South Korea / Teacher Diaries

The Truth About Being a Plus-Sized Woman in South Korea – Beth’s Story

Beth Garriock

Beth Garriock

March 9, 2020

Want the truth about being a plus-sized woman in South Korea? While there’s certainly always room for improvement, the Western world has made leaps and bounds with respect to body positivity and inclusion. Efforts are made to teach individuals to embrace themselves as they are. We see media representation of people of all races, sizes, sexual orientations, and gender identities, and diversity is celebrated more than ever before. However, in many Asian countries, the body-posi movement is still sadly a ways off.

Beth Garriock, a TravelBud Alumni and English teacher in South Korea, wrote this article to showcase the truth about being a plus-sized woman in South Korea.

What is beautiful? 

History tells us that being beautiful has always been desired and a goal to achieve. Although the idea of what beauty actually is has changed throughout the ages, one key goal has existed and that is to be slim because, of course, being slim is translated as being beautiful. For a woman, being beautiful and therefore slim is an ultimate goal. The old societal view on body weight and image, particularly for woman, has gone something like this for many years: when you’re slim, you can marry the person of your dreams, start a family, be happy, and thereby fulfil your destiny as a woman.

Much of Asia, South Korea included, tends to adopt a more old school view like this, but fret not – it didn’t stop me from travelling abroad to happily embark on an adventure of teaching English in South Korea and it shouldn’t stop you!

Being a plus-sized woman in South Korea is not easy but the travel opportunities make up for it.

During TravelBud’s in-depth Cultural foundation course, you get to tour Gyeongbokgung Palace in traditional Korean attire. Not to worry, the hanbok comes in all sizes!

The world is (thankfully) changing

The pressure to be slim is still constant throughout the western world with social media and Hollywood dominating our lives. Television shows portray what an “ideal” body looks like and even how to achieve it. But finally (and thankfully), after decades of this unhealthy obsession of thinness, Western ideals have began to diversify and evolve thanks to awareness-building and perspective-changing initiatives like the body positivity movement. People of all genders, races, skin colours, abilities, and sizes are celebrated and represented in the beauty and fashion industry and it’s only the beginning of our constantly evolving world and societal ideologies.

It is a wonderful breath of fresh air to see bodies like your own advertising clothes, being cast in movie roles, and splashing the cover of magazines. We have created a healthier industry where the pressure to look a certain way is diminished. While there is still a tremendous amount of pressure, women know that they can buy clothes for their body and be proud of their bodies and appearance regardless of shape or size. We are finally moving in the direction of not being judged for who we are based on what we look like.

However, in South Korea and other parts of Asia, this idea of diversity does not yet fully exist or is at least evolving at a much slower pace. Here in South Korea, being beautiful means being very thin, pale and looking a specific way. When you watch K-dramas or look at K-pop videos you see that everyone looks very similar. It’s the same when you walk down the street. Everyone has similar-looking clothes and almost identical hair cuts. Diversity is not something you really experience here. 

I did my research before coming to South Korea

I started researching the country and soon learnt that South Korea has an obsession with being beautiful. They have the highest rates of cosmetic plastic surgery in the world and an expectation to be very slim. In fact, Korea has the lowest obesity weight in the world, second only to Japan. 

I read articles on South Korean crash diets where people essentially starve themselves by just eating bananas or 9 small paper cups of food a day. There were also blogs written by expats working in Korea who reported that they were not re-hired by their school because they were “too fat.” They also spoke of experiences where strangers randomly approached them commenting on their weight. 

I even read articles and interviews from Korean citizens who were constantly told by body-shaming family and peers to go on diets. They even went as far as to say that they were too fat to get married or have certain jobs. This overwhelmed me, so I decided to speak to people who lived here and find out if it really was as bad as it sounded. They told me, “Yes, these things do happen but it is not that bad as the Internet made it out to be.” So I proceeded with my move even though I am not very small and thin. 

Thankfully, I have been fortunate to teach in South Korea through TravelBud who focus heavily on ensuring they do not work with schools like this, their teachers are fully supported throughout their teaching contracts which is very rare, and their program focuses heavily on helping teachers like me to transition into South Korean culture and overcome the challenges it may come with, such as the different cultural view on weight and appearance.

hand holding food over hot pot

Going to eat in South Korea is a social affair! There’s a plethora of incredible and exciting food to explore. Kimchi? Yes please!

The truth about being a plus-sized woman in South Korea

I have been living as an English teacher in South Korea for 5 months now. I can honestly say that most people in this country are incredibly slim, and they do have very strict beauty standards. But as with every country, there are people who do not match the stereotype. I now know that there are, in fact, Koreans of every single size and weight, and some are more open-minded than others.

Like so many other foreigners, I do find the pressure can be intense. You can not help but compare yourself to the incredibly thin people around you and how perfect they look. There have also been a few incidents where an older Korean woman has come up to me, pointed to my stomach, and said something in Korean. I don’t know what exactly this women said to me, but from the body language and tone of the interaction, they were clearly not saying anything nice about me. 

I am a UK size 16 (or a US size 14) which means I am chubby and most definitely overweight. It is something that I am fully aware of. Although I am in the process of losing weight, I do not hate my body. In fact, in the UK a size 16 is now the average size for a woman. I feel normal at home. But suddenly I was beginning to feel like a humongous fat giant and it started to affect my confidence. 

writing on whiteboard

One thing is a for sure: South Korean students LOVE their dedicated and energetic English Teachers!

Shopping can be a struggle, but don’t be discouraged.

I really enjoy shopping, and love to buy new clothes in particular. Unfortunately, finding clothes that fit me here is challenging. Here in South Korea, you rarely find anything bigger than a UK size 12 (or US size 10) in your typical clothing store. If you are lucky and find a Western store like H&M, you might find some items in size 16, but even then they will be a much smaller fit than their equivalent at home – weight aside, people in South Korea are usually smaller than us in the West. It is desperately frustrating going into a store and realising that absolutely nothing fits you. Do not be disheartened though, because you can get deliveries from big online shops like New Look and Asos to this country when you do need to buy clothes.

plus-sized woman in South Korea

With minimal living expenses, and paid vacation time, myself and other TravelBud ESL teachers have the time and resources to explore different parts of the country!

I know I’m perfect just the way I am

I will admit that I have cried about the situation here and there are days that it gets to me. I try to remember that much of the beauty in this country is much more complicated than meets the eye. The women here are naturally more petite than us Westerners. They are also under an incredible amount of pressure to look perfect, so they harm themselves and go on extreme diets. These women cover their faces with heavy makeup and have drastic plastic surgeries to alter how they look. So I work hard to be compassionate for them and the pressures they have faced their whole life.

My wonderful friends in this country and I constantly remind each other that we are all perfectly normal and beautiful. Being a plus-sized woman in South Korea isn’t easy. However, I find it’s worth the rough patches for the experience I’ve been able to have. We keep in mind that, genetically, South Korean people are more petite than us, and that we are helping to reshape the the traditional view that Koreans have on weight and appearance. 

Sometimes, it’s necessary to take a step back and remind yourself that you are wonderful regardless of your size. Although South Korea has these ridiculous standards, you do not have to hold yourself to them.

You are perfect just the way you are.

sunflowers and south korea sunset

It’s views like this (along with dozens of other reasons) that make teaching English in South Korea worth every second.

Some final words of advice

For those who may be concerned about the same thing as I was when I headed to South Korea, here are my top four tips for making your time as easy and stress-free as possible:

1. Bring enough clothes for 4 very distinct seasons that make you feel comfortable and confident.
2. If you need to buy clothes online, ensure that you have your address in both English and Korean for deliveries.
3. Have a collection of things whether it be music, images, films or books that remind you that you and your body are fabulous! Personally I listen to a lot of Lizzo and follow body positivity blogs on Instagram.
4. Go through a company like TravelBud who are extremely culturally sensitive and supportive to their teachers.

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