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Photo: Hanbyul❤

MatadorU student Sarah Shaw learns the pressures of appearance in Korean society.

“SARAH, I LOVE YOUR CURVES,” Dahae said as I stepped into our cramped dorm room from the bathroom. A couple minutes earlier, I’d been showering in our curtain-less shower, while Dahae was brushing her teeth. She’d knocked on the door, asking to come in; she was running late.

“Um, thanks,” I stammered, biting my pinky nail, as Dahae outspokenly observed my body. It was my second week in Korea, and at 5’2”, 130 pounds, it didn’t take long to realize I was considered fat here. I wondered why Dahae was complimenting me.

I looked away, embarrassed, and kneeled down to open the drawer underneath my bed. As I pulled out some clothing, I debated whether I should whip my towel off or wait for her to turn the other way. Usually, I’d choose the former, but I could feel Dahae’s eyes on me. Instead, I began combing my hair with my right hand while clenching my left elbow against my side, trying to keep the towel from slipping.

* * *

Three and a half years ago, I moved into the dormitory at the Korea National University of Arts during my college semester abroad. I lived with three Korean roommates, and Dahae was one of them. She had a square-shaped face and pouty lips painted with magenta lipstick. She dyed her hair reddish-brown and wore it pulled back into a bun, her head looking exceptionally large on her 90-pound frame. She liked to wear a navy blue, velour, J LO jumpsuit with the word “PONY” written across the ass.

Dahae studied art in France for three years, where she created a series of paintings based on imagery from Japanese Hentai (anime porn). In France, she felt liberated, lacking the social pressure to hide her sexuality, to portray herself as innocent, to date a man her parents approved of. A French friend inspired her to return to Korea to make documentary films about the sexism she’d dealt with in Korean society.

Dahae once told me she loved her parents, but she hated being Korean. She felt oppressed as a female in her own culture. She wished she were adopted at birth.

Sometimes, she’d sit on the floor naked, leaning against one of the bottom bunks, burning a short, brown stick on her abdomen, held in place by acupuncture needles. As the stick smoldered on her stomach, her bones protruded from her narrow frame; I could easily count her ribs. The ground-up mugwort leaves had a distinct, earthy smell as they burned.

For the rest of the semester, I kept some distance. I also began locking the door when I was in the shower.

In these moments, I wondered what the fuck she was doing. Later I learned she was healing herself with an ancient Asian form of heat therapy called moxibustion. It wasn’t exactly beautiful, but I stared because I couldn’t physically turn away.

Early in the semester, I saw a new sketchbook on Dahae’s desk. I was alone in the room, and I wanted to feel the texture of the paper. I placed my hand on the fabric cover, and hesitated, glancing at the door.

Hearing nothing but the soft buzzing of my laptop, I slowly opened the front cover. On the first page, there was a light pencil drawing with expressive lines but no solid details. At the bottom of the page, in English, she wrote, “Sneaking in on Sarah in the shower.”

I stared for a moment, making sure I was seeing properly. I wondered, did she want me to see this? Why was it written in English? I turned to the next page and saw “Je t’envie.” I hurriedly closed the book and leaped onto my bed.

My stomach churned. I wondered how I’d made such an impression on Dahae. Did she purposely walk in on me in the shower? Or did it merely happen in the moment? I decided not to confront her or mention anything about snooping through her stuff. I didn’t want to turn Dahae’s fascination with my body into an awkward situation, and I did feel guilty about invading her privacy.

For the rest of the semester, I kept some distance. I also began locking the door when I was in the shower. She knocked again the next day, and I told her to wait five minutes until I was finished.

* * *

Since I returned to Korea in February 2011 to teach English, I’ve been confronted with my weight yet again. Only this time, nobody is complimenting me. On a daily basis, I listen to my Korean coworkers lament their weight gain, their diet, the stress it brings. I’ve been asked: “Have you gained weight?” “How much do you weigh?” “Your face looks so thin today; did you lose weight?” When I showed my students photos of my family taken four years earlier, my male co-teacher exclaimed, “Wow! You look so chubby!” I laughed, even though I didn’t find it funny.

I once went to a Korean family’s house for dinner, where they took turns weighing themselves in front of each other, all waiting impatiently to see the number on the scale. As I sat on the couch in the living room, my palms began sweating, fearing they would ask me to step on next.

I don’t understand how Dahae could be envious of my curvy body and at the same time not eat dinner.

In Korea, appearance, especially weight, is highly important to maintain. I’ve become hyper-aware of what I’m eating, how often I exercise, and how I look. I find myself subconsciously glancing in the mirrors scattered around the city — in the subway stations, in the public toilet stalls, even in my own classroom. After showering, I’ll wipe the condensation off the mirror and through the swirls and hand prints scrutinize myself, pinching my extra fat. With my shrinking breasts and 120 pounds I’m still thinking maybe I’m too big.

Then I remind myself, why should I want to change my body? I’m healthy already.

Sometimes when I begin obsessing about my weight, I think about Dahae. A year ago, one of my old roommates saw Dahae walking around campus. “She gained so much weight!” she exclaimed. Even though Dahae had resembled so many other Korean women, when I was an exchange student she’d had an eating disorder. She was in the hospital when I left, but I didn’t know what for.

At times, I feel insecure about my weight, but I’ll never be able to understand the pressure Dahae, and other Koreans, face. I don’t know what it’s like to have my mother call me fat. I can’t understand the pressure to superficially blend within Korean society. I don’t understand how Dahae could be envious of my curvy body and at the same time not eat dinner.

At some point, Dahae deleted her Facebook account, and I have no way of contacting her. I wonder if she’s still studying at KNUA, minutes away from my small studio apartment. Maybe we’ve crossed paths but failed to recognize each other.



About The Author

Sarah Shaw

Sarah Shaw is a travel writer and artist, currently teaching English at a public elementary school in Seoul, South Korea. She’s originally from Maine, but throughout the past six years she has lived on four different continents, and spends her days getting lost, petting stray cats and embarrassing herself in foreign languages. She is a MatadorU graduate and blogs at Mapping Words, where she explores life as a traveler and expat.

  • Keph Senett

    Great work, Sarah. Happy to see the evolution of this piece. Love what you did with it.

  • Candice Walsh

    Ditto, you did a fantastic job with the edits on this one. Love how it turned out!

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  • Carla Vidal

    Reading this reminded me of many things: (life, traveling, Pratt, you, other people, roommates *cough Anri, behaviors, weight issues, etc.). Sarah, it’s incredible how I easily recall your sweetness and envision you sharing and exchanging your experiences. You have a gift chica ;).

    • Sarah Shaw

      Thank you, Carla! I have lots of fond memories too. How are you these days?

  • Olivia Yi-chen Chen

    if korea is effecting you , the most confident person I know, then I don’t feel bad escaping the social pressure for all these years.:)

    • Sarah Shaw

      Thanks, Olivia!! Can’t wait to see you! X

  • Sarah Shaw

    Thank you everyone, for your kind words and support.

  • Mairéad Ní Doibhilin

    Powerful stuff.

  • Stephanie Potell

    Good read! It reminded me of my coworkers when I taught in Korea- they hardly ate anything for lunch and I would always scoop mountains of rice and I still went for seconds!

  • Marie Lisa Jose

    Very nice Sarah. Being a foodies I totally relate to the pressures of weight gain. Why can’t we be just the way are?
    We women should love ourselves just the way we are.

  • Anonymous

    this is such an eye-opener as I’ve never been to korea. beautifully written!

  • Kate Tungusova

    I was linked here by thegrandnarrative, and I have to comment because I absolutely loved reading this and the article was so well written! Thank you so much for putting this online.

  • Susannah Mauro

    I am about to leave for Korea University and I am really nervous about their perceptions on weight. I am currently recovering from an eating disorder that I am still dealing with. I am athletically built-like a gymnast, I am not fat (I can’t tell you what a step it is for me to be able to say that) but I am muscular. My fear is getting to Korea and having people stare at me and peg me as the “fat american”. I am afraid I will lose control of my eating disorder and go back to what it was. Your article is an eye opener and has a positive message I need to force myself to remember. So thank you.

    • Sarah Shaw

      Susannah, I’m so glad this article can serve as a positive reminder. Your comment is really touching. I wish you the best of luck in Korea, and remember that there’s so much more to Korean culture than weight issues.

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