“Behind every glance is a judgment” –John Berger, Ways of Seeing
Comments on one’s figure is often, quite subtly, a customary greeting between friends in Korea, even towards foreign men. I recall, during my time in Busan, when an old ahjussi (elder man) at the Shinsegae sauna (shower area) sparked a conversation with me by commenting on my fully nude body–umm, certainly not the ideal place to receive any compliments (or shame) from another man.
About a week ago, Julianna Haahs, the brave Korean-American woman who shared her anecdotal story about Korea’s body shaming and unrealistic beauty standards, rode the fickle wave of support but also fought back against sharks that lurked behind every other comment. Critics accused her of being paternalistic over another culture; the same critics who’ve never set foot in Korea, hate challenging bad cultural habits–or simply refuse to empathize with stories on flawed beauty standards, specifically ones focused on counterbalancing Western ideals.
I decided to reach out to Vivian Geeyang Kim (Kim Ji Yang) in Seoul; she’s South Korea’s first plus-size model, and she added even more nuance to Haahs’ story.
She translated her answers from Korean to English, and gave her honest perspective about living heavier than the “average” Korean woman in South Korea.
1. As a plus-size model, what were your experiences with your family members? And do you agree or disagree with Julianna’s perspective on Korean culture?
My mom said, “I gave you ‘normal’ birth,” with a sigh, and my grandma used to say, “You need to do some self-starvation,” even though I eat like a bird during most of meal times.
2. Are Koreans just more blunt with their opinions and more competitive than the average Westerner -OR- do you think there is a serious societal issue that needs to be challenged? For example, you must have a picture attached for all job applications in Korea, which is a surprise to many Westerners who tend to focus on skill level first.
I think it’s not about competition for the resume photo issue; it’s more about social environment and mass idea that someone’s appearance should be included in their ability.
3. What is considered plus-size in Korea, and do Koreans respect different BMI (body mass index) sizes?
In Korea, if someone’s size is upper than US 8, people will think that he/she is fat, regardless of height or muscle tone. And BMI doesn’t matter now in Korea, because nowadays, it’s all about the binary idea, ‘size 4 or fat’.
4. In the U.S., a lot of women are getting lip and butt injections. Clearly there are extremes in every country. What makes Korean plastic surgery stand out more in the international public opinion?
I think it’s the side-effect of the masses idea. People don’t look through their inside, as they think it’s weird and doesn’t fit with them; they just adore their idols and celebrities and follow– and others will follow them.
5. What do you think about young girls getting double eyelid surgery? Do you think surgery should have an age restriction?
It’s awful, as they are growing and changing themselves every moment. We conventionally have double eyelid surgery when young girls graduate high school, and I think that we have to make age-restrictions for plastic surgery.
Photo credit: https://instagram.com/plusmodel/
6. Some people think foreigners should not provide negative opinions about a different culture. What do you think about foreigners giving their negative opinions about this topic?
‘Universality’ is different for every cultural space, so foreigners don’t need to have negative opinions about other cultures– their opinion is just different, not wrong.
7. Do you think boys and men are affected by body shaming and the pressure to have surgery in Korea, especially in places like Apgujeong and Gangnam?
Of course! It’s about the lack of confidence, but it’s not just about body shape, it’s about personality and consciousness, to other’s eyes, which are misunderstood for finding other’s fault. (The consciousness thing is much more stronger in Apgujung or Gangnam area) People that think of themselves to be a good person don’t feel that pressure.
8. Julianna said, “News flash! Health can mean skinny but skinny doesn’t always mean healthy.” Is your health often questioned as a plus-size model?
There are plenty of people who prejudge my health condition with my shape. I was very vulnerable-to-stress person, but when I stopped dieting for social weight, I felt stabilized and calm. Shape and weight are not an absolute criteria for health condition.
9. 66100, your fashion magazine, caters to “plus-size readers. Why did you create the magazine and what does 66100 mean?
It was very hard to find fashion information for plus-sized people. It’s connected with plus-sized people’s confidence. I published 66100 for their confidence. And 66100 means ordinary people in reality, not media’s standard. 66 stands Korean size 66 for women, and 100 stands Korean size 100 for men.
10. Is it a challenge to find other plus-size Korean models in Korea?
As I know, there are no major fashion brands targeted at 10-20 aged girls that promote exclusive plus-size model. It is that hard.
Bonus: Julianna said, “This is my little manifesto urging Koreans to break past tradition when it undermines a person’s very inner being.”
What suggestion would you like to give to a young Asian woman (and all women) going through the same ordeal?
Don’t let someone (including your family members) define you with limited, specific words. Keep your distance from unhappy tags and tagging friends; that will be the first step of your reconstruction for your confidence.
All Photos: https://instagram.com/plusmodel/