Small in America, Large in Korea

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.

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  • Anonymous

    I come from a family of Amazon’s. We’re LARGE!! Not fat per se but tall and strong. I’m the shortest woman in my family at 5’8. My sister and mother who are both over 5’10 call me tiny. Imagine that? The average jeans length is 32′ and I need a 33′. Buying clothes is a test of patience and endurance. Can’t I just grab something off the rack?
    Your post resonated with me because size is everything in this country. Big must be on the brain because I just wrote a similar post about loving your body. In the end, it’s important to be healthy and love your body whether your butt is the size of a Bike or a bean.

  • Anonymous

    There’s no “fat-phobia” here, if you think about it it actually is quite the opposite. Whereas at first she felt unconfortable with her body size, she now sees it’s not that important, because it’s all in the eyes of those whatching. So if anything she is promoting the “be happy with yourself” attitude, which in her case involves exercising. The “healthy[…] body” at the end is the right one for each (so, personal).

  • Kat

    Moving on from the dress: I had the exact same issue when I moved to China- I’m size S in the States and I was too big for everything there… absolutely everything. Too short, too tight.

    The strangest thing for me was witnessing a shift in the “body expectations” of Western men (White & Black) who moved with me… Suddenly all non-Asian women (and those Asian women who were a similar size as us non-Asians, so size S and M in the States) were “disgusting”, “fat”, “gross”. However, none of them would have seen these women that way before moving to China. Very very odd..

    • Turtleposer

      I lived in Japan 20 years ago. I’m the same height as most Japanese women were back them (they’re much taller now, at least the younger generation) but I was very buxom. I have what they call “booty.” I weighed maybe 110. Too fat for Japan. I felt very ugly over there. I didn’t feel particularly pretty in the States, but over there I was like this little hog. I guess I felt like an armadillo.

      The attitudes of most of the Western men (all white) were appalling. What exacerbated it was that we lived in a backwater town and all the prettiest Japanese women were trying to leave that town so white men were extra special. The egos on the white guys were in direct proportion to their inattractiveness. Not only that, women were trained specifically to serve & cater to men. I was married & worried that my new husband wouldn’t be tempted. As far as I know, he wasn’t . … . Apparently, the culture has changed & Japanese women feel freer to be more selective – good for them.

      Yet, is Japan now a good place for a chubby gal? Not likely.

  • Ebony Vandross

    I also got a sense of fat-phobia from the piece, but can appreciate that the focus is physical health and activity in the end. I also agree that body image is all relative- I’ve known many women more concerned about the actual number of pounds they weight than their physical health. I became rather scale obsessed for a while, and ended up throwing it out because I started eating worse/less just to get my weight down, rather than focussing on becoming more active and fit. I used to say “wow, I am so jealous of these Asian girls- they eat all they want and never put on weight” but learned thats not actually true at all.

    Regarding Korean actress Kim Sun Ah’s weight gain- she only put on about 15 pounds for that role, but even before that she was always a little thicker/taller than most Korean actresses. Since then she has lost a substantial amount of weight (still appears to be at a healthy weight and not waif-ish). I saw her on some award show and she made a remark about how to this day (the drama ended over 5 years ago) people talk more about her weight than her acting, and she hopes that one day people will focus on her work instead of her body. The ironic thing about “My Name is Kim Sam Soon” is that it was such a success because Korean citizens loved seeing someone “real” on television as the heroine. There really hasn’t been another attempt like that in K-drama land since!

  • OuyangDan

    I love this post! We live in RoK now. My 8 year old daughter wears women’s medium sizes off the rack here, and I can not actually shop in most stores (though I can buy shoes). I really is difficult to maintain a positive body image.

    I also remember a Korean Drama that they used in my husband’s language class, “My Lovely Sam-Soon”, and one of the supposedly funny things about the main character was that she was “so chubby”, and the lead actress, Kim Sun Ah, actually made a lot of commotion for putting on weight for the role.

    This is an amazing insight. Thank you for sharing. As an eating disorder survivor, I know it isn’t easy to share these things at times. I also appreciate the nod you give to pain and disability, recognizing that it isn’t always going to be possible to get up and exercise and maintaing. Thank you.

    • Lvsanchez115

      I am a fan of Korean dramas and just finished watching Kim Sam Soon recently. I just couldn’t imagine this woman being considered a big girl, it wouldn’t get through my head.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you for sharing your story! I have never been thin. Too heavy to be “normal size” and too small to be “plus size”. I’m “thick” as a lot of black girls are. I’ve always said that I refuse to hate myself and congratulations to you for not letting your self-esteem go down the toilet after gaining a few pounds!

    I feel so frustrated when I see thin women constantly complain about their weight. I want to smack them and tell them that noting is wrong with them. And what makes me mad is that men don’t have up to the same standard of fitness. A little extra weight can be seen as charming for a man, but a woman is considered fat if she doesn’t look like a famine victim. Ok, I’m ranting now! I exercise and I eat healthy most of the time. I also have a snack if I feel like it and as a person who grew up poor, I will never feel guilty for eating!

  • Cassie

    Great read. Thanks for sharing.

  • Kat

    I am soooo in love with that dress! The COLOR!!!

  • Vivian

    I was born in Hong Kong and immigrated to Canada when I was 8. Body image had already started to play into my life by then. I was also a large in HK and a small here, but I didn’t even feel confident in my body until I was 17. Thanks for this article!