Normally, I have a pretty good relationship with my body. I remind myself as often as I can how joyous it is to be able-bodied. I kind of suck at stamina but try to make a short work-out a part of my daily routine. In every season excepting winter, it is very pleasant to walk around instead of taking the bus. When I look at the mirror, I more likely grin and stick my tongue out at myself than frown. I avoid binge-eating and since I can tolerate only a small amount of chocolate or candy, not-eating-sweets works out pretty well for me.
And yet. It takes only one circumstance to occur for my healthy body image to crumble down and be swept away in mere seconds. That circumstance is occurring right now. It’s called going-back-to-Korea.
I have a love-hate relationship going on with my country, but for now let’s stick to body image. I have seldom met folks who are as obsessed with physical appearances as Koreans. Not all Koreans, of course. Especially not those living abroad, but there are also Koreans living in Korea who do not adhere to the “standard beauty” and are aware of its deadly effects.
I’ve been living in Germany close to a decade now, and I’ve gone back to Korea four times so far. Once in sixth grade, once in seventh, once in ninth, and just last summer (first year of university). The last two times, the first thing every single fucking relative I met in Seoul did was to do a head-to-toe scan and criticize my looks. Or more accurately, my weight. I swear, the first comment they utter is Why are you so fat?
For the record, I am in the range of normal weight. So okay, I’m not skinny. I’m not long and lean. So what?! Why are these people so obsessed with how I look? It’s not Nice to see you. It’s never How were your years? It must be difficult living abroad all alone (actually, my answer to that would be no). It’s always Why are you so fat?
It’s so fucking hard to love my body when almost everyone I meet in Korea tells me to hate it. Oh, they chalk it up to health reasons, of course. It’s not healthy for you to have so much fat – it wears down your kneecaps or some other shit.
It feels like they can’t tolerate any body type other than skinny. There are many skinny young people in Korea, maybe it’s the genes or something.
So every time before I embark on the plane ride to Korea, I spend a few days in full-out stress mode, my stomach in knots and hating every bite of food I ingest. I brace myself for the verbal blows that are bound to assault me the second I enter a relative’s house. My immediate family does not comment on my body because I asked them, again and again, not to. My mother slips occasionally, and my father, the laughable so-called feminist, comments on every woman’s body as if she were a piece of meat instead of a human being. Actually, because of him, I had a totally screwed sense of feminism until I learned differently through the internet.
All this fat-shaming, especially among relatives because it’s “allowed”, but also openly done in TV talk shows and TV series, makes it hard for me to breathe because I know I have to go through this toxic mess again when I go to Korea. Knowing their obsession with “health” and “beauty” is extreme and narrow-minded does not help me much when I’m in the midst of the same thoughts, same social pressure, same criticism bearing down on me.
Going back to the country of my origin is a tiring process. I have to steel myself every time because I fear losing myself in the mindlessness of it all.