Moving to Korea When You're Insecure About Your Body
My first experience with Korea was the summer of 2012. I was a junior in college and regardless of the fact that I was a very healthy weight, I was painfully obsessed with my body’s shape and size.
Being insecure about your body causes you to do things that only others suffering the same self hate could understand. Looking at every pair of thighs on the street comparing their size to mine, not even bothering to browse the sleeveless section in stores because I know I’d never show my fat upper arms, and the like. I was born chubby and while my body grew and changed shape, I held on to the image of me being one of the larger girls in elementary school and carried that distorted self image with me into my 20s. I knew I was being irrational, but does that ever stop anyone?
My insecurities didn’t stop me from doing what I loved, and I didn’t think about it all the time, but it was certainly there in the back of my mind showing up to ruin my day. So when I booked my tickets to Seoul for study abroad in 2012, I didn’t give too much thought to the fact that I was going to a country with some of the harshest beauty standards for women on earth.
While I was prepared to ignore my insecurities to the best of my ability while in Korea, I didn’t prepare for the unique twist living in a foreign country would throw on my body image. I went to Korea not speaking any of the language other than absolute basics and I was on edge with nearly everything I did because I didn’t want to do something culturally insensitive and come off as rude.
That pressure sparked my insecurities even more. Now when girls were giggling near me and I made eye contact with one of them, I was convinced that they were laughing at the chubby foreigner. If I had understood Korea though, I’d have realized they were probably laughing at a text message. When I got more proficient in Korean, however, it actually made things worse. I was overconfident in my listening abilities and I would mistake words that sounded similar to ‘foreigner’ or ‘foreign country’ all the time and assume they were talking about me.
That being said, my year in Seoul was the absolute best time of my life. I made lifelong friends, went on the wildest adventures, and did things that I had literally dreamed of for years. My insecurities didn’t stop me from doing any of that and didn’t taint any of my memories. Of course there were moments when I felt like crap, but I had those in America too! I made it all the way to Korea, there was no way I was going to sit in my room and mope because of feelings that have been with me since elementary school.
Just as a side I’d like to point out that as a non-Asian foreigner, especially as a white foreigner, the pressure to fit into these beauty standards don’t really apply to me. In Korea, foreign curvaceous women like Beyonce can be praised, but if a Korean celebrity were to have that body shape, she’d be pressured to lose weight. Luckily this mindset has already seen a lot of change since when I first arrived here, but the concept that underweight = beautiful is still strong.
Fast forward to the present, when I am now comfortable with my body and with the Korean language. I feel like Seoul is my home and not some new mystery that I don’t quite understand.
With this mindset, I look at the situations that made me uncomfortable in the beginning: people giggling and looking at me, overhearing people talking about foreigners or English, having strangers stare, etc - these were all simply my insecurities reflecting back on myself. Now that I am comfortable, if I hear people giggling I assume something funny is happening. I don’t “hear” people talking about me and if they do talk about English or foreigners within ear shot, I know its either a coincidence or they saw me and it reminded them of something they had wanted to say about either of those topics.
When I have my bad days, because we all do, I notice my mind starting up those tendencies again. I worry about what other people are thinking of me when in reality no one is even looking at me. It isn’t until I snap out of it that I can see how silly I was being. How our minds play tricks on us and we can’t escape it until we are able to step out of that mindset and see beyond the world your insecurities made.
If I can offer you any advice as someone who suffered, and still suffers on occasion, from severe negative body image, just know that it will be tough. It will take time for you to adjust and you will have days when you feel gross. What I suggest is, along with finding good friends, try to find comfortable spaces you can return to and gain confidence in, like a cafe where eventually the baristas might remember you or at least you’ll be confident and maybe even feel like you belong. Then expand those spaces. Find more of them, collect them, make Seoul your home.
And most importantly, get out of your own head. Know that the harsh words or stares you might feel are products of your imagination, your paranoia. They are your insecurities reflecting back to you. I have lived here for 5 years now and can tell you that I have never heard anyone say something outright negative about my physical appearance. I’ve heard people say ‘wow there’s a lot of foreigners here’ but never ‘foreigners are so fat’ or ‘look at that dumb foreigner’ hahah even imagining it sounds so silly to me now! *
So please, even though there will be times when you won’t believe me, know that people are not talking about you. Don’t let your insecurities take over and ruin an opportunity to visit or live in Korea if that is what you really want.
It will take time, but you will find comfort in yourself one day too. You will look back at all the crazy things our minds made us think or do and wish you could hug your former self and say - get out of your head! Enjoy Korea!
*you might experience people close to you talking about your appearance which I think is a whole ‘nother topic. Friends and coworkers, if they are Korean, will be much more blunt about appearance changes than in America. Talking about pimples or weight gain/loss or looking tired is natural and isn’t meant to be malicious (though of course there will be rude people in any culture) it is meant to show that they are concerned for you as skin and weight are linked to stress or illness and they’re just checking up on you :) And of course, everyone’s experience is different so please don’t take my experience as the only possible one.
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