Written by Sarah Carey, ETA ’12-13
I had just accepted the opportunity of a lifetime, but I was gnawed to the core with a sense of dread. One might expect anxiety at leaving my family and community behind to live in Korea for a year, or apprehension of teaching English to a classroom of foreign students. But my deepest fear was neither of these.
I was afraid of my size.
I was a college graduate who refused to watch shallow television shows that focused on fashion, dieting, and competitive weight loss. I was an expert at turning up my nose at the supermarket magazine racks as I purchased snack cakes. But in spite of my grocery store purchases, I secretly harbored a belief that I should have no bumps, no excess fat. In my mind, thinner women were the near-perfect, pretty paragons that others should strive to be.
My weight has been an ongoing struggle for years. In college, I tried to lose weight, but with little success. Knowing that I was unable to fit the perfect mold in the United States was hard, but in a foreign country with a penchant for plastic surgery and straightforward opinions? I was terrified of standing out like a nearly six-foot, 200-plus pound thumb.
After a month in Korea, I moved into my homestay. My host mother was petite, barely five feet tall in heels and I was an inch taller than my host father. Likewise, I noticed that my new siblings were bony and thin without a sign of excess fat. Upon walking into their home, I felt like I was taking up residence in a dollhouse, only I wasn’t doll-sized.
This fact was most evident at the family dinner table where my legs were not easily accommodated in the cramped space, and I often accidentally brushed someone with my elbow as we ate. With each bite of bulgogi, I felt sure my host family was comparing my portion sizes to their own and wondering when I would finish.
The embarrassment I felt did not end at the dinner table. Even the simple act of doing laundry felt like my shame was on public display. I worried about what my host mother thought as she hung my underwear and jeans out to dry. Next to my host sister’s thin, ribbon-like tights, my clothing must have looked like the sails on a Viking ship as they swayed in the island breeze. However, no one had made a single comment about my size or weight. In fact, both of my host parents remarked that I was very pretty. But I was still uncomfortable in my own skin.
My fear heightened when my host mother began insisting that I participate in a trademark Korean practice: visiting the sauna or jjimjilbang.
“It’s a public bath, Teacher. No clothes in front of everybody. Is that okay?” my host sister asked. Visions of perfectly toned and fit women filled my mind, as did my various bumps and imperfections, but I was determined not to let my fears drive me away from quality time with my host mother and host sister.
Eventually, the evening came for our fateful outing to the jjimjilbang. I climbed into the family car, thinking of the looming commitment I had just made. My stomach churned as I sat in the front passenger seat, watching the lights go by my window like an anxious blur. I wondered if it was too late to back out, even as we pulled into the parking lot.
After paying the fee to shower and bathe, we arrived at the dreaded dressing room. Women were peeling off their clothes as if it were perfectly natural to be naked in public. A few women even casually chatted in their bare bodies, seemingly unaware of the rampant nudity taking place around them. My family was no exception. My host mother and sister nonchalantly undressed and folded their clothes into neat piles before putting everything in their lockers. They had done this before.
I took a bit longer.
I had no way of knowing if I was doing this whole thing right. Maybe “public showering” meant “please keep some of your clothes on” when translated from Korean to English, but it didn’t.
With nothing but my toenails on, I walked quickly into the shower room, where dozens of other women were soaking and showering.
“Don’t make eye contact,” I thought to myself as I quietly tiptoed to one of the open spigots. “Maybe no one will notice you.”
To my dismay, a woman lounging quietly in the small, blue pool nearby immediately noticed me. The spotlight of the jjimjilbang was now on me, burning with nervous intensity. I waited for a reaction, a judgmental stare. Instead, the woman immediately turned and asked my host mother who I was. My host mother sat up straight in the pool and proudly responded as if I were her own daughter. She announced that I was an English teacher from the United States, Kentucky to be exact, who was living with them for a year. The woman then flashed me an approving smile before continuing lighthearted conversation with my host mother.
I felt a weight lifted, my anxiety washing down the drain below my feet. As I surveyed the room, I realized that all of the other women were busy swimming, viciously destroying dead skin cells with exfoliating pads or keeping their small children from splashing around in the relaxation pools. There were no comments like, “Hey, look at that rather large foreigner in our shower,” or awkward staring. It was just me alongside my host mother and host sister, and 30 other women going about their public bath routine. And, to my surprise, every woman that night, large and small, had bumps, folds and creases on her body. I was not alone in possessing what I once believed to be an imperfect body.
Sarah Carey is a 2012 – 2013 ETA at Seogwipo Girls’ Middle School in Seogwipo, Jeju Island.