by Angel Cruz
Fat women in Asian media are few and far between. When they are present, they are relegated to sidekick or comic roles, meant to support the lead skinny actors in their professional and romantic aspirations. The rare instances in which a fat woman takes the central role of a drama remain questionable and highlight the complications of body image and fat representation in various Asian countries. These complications range from full-on fatphobic character treatments to attempts at body positivity that never really manage to push against the status quo.
The Korean drama Birth of a Beauty is an excellent example of how this body shaming in Asia functions. Housewife Sa Geum Ran’s weight and appearance allow everyone around to dismiss her as a useless, ugly burden. Her kind nature and optimistic personality aren’t just ignored–they’re non-existent to her husband and his family. Fulfilling her role as a traditional Korean wife within a Confucian model, she cares for her in-laws for seven years in Korea, while her husband completes his education and training in the United States. She’s “thanked” for her efforts by the discovery of her husband’s affair with a TV announcer, and his desire for a divorce.
We see this story play out partly as a reality TV show that a mysterious woman named Sa Ra watches and cries over early in the first episode: Change, in which contestants compete to win a full-body cosmetic surgery. Sa Geum Ran had entered the show without success, but after an accident in which her husband tries to drive her off the road (without her knowledge) and she’s left for dead, Geum Ran is determined to be different. She begs Change’s surgeon Han Tae Hee to perform the surgery on her anyway, and he reluctantly agrees, turning her into slim, stylish Sa Ra.
Sa Ra’s shift in the drama from overweight and overlooked housewife to widely admired thin model and chef highlights how easily fat women are dismissed in Korean society.
People constantly comment on Sa Ra’s kindness and bubbly personality, praising her for being both beautiful and a good person–all traits that went unnoticed when Geum Ran exhibited them. Even “good” love interest Tae Hee finds it challenging to equate Geum Ran’s body with her personality, and the latter half of the drama plays up that conflict as he realizes he’s falling in love with her. He goes so far as to “hypnotize” himself into seeing Sa Ra as Geum Ran to avoid his interest in her, and he can’t hide the initial repulsion on his face when the hypnosis works. The drama seems to praise him for deigning to look past Geum Ran’s weight, as though it’s the most challenging thing he’s ever done.
Geum Ran’s story is not a new one in Asian dramas, but it might be one of the most extreme. It aired fairly recently, from 2014-2015, succeeding the film 200 Pounds Beauty (2006) in its subject matter of full-body surgery on fat women, and My Lovely Kim Sam Soon (2005) in the romantic drama genre. This phenomenon isn’t limited to South Korea either, as dramas in Japan (Seikin Bijin/Absolute Beauty), Taiwan (The Rose), and the Philippines have touched on the subject of fat women’s experiences without pushing further than makeovers deemed necessary for the fat main characters to change their lives.
We know that “girls tend to associate their self-worth with weight concerns, sexual attraction and body objectification,” as Ana R. Sepúlvia and María Calado reiterate in their study “Westernization: The Role of Mass Media on Body Image and Eating Disorders.” Women are surrounded by images of slim and petite models and actresses on a daily basis, against which their own bodies are measured and are ultimately found lacking. We are trained from an early age to connect our self-esteem to numbers on a scale, and girls in Asian countries are no exception. In “The Relationships among Perception of Body Image, a Desire for Thinness, and Dieting Behavior in Young Females in Japan,” the study found that 59.3% of their subjects considered themselves to be obese, despite the fact that these women were either underweight or at a normal weight according to body mass index. Many young Japanese women displayed a tendency to overestimate how much they actually weighed, and wanted to be skinnier, according to another study focusing on factors of body image among Japanese and Vietnamese teens.
Articles on Kpop idols’ diet regimes abound. In Malaysia and Singapore, women are encouraged to be slim and light-skinned. When Filipino actress Anne Curtis played a fat high school student in The Gifted, an interview she did with Eastern Kicks led to mocking of fat women as “unglamorous.” Take care of yourself so that you don’t become fat, girls are told, or your lives will be miserable and painful, and you will only have yourself to blame.
Many fat female leads in Asian dramas are brought low by their weight, like Geum Ran, and end up undergoing some form of physical change over the course of the drama, frequently in the form of cosmetic surgery.
In 2011, South Korea placed seventh in the International Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery’s worldwide survey, and the number of cosmetic surgeries performed in the country have only increased since then. The Washington Post wrote about the drastic downward shift in weight among Japanese women:
The trend is most pronounced among women in their 20s. A quarter-century ago, they were twice as likely to be thin as overweight; now they are four times more likely to be thin. For U.S. women of all ages, obesity rates have about doubled since 1980, rising from 17 percent to 35 percent.
While it might be easy to point to these statistics as proof of vanity (as we might in the West), it’s important to consider the deeply held focus on community and societal approval in many Asian countries, as opposed to the focus on individuality in North America and Europe. Children are raised understanding that their actions are a reflection on how they have been raised, and parents are responsible for the mistakes of their children. It isn’t rare to see people insisting on placing the blame on their own decisions for something that has gone “wrong,” including the care and upkeep of one’s body. We hear a variation of this message in Western society, with fat people shamed for not being disciplined enough to stop eating or start going to the gym or whatever other advice is thrown at them without consideration.
The implication in Japan and South Korea and the Philippines and so on is that it isn’t just the individual who is “inconvenienced” by their weight–it’s society itself.
Asians and Asian-Americans alike have pointed out the pressure to be slim and petite, matching the stereotypical image of an Asian girl. In Taiwanese drama, The Rose, Zheng Bai He is dumped by her boyfriend for being fat and ugly, when really, the actress can’t be more than a petite 100 pounds. The weight and appearance of Asian women are commented on, analyzed, turned into dinner conversation, put forward and accepted as the reason why they don’t have boyfriends/can’t get jobs/aren’t successful in life. Writer Angela Hui points out in “Being the Fat Girl in a Big Fat Asian Family”:
I used to dread big family gatherings for fear of being ridiculed, and in some ways I still dread them. The closest members of my family would look me up and down to examine me and tell me that I’d gained a couple of pounds and that I definitely need to eat less rice. The sad fact is I know I’m not alone in this story.
But those expectations are rarely, if ever, called out.
Change, the reality show that Geum Ran competes on, is based on real TV shows in South Korea, in which contestants vie to prove that their lives are hell on earth because of their weight or appearance. These contestants are convinced that plastic surgery can fix everything in their lives, and the show and its medical and production staff play up that belief further by bringing in family and friends who lament the distance that the contestant’s appearance has placed between them. Once they have received the surgery and fit in with society’s ideal of beauty, the contestants are welcomed back with tears and hugs, further cementing the idea that societal acceptance is equal to and cannot be obtained without this alignment.
As Joanna Elfving-Hwang explains in “Cosmetic Cosmetic Surgery and Embodying the Moral Self in South Korean Popular Makeover Culture”:
…in contemporary South Korean discourses of beauty, care of self and cosmetic surgery increasingly link notions of ‘correct’ or ‘appropriate’ appearance with performing adequately in society as a social subject.
Dramas like Birth of a Beauty play into the culturally acceptable belief that a fat person is not capable of interacting “properly” in society.
Geum Ran does not fit into the ideal appearance of a Korean woman, therefore she cannot possibly be a good person. The surgery that turns her into Sa Ra is not just a physical change, but a societal one as well. Even if Geum Ran later tells a friend that you just need “the self-confidence that you are beautiful as you are” and not plastic surgery, the message rings false, as her appearance has already been modified to fit into the standards set by her society. Geum Ran can say platitudes like that having received the acceptance she was trained to seek.
Likewise, the film 200 Pounds Beauty enforces the “correct” choice that its main character, Han Na, makes to have cosmetic surgery to become thin and a societally acceptable form of beautiful. People around her are now comfortable praising the sweet and loving personality she’s always had because she is no longer a fat woman. She is able to articulate her feelings and they are validated by the people around her because she has eliminated the “burden” of being a fat woman and not fitting into her community. There is no blame placed on the people, or community, who rejected and ignored her; rather the focus shifts to Han Na’s “improved” life, and how surgery was the miracle cure she needed to change everything.
The majority of Asian dramas and films with fat characters reinforce the idea that fatness is a problem that can be resolved through surgery or a makeover, without ever questioning why it’s considered a problem at all. They don’t question the pressure women feel to fit into a specific mold, but further solidify that mold by only granting happy endings to fat women who change their looks accordingly.
Interestingly enough, a drama aired in late 2015 that seems to question this assumed connection between idealized appearance and self-worth. Oh My Venus! features a protagonist who is confident, capable, beautiful, and yes, slightly overweight. Joo Eun used to be known as a Venus, a true beauty in her small town, but 15 years and law school have changed her. The changes are minimal, really: Joo Eun’s stomach is no longer a flat plane, her cheeks are a little fuller, and her arms are rounder. She’s a woman, in other words, who can’t be much bigger than a US size 6 or 8, but who is still seen as unbearably fat. She works late, enjoys candy and filling meals, chooses her clothes the way she wants to, but it’s also a very passive confidence that is challenged when her boyfriend breaks up with her after 15 years.
When she does decide to lose weight, it’s not because the people around her think less of her. It’s because she decides she wants to do it, and the only critic that matters is herself. The drama highlights this message early, within the first six episodes, and surprisingly they don’t backtrack. It’s also notable how the drama provides a reason for her weight gain–Joo Eun has hyperthyroidism, and her condition, not a number on a scale, motivates her to work towards staying healthy.
Joo-eun’s sense of self is the cornerstone of her story, and her ability to separate her weight and appearance from her self-worth, despite her entire society telling her otherwise, is admirable.
Is it possible to improve the narrative in dramas and other media in Asia? Yes, but first, fat women need to stop being presented as problems or disappointments to society. Oh My Venus seems to push that conversation forward, reinforcing Joo-eun’s abilities and self-confidence as her most admirable traits over how well she fits into Korean standards of beauty. Her kindness and compassion are never questioned. The drama opens the conversation to include women who have medical reasons for their weight fluctuations, without labeling anyone as “good” or “bad” fat people. That said, Joo-eun is nowhere near being obese like Han Na in 200 Pounds Beauty, and she too goes on a weight loss journey, so the message is still not as sharp as it could be.
Being fat is not a reflection on how your parents failed to teach you the right values, or how you are failing to be a decent, law-abiding human being. Changing the conversation means calling out the storylines that participate in that shaming. If this debate on 200 Pounds Beauty is any indication, fatphobic narratives are incredibly easy for many people to accept at face value.
Fat women have their own stories, and these stories do not need to involve the physical change from fat to thin. Their fatness does not need to be set as a condition for representation, and fat women are perfectly capable of pursuing and obtaining a happy ending for themselves without the tacit approval of society.
Dramas are an excellent channel for introducing and strengthening that idea, by constantly and consistently reminding viewers that a woman can be any size and still be entitled to respect and consideration.
Angel Cruz is a writer, blogger, and boy band scholar. You can find her at Women Write About Comics for your books/manga/TV coverage. If straight-up book talk is more your style, Angel also writes for Book Riot.