On a Saturday night in Hongdae (the crowded neighborhood of Seoul perhaps best known for its raucous nightlife), English as a Second Language teacher Mary Ann Conlin stripped down to her bikini, placed a blindfold over her eyes, and held two markers in her hands. She stood behind a sign, written in both English and Korean, that asked passersby to draw a heart on her body if they supported self love. Now, this experiment isn't novel: Jae West was the first woman to make this statement about self acceptance in London, England, and soon after, Amy Pence-Brown stripped down in Boise, Idaho. However, it was the first time it was conducted in South Korea, a country with strict standards of beauty, especially when it comes to weight. Having just moved over to Seoul myself, I couldn't miss the chance to attend Conlin's demonstration.
"My experience as a full-bodied woman here in Korea has not been a positive one," Conlin tells me in an interview after the Sept. 19 event. She's lived in Korea for about four years, working as a teacher at different hagwons, or cram schools. "The first work environment that I was a part of, there was a lot of harassment about my weight," she explains. "I would have my manager tell me, 'Oh, you gained weight,' or poke my belly."
Though Conlin was prepared to experience those kinds of negative responses when embarking on this experiment, she received a generally positive reaction, showing that perhaps Korea's traditional views and restrictive beauty standards are starting to come into question.
Conlin had been thinking about body positivity for a while, mainly as part of her own journey to find self love but also through her role with Gather The Women South Korea. However, it wasn't until she saw Pence-Brown's video on Facebook that she felt a concrete call to action around this issue. At first, Conlin thought this experiment would be a great opportunity to "really change people’s thinking about their body image," as well as promote Gather The Women. She soon realized, though, that she needed to do this for herself as much as anyone else. "This event was born out of my need for my own healing and then once I heal, then I feel better. And then once I feel better, then more people are attracted into this space. That’s just natural."
"I’m feeling energized because I’m standing in my own power, showing my body, not feeling ashamed of it," Conlin adds. She went into the evening hoping that her energy would be felt by the other women who passed by her that night, Korean or not, and inspire them in the way that Pence-Brown inspired her.
That energy clearly tapped into something because within a minute of disrobing, a girl with bright blue hair approached Conlin and drew a heart. For most of the hour that she was standing there, Conlin was being written on by a stranger. "I rarely had those markers in my hands tonight!" she excitedly tells me. By the end, her body was covered with the hearts she requested as well as supportive comments in both English and Korean.
At no point did Conlin feel unsafe or harassed either, though she did get the sense that some of the younger men who drew on her may have done it as a dare from friends. However, there were no negative comments or inappropriate actions taken directly at her. If there were passersby with negative opinions of Conlin, her body, or her choice to stand there in a bikini, they kept those thoughts to themselves. "I’m impressed with people," she admits. "At least that restraint is a step up from verbal or physical violence, and then the next step is changing people’s minds."
It seemed that many of the Korean women who signed Conlin's body on Sept. 19 may have already had their minds changed about body positivity. One Korean woman who gave her name as Sarah tells me the ideal Korean woman is "skinny like a chopstick." However, she explains that the "ideal" isn't necessarily right. "Everyone is different, and we need to accept the difference. Korea, we grew up so fast but only the economic part... We need to learn more."
Yoon, a student at a nearby university, echoes the societal pressure to be thin. "Koreans, we are so sensitive about our bodies and being slim... We see [plus-size women] sometimes, but if you have a big body, you try to be slim and diet." She looked over at Conlin and adds, "But she has such a great body." I asked Yoon if she or anyone she knew would strip down to a bikini in the middle of a park, and she was quick to say no. The sight of a partially naked woman in such a public place was still a little shocking to her. "Maybe celebrity, like comedian. But not for us."
Another Korean woman named Soo-jin also felt that Conlin was a bit out of place, but not because of her size. "I think it’s a meaningful campaign," she says. "I think it might have been better if she did it with a Korean because she is, for us, still a foreigner. So we can think that she can do whatever she likes to do. That is a very good message, but she can do it because she’s not Korean."
Conlin was aware of the limitations of her role as a foreigner in Korea and admits that the point of this exercise was as much for her own self love as it was for anyone else's or changing anyone's minds. "That’s all I could do. I have a free space. I can ask people to come and see what I’m doing. You see my body [and] I love myself just the way I am."
She hopes that this expression of self acceptance and confidence, regardless of size, will stick with some of the people with whom she interacted. "All we’re doing is planting seeds," she continues. "But those plants need time to grow." Showing so publicly that it is possible to be plus size and still love yourself provides a meaningful example to women who might not otherwise have any plus size role models, regardless of their nationality.
"I’m perfectly imperfect," Conlin says. Pointing to all of the hearts and scribbles of love and support left by strangers that now covered her collarbone, she adds, "My body is awesome right now. I feel even more beautiful."
Images: Maxine Builder