Sizing up society
November 10, 2006
YouJeong Jeong is comfortable with who she is and with what she is not: fat.At 5 feet 6 inches, the Colorado Rocky Mountain School senior is a size 10. That’s par for the course for women in the United States – models excepted – but in her home country, Korea, she feels like a giant.”I walk down the street, and people stare at me,” said YouJeong, who has trouble finding the right-sized clothes at home without going to a specialty store.In her quest to be seen as normal, YouJeong became somewhat of a celebrity in Korea. This summer, after making a casual web posting contradicting the cultural norm that women should be a size four, she became the subject of national media attention.
YouJeong is inquisitive in her studies, loves her school and her classmates, and relishes the encouragement her teachers give her. She’s a vegetarian who sings, hikes, climbs and telemarks.”I feel really healthy. I feel fit,” she said. “I am not fat.”But in Korea, people tell her she’s too big.”It’s really rude to comment on somebody’s look in American culture,” she said. “[But] in my culture, my friends and my family and my relations don’t feel uncomfortable telling me I’m fat.”She’s not as bothered by the comments as American girls might be. But while at home in Korea this summer, YouJeong’s simmering frustrations boiled over after one such conversation with her mother, and she decided to say something about it.But instead of responding to her mother, she made her case on a Korean website where readers can blog about issues they think need attention.Her comments spurred a flurry of responses in a country where, she said, “talking about something that goes against the majority is taboo.” She was surprised by the number of women who were glad she’d broached a forbidden subject of unrealistic weight expectations.She was equally alarmed by the number of men who reinforced the misconception that Korean women should be tiny. A lot of them, she said, contended that no matter what the variation in heights, all Korean women should wear the same size.”I was really surprised by how men were really ignorant about the issue,” she said. “They automatically think if women are larger than a size four, they are outsiders and should be shunned.”The height misperception is a serious problem in a country where successive generations are getting taller, a trend YouJeong attributes to the “Westernization” of Korean diets.The day after YouJeong posted the blog, a Korean newspaper reporter called her to write a story about the posting. A Page 1 story was published in the online version of the paper the following day. After that, TV stations began to call, and YouJeong found herself somewhat of a celebrity.
“I didn’t expect it to be that big,” she said. “So many people were angry about it and commenting about it on the website.”YouJeong said the real problem isn’t the growing height. It’s the Korean culture of conformity.”Korean culture really tends to cling to what other people are,” she said. “They all want to be the same.”In fact, the pressure to be the same in school, not in size, was the driving force behind YouJeong’s decision to pursue an education in the United States.When she was 10, YouJeong spent a month as an exchange student in Denver. She was so impressed by the experience that she began asking her parents to let her attend school in the U.S.Her parents rebuffed her requests, though, and continued to push her in her studies at home. She also studied with an English-speaking tutor, a fairly common practice in Korea, she said.But she never believed she would go to high school in Korea. By her freshman year, when her parents continued to deny her pleas to come to the U.S., YouJeong decided to give the Korean system her best effort leading up to midterm exams.”I’d never studied like that before. I began preparing … a month before it started,” she said. “And when I took the midterm, the result was disaster.”But rather than doubt herself, YouJeong saw the failure as proof she would never flourish in the Korean system, and she redoubled her efforts with her parents, this time with a different approach: She didn’t talk to them for a month.
It worked. Her parents relented, and YouJeong was accepted at high schools in Maine and Colorado. She said that after talking to alumni where she was accepted, the students from the schools in Maine appeared nonplused by their alma maters.But when she spoke to a CRMS alum, also a Korean, he “raved about the school, the teachers, the curriculum and the students.”She soon enrolled as a sophomore at the Carbondale school, and she’s been there ever since.”In Korean schools, I never got to talk about anything in class or express my opinions,” she said. “Teachers got mad at me for asking questions.”She found something totally different in the United States.”Here, teachers like it when you ask questions. They appreciate my answers and my input,” she said. “I never had that in Korea. … It’s just great to be able to say what I want to say.”YouJeong doesn’t feel like an outcast in American society the way she did in Korea – for her ideas or her height.Several weeks ago, she read an article that said clothing manufacturers who once only produced sizes up to five and six are beginning to produce sizes seven and eight.Perhaps they’re listening after all.Abigail Eagye’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.orgYouJeong Jeong’s essay follows:
This is ridiculous! I am not fat!I stood up with rage and started to walk around vigorously. Honey, can you still say that when there is nothing fits you at the mall?Mom! They only have up until size six! Its ridiculous! Im too tall for size sixYou do have some meat on your boneGees! Im 5 feet, 6 inches and 140 pounds! I am not fat!My voice started to quiver, but mom did not seem to care. It seemed like I was not her daughter anymore just because I was bigger than normal Asian women. It did not matter that I was really not overweight; all that mattered to mom was that I did not look normal. Normal. But whats normal anyways?I went back to my room and stared at myself in the mirror. All the sudden, I hated myself. I used to see a beautiful, self-confident teenage girl; however, all I saw was a fat blob of skin that could not buy any clothes because nothing fit. Why? Why does mom make me feel like I am wrong by feeling good about myself? And why do I give in to that? Tears were falling like an uncontrollable faucet, but I did not want to cry out loud. I was strong. I would not let these people make me feel hopeless.Honey, come over here for a second. Quickly!It was probably another method of dieting or something. My footsteps toward fathers library were not very pleasant. As I stood right next to my father staring at the computer screen, my whole body froze immediately.What is going on? Why are you on the first page of HanKyoRae Daily website?There was a full picture of me with a headline, I am So Much More Than Size 4. Oh my God.About three days before, I had posted a blog on my website about what I had to go through about how I looked and how much I weighed. I insisted Korean society was trying to standardize the image of women into a 5-feet-tall, 80-pound Barbie doll and explained how I refused to succumb to that idea. That day, a newspaper reporter e-mailed me and asked if she could interview me about that blog. Thinking it was just small interest in a cute high school girl who was daring to change the world, I had the interview, and then I became the biggest news on the Internet.As I stood there numb, listening to my father reading the article out loud, I felt my head burning. I was not daring to change the world, I was changing the world. The article reiterated what I said in the interview: Even though women who were size 4 were an extreme minority, the media was exaggerated as if women above size 4 were overweight and abnormal, disregarding their height or any other circumstances. As my father was patting me on my shoulder to congratulate me, my phone rang. Still not knowing if I was dreaming or not, I answered the phone.Hi, Miss Jeong. We are calling from the Korean Broadcasting System TV show called Morning of the World. We read the article about you and we would love to have you come talk on our show.I could not answer. No, I did not know what to say. KBS was the major broadcasting system in Korea and Morning of the World was a national TV show. Oh my God.After hanging up the phone mumbling that I would talk to them, my phone rang again. It was Munhwa Broadcasting Company (which is another major broadcasting system) asking if they could visit me to make a five-minute documentary. And then it was Seoul Broadcasting System asking the same thing. I kept telling them that I did not live in Seoul, so it would be impossible for me to go visit them for the show. It did not work, though. They were too enthusiastic about this matter; they all said they would come down to my house or whatever it took to film me.It was a weird thing to watch myself on TV. I walked around the street and some people asked me if I was that girl who was protesting. When I verified their inquiry, they told me they were very impressed. Friends and relatives called to tell me how proud they were. Broadcasting companies and newspaper reporters kept calling me. Even more, after doing a couple of radio shows for Seoul Broadcasting System, they asked me if I could be a correspondent in America for them. They liked how I valued diversity and how well I could explain my point of view. I accepted their offer gladly.The reaction to my opposition was not always positive. I did get some e-mails telling me that I was a big blob of fat and that if I could not wear size 4, it was my fault because I was lazy and ate too much junk food. Someone even said that it was abnormal to be 5 feet 6 inches and weigh 140 pounds and that all the women should weigh less than 100 pounds regardless of their heights. When I received those kinds of e-mails the first time, I felt like calling them close-minded jerks; however, I found it was more important to try to educate them and to open their eyes rather than to seek revenge for my hurt feelings. Many people want to be famous and want others to recognize them. Both intentionally and unintentionally, I experienced that fame over the summer. Looking back, I felt very powerful being able to express my ideas and provoking the controversy throughout the country. My mom still asks me obnoxious questions about my weight; it does not bother me anymore. I feel good about myself and that is all that matters. Besides, I have the whole Korean media backing me up. Why should I be afraid?