Sunday, October 4, 2009

Fat Girl in Korea (Pretend this post is about Chuseok)

Obligatory: yesterday was Chuseok, but instead of doing a really bland write-up about it, I'm going to be lazy and link to the Wikipedia article. And if that's TL;DR, here's the short version: Chuseok is almost (but not really) like Thanksgiving; a more apt comparison would be to the old school Celtic/new school Wiccan concept of Samhain, but that remains too obscure a reference for most Americans so the Thanksgiving comparison stays. If nothing else, the comparison to Thanksgiving does work well when you consider that both days are notoriously bad travel days, as tradition dictates you spend said holiday with your family. I tried to do the next best thing to going home, and that was have something appropiately ethnic for dinner, but my usual Uzbek haunt was closed for the holiday.

And that's all I have to say about Chuseok. What's prompting me to write is a desire to write about being a fat girl in Korea, after seeing this article from Glamour linked in multiple places.

I should preface this by saying that I call myself a "fat girl in Korea" with the greatest possible affection. Fat is not an inherently negative word for me. I generally consider it to be pretty neutral (as opposed to "lardass," "slob," "pig," and other pejorative terms based around weight). So don't read it as depressed self-deprecation, because that's not how I intend it.

To say that most of the time I'm okay with being fat girl in Korea would approach the truth, but not quite. Right before I left, I was more than okay with being a fat girl in the US, being that I was in better physical (and mental) shape than I had been in previous years. It was a good attitude to bolster me through the fact that I was going to Korea where I knew the average was no longer a size 16.

Nonetheless, you do notice things. I can't buy any bottoms except men's pants in the department store—and even then, just barely—even before I gained a sort of "freshman Korean fifteen" (remember how I said Koreans like to eat and drink a lot? yeah). Because I'm a bit bottom-heavy, I can make do with tops from the women's section, but again—barely. Which is strange when at home I was rocking the 12/14 range, easy enough to find in an American department store of LotteMart's caliber (as well as Goodwill and Salvation Army, where I do an equal amount of clothes shopping). But in Minlak-dong, a poor neighborhood in a country where fat, not thin, is linked to wealth and money, there's no market for anything that big. And even at my "ideal" weight (ideal in terms of where I want to be, not according to whatever medical authority), I don't think I could squeeze my ass into any but the tippy-top end of the size range, if that. I can't imagine doing that even if I were skin and bones; I think my bones there are just too big. And yeah I dig having hips and not looking "like a 12-year-old boy" (as my own boy would say), but sometimes I need a new pair of pants!

So wandering through the clothing aisles, walking down the street on the way to school, spending all of my time around Korean begin to feel like a whale in a country full of sardines. You do occasionally see chunkier Korean women out here, but they are few and far between. And I still don't know what society thinks about them. As for obese? Out and out unhealthy? I can count on one hand the number of obese Koreans I've run into, man or woman, and still have fingers left over.

One of my former students (who since moved to another hagwon, unfortunately) was a sixth grade girl named Julie, on the tall side and also a bit heavy-set. She was one of my favorites in a class that I largely despise, and the rest of the class seemed to like her just as much. She was outgoing and commanding of attention (not in a bitchy way, but in a natural leader sort of way), and she had a really cute sense of style. I can't tell if she ever felt insecure about her body, and I can't tell what the students said about her when she wasn't around (if they even said anything), but from what interaction I could witness she was really quite popular.

Another one of my students is a fifth grade boy, Jack. He's a bit fatter than Julie; outside of "oh, he's just big-boned" range into full-on fat. Jack is the class pariah. It's hard to tell if it's because he's a fat kid (Mina thinks it is) or because he's just a generally bizarre child who sort of thrives on being the weird kid, but whatever the reason the other students make no bones about their dislike of him. Some days, I'll admit, they play nice, and if he gets upset they apologize, but other days they legitimately give him a hard time.

As for me, I've gotten some amount of ribbing from students because of my weight. I've also gotten an equal (probably greater) amount of compliments, from students and from adults, so it all balances out.

Nonetheless it's one thing to be okay with yourself when you see a fair amount of women who look (more or less) like you. It's another thing to be okay with yourself in a country full of stick figures. It's incredibly frustrating to realize that I can't just run out to the store and get a new tank top or a new pair of shorts if I need one. It's frustrating to feel like I'm a giant clumsy blob who's always in the way. It's hard to love yourself when you don't see anyone like you.


  1. i will send you 'american' pants, just let me know what you want :)

  2. I found a hidden cache of fat American pants, actually! So I'm good for now. I'll survive. =P

  3. where's the hidden cache!? i feel slobby from my lack of high heels alone ...

  4. They're my pants, Alex! You can't have them. =P

  5. lol, "big bones". i SWEAR TO GOD i have read that more than 5 times while looking at fat posts. "oh i want to be skinny, but i'll probably not be cuz i have big bones"
    girl, no one has bones that make you fat. EVER. no such thing as big bones that make u look supppper fat. big bones do NOT make u fat. fat makes you FAT!

    1. Whoa there, anonymous. Thanks for chomping at the bit to play the "hate on fatty" game, but UR DOIN IT WRONG. Here, let me teach you a skill called "close reading."

      I can't imagine doing that even if I were skin and bones; I think my bones there are just too big.

      In case you missed it, my point was that EVEN IF I WEREN'T FAT, it seems like my (hip) bones would be outsized for typical Korean clothing sizes. Note that I didn't actually at any point trot out the "I'm not fat, I'm big-boned." line.

      Thanks for playing, though. Better luck next time!