By Sunah, cross-posted from Thick Dumpling Skin
I often jokingly say that I decided to live in the States because I fit into an Extra Small size here whereas I couldn’t wear anything but Large in Korea. My American friends find it hilarious. Well, to be honest, it’s not a joke. It’s half of the truth.
Growing up in Korea, I had always been one of the big girls. I was athletic and loved physical activities. I jogged in my neighborhood, where no one else ran unless he or she had to chase somebody. I rode in-line skates when people didn’t even know what they were. I played tennis in college, and practiced martial arts. I was fit, but not slim in Korean standards.
There were hardly any female TV personalities who weighed more than 100 pounds. One time in a game show, the show host made a famous female singer step on a scale. She was one of the few “chubby” ones on TV in that era. She was reluctant, almost horrified, but everyone urged her to do it just for laughs. She finally did and broke down in tears on camera. She was my size. After the show, she disappeared from the TV for a few months and came back 25 pounds lighter. She was very talented and had a voice that nobody could imitate. But it was her lighter body that gave her the total self-confidence. That’s the way it was and it most likely still is in Korea.
Nobody called me “fat” or “chubby” in my face. People called me “big” and “healthy-looking.” One of my friends, however, once called me an “elephant.” She was a size 44, which doesn’t exist in America. It’s more like size minus 2.
I experimented with all sorts of diets, but was never good with calculating calories. I preferred fasting since it was simpler and produced better results in a shorter period. I’d fast for 5 days and lose 10 pounds. I’d be happy for a week or two. Then the weight would bounce back. I went through this fasting ritual at least a few times a year. I was very healthy, could play tennis for hours and guys couldn’t keep up with me. But I wasn’t happy with my body.
I came to the States for ESL program after graduating college. All of the sudden people started calling me “petite.” I had to look up a dictionary to find the meaning since the word was so unfamiliar to me. I shopped at the ‘Petite’ section in a department store and sometimes even Petite Small was too big for me. I was happy. For the first time in my life, I stopped watching my weight. My program fee included three meals a day in the school cafeteria, so I ate like Americans did – thick slices of pizza, spaghetti with meatballs, steaks and burgers, soda and juice. I stared wearing tank tops, mini-skirts and leggings. I continued to work out since physical exercises are one of my favorite things to do anyway, but I started gaining weight and I didn’t know it.
Six months later, back in Seoul, my younger sister described the moment she saw me coming out of the airport terminal gate as such: “A big black hog rolling through the gate.” Yes, that’s the family for you. Brutally honest and forever judgmental. But you love them to death anyway. Well, I was tanned to the degree it was unfashionable, and gained 20 pounds. But I was in a tight tank top and a black mini-skirt. “A Black Hog,” I truly was.
But there was another thing I gained in America. Self-confidence about my body. And it didn’t go away despite the teasing and criticisms from my family and friends.
I learned that our body size existed in the realm of relativity, and whether I wore Large or Small didn’t really matter. There’s a big world out there where I’m considered “petite.” So why should I be bothered by the opinions of people in this tiny peninsula that is even smaller than one quarter of California State?
So I didn’t go back to my usual fasting ritual. I didn’t feel the necessity. Those extra 20 pounds were shed naturally several months after I got back on my usual Korean diet and exercise routine.
Now I try to maintain my weight. It’s by no means skinny, but over the years I realized that it is where my body feels most comfortable and energetic. I dance and exercise regularly and put down my spoon the moment I feel full. It sounds easy but it takes a lot of discipline. I’m sure the readers of this blog understand it better than anyone. So, when many of my non-Asian American friends tell me that I have it easy since I’m Asian, I’m inclined to protest. “Come on, give us a credit. We work really hard to look the way we look!”
I lost my father and a younger sister to cancer. We don’t have to go through such heartbreaking events to realize what matters most is our health. Every morning when we wake up without feeling any kind of physical pain nailing us down onto the bed, we should get up and celebrate. Dance, exercise, play! Then healthy appetite and body will come as a matter of course.