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How Korean and American Expectations Shaped My Relationship with My Body

And the most self-loving act you can commit.
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Hello! My name is Minna (pronounced ME-na), and I'm a wellness entrepreneur, coach, and content creator (@livingminnaly). I live in Brooklyn, NY with my boyfriend and our nonstop shedding potato of a corgi puppy. I have the odd, but useful, ability to level anything perfectly with my eyes and can tell the difference in colors just a pantone shade apart. I nerd out over good coffee, sustainability hacks, behavioral psychology, travel (I actually love airports), politics, film photography, learning about agriculture... is this sounding like a dating profile yet? I'm excited to be here and hope you enjoy the piece I've shared below. 

Trigger Warning: This discusses eating disorders in detail.

I still vividly remember being at my brother's wedding, scooping up food at the buffet table next to my grandma. I was making my way through the line when my grandma suddenly poked me in my back and said, in Korean, "It's time to start paying attention to controlling what you eat. You're starting to get bigger and women must learn to control their figures." My eyes scanned over my visible chest bones and moved onto my arms that never had much definition, even as an athlete, and I vowed to work on my discipline.

I was pre-pubescent, maybe 70 pounds, and a competitive figure skater. I was also 11 years old.

What was meant by my grandmother as a casual comment by Korean standards, ended up leaving a mark that the physical poke could not. That bruise acted as the breeding grounds for the eating disorder that would eventually consume my life and body for over a decade.

The unrestrained commentary on physical appearance, particularly towards a child, may seem inconceivably rude or inappropriate to a lot of Americans. But growing up as a Korean girl, it wasn’t uncommon to hear casual remarks on my body and physical appearance uninhibitedly fly out of the mouths of the elders in my family, or even business acquaintances of my father. While Americans certainly have their own beauty ideals that are valued as a society, those of East Asian culture, and especially in Korea, differ from America’s—not only in level of importance and value, but also expectation to mold to those ideals. To give some perspective, South Korea has the highest rate of cosmetic surgeries in the world and approximately one out of three women between the ages of 19 to 29 have had some form of a cosmetic surgical procedure done, according to this Korean Gallup poll. Too many Korean women I know can empathize with the experience of their mothers or grandmothers unpredictably oscillating between, “You look too skinny, eat more!” and “Stop eating, you’re getting fat!”

Minna Skating

This dysfunctional idealism that was culturally rooted in me would not be the only obstacle in my relationship with my body and self-worth. Not only was I a serious athlete in an elite sport that demanded physical perfection and precision within decimals registered on the scale, but I was also a Korean child growing up in extremely white parts of America during my childhood and formative years. For any child or teenager, the desire to feel like you belong is strong; for a child of immigrants who doesn’t look like anyone else around, that desire for conformity is nearly insuppressible.

The movies I watched had thin, blonde-haired, blue-eyed white women as the desirable heroines who were chased after by the boys. On the rare occasion that an Asian character was featured, it was always the dorky best friend who was probably good at math. I’d thumb through teen magazines and issues of Cosmo that I snuck behind my mother’s back, and see tall, super-tanned white models wearing pants my legs were about six inches too short for staring back at me; usually alongside eye makeup tutorials meant for eyes that looked nothing like mine. The neighborhood I lived in had multiple girls named Elizabeth, Kelly, Ashley, Amy, and Sara. Their hair braided in picture-perfect ways that the wispy baby hairs that graced my hairline wouldn’t allow or that my silky Asian hair would quickly slip out of. Meanwhile, my Korean mother would frantically apply sunscreen on my face to keep it pale as it could be, despite the Florida sun. What my white friends called “moles,” Korean people called “beauty marks.” Petiteness is seen as beautiful in Korean culture, rather than tall, model-like frames admired by Americans. The mixed messages of two clashing cultures’ archetypes of beauty discombobulated my perception of what I thought I should be and strive for.

Thinness, though, was the one common ground between the two sets of ideals.

In both cultures, being beautiful and thin is very much problematically modeled as being a key to unlocking things that bring wholeness and belonging. It’s seen as the key to desirability, which lends well to finding a mate, or as the ticket to being able to wear trendy clothes (usually meant for one body type), which lends well to fitting in and being popular. It was only natural that I clung onto thinness to be my paragon of self-worth and my doorway to feeling confident and whole. The fact that it also supported my pursuits of being an Olympic athlete in figure skating was just the sugar-free icing on the fat-free cake.

What started out as opting for fat-free everything (hello, early 2000s nutrition) and skipping desserts under the guise of being dedicated to being better at my sport, contributed to a never-ending chase to achieve the ideal body. But it all eventually derailed into a grim quicksand of darkness; a freefall into an eating disorder that would go on for ten years, annotated by moments like being in a locker room, unwilling to swallow fruit I just chewed because it had too much sugar, or falling asleep from hyperglycemia because I binged on 3 bagels after restricting carbs for the day. There were more days than I’d like to remember that I would lay on the bathroom floor in tears, because I couldn’t make myself regurgitate. My inability to do so felt like a failure; a failure to have enough discipline and dedication to be an Olympian, a failure to mold my body into what I deemed acceptable, and a failure to live up to the impossible standard of fulfilling two conflicting but intermeshed sets of expectations.

The impossibility and binary nature of it never occurred to me. For too long of a decade, I continued this harmful cycle that convoluted my ability to feel genuine self-worth and identity outside of what my physical body looked like to the world. I willfully tried to ignore the fact that my eating disorder was born from cultural and societal norms, and it was a truth I’d only come to acknowledge after beginning to heal from it.

Korean culture is notorious for suppressing feelings, and communication around them. Healing from and even acknowledging the existence of an eating disorder was that much harder when I was surrounded by the message that all that beauty conformity and pressure to be thin is not only acceptable, but preferred. Mental health is also highly stigmatized in many Asian cultures, and people are hindered from accessing resources simply due to shame. If you’ve ever intimately known shame, you understand that it is the very catalyst that pain thrives on to keep you in a vicious, unbreakable cycle. But I eventually got sick and tired of being sick and tired, and sought out professional therapy specifically for my eating disorder and body dysmorphia.

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It took a lot of time, overcoming doubts, backsliding, and unlearning to get to where I am now. It is not a linear process, by any means. Acknowledging that I was no longer an elite athlete so my body shouldn’t be expected to look like the body of one, was a big first step. Then came other little benchmarks along the way, like running around in a bathing suit without feeling the gripping anxiety about what my thighs look like for the first time in my life, and not fitting into my usual pair of jeans and actually not caring. There were, and still are, plenty of occasions when I feel like I’ve arrived and fully healed, and then I’ll be confronted with an unaddressed fear or old habit that is badly in need of breaking. The main realization I’ve had, is that just like any other relationship in your life, your relationship with your body is meant to have ebbs and flows; there is no such thing as being fully healed or arriving at a finish line. Being in love with your body and being at peace with your body are two different things. My goal is not to be in love with my body 24/7, but rather to be at peace with my body through all the adaptations that are inevitable in life. My mindset today is still one that I actively have to cultivate and reinforce.

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I’ll save my heaping praise for therapy for another day, but the unlearning and exploration of the roots of my eating disorder through therapy truly saved my life. Loving yourself, building confidence in who you are (not what you are), and realizing your worth outside of what society often tries to tell us is not just important. It’s the ultimate ticket to mental freedom. The most self-loving act you can commit is to continue reminding yourself that conformity to arbitrary expectations set by others isn’t the key to wholeness—acceptance is.

There are companies that are quite literally built on exploiting our insecurities and fractured relationships with our appearances, but I’m thankful that there is now a strong push for more diversity of sizes, skin colors, and types of bodies in the media and more representation in the beauty and fashion industries. Perhaps I wouldn’t have struggled for so long if I saw more bodies and faces that looked like mine represented in valued, ubiquitous spaces. But that is why I continue to do the work I do, so that one day a little Korean girl somewhere in America sees a body and face like hers on a global brand’s ad and doesn’t think twice about it because that’s the new norm.

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