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My Korean Body

My Korean Body
By P. Teal

A distorted image of the body.  Of my body.  Is this part of what Seoul does to me?

Skinny takes on a whole new meaning when living here.

Lasagna, warm chip dip, potatoes and sour cream; chili, spaghetti, mashed potatoes, chicken, gravy, artichoke pie, pizza. Things that warm you up from the inside out and create the layer of fat that you need to last through the bitter cold winters in a state that acts up like a snow globe; or maybe you need this layer of blub just to sweat off in the humid summers, which are equally as horrible in Korea.  This is what I grew up eating:  what you cannot easily find in Seoul and maybe wouldn’t want to if you saw how much people cared about their body image here.

I have the legs of a woman who grew up playing sports her entire life – which means I actually have both calves and thighs.  This might be something only attainable for most Korean women through some sort of calf or thigh implant, a service you could easily get done in 압구정 (Apgujeong), plastic surgery capital of Seoul.  Just walk out exit 4 and you will see what I mean.  But who would want this service here?

The other day while passing through the subway, I saw an ad for cosmetic reconstruction.   Actually, I didn’t just see one ad because these ads are everywhere.  They always have before and after pictures on them.  However, on this particular ad there was a pair of legs.  It was an ad for calf and thigh reduction.  To make it look like your legs never had any muscles, which most likely they didn’t in the first place – but in case you want even skinnier legs . . .  It is a possibility.  Because wouldn’t exercise only create more unwanted muscle and even bigger legs?

I am simultaneously repulsed by Korea’s obsession over body image, yet I seem to be hyper aware here, even concerned, that my body is not like other Korean bodies.  This is one of the seeds that Seoul has planted in me and it is not just psychological. I have evidence that it exists; of the way in which Korea distorts my Western body, which is also a Korean body:  I went shopping for jeans in Edae (Ewha Womens University) and found that none of them fit.  I am a 2-4 in US size.  I bought a jacket in Myeongdong, size LARGE, where in the US I would be buying a size SMALL; and here in Korea they have this thing called, FREE SIZE.  It’s a size that is supposed to fit everyone . . .  but most of the time it doesn’t fit me.

Is it just me or am I going a little bit mental?  I wonder if I am vain for thinking about this.  But it is real to me.  My rational side is fighting with me:  In actuality I am quite petite but in Korea, I am something else.  How do other foreigners deal with this?  Maybe most people just ignore it.  Maybe they are happy with their body here.  Maybe they shop in Itaewon where you can easily find clothes for bigger people.

At the same time I need to preserve my body.  No plastic surgery or double eyelids for me.  This is the body I was born with.  It is important to me and I need to keep my body, unchanged, because at times as an adoptee it has been the only evidence that I am, in fact, Korean.

It is a relief to go to the 찜질방 (jjimjilbang, bath house) and see the unclothed bodies of Korean ajummas, bathing and scrubbing the dead skin of each other.  It is a reminder to me that in the end, we will all look the same.  Skinny or fat with the same tired breasts.  This is it the way it will be.  Unless, of course, the whole population is plastic by then.

15 Comments on My Korean Body

  1. I am of Korean descent, raised mostly in the US. I abhor and detest the obsession of Koreans to look more Western. Maybe since I fought so hard all my life to be who I am in this society, it pains me — disgusts me truth be told — to see them discard themselves so readily. I can’t fit Korean clothes either for the opposite reason I can’t fit American clothes, but I’ve gotten used to HOW American clothes fit me, or don’t. Whereas in Korea, it’s all wrong in new and different ways, making me even more aware of how I don’t fit in either culture.

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts! We’ll ask P. Teal to respond to you directly.

    • Hi Blackbeltoma,

      I fully agree with your comments regarding Korean society. I once saw an article in a magazine (opinion piece) that read Koreans did not get double-eyelid surgery to look more Westernized, etc. and that it was purely just because Koreans thought it was beautiful. Obviously Korea has some serious identity issues and a complex regarding their history of colonization and US occupation which is easily noticeable when it comes to their concepts of beauty.

      In this piece, though I tried to not be too critical of Korean society, the way Koreans choose to look, etc. and tried to focus on my feelings as a returning Korean adoptee.

      I actually found clothes in America easier to find but there are good things about shopping in Korea. Most are affordable and if you keep up to date with fashion, you can buy trendy items when they are in season. Also, even though clothes are a pain to shop for, bras and underwear fit pretty well here!

      Thanks for your comments and good luck shopping!

  2. I get it, at least half-way. I’m half Chinese, half Polish, born in America, and have been to China a couple times. In the States, I’m a size 4-6 (my Chinese genes) but when I go over there I’m HUGE and really don’t fit into their clothes – especially their pants, as my Polish hips are waaay too big for their stick-figures.

    At first, it bothered me. Now, I use it to keep things in perspective – when people in the States say I’m so skinny, I reply, I’m fat in China…and vice versa. All things are relative, and what society believes is beautiful is by no means absolute. Knowing that the arguments of beauty are so dependent on culture, it helped make me define to myself what ***I*** believe is beautiful. What is beautiful, to me, no matter where I live? That’s what I focus on. Then that way I’m not yanked around emotionally.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Crystal! We’ll direct P. Teal to your comment so that she’ll respond to you directly.

    • Hi Crystal,

      Yes, I agree that it is important to keep things in perspective. To know that the idea and standard of beauty differs between cultures and location. Truly I believe I am petite in both societies by my own standards. However, I think one of the difficult things about being an “ex-pat” (moreover a Korean one) is that this is something that I am facing every time I want to buy clothes, shoes, etc. Since I’m not on vacation here, sometimes it can be difficult to keep things in perspective. I guess it could be another symptom of living in Seoul, when your brain starts to become a bit Koreanized – or maybe just bastardized. Definitely not worth getting emotional about it everyday but I guess there are many factors contributing to my feeling.

      This is also totally be off topic but it can be easy to feel unattractive to the male population because of what I mentioned. Not only because the typical Korean population has an idea of what is beautiful but also because among male Korean adoptees, many would like to experience the “real Korean” woman. But this is for another time . . .

      Thanks for your comment!

  3. Thank you for this post! As an adoptee who has been back to Korea several times I completely empathize! My birth family would always comment on my weight, try to to get me to stand on a scale in front of them, squeeze my thigh to see how big it was (while I was eating) and have to take me to Incheon to shop for “my size” clothes, because there is American military nearby so they carry bigger sizes…all the while my birth mother is continually force feeding me! The last time I went back (2010) I was 30+ lbs. lighter than the last time they had seen me. Oh, the excitement and joy at my smaller body!!! Followed by the bitter disappointment of my birth mother because I “barely ate anything” while I was there even though I was on the verge of puking after every meal because I was so stuffed! Korean mother’s moto: Eat everything I (literally) shove in your face, but don’t you dare be fat! SO frustrating, but something I have learned to live with while I’m there. You gotta take the bad with the good 🙂

  4. You have lived in America and have an American body. You also got the American food snd everything that goes with that. Embrace your beautiful body. Don’t worry about it love yourself and life. 🙂

  5. Oh. My. God. Thank you for writing this. I have been thinking i was the only one who noticed. i was adopted to an American military family and was in korea for my entire middle school & highschool life, i realized a HUGE difference in my own body compared to my classmates!

    I was darker in skin tone as i wasnt afraid to tan out in the sun while classmates slathered sun block lotion on to stay pale, i hit puberty faster, and i found that my body structure was “larger” than others, i lacked the extremely petite feet size & hands! my eyes are also incredibly rounder! (LOL)

    Actually alot of people indeed thought i was mixed blood (non bio dad’s mexican american)

    I wore size 4 pants, and i was told many a times that i was “fat”, only did i realize when i came to America that i was actually indeed quite small. Its sort of funny how much of “giant” i felt in Korea, and then when moved to the states how tiny i had become.

    im quite convinced its the food we ate. even simple foods like meats have steroids etc, which im sure had some sort of an impact on the way our bodies grew.

    But, i had an extreme complex about how i felt about my body, and i was always agreeing about how incredibly fat i was. -_-.
    Only now, after giving birth to a child and gaining a few stubborn pounds do i really feel stupid about how fat i thought i was!!

    So, nope, you’re not crazy!! but your post definitely made me laugh because you arent the only one!

    Cheers! xo!

    • Thank you for your candor, Mina. We’ll have P. Teal respond to you directly. Take care!

    • Hi Mina,

      Wow, scary thought about the food having as much steroids in them to alter the size of our hands and feet! That actually freaks me out. But yes, I am convinced it was our diet, too. I also have big feet for a Korean. It sucks because there are so many cute shoes here but none of them fit. Thank God for GMARKET!

      Good to know I’m not going a bit mental. I figured there had to be some other gals that felt this way, too. I mean, living here, it is hard to ignore your body, even if you want to because this is a culture where people notice your body and will actually say something!

      Thanks for your comments!

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