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Bae Kyo Hyun, image courtesy @jstyle_evellet

Exploring Korea's skinny obsession and the plus-size models fighting back

TextHaru Wilde

In a fat-shaming, skinny-obsessed society with a high eating disorder rate, here are the trailblazers fighting for acceptance

“If a woman weighs over 50 kg, she must be nuts” - this line told by a male protagonist of a Korean online drama Dam Naneun Jib to his girlfriend’s female friend went viral after being aired last year because it touched upon a dark side of K-beauty - the obsession with skinny body types. The “50 kg myth” is an ideal created by Korean mainstream media by glorifying celebrities who openly talk about their weight being 40-something. K-pop idols often share their extreme diet regimes in order to achieve the under-50 ideal weight, with some of the most shocking ones including Big Bang’s T.O.P. eating nothing but red bean jelly to lose 20 kg in 40 days or the girl group Nine Muses fitting the entire daily food intake into three tiny paper cups - also known as the “paper cup diet.” Hand in hand with media-generated pressure goes the fact that most clothing in Korean department stores only comes in “free size” - equivalent to UK 8, so finding anything bigger is extremely difficult. Body positivity activist Park Ji Won says she even got turned away walking into a clothing store because the staff informed her “this is not where she should be looking.”

South Korea has the second lowest obesity rate (around 5%) out of all OED countries, where the average is 19.5%. Nevertheless, a 2016 national survey revealed that over 60% Korean women and 41% men either were or wanted to go on a diet. For minors, the number was even higher for girls - 72% of them (and 36% boys) thought they needed to lose weight. According to Dr Yuli Kim, who specialises in treating patients with eating disorders, it is estimated that one out of four Korean women in their teens and twenties suffer from an eating disorder, although the number could be greater because many do not seek professional help. Celebrities are not an exception - K-pop singer IU has admitted she was diagnosed with bulimia in the past and singer Ailee opened up on the music programme Hidden Singer about her drastic diet consisting of heavy exercising and eating only 500 calories a day in order to be able to go on stage. After losing 10 kg, weighing 49 kg at 166 cm, Ailee said her body was so weak it badly affected her singing abilities and made her struggle with depression as a result.

It gets worse, celebrities who do not fit the skinny ideal frequently become targets of fat-shaming. Two years ago a then 15-year-old member of the girl group Pristin was harassed by her fans online saying she was “too chubby to be an idol” and “ruined the visuals of the group,” which caused controversy given the singer’s very young age. Korean comedian Lee Guk Jo has opened up about her experience on the TV show Why Women Get Mad saying, “When male comedians are fat, they get told they have the blessed looks, but female comedians get told ‘If you lose weight, you won’t make any money.’ Then 3-4 years after they say, ‘You should lose at least some weight, though.” Celebrities like Lee who are considered “big” by Korean standards also often get cast for so-called mugbang - entertainment programmes where they are filmed devouring large amounts of food making exaggerated reactions.

Taylor Tak, a Korean plus-sized model now based in Australia knows a thing or two about how damaging Korean skinny-obsessed beauty standards can be - career-wise and in personal life. Tak remembers that starting at the age of 10, she spent every summer and winter vacation in “diet schools” - special programmes where she was working out and eating less than 1000 calories every day for months on end. Being “bigger” than other women, she recalls men often saw her as a fetish and would refuse to meet her in public or abandon her in the middle of the street. She only got into modelling after meeting a photographer in London who asked to take pictures of her. But returning to Korea was not easy - “in Korea, people think plus size model is a joke,” she says adding that most of her work has been for clients from overseas.

But things are changing. Plus-sized model and body positivity activist Kim Gee Yang decided to fight the lack of representation of certain body types in Korean media by creating 66100 - a fashion culture magazine that celebrates diversity. “I wanted to talk about beauty that’s unrelated to size, to reject the obsession with dieting and appearance and show that people should not be limited by their size. I also felt there was a need to talk about various social phenomena and news events,” says Kim. She explains that Korean fashion magazines only feature plus-size models at certain times of the year like summer when most Korean women feel compelled to go on a diet, and do not necessarily create an actual conversation about body positivity. 66100 stands for clothing sizes which are the smallest to be considered “plus-size” in Korea - 66 (UK 10) for women and 100 (UK 38) for men. As well as a magazine, 66100 also doubles as an online clothing store carrying plus size clothing that shows all products on plus-size models, both of which are very rare in Korea.

Then there’s Yeom Yoon Hye and Bae Kyo Hyun, who met during a plus-size model contest held by the Korean retailer J-Style. Yeom was the winner and Bae the first runner-up. As well as modelling J-Style’s plus size collection, the duo have taken to social media to inspire other plus-size women to be proud of their figures. Their Instagram, which has over 100k followers to-date, showcases their vibrant fashion style, hashtagged #지금내가좋아 (“I like myself now”). “I like myself now” was even featured on national TV KBS, providing a rare chance for “bigger” Korean women to talk about their experiences on broadcast rather than be ridiculed for their weight.

When asked what the solution to Korea’s body shaming issues is, Kim Gee Yang stresses the responsibility the media has to change people’s perceptions. “In a society where everyone is dieting purely for the sake of their looks, we need to talk more about what kind of problems it’s causing. Eating disorders, diet addiction or self-hate, these have become big issues in Korea and there needs to be a conversation about what we can do to prevent them, stop them from escalating even more and solve them.” Taylor Tak adds that the culture of fat-shaming is amplified by misogyny and we need to first get rid of all the numerous restrictions regarding what a woman should look like. Although both Kim and Tak agree that the battle for body positivity in Korea seems to be a long and tough one, they and their peers do not seem to be giving up anytime soon.

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