough to be of an average weight in America - which I am. Here in Korea, I'm rather odd-looking with my, let's say prominent, lower half. Shopping for jeans was certainly an experience.

Nevertheless, I try not to let this stuff get to me. I'd rather be a bit too big than way to skinny, and I enjoy food and watching television far too much to either starve myself or work out obsessively to get thin. Sometimes I'm even proud to walk around, thinking to myself, "That's right, I've got a butt!" But when you're out and about and all you see are tiny women, and when you see a cute skirt that you know simply isn't made to fit your type of body, and when somebody describes you as being even a little large...sometimes, it's just not easy.


dc said...

Anna -

Check out:

I think you've definitely got the right attitude about this - and you hit on something which I've known for awhile, too - the Cesa's are a bottom-heavy clan! We should celebrate this, I think. We have the most powerful calves of any group of people I can think of!

Also, never forget that Oma's Dad was a German chef! This is part of who we are.

I run into this a lot playing ultimate. At tournaments, all day long for two straight days, you're around tight, compact athletes of both sexes. Sometimes, it's a shock just to transition from being at a tournament during the day to eating dinner at the local Olive Garden in terms of body types. I definitely feel the crunch, so to speak - and I love my food and my television, too.

I guess what I'm saying is you're not alone in feeling like this, and it's ok and great to talk about it and address it. We're pretty ok, after all, I think.

Anonymous said...

"And then there's the importance placed on having a nice body, on having what Koreans call the S-Line, on maintaining that 45-kilo frame."

Nu-uh. In America (I'm sure you know)
that's called borderline anorexic.

Oh, and this post made me feel better. It's not that I'm overweight, its just that I like eating a lot and I often worry about getting to a size that is not desirable, so thanks!

Rachel Lee Holland said...

i agree that some girls are borderline eating disorder... but also keep in mind that the food that koreans eat on a day to day basis probably has a million less calories and fat than americans eat. the last time i was in korea, i lost so much weight and i think i was actually eating more than i do in america.

i weigh 44 kilos and i ate a steak last night. i don't think it's fair to call someone borderline anorexic because their of their genes...

Anonymous said...