Wednesday, April 18, 2012

More On Being Fat In Korea: Shopping

As a reward for taking care of some stressful errands, I went to the "plus-sized" clothing store downtown. I'd dropped in a couple times before and found some cute leggings and tops. My goal today was a new pair of jeans and some spring t-shirts.

I only succeeded in one of those missions (the jeans). Definitely one of the more unrewarding of my shopping ventures.

If this were America, I could have gone to Target, Wal*Mart, or Sears, and found everything in a "mainstream" store, alongside the size 0s and 00s. Sure, the fancy boutique-type places are off-limits to my size 14 badonkadonk, but there are alternatives. There's even places like Fashion Bug, Lane Bryant, or Torrid, that cater nearly exclusively to fat chicks like me.

That's not quite the case here. I can comfortably buy t-shirts in department stores that are the equivalent of Target or Wal*Mart, and the occasional elastic-waisted bottom, but jeans, trousers, or fitted blouses are not happening. Like at home, the cutesy boutiques you find on almost every street are only so much fashion-critic window shopping for me. The only place I can buy any clothes beyond t-shirts is one called, creatively, "큰 옷." Literally: "Big Clothing." Not the most inspiring of names.

It's a small store, like all of these boutiques, but they manage to cram a lot of clothing in there. That's a plus. The sizes range from L to 5X. Also a plus. But that was it.

For whatever reason (finances? lack of opportunity? bad timing on my part?) the spring selection was simply not there. Everything was still fleece leggings and gray winter long-sleeve tops. Ninety percent of the color palette in tops and bottoms was gray, black, or brown. Not really the most cheerful, spring-like fashion choices. The first strike of the day. I ended up getting my spring t-shirts at a men's store in the Underground Market.

People complain a lot about vanity sizing in America and how it's nonsensical and confusing. It's even more so if you get clothes overseas, because all of a sudden I went from a 14/M/L/XL (depending on the company) to a XXXL. Kind of depressing, but more depressing for the fact that there are obviously women (and men) in America who are much larger than me. I couldn't imagine being a XXXL in the states and coming to Korea, stuck with trips down to Itaewon or Internet shopping, and then seeing signs that said "3X" in this store—what bitter, awful disappointment.*

She'd probably be a XXL.
Even when garments were outfitted with measurements (which almost all of the trousers and jeans were: another plus), they seem to correspond to hip measurements, or something else that's not your waist. Observe: I have a 35" waist; pants marked 38" would (sometimes) be impossible to get on. Yet the denim skirt I got labeled 38" fit about how I would expect a 38" skirt to fit my waist (it comes with a belt, which is why I got it). The jeans I went home with have an easy couple inches of give at the waist, but none at the hips/stomach. They're also too long (even in Korea, I'm short!) and just not as nice as the pair I had to retire.

The worst, though, was the dressing room. Again, props for even having one (a lot of times these kinds of stores won't let you try things on), but it was the most miserable fitting room experience of my clothes-shopping life. It was an ad-hoc affair, akin to the dressing rooms of a Salvation Army or Goodwill, but on a raised floor that creaked every time I shifted my weight. Silly little things like that are magnified infinitely when you are in your underwear, struggling with a pair of jeans that won't reach higher than your thighs, with only a flimsy plastic curtain without a latch or lock between you and the public.

Assuming you even get the pants on, there was no mirror to inspect your choice in the privacy of the dressing room: you had to step out from behind the curtain to see how you looked. Instead, on the walls there were ads for what was on sale (modeled on fairly conventionally-sized women, of course) and maternity clothes. As if the only reason anyone could have for being this size was being pregnant. (Though, to be fair, I don't think I've seen a lot of maternity sections/stores, so maybe this is the only place in the 'bu to get maternity clothes.)

That wasn't the worst part, though. The worst part was:

There was a scale right there in the dressing room.

What sadistic individual thought that would be a good idea? As a (fat) woman, to have that scale there in a moment of shame, stress, and self-loathing is just so much more salt in the wound. I am a badass and beyond giving shits about how much I weigh, but obviously not everyone is a badass. As soon as I saw that scale I decided that I was done shopping there for the day.

So now I'm torn: I haven't really been frustrated or had issues shopping here before (well, one kind of rude sales lady, but just one time), but this experience was so unpleasant that I'm afraid it means the store is on its way down/out; either that, or it was simply never what I wanted it to be. Do I keep shopping at 큰옷, or hold out for Itaewon/Dongdaemun?  Or go the rest of my contract without new clothes? (Obvious answer is: go through the rest of the contract without clothes-shopping, because I don't really need anything. Hopefully I won't need any more retail therapy before November.)

*Aside: now, I realize that Americans are just plain bigger than Koreans, and that as a country we have higher rates of obesity; a quick stroll between Uijeongbu and Hoeryong stations will be enough to tell you that. It's rare (though not unheard of) for me to see a Korean woman my size, let alone even bigger. I'm not calling for a radical readjustment of the clothing sizes in South Korea, merely observing. As for the Korean women my size, or larger (they do exist), I can't imagine where they shop: places like this store? GMarket? Or do they make things themselves?


  1. Hi there! Good article.

    I have always wondered what size I would be considered in Korea... So depressing. However, I think they're used to it. Just like we are obsessed with treating our smiles (teeth) and faces, they are obsessed with their bodies (Sort of reminds me of Europe)....

    Anywho, my Korean friend has suggested I get pants tailored and made in Seoul. She said that it's my best bet and they're not too expensive, and they're quite high-quality. I believe she's right... Invest into a good ol' pair of tailored pants and you'll be fine ;)

    Courage!!!! You can do it

    xo Hana

  2. stumbled upon your blog. would like to check where is this 큰 옷 you mentioned?
    Am heading to korea soon and I need to get some clothes!!

    I am also reachable at

    1. It's a small shop in Uijeongbu. Unless you're going to be in Uijeongbu too, it's not worth trekking that far north for. (If you ARE going to be in Uijeongbu, it's downtown. Turn left at the Burger King and a few storefronts down it'll be on your left. If it's still there...)

  3. lots of interesting informations about Korea. I am a k-drama lover and liked your text very much.

  4. Really, no fat women or men in Korea? Come on my husband and I are both FAT, we are visiting from the US. This has to be the FATTEST ASIAN NATION! I heard about the fact that when it comes to clothing there are no larger sizes in Korean shops, but was amazed as I looked around the streets and saw many FAT women and men; boxy shaped, thunder thighs and cankles! So I thing these people are delusional when it comes to thinking they are a skinny nation or at least a skinny city(Seoul)! In the next generation or two obesity is going to catch up with them, the amount of fried foods especially chicken eaten is outrageous. As the Korean's active lifestyles dwindle(like Americans) they are going definitely start seeing more and more obesity...So just like the US they may need to button their lips(rude attitudes towards the fat) and embrace the inevitable and start catering to larger people! Don't get me wrong the US is just as schizophrenic with their attitudes towards obese FAT people. However in the US commerce has lost to reality, there is demand for larger sized clothing, businesses would loose out on, no pun intended, a huge market if they didn't change their attitudes. They now sell larger sizes to meet the demand, that's why in the US you can find clothing in large sizes in the mainstream...

    1. Maybe it's changed since I'e been there (this blog entry is like 2 years old) but even if Korea is the fattest Asian country, everyone was still smaller than me. There was no way I could pop into a LotteMart or whatever and expect to find anything that fit. At least, not where I lived (which was NOT in Seoul). Maybe stores in Seoul just have a broader range of sizes.

    2. Anon 1 sounds like the delusional one. Go google the stats, year on year. If anything, my country has won the title of Most Obese Asian country - Malaysia.