I’ve never really been one for making New Year’s Resolutions, at least not of my own accord. Sure, I filled in those “My New Year’s Resolutions” worksheets in grade school with things like “I will be on time” or “I will stop procrastinating,” yet here I am, approaching 26, still a minimum of 5 minutes late for everything and still up till 4am the night before deadlines. Even the easiest of resolutions – “I will acquire as many velour tracksuits as possible,” ie. my goal for 2018 – seem doomed to fail. I’m exiting 2018 with the exact same number of velour tracksuits I had entering it, that is, two. Resolutions always seemed a little silly to me; time is an arbitrary concept with no real meaning outside human definition. If we really wanted to make a change, why wait for a specific day?
But this year, I’m determined to follow through. My 2019 New Year’s Resolution is to finally make peace with my body.
If you know anything about modern Korean society, you’ve probably heard whispers of the harshness of Korean diet culture. Of course, diet culture is absolutely a thing in the West as well, but with increasingly louder and more mainstream voices advocating for body diversity and body positivity, it’s becoming easier to tune it out, or at the very least, push it slightly to the side.
The moment I had phone service in Korea, I noticed an immediate shift in what the Instagram ad algorithms were dumping into my feed. Every day, I’m bombarded with multiple ads for 70-calorie instant noodles, diet pills, and videos of “before” girls pinching small belly rolls to be sucked in by compression leggings and control-top stockings “after.” Diet talk abounds, to a much greater degree than anything I ever experienced back home. There’s even a popular Korean phrase that translates to “Dieting is women’s homework for eternity,” and I’ve heard this rhetoric referenced regularly in my daily interactions with Koreans. One of my 13-year-old students refused a 20-calorie mini Tootsie Pop because she was “on a diet.” Another didn’t want to wear shorts in 30°C weather because she thought her legs were fat. My coteacher informed me the other day that her sister had told her the night before that she looked like their mother and needs to lose some weight, and thus, she wouldn’t be eating anything that day except coffee. And this is all seen as completely normal, admirable even. It’s everything I’ve ever heard at home, but cranked up by a million percent.
But then, as if by some cruel joke, Korean culture is also centred around sharing food and eating. Pretty much all socializing is done over food, with company dinners often taking place at least once a month. At least once a week, I’ll return to my desk in the afternoon to find a box of ddeok (Korean rice cake) or a sweet morsel of some kind. My students offer me chips and candies to share as I walk down the halls. Every so often, my coteacher will covertly call me down to the main office, and I’ll arrive to see the teachers huddled around a big container of ddeokbokki (a spicy rice cake stew of sorts) and fried octopus that they’d ordered for delivery as an afternoon snack.
All that dissonance is more than enough to drive anyone into a deep, spiralling pit of body despair.
About a year ago, I contracted some kind of stomach infection. I don’t usually have a sensitive stomach (save for dairy), but for a whole week, I couldn’t eat anything besides bananas, crackers, or oatmeal, lest it immediately come out the other end like drainage from a gutter pipe after a rainstorm. By the time it had passed a week or so later, I’d dropped several pounds, and was at the lowest weight I’d been in six years.
Naturally, the compliments came pouring in.
“Wow, you look great!” “You look hot, did you lose weight?” “Look at that body!”
“Yes, thank you, I’m malnourished,” I’d say wryly.
“Well, you look amazing,” they’d always reply.
Anyway, when I arrived in Korea, I was rather below my normal weight threshold. As far as I was concerned, this boded well. Moving to a new place with vastly different (not to mention cheap) food options meant that I was eating – a lot – though this has petered off significantly in recent months. On top of that, my eating habits and general lifestyle faced significant changes.
Firstly, for the preceding year and a half, I had worked at a vegan/vegetarian restaurant. Thus, I went from being on my feet for many hours a day to sitting at a desk, if not strolling idly between students as they pretended to fill out the worksheets I’d assigned. Even more significant, I had greatly reduced my intake of animal products. I’d go for many days, sometimes weeks, without eating any meat at all. Conversely, Korean food is basically all meat. Meat stews, BBQ meat, broths made with meat, dumplings filled with meat. Veganism is a completely foreign concept to most Koreans, and “vegetarians” still eat fish. Inexplicably, they also seem to really love milk and cheese, despite the fact that, statistically speaking, most Koreans are lactose intolerant (including me). I guess they just think farting a lot and constant diarrhea is normal.
Secondly, to Koreans, rice is love, rice is life. Not eating rice at a meal is basically unheard of. To give you an idea of how essential they think rice is, once, my school lunch offerings consisted of spaghetti and tomato sauce, a bread roll, and those tornado potatoes on a stick; still they had a big ol’ pot of rice (plus kimchi, because Korea). That’s all of four of the Sacred Carbs (pasta, bread, potatoes, and rice) in one meal. I genuinely didn’t want rice and didn’t take any. And yet, there they were, mixing a big ol’ scoop of white rice in with their spaghetti and sauce. “Why no rice?” asked multiple coworkers when they caught sight of my rice-less tray. “Too many carbs,” I said, marvelling that this wasn’t obvious to them.
Korea isn’t my first experience living abroad. In 2014, I spent five months on exchange in Edinburgh, Scotland. By the end of my stint, I was about 20-25lbs heavier than I was when I arrived, and the heaviest I’ve ever been. I lost it within a few months of returning home and resuming my regular routines, but whenever I look back at pictures from my final weeks there – my trip to Barcelona, the last outings with my flatmates – all I can think about is how…huge I looked. I can’t focus on memories of the beach or think about the time we bought a pizza each on our way home from the pub and devoured them at our kitchen table, chatting and giggling with drunken glee. I look at those pictures, and in spite of the wideness of our genuine smiles, all I see is the roundness of my face, the crease of my double chin, how my upper arm fat seems to pool against my side as I lean into my friends behind our dark corner table.
When I moved to Korea, I was a bit wary that a divergence from my regular routines would again result in weight gain. Lo and behold, a few months in, I felt my pants getting a little bit tighter and noticed my stomach roll expanding. An omnipresent dread began to follow me wherever I went. My deepest fear was – is – gaining as much weight as I had in Scotland.
Truthfully, there is a practical reason for this fear; it would be a lot harder to replace any clothes I grew out of because the standard size option for clothing in Korea is “free size,” which is essentially “one size fits all,” AKA about a Western size small. Think Brandy Melville.
But, more than that, I fear people’s reactions upon my return home. I’m scared that people will talk behind my back, that any mention of, “Oh hey, I saw Sam Kim when she was home last week!” will be followed with “Yeah, she’s gained a lot of weight, hasn’t she?” I fear that looking at back at any pictures will eventually elicit the same feelings of shame and discomfort as those pictures from Scotland.
To some of you reading this, the answer will seem simple. Just eat less and exercise more, and anything I say to contradict the simplicity of that advice is nothing but excuses.
There’s a lot to unpack from that mindset, but I’m going to try.
For starters, allow me to present to you an outline of my typical lifestyle as of now:
Typical breakfast: Apple with peanut butter, oatmeal with fruit, or avocado on rye toast with a fried egg and sriracha. Green tea to drink.
Typical lunch: Whatever school provides; typically, some kind of meat dish (usually some kind of stewed fish, chicken, or pork), 2 side dishes (always one type of kimchi and something else, perhaps “salad” [in quotes because Korean salad is weird], japchae, or any other Korean side dish), soup, and rice. I don’t take rice unless it’s a meal that requires it (eg. bibimbap). At least a couple times a week I can’t eat the soup or one of the side dishes because they contain mollusks, to which I am allergic. Occasionally, fried and/or breaded foods are involved. Water to drink.
Typical dinner: Something vegetarian that I’ve cooked myself, eg. lentil or bean soup, quinoa black bean tacos, or salad topped with lots of colourful veggies, fruits, and nuts, dressed with homemade vinaigrette. Water to drink.
Typical snacks: Popcorn, Mary’s Crackers (ie. crackers made with rice, quinoa, and seeds; they may sound like healthy bullshit but I swear they’re damn tasty), fruit, a piece of whatever I’ve baked recently, or some of the candy my mom sent me in a care package from home.
Exceptions: I go out to eat with friends usually once a week. Fare ranges from burgers and fries to chicken stir-fry lettuce wraps and is often followed by dessert. Recreational drinking also usually ensues a few times a month, along with the appropriate drunk food and subsequent hangover food.
Typical exercise: Ride my bike to and from school every day (~10 minutes each way), and to and from the subway station at least a couple times a week (~15 minutes each way). Yoga/fitness videos on YouTube usually ~4 times a week, sometimes more, sometimes less.
As I’m typing out my daily routines for all to see, I’m asking myself, why? Why do I feel the need to justify myself and prove to you all that I’m not just sitting around eating McDonald’s for every meal and hydrating myself solely with beer and Coke? I guess it’s because I feel like if I show that my diet isn’t some ungodly 24/7 Epic Meal Time, any “concern for my health” is therefore unwarranted. I eat like a normal person and do probably about an average amount of physical activity. My coworkers eat the exact same lunches I do (often in bigger portions), likely less-healthy dinners, and exercise less, yet many of them remain svelte. I weigh more not because I’m a disgusting slob, but because that’s just how my body is. Why do I get “health concern” comments, but they don’t?
Answer: Because I don’t have a flat stomach and my thighs touch. We’re so ingrained with the notion that fat=unhealthy that even if someone is thin due to disordered eating, cigarettes, illness, or simply metabolism, despite actually eating McDonald’s for every meal, we congratulate them. And because I’ve been “health-policed” by family and friends throughout the latter half of my life, every bite of “bad” food has started to feel like its own mini-rebellion, a middle finger to anyone who might tell me I shouldn’t be eating it. As one might expect, eating out of spite doesn’t really help foster a healthy relationship with food.
There’s a reason I was complimented and praised after my stomach infection, despite the fact that that was arguably the least physically healthy I’d been probably ever. I’d never felt so awful; constantly empty, shaky, and bloated. Literally terrified to consume anything but forcing myself to eat a small bowl of plain banana oatmeal to get a few calories in me so I didn’t collapse at work. Yet, all that was apparently worth it because I’d lost a few pounds.
And you know what’s fucked up? In the deepest depths of my thoughts, I’ve been lowkey praying I’d develop another short-term stomach infection ever since my pants got a little tight, just to jumpstart weight loss. Let me say that again – I’ve been hoping that I would develop a health condition that left me shaky and miserable and caused me to literally shit myself more than once just because it also came with the side effect of weight loss. Healthy, eh?
But really, all that aside, why should I have to lose weight in order to not feel shitty about myself? Why should anyone? Despite all the scaremongering that purports that being above a certain BMI automatically means that I’m going to get heart disease and die tomorrow, I can personally report that I have felt exactly the same, physically speaking, no matter the number the scale was showing at the time.
And even if someone is fat and physically unhealthy, guess what? It’s still none of your business! A fat person existing does absolutely nothing to alter the quality of your life! This supposed high value concern trolls put on health is, ultimately, a red herring. Someone’s health does not determine their worth as a person or indicate the level of respect they should be afforded. Devaluing unhealthy fat people because they’re unhealthy does a disservice to anyone who isn’t in peak physical condition, including folks with disabilities and terminal illnesses. And because I’m sure we can all agree that disabled and/or terminally ill people are worthy of basic human respect, let’s just admit that the problem isn’t health. You just hate fat people for no other reason than that you think they’re gross.
We need to stop ranking physical health above mental health. Time and again, we hear stories of folks who dedicate every ounce of their mental energy to forcing their bodies into whatever shape society is promoting as the “ideal” at the time. They restrict entire food groups, they count calories, they miss out on simple pleasures and life events because they’re so obsessed with perfection. Diet culture is being dressed up as “wellness” or “clean eating,” but it’s all the same in the end. They talk about “good” foods and “bad” foods and “cheat days,” as if enjoying a slice of grandma’s apple pie or an ice cream on a hot day is somehow morally reprehensible. You’re eating dessert, not robbing a bank! They act like one sip of pumpkin spice latte is equivalent to injecting yourself with arsenic and are seemingly convinced that eating a piece of normal toast will result in spontaneous combustion. We’ve somehow come to believe that this obsession is normal and healthy because it often (not always, mind you) results in the body type we’ve deemed “healthiest.” Of course, the folks in question tend to claim that they’re not following these wildly restrictive guidelines for the express purpose of weight loss; no, it’s all in the name of “your best you” (with the “positive side-effect” of “weight management” of course).
I refuse to dedicate my every waking hour and every sentient thought to counting calories or exercise I hate or worrying that pasta is going to cause the collapse of civilization. Frankly, I have more important things to be concerned with. The lifestyle I lead is balanced enough for me, and opposing opinions shouldn’t even matter.
Body positivity and the cessation of fat shaming, contrary to popular belief, does not “promote obesity” nor will it cause a Wall-E-style dystopia where everyone is too fat to walk. Turns out, shaming people and making them feel worthless and inferior is – shock! – ultimately detrimental to their health. If we want people to make healthier choices – be that physically or mentally – we need to teach them that they, as humans, are worthy of self-love and self-respect in the first place.
According to statista.com, 45% of American adults resolved to lose weight in 2018. Second only to saving money (53%), that puts losing weight above travelling more (24%), reading more books (23%), and learning a new skill (22%). It seems like such a shame to put shrinking our bodies in such a higher regard than expanding our minds. Personally, I’ve had enough of it.
So, this is me saying a big FUCK YOU to:
- My doctor, who warned that I was “heavy” at 13 years old, despite being very visibly not heavy (I can only conclude that my dancer’s muscles tipped the scale and/or that I’m just a dense person, which seems entirely possible given the fact that my father literally sinks in water).
- My grandfather and step-grandmother, who pulled me aside after a family meal when I was 15 to inform me that they’d noticed I’d “put on a little bit of weight” (ie. had hit puberty) and that they “just wanted to let me know before it got out of hand.”
- The friends in high school who pleaded that I go to the gym with them on the grounds that they were “concerned for my health,” despite the fact that I danced competitively 8+ hours a week (and had been doing so for my entire life) and therefore did more physical activity than they could ever conceivably achieve simply by going to the gym. But, because I didn’t have a flat stomach and my thighs touched, my health was obviously at risk.
- The friend who told me that I was “curvy, *but* I worked it.”
- The vindictive girl who subtweeted that it must have been embarrassing for the guy I was seeing to be seen with someone “twice his size” and made comments about my armpit fat because she was upset that I was dating her ex-boyfriend.
- My parents, who routinely expressed concern for my weight; once, they offered to buy me a whole new wardrobe if I lost enough weight that my expansive collection of clothes no longer fit, and another time they suggested that my wisdom teeth removal (ie. a week of a liquid diet) would be a good weight loss start point.
- The friends who’ve unsolicitedly informed me that certain articles of clothing were “not flattering” (ie. didn’t hide my stomach).
- The men who have told me that guys are just less interested in chubby women.
- The diet industry and society at large, which put all these ridiculous, arbitrary ideas about what it means to be an acceptable, “healthy” human into our heads in the first place. FUCK. YOU.
And this is me, vowing to commit to being truly body positive and writing it down for all four of my readers and my mom to see:
- No more Facetuning out my lumps, rolls, or double chins. It’s likely that my fixation on my own supposed imperfections is mostly all in my own head, and if anyone has any judgments to make, that’s their problem.
- To segue from the previous point, be totally chill with all my lumps and rolls. They’re there, they exist, and I’m not going to pretend that they don’t, because they’re nothing to be ashamed of.
- No more weight talk. Not about me, and not about others. Friends, if you start talking about weight loss and diets in front of me, I’m shutting it down immediately.
- Truly get in touch with my eating and hunger cues and allow myself to eat intuitively. No more bargaining with myself, and no more restriction and guilt that ultimately leads to mini-binges.
- No more guilt-exercise. I’ll exercise because I spend a lot of time sitting at a desk now and it makes me feel all stiff, not because I caved and ate three cookies the night before.
- Love myself, forgive myself, and allow myself time to heal and grow. It’s a long journey to embark on through extremely murky waters, but I owe it to myself at least give it the ol’ college try.
Readers (and Mom), I urge you to take this journey with me. This is all in the name of a happier, more fulfilled you. To be clear, this is not a call to eat cake for every meal and hire a private rickshaw man to carry you every time you have to move more than three steps. In fact, I don’t think my day-to-day habits are going to change much, if at all. I still really like salad and being able to hold a solid dancer’s pose in yoga brings me great personal satisfaction. I’m simply suggesting that we pledge to be mindful of the intentions behind our actions in an effort towards inner peace. I refuse to be looking back at my photos from Korea in four years lamenting my double chin rather than reminiscing on my adventures. Let’s respect ourselves and acknowledge that the only person you exist for is you. Let’s be kinder to ourselves in 2019.
If you’re interested in learning more about body positivity and/or the dangers and lies of diet/”wellness” culture, here’s some stuff to get you started:
Instagram accounts to follow:
@bodyposipanda @scarrednotscared @laurathomasphd @iamaniadriana @kristamurias @bodyimage_therapist @chr1styharrison @beauty_redefined @whitneywaythore @i_weigh @jameelajamilofficial @theslumflower @intuitive.dietitian.kosher
The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf
Losing It by Laura Fraser
Body of Truth by Harriet Brown
Just Eat It by Laura Thomas (this book isn’t out until February, but I’m very much looking forward to its release. I’ve been following Laura [@laurathomasphd] on Instagram for awhile and her knowledge and teachings are indispensable)
P.S. To the family and friends addressed above who recognize something they said or did, I am aware that you meant no harm, and I mean no disrespect. This is all in the name of me attempting to banish my demons, and a call to action to do better in the future.
P.P.S. For the sake of transparency and accountability, I am exposing some of my Facetune work from this year. I don’t Facetune all of my photos by any means, but as you can see, bathing suit photos are particularly prone.