When I was 18, I made a vow: never go on a scale again. I had grown to hate the idea of having a seemingly random number control my self-esteem, so I just stopped. Impressively enough, I have kept that promise since. Therefore – you guessed it – I have no idea how much I weigh.
The reason I recall this fact now is because I read this blog post called “I used to be a skinny person” by Kate Fridkis. In it, she talks about how looking great has become synonymous with looking skinny and what that means for women’s self-esteem. Her statement about thinness being “the baseline for other beauty” rang a little too true to me, when I too became a “fat person” briefly last summer.
In Canada, where I’ve spent most of my teenage/adult life shopping for clothes, I am considered what you might call a “normal” body type, even on a “smaller” side. At 5’2” and sizes varying from 2 to 6 and XS to S (thank you, stores), I don’t often have to think about things fitting me, unless it’s a length issue. This gives me a privilege in which I do not face discrimination about my body image in most circumstances.
Not so in Korea. My aunts, upon seeing me (for the first time in over 8 years), commented collectively:
“Wow, you look…fat! But you know, fat in the right places!”
I think that is called “curvy” if you want to be polite, but whatever. Before I could recover, one of them dug even deeper:
“Is everyone in Canada…like you? In sizes I mean…”
The body image change did not stop there. While shopping with them at one of the biggest wholesale clothing markets in Seoul (Dongdaemun), I encountered even more instances where my self-image of how my body was became completely distorted. I stood in shock as the vendors could not find pants that would fit into my now “big” and wide hips.
Back in Canada, I didn’t have to think twice about finding my size – sometimes I could undress the mannequin to fit easily into the sample. Not so anymore. Even more embarrassingly, my hips and legs were now deemed “too fat” to be donning skinny jeans – a style of jeans I had been wearing for the last two years without any shame back home. When I was reaching for a pair of black skinny jeans, my aunt looked at me with a worried face, and finally said: “are you sure you’re gonna look good in that? Let’s go try it on – they look too small for you.” (well you know what? they fit perfectly when I tried them on, thankyouverymuch)
My conviction that I was the fattest person in Korea came true when I was forced to go to a communal bathhouse with my aunts and my grandmother. Communal bathhouses are very common in Korea, and they’re not weird at all – there’s a sense of liberation that comes with nakedness that is not sexualized by any means. However, as I took a look at all the middle-aged and old ladies bathing beside me, I realized that I was the woman with the curviest body. And we’re talking ladies who have had children.
Without physically changing any of my body measurements I had miraculously succeeded in transitioning into a “fat girl” from being “normal-sized” within a matter of 2 weeks. I’m embarrassed to admit how quickly my self-esteem crumbled within the two hours of shopping with my aunts, as I began questioning my own wardrobe choice in things like wearing shorts- oh my god! my naked thighs in all their thick glory! – where women with seemingly no hips and no body fat were surely body-shaming me.
In short, I felt ugly, unattractive, like a gluttonous North American monster exponentially growing thanks to a rich diet of butter and cheese.
Furthermore, my aunts were scandalized beyond belief when I told them I literally didn’t know how much I weighed. “What do you mean you don’t know?! No wonder you’ve gotten so much bigger! You need to keep better track of your body. You are going to be married soon.” (ha ha ha ha)
As you might gather from the comments, it was not only my new body image, but also the attitude towards (mostly women’s) bodies that shocked me. Generally speaking, North American’s won’t comment directly on one’s weight unless it’s about a celebrity’s. And when it is commenting on someone’s weight it is usually accentuating weight loss. Instead, Koreans like to tell you about all kinds of weight changes. Being fat (and thin, but mostly being fat, because it is perilous to your existence when nobody will marry you) is everyone’s business, not just your own. I’ve had many vendors tell me not to buy something because it made me look “big.”
(My mother, being shocked at a comment my uncle made on the phone about me “looking nicely porky,” asked me for about 6 months straight if I had plans to exercise yet.)
I’m not talking about my experiences in Korea to argue that North America’s treatment of women’s body images is good. I encounter too many people (online and in real life) who think they can tell when a person is “too fat” even though they are not medical professionals who can measure someone’s BMI and heart rate. (Many comments towards Precious actor Gabourey Sidibe come to mind – especially Howard Stern’s cruel comment about Sidibe and implying that she had an eating disorder by stating “you can’t eat like this” – ugh)
There isn’t a necessary correlation between one’s weight and one’s health all the time, but we as a society seem quick to make that naturalized connection between “thin = pretty = healthy” and “not thin = ugly = unhealthy”. As a “normal” person living in America I was deemed “too fat” by others in a different country with a clear undertone of being “unhealthy” even though my health is in a relatively good state, according to my last medical check-up two months ago.
There is no such thing as “too fat” – or “too fat for his/her own good.” Because – as I’ve demonstrated here – “fat” is an extremely subjective and constructed state of being, and b) you are not a medical professional.
And I’m proud to announce that despite a bout of shitty self-esteem I experienced last summer, I still managed to keep my vow to not be married to numbers on scales.
No, auntie, I still don’t know how much I weigh. In my books, that’s a good thing.