Being Plus Sized in Korea

“Ah-gi? Ah-gi? –baby?!” the ajumma questioned me, pointing sharply at my stomach. Instinctively, I sucked in and hoped my flushed face of embarrassment would ward off her repeated inquiry. Giving up, I sighed and shook my head ‘no’. “Ani. Ani, no baby!” I ended up shouting as the bus sped frantically through town and the noise of it only worsened her hearing. I was relieved to exit at the next stop; I had squirmed my way out of the packed bus and I walked home trying to shake off my feelings of humiliation. “It was just a classic example of etiquette faux pas”, I told myself. “She needs to learn the ‘never ask a woman if she’s pregnant’ rule.”

The next day, I wasn’t thinking of the incident but soon I was reminded as the same woman sat on the bus amongst her friends. “Ah!” She greeted me with a smile, and I bowed, customarily. Quickly, she beckoned me to sit near them. A few minutes of polite smiles and incomprehensible small talk went by, but soon the familiar tremor of blood rushed to my cheeks. Once again, mortified as she asked if I was pregnant and once again, I replied, no. She proceeded to giggle with the other ladies and then motioned an enormous invisible belly in front of her. Grinning and pointing wildly at my stomach and back to her gestured one. There are very few moments in life where I felt like screaming at elderly persons –and on most occasions it’s only because they’ve forgotten their hearing aids. I’ll certainly remember that bus ride in Korea as one of the more negative interactions I experienced.

While rude people are everywhere, and indeed like in most Asian nations the attitude of beauty and what is said aloud about appearances – is very different to what is deemed acceptable in Western culture. However, Korea certainly stood out to me as an emotional landmine for us plus sized folk. I tried to take everything with a grain of salt but no matter how many times you try to ‘deep-breathe-yourself’ calm, feelings get hurt and days can be ruined. These are some of the experiences I endured while living as a plus sized woman in South Korea, as well as accounts from friends and other plus sized beauties.

The Lycra, the Bitch and the Wardrobe

Before coming to South Korea, I attempted to mentally prepare myself for the possible struggles of being a plus sized woman in Asia. I had resided in South East Asia for a good chunk of my teen years and my pubescent phase was when I first noticed my growing curves. Moreover, I wasn’t surprised when I found out that I couldn’t find double D bras in Korea – not Western sized ‘DD’, anyway. I had thankfully packed bras from Canada and when family visited me or when I vacationed outside of Asia, I brought bras back. On one occasion, when a new mall had been built in my town I wondered if the Calvin Klein Lingerie store would carry western sizes. The woman working there had a churlish disposition but I attempted politeness and somehow communicated that I was looking for double D sized bras or negligee. She snapped a measuring tape in my face and forcefully pulled me close to measure. Of course when she read the result her eyes almost popped out of their sockets but I had expected that, a little. I laughed with my friend who’d come in with me. I thought that was it, no luck – oh well. Soon I started fingering the baby doll nightwear, knowing that I would be able to squeeze my bosom into some of the lycra ones.  To my horror the salesgirl charged at me and yelled “Ani big size-zu! Ani!” (No big size! No!) Anger fuelled my improvisation skills and I lied, yelling back “gift-tu! It’s a gift!” in defence. I didn’t buy anything in the end, and I left the store seething as the salesgirl made it clear that my presence in the store was highly irritating – as well as my figure. Later, I went home to what seemed, a barren wardrobe – I cursed my ample bust, dreamt of lingerie and nicer people.

The Inappropriate Extra Credit 

“I am in graduate school here, and one of my professors took me out to dinner and out of the blue (like, no context whatsoever… we had been talking about my assignments) he said “I think you should promise me you will lose 5 kg a month. That would be good.”

–Anonymous

The Doctor Diet

“When I was pregnant my doctor kept telling me I was gaining too much weight and the baby was too big (I was plus size when I got pregnant). The thing is… I checked with an American OB/GYN friend and told her how big the baby was and how much weight I had gained. She told me I was well within reasonable ranges and maybe even, a bit low because I lost a lot of weight the first month and half with morning sickness. My Korean OB/GYN told me to diet during my pregnancy. Cut out cheese, all meat/poultry and only eat green vegetables. DURING PREGNANCY…cut out dairy and protein.”

–Anonymous

‘For The Sake Of Korean Customers’

“When I was a size 16 I went to buy some stretchy running pants. I waited in line for 20 minutes for the dressing room. The attendant kept looking at me weird. Finally, it was my turn to go in and try on the running pants. She stopped me and refused me entry. She told me I could not try on any clothes in the store because it would “stretch out all of the clothes for the Korean customers.” I was humiliated. I demanded to hear of this policy from the store manager. She ‘walkie talkied’ him and he basically told me I was too fat to shop at the store and to please leave without making a fuss. I was…devastated.  I had already lost 15 pounds and needed smaller work out pants so I could keep going. But… that really hit me hard.”

–Lindsay

Running Abuse

“A friend of mine once came to visit. She is tall, blonde and curvy. At Yongsan station a Korean woman ran (yes, ran) up to her and said “You are fat. You must diet.” And then ran away.”

“I told my students my hobby used to be horse riding. They laughed and my co teacher said “poor horse”.

–Michelle

T-shirt Teacher Tyrant

“I was studying Korean at a university, and they had arranged this, like, sports day. And as part of it they were going to give us free t-shirts, so we had to fill out forms with our size. Our teacher started the form going around during the break time, and I saw her watching it and taking peeks at me. I thought I knew what was going to happen, but I hoped I was wrong. Turns out I wasn’t. When the form got to me, I put 2XL beside my name and before I could pass it to the person beside me she had run across the room to grab it from me and looked at what I wrote and then began to loudly say things like “Whoa… so big! Wow… bigger than all the men. So, so, big… no men are that size. We cannot make this size I think. So big!”

I remember the guy beside me putting his head down and everyone looking away, pretending they couldn’t hear her. It was one of the most humiliating moments of my life. And she had planned it. Like, she had stood there, waiting for the paper to get to me so she could run across the room and say that.”

–Anonymous

A Strange(r) Encounter

“In an elevator, I had this exchange with an ajjoshi (older Korean man)

Ajoshi: Good Morning

Me: Good Morning

Ajoshi: What is your country?

Me: Canada

Ajoshi: Canada uses English?

Me: Yes.

Ajoshi: (smiling) your body is heavy… good!!!

Me: uh………

Ajoshi: I like your style…

Me: uh……..

Ajoshi: Korean girl…so small… (scrunched up his face).

Me: I, uh….?

Ajoshi: Your style, good!

And then the elevator doors opened and he just walked away.”

–Anonymous

Pig-headed Behaviour

“When I was teaching at a public school, I was coming to work one day and saw one of the Korean teachers coming out –I didn’t know her, we didn’t work together, but we often passed each other and she always smiled in such a friendly way to me. She did the same this time, and I thought “Oh, nice, maybe I can make a friend”.

When we reached each other she said “You, –pig body” all with a big smile. I didn’t know what to say, so she said it again “Your body, big –Like, pig.” I just stared, because… how do you react to that… I think I was trying to think of a way I was misunderstanding her. But I wasn’t. She then said something to the effect of ‘you not eat, exercise…’ and then she made a sucking sound effect while bringing her hands close together to indicate losing weight. Then, she waved and walked away.”

–Anonymous

“It’s okay for you.”

“I think the worst and most offensive [thing] is the public discussions about your appearance. I often over hear Koreans on public transport discussing the fat foreigner not realising she knows some Korean. (I usually smile and wave to shut them up). I’ve had Korean co-workers who can barely pinch an inch complain about how fat they are, and when I stop laughing, pointing out that I’m much larger, only to hear “Well, foreigners are supposed to be fat. It’s okay for you.”

–Anonymous

The Problem with “It’s Just Their Culture”

Every culture has different views and customs about what is appropriate to say to people whether it is about their size, appearance, style, etc. Korea would certainly not be singular in its overly negative reputation amongst Western foreigners when it comes to saying things that offend. While my mother lived in Singapore she had a lot of negative experiences also and I have heard a few nightmarish stories about China and Malaysia as well.

However, when we complain about a rude exchange like those mentioned in this article most of us are often met with comments like “it’s just their culture”, “you have to remind yourself it’s the Korean way”, “It’s only us foreigners who are sensitive –you should adjust to the culture here”, “don’t take it personal, that’s just what Korean’s say and do”.

Until recently, I had also told myself that it was just that –a cultural difference. However, a good friend of mine in Korea, one who loves the country, speaks the language and is keen to stay in Korea for as long as she can –pointed out something very interesting…

“But would they say those sorts of things to other Koreans? Strangers on the street?”

It made me think. Do Koreans walk up to other Koreans in the street and tell them to diet?

Furthermore, it may be acceptable to talk about health and weight among their co-workers, doctors, friends or family (just like in Western cultures) – but would Koreans really go and approach strangers they’ve never met before and tell them you have a “pig body”?

I would hope not, but I also believe that most Koreans wouldn’t dare it.

I also had very few rude encounters from Koreans I worked with or taught. There was respect and regard for my feelings, I felt it. It has been strangers who have been the most invasive.

Furthermore, when Koreans travel – I doubt that they would go up to people they didn’t know from Adam and tell them “So, so big…no men are that size.” And I’d like to ask some of the rude people featured in this article –why? Why don’t you, while visiting America –go up to random strangers and comment about their size?

You know why, and so do I.

Because you know… gasp! – it’s rude.

Final thought

As I’ve made clear, I will no longer tolerate or excuse rude behavior like the stories in this article. I don’t think anyone should. The next time you have a rude encounter with a Korean, I suggest the following: tell them they’re being rude.

무례한 말을 삼가세요 – please don’t say rude things.  ‘bujeogjeolhan geumji’

무례하게 구는거잖아요 – you’re being rude. geugeos-eun mulye jigu’

(그것은) 무례한 일이거든요 – that’s rude. ‘(i) mulyeibnida. I’ 

And most importantly, learn to say  나는 내 몸을 사랑 – I love my body.

‘naneun nae mom-eul salang’

mm