Born to third-generation Koreans in Kazakhstan, 23 year old Alina Shamsutdinova was always curious about her Korean roots. However, when she moved to Seoul in 2011 as an international student to learn about her origins, she discovered a shocking aspect about her Korean culture.
As any young girl should be, Shamsutinova was strong and confident with herself. However, upon arriving in Seoul, Shamsutinova was faced with a flurry of negativity regarding her appearance. These criticisms were beyond hurtful and actually became detrimental to her health. “Among the things I heard was ‘It’s okay to be ugly, but being fat is unforgivable,’” she said in an interview with The Korea Herald, “Another was ‘You’re really lucky that you have a pretty face. Otherwise you would never be able to have a boyfriend.’”
Consequently, Shamsutinova rapidly began losing weight, only to gain it back again after. Her body type simply was not as widely accepted in Korea as it was back in Kazakhstan. “I think I just tried to follow what others told me or what the society wants,” Shamsutdinova said.
Many shops didn’t even accommodate for Shamsutinova size, which reflects on society’s efforts in discouraging larger sized people in Korea. Only foreign stores such as H&M and Forever 21 carry clothes that will fit her. She quotes a sales assistant in a Korean store snatching clothes away from her hands saying, “too small, too small”, leaving Shamsutinova speechless. “Having only a couple of stores where I can buy my clothes isn’t easy,” she said. “It feels like if you are plus size you are not allowed to look good. I can’t be as fashionable as I want to be (in Korea) even though I want to look beautiful.”
Won Yoo-ri, a 17 year old American girl who was also interviewed by the Korean Herald, also experienced abuse when returning to Korea. “Oh my god, when are you going to lose weight? Women must be skinny in order to find men,” she was told by a random woman on the street.
Won continued to be shamed about her body from strangers and friends as well as classmates and even professors. One of her classmates even told her that he’d date her if she lost 14kg and at a restaurant, a server even told her that she should stop eating because she had eaten enough.
“In the U.S., I felt that my personality was all I needed, and people responded to it,” she said. “But to come to a country and constantly hear a conversation turn to ‘you should lose weight’ was heartbreaking… I even considered getting my stomach stapled,” she said. ”
Won even reports about one of her college friends who starved herself for four months, eating only half an apple and a single chicken breast per day. As a result, she passed out at least four times.
Ashely Hounsell, a 29 year old American English language teacher said that she had encountered many female students who were insecure about her their body image, “I remember girls telling me they weren’t eating for the week before their school checkup. When I asked why, they told me because everyone gets to see their weight.”
Shamsutdinova recently participated in a project called “I am Beautiful”, which featured photographs of 24 people who had struggled with self-image. Shamsutdinova finds discovering the existence of plus-size empowering. Tess Hoolliday is one of the most famous body-positive activists in the US, whilst South Korea’s first plus-size model Kim Ji-Yang has also inspired Shamsutdinova. As a result, she has accepted that she would only go on a diet for health purposes, not Korean pressures.
Whilst Shamsutdinova doesn’t believe that plus-size models should justify obesity, she does believe that more plus size models need to be showcased around the world to change people’s views on beauty and the objectification of women’s bodies.
“Once I started seeing girls my size in the media, I definitely started to appreciate my body more and accept myself more,” she said. “(Learning about) Kim Ji-yang was just empowering. She looked beautiful. She is Asian like me even though there is a stereotype that ‘Asians are usually slim.’”
Body image is a recurring issue in many cultures. What is recognised as an ‘acceptable size’ differs greatly amongst different countries and cultures. Whilst the west may be embracing plus-size models, it is unreasonable to expect other cultures to catch up at a similar pace. Indeed, the west too still has body image issues that are yet to be ironed out. However, as cultures become more aware of the corrosive dangers of critiquing body image and the sensitivity of it, insecurities of body images will hopefully soon be a thing of the past.