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  • Writer's pictureMadeline Kim

Body positivity in South Korea

It’s no secret that South Korea imposes some intense beauty standards. The plastic surgery industry has been booming, garnering the attention of Koreans and non-Koreans alike. Some K-pop fans have noticed that many of their thin idols have small bruises with the appearances of a mole on their legs, presumably from carboxy shots that are used to temporarily reduce fat by injecting carbon dioxide. Intense fad diets from popular idols such as the IU diet (named after the idol Lee Ji Eun, more popularly known as IU) encourage people to consume an unhealthily small amount to hit a certain figure.

The Miss Korea pageant has also not been safe from criticism. Plastic surgery has been credited for making the contestants virtually the same (no, they don’t all look alike because they’re Asian; this time, they genuinely do all look alike). It’s not hard to find why plastic surgery has gotten the blame; seeing before-and-after plastic surgery and makeup transformations show that the contestants don’t all look alike because the competition attracts a certain type of face; many of the women go through intense lengths to win the crown.

Just last month, the founder of Asian Boss, Stephen Park, interviewed the 2018 winner of the Miss Korea pageant, Kim Soo Min. He introduces the video by acknowledging that “any female weighing over 110 pounds, regardless of her height, is... considered to be chubby.” Kim entered the Miss Korea pageant her senior year of college at Dickinson College. She wanted a career in news media and wanted something to add to her resume, so she decided to enter just before the application deadline. “I wanted to do something new, something challenging... something fun,” she recalled. She didn’t have much pressure to win, so she remained charming and less nervous in personal interviews and on the stage. Although there’s no way that she could’ve been completely naive about the intensiveness of the beauty standards that would be imposed, I don’t think that she anticipated the intensity of the backlash. If she did, internet trolls would probably not have pushed her to temporarily deactivate her Instagram. Some comments were supportive, but an overwhelming number expressed sentiments like “she’s not pretty enough to represent Korea” or that “she’s too fat to be Miss Korea.”

To rate Kim’s physical health using perhaps one of the most arbitrary measurements of health — the body mass index (BMI) — she is 173 cm (5’8”). To fit in with the conventional mold of beauty, she would have to weigh in between 47 to 48 kg (104 to 106 lbs). This would put her at a BMI of 15.8 to 16.1. She currently is 58.9 kg (130 lbs), putting her at a 19.8 BMI. Putting those numbers into perspective, a healthy BMI range is between 18.5 to 25. Even on this scale, it is important to note that this is an inaccurate measurement of health. A BMI fails to take into consideration factors that go into one’s body weight to height ratio, categorizing perfectly healthy people as overweight or even obese. If the BMI was indicative of health, someone with Tom Cruise’s or Nicki Minaj’s figure would be overweight, and virtually any athlete like Shaquille O’Neal would be obese.

Kim wishes to “use her platform to redefine what it means to be beautiful and add more diversity to our beauty standards.” She wants to encourage more girls to challenge these standards whether it be through entering the pageant or just exuding confidence in their daily private lives. It’s unlikely that the public perception will budge in the foreseeable future, but it’s refreshing that a courageous woman sparked this dialogue in one of the most intense contexts possible.


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