NATIONAL

[FEATURE] Tackling body shaming in South Korea

By Claire Lee
  • Published : Jun 14, 2016 - 16:57
  • Updated : Jun 15, 2016 - 16:04

Alina Shamsutdinova thinks she can’t dress up to her potential in South Korea. The 23-year-old Kazakhstani arrived in Seoul in 2011, as an international student, in hopes to learn about the country of her ethnic origin. Born to third-generation ethnic Koreans in Kazakhstan, she grew up thinking she was beautiful, feeling confident and comfortable in her skin.

Yet things started to change when she realized some people in Korea didn’t see her the way she saw herself. “Among the things I heard was ‘It’s okay to be ugly, but being fat is unforgivable,’” she said in an interview with The Korea Herald.

“Another was ‘You’re really lucky that you have a pretty face. Otherwise you would never be able to have a boyfriend.’”

While she has always considered herself a confident person, Shamsutdinova said a part of her struggled with her self-image during her stay in Korea. She was often told by Koreans that she should lose weight. Most local clothing stores didn’t have any items available in her size.

Alina Shamsutdinova, a 22-year-old Kazakhstani student in Seoul, says she doesn’t want others to pity her because of the body shaming she went through during her years in South Korea. “I want to show people ‘I am who I am, and I think I’m beautiful,’” she says. (Photo credit: Alina Shamsutdinova)

When she lost some 10 kilograms by fasting in 2014 -- she only drank water and milk for a week -- she was told by hear Korean acquaintance that she should lose more. Throughout that week, she felt dizzy and weak. Since then, she’s made numerous attempts to lose weight after gaining it back again -- until she recently decided to solely lose weight to be healthier.

“I think I just tried to follow what others told me, or what the society wants,” Shamsutdinova said on her previous tries to lose weight to look slimmer. “I was young and I thought that was right. I felt that this way I was working on myself when the work should’ve been done from the inside first.”

Lookism and eating disorders  

While there aren’t a lot of studies available on body shaming in Korea, statistics show that a significant number of Korean women are struggling with their body image and eating disorders.

In a 2013 study by Samyook University that surveyed 154 female university students in the normal weight range -- meaning their body mass index was from 18-23 -- almost 95 percent of them said they were unhappy with their bodies. Among them, 61.1 percent said they felt the need to lose weight in order to look more attractive.

Among some 1,796 Koreans who sought medical treatment for bulimia from 2008-2013, almost 94 percent of them were women. Also, women in their 20s and 30s accounted for 66.5 percent of all patients. A number of K-pop stars and celebrities, including IU and Jang Na-ra, have openly admitted that they’ve experienced the eating disorder, which involves binge eating often followed by frantic efforts to avoid gaining weight. And many may be suffering in silence, as statistics released by the National Health Insurance Service do not include those who may have been bulimic, but did not seek professional help.

Meanwhile, a study last year by Soon Chun Hyang University, which monitored South Korea’s public broadcasters for six months, found that body shaming of plus-size women was prevalent on Korean TV. 

For example, an episode of “Hello,” a talk show on KBS2, featured the story of a young woman who belittled her younger sister, whom she called “fat and short,” when the sibling said she was confident about her own body and thought that she could date anyone she wanted.

The younger sister said on the show: “My sister said I looked ‘disgusting’ when I wore shorts.”

The study also found that many TV producers didn’t see the connection between the nation’s prevalent lookism and gender disparity. The researchers asked six TV producers to rate the importance of combating lookism and body shaming on television on a scale of zero to five -- five being the most important. The producers on average rated it 1.5 out of five.

“I think lookism applies to both men and women (on TV),” one of the surveyed producers told researchers for the study. “I don’t think lookism is part of the gender inequality issue.”

Body shaming in the education system  

Won Yoo-ri was 17 when she returned to Seoul in 2010 to attend university here after living overseas for 16 years. During her first months back, a middle-aged woman on the street literally gasped when she saw her wearing shorts.

“Oh my god, when are you going to lose weight? Women must be skinny in order to find men,” the woman, whom she had never seen before, told her.

From that day on, Won said she was body shamed left and right in Korea, from strangers to friends, classmates and even professors. One of her older classmates once told her that he’d date her if she lost 30 pounds (14 kilograms). She had never been interested in dating him. Once at a restaurant, a server told her that she should stop eating because she had eaten enough. Won also had a professor who told her she would “have it all” if she lost 10 kilograms.

She said all of these experiences severely affected her self-esteem.

“In the U.S., I felt that my personality was all I needed and people responded to it,” she told The Korea Herald. “But to come to a country and constantly hear a conversation turn to ‘you should lose weight’ was heartbreaking. That became my identity -- the outgoing fat girl from LA.”

Pressured by the constant shaming, Won has made a number of efforts to lose weight since 2010. She has sought help at a weight management company. In another try, she ran 10 kilometers a day for two months in the harsh winter weather. “I even considered getting my stomach stapled,” she said.

The whole point of losing weight was to avoid the shaming and get complimented on her looks, she said. One of her college friends also starved herself for four months -- she’d only eat half an apple and a single chicken breast a day -- to lose weight. In the process, she passed out at least four times. “(I wanted to) finally feel beautiful for once in Korea and meet the standards,” she said. “So I can move on and better myself in other aspects.”

Ashley Hounsell, a 29-year-old American English-language teacher, has been working at a high school in Seoul for the past six years. She’s witnessed many of her current and former female students who were insecure about their body image. Every year during their health checkup, the scale would display everyone’s height and weight for the whole class to see. “I remember girls telling me they weren’t eating for the week before their school checkup,” Hounsell told The Korea Herald. “When I asked why, they told me because everyone gets to see their weight.”

Before working at the high school, she taught younger children at a private English-language institution. There, one of her female students, who was 9 at the time, wrote in her diary that she was on a cucumber-only diet because her mother told her she was fat.

South Korea currently does not offer any educational programs specifically on body image or self-concept for school children.

“Our gender-equality program for school teachers includes a session about how one should not be discriminated against because of their appearance,” said Lee Myung-eun from the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family’s Gender Impact Assessment Division.

Fat shaming and fashion industry 

In Seoul, Shamsutdinova only shops in Myeong-dong, at foreign stores such as H&M and Forever 21, because Korea’s homegrown brands simply don’t offer anything available in her size. Once, while looking at a shirt for a friend at a Korean store, a sales assistant grabbed the shirt away from her hands, without even asking. “And then she started saying (in English) ‘(too) small,’ ‘(too) small,’” she said. “I was speechless.”

Shamsutdinova said even online shops and foreign stores in Korea often don’t have many items for plus-size women. And she’s often unhappy about those that are available -- they are often too baggy or unflattering, and don’t complement plus-size body figures, she said. “Having only a couple of stores where I can buy my clothes isn’t easy,” she said. “It feels like if you are plus size you are not allowed to look good. I can’t be as fashionable as I want to be (in Korea) even though I want to look beautiful.”

Baek Jae-hwan, who has been running an online retailer specifically targeting plus-size women for five years, said most Koreans tend to think those who dress well are only those who are thin. His shop, www.tongkeungirl.com, is one of very few Korean online stores that features plus-size models for their clothes. One of the models is in fact Baek’s wife, who is also his business partner.

“My wife has always had a very specific taste in clothes,” Baek told The Korea Herald. “She’s always preferred simple and modern design over something too frilly or dressy. As she couldn’t find what she wanted to wear available in her size, she wanted to find them herself. That’s how we started our business.”

Baek said he’s received a lot of positive feedback from his customers, who also expressed their frustration over other online stores that feature skinny models when they claim to cater to plus-size women. “One’s body and its size has little to do with his or her ability to dress well. I’ve seen skinny people who dress terribly,” he said. “Being a good dresser means you just understand your body, what works the best for you. I think it’s totally possible for people with all kinds of body shapes to dress well. But I also understand that plus-size individuals have limited options to choose from. And that needs to change.”

Bringing changes

Earlier this year, Shamsutdinova participated in a special project called “I am Beautiful,” which featured photographs of 24 individuals who have struggled with self-image and are making efforts to love and accept themselves as they are.

For her, discovering the existence of plus-size models worldwide, especially Tess Holliday, one of the best known body-positive activists in the U.S., and South Korea’s first plus-size model Kim Ji-yang, made a difference. She has recently accepted that it is not easy for her to lose weight and she would only go on a diet for health purposes, not to meet the beauty standards here.

While she thinks plus-size models shouldn’t justify obesity and an unhealthy lifestyle, Shamsutdinova said the world needs to see more people like Holliday and Kim to change their views on beauty and women’s bodies.

“Once I started seeing girls my size in the media, I definitely started to appreciate my body more and accept myself more,” she said. “(Learning about) Kim Ji-yang was just empowering. She looked beautiful. She is Asian like me even though there is a stereotype that ‘Asians are usually slim.’”

James Turnbull, who writes on Korean feminism and popular culture at his established blog the Grand Narrative, said asking Korean TV producers to notice lookism was like “asking fish to start paying attention to the water.”

He pointed out that Korea has the highest rate of celebrity endorsements in the world, as roughly 60 percent of all commercials here feature celebrities, as opposed to about 10 percent in most other developed nations.

“(The South Korean government) can set an example by choosing alternative role models as representatives for its own numerous public campaigns, rather than always going for a young, thin K-pop star,” Turnbull said, when asked what Korea could do to tackle the issue of body shaming.

Like Shamsutdinova, Won also recently decided to lose weight for her own sake and health, and said she’s never been happier. “A year ago I met my current boyfriend who happens to be Filipino-American,” she said. “Being around him and his friends reassure me and encourage me solely to, perhaps, lose weight to be healthier was my turning point. It really depends on who you surround yourself with.”

By Claire Lee (dyc@heraldcorp.com)

Ashley Hounsell is not her real name. The name was changed upon request. –Ed.