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.