When you want to be body-positive but are a natural pessimist living in Korea

I am not, nor have I ever been a healthy person.

I hate exercise, all of my hobbies are sedentary ones, my favourite food group is beige, I love drinking and until a few years ago I loved smoking too. The phrase ‘clean-eating’ irks me for all the shade it implies and I am extremely suspicious of cleansing and detoxing. I have flirted with these things, and they mainly cause me to write maudlin diary entries and be mean to people I love.

The thinnest I have ever been was the result of a three-month starvation diet, a strange patch in my life where I went a bit mental and stopped wearing makeup or using a hair-dryer, and carried around lucky words on a piece of paper tucked in a locket round my neck.

It took an awful lot of effort to look as strange as I clearly did, and it didn’t last because it was extremely fucking boring, and I was miserable.

I still tussle with my own body-image. I always have done, and I don’t think I’ll ever be truly body-positive. It’s not in my nature to approve of myself; I can look at a glorious fat bird dressed with exquisite style and panache, radiating happiness and confidence, and I can feel a swell of happiness and confidence for her, but it never translates to myself. I don’t have the money to spend on amazing clothes, I don’t have nice thick hair and a radiant complexion, and I don’t own any brightly coloured handbags.

When I came to Korea I was sort of excited that I might lose weight. I kept hearing anecdotes about people who did, people who came to Korea bred on a diet of pizza-cheese and roast dinners, and for whom the weight fell off due to the relatively healthy Korean diet inflicted  offered through school lunches, and having to walk everywhere because of having no car and not understanding how the buses work.

All I can say is, those people must have literally made no effort to learn Korean whatsoever because all you need is a mobile phone and a few basic words that are essentially accented English, and you’re only ever one ‘large-y -cheejuh peejuh’ away from the fast food of your dreams in Korea.

I’d never ordered fried chicken delivery at 1am before I came to Korea. The notion of ‘chicken and beer’ had never even crossed my mind in England, raised as I was to think that McDonalds gives you heartburn, along with a vague suspicion of anything American. The only time we ever really ate McDonalds was at the channel tunnel in the Europark before getting on the train to France, and my mum always seemed quite cross about it.

I was raised on ‘proper’ food, such as sausage and chips, shepherds pie, steak and kidney pie, in fact any kind of pie you can imagine, as long as it was served with some kind of potato side. You know, for the much needed bulk that is so often absent in PIES.

And yet, even though I always ate heartily, something about coming to Korea and having free reign to get drunk and call for a pizza with my friends every Friday was sensational. Where I lived in England it used to be extremely rare that ANY company would want to deliver, because we lived in the middle of nowhere. Imagine then moving to a country where McDonalds has 24 hour home delivery – they call it McDelivery, if it aint broke, etc – and you can see why I might have cultivated a problem.

In the beginning I did lose a bit of weight; because I was lonely and homesick, the food in the supermarket was strange, I didn’t have an oven and I wasn’t a good cook anyway.

Then things changed of course, I met my boyfriend and I wanted to impress him so I learned how to cook a little; and then we would stay in bed all weekend and order food; and he introduced me to the Friday night ritual of chicken and beer which remains my favourite dinner of all time; and eventually, I got an oven. It was a miniature toaster oven with one little rack, and manufacturing a roast dinner with it  would take me all afternoon, but by god it was worth it.

The trouble is, you have excellent access to all the delicious food of your dreams, and yet you are living in a country that is OBSESSED with female physical appearance, where every woman is a foot shorter and several hands slimmer (horse terminology? What? I don’t know) than you, and every time you get on the subway you see an advert for plastic surgery staring you in your imperfect face. What might have been a mild concern that you should do a bit of jogging every now and then because you’re worried about being heart-healthy, turns into an insidious paranoia and preoccupation with size, shape and space that you take up.

I sometimes feel embarrassed on a bus or a train when someone pushes past me. It must be because I’m so much bigger, I think. I stick out far too much. I would admire clothes from shop-windows, but walk sadly by because I knew that if I entered the store there was a good chance I’d be hurried out by the nervous staff, worried that I wanted to try something on and stretch their merchandise beyond recognition.

My mother-in-law, who I love dearly, is constantly offering me unsolicited diet tips and advice, but I haven’t got any slimmer, all that’s happened is that I don’t really enjoy eating in her presence. People might be horrified by that and leap to judge her, but she’s a Korean woman in her fifties, this is the culture and pressure under which she was raised herself. Being the youngest of 8 children in a poor family without access to complete education meant that, for her and for many women like her, life was about being pretty and slim so that you could marry well.

My own strange response any time she talks about the future daughters I may have, is to insist blithely that they will be plain and ordinary but hopefully die-hard hilarious. Not because I think it’s true or important to even think about, but because I am already guarding my unborn, possible future daughters against this culture that will set it’s beady eye at their face and body and overlook their heart and humour.

I do worry about the kind of example I will set for my children one day, that my general disappointment with the way I look will rub off on them, and so every few months I dust off my trainers and go running, or cut out wine and just eat chicken breasts for a solid four weeks. But then I feel guilty about all the little chickens who’ve had to die to supplement my lazy, low-carb diet and I console myself by purchasing a baguette and eating the whole thing.

I read body-positive essays and follow plus-size fashion bloggers the same way that other people might follow Cara Delevingne. I’m technically straight size, they link to products I won’t or can’t purchase and some of their looks would never work on me.But I read it for their joy, hoping that I’ll be able to absorb some of their relaxed happiness and stop giving so much of a fuck. And yet every time a ridiculous new health fad comes around, I will roll my eyes, and scoff at it, and then try it anyway before giving up, caught between wanting to take up less space and railing against the idea that the space is finite, when I know that isn’t.

It’s a work in progress.



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