|Model Kim Gee-yang checks her appearance in a mirror during a photo shoot for the spring edition of 66100, a plus-size lifestyle magazine launched last summer. / Korea Times photos by Choi Won-suk
By Kim Bo-eun
Kim Gee-yang was ensconced in a puffy wedding dress for a recent photo shoot in Hannam-dong, Seoul, looking completely at ease and yet totally immersed in the moment.
The 29-year-old was comfortable in her own skin, despite not having a perfect complexion, or stick-thin arms and razor-sharp collarbones like many other models. Wearing the shoulder-bearing wedding dress, she looked positively radiant.
The shoot was for the spring edition of 66100, a plus-size lifestyle magazine that Kim founded last summer. The purpose of the shoot, and of the magazine, is to show that true beauty comes in all shapes and sizes a concept that may be a tough sell in appearance-obsessed Korea.
Kim says that weddings are another chance for women to be beautiful, no matter what size they are.
“Korean brides-to-be come under so much pressure to lose weight and look thin for the photo shoot and ceremony. I wanted to send the message that you can be plus-size and still look beautiful in a wedding dress,” Kim said in an interview that followed the shoot.
|Kim makes her way out of a makeup room during a photo shoot.
“It’s not like I oppose the idea of wanting to be thinner or more beautiful,” said Kim, whose measurements are 39.5-32-39. “But I don’t support the idea of people losing weight or getting plastic surgery to become like someone else.”
Up until high school, Kim had what she considered at the time an “average figure.” But she started gaining weight when she moved away from her parents and entered Woosong University in Daejeon. Majoring in food service management, she says she gained weight while taking cooking classes.
After college she began working, but was fired soon after. During the stressful process, her weight shot up to 70 kilograms from her previous 54 kilograms.
In 2010, Kim was struggling to figure out what to do with her life when she came across a recruitment notice for the reality show “Korea’s Next Top Model.”
Although this was after she gained weight, she met the only specified requirement ― a height of 165 or above ― and went for it. Kim was eliminated in the second stage, but she had discovered her passion for modeling.
When she learned of the existence of plus-size modeling, she sent her profile to agencies in the United States and Europe and was eventually called to audition for the 2010 Full Figured Fashion Week in Los Angeles; and debuted on the runway.
Kim still weighs 70 kilograms but says she looks and feels entirely different. She attributes this partly to a more toned figure due to her modeling activities, but more so because of an inner transformation.
“I realized that I had spent my most beautiful years ― in my mid-twenties ― not knowing that I was beautiful,” she said.
“People say, ‘You’ll be so much prettier if you lose weight,’ but I realized that I didn’t have to wait until I became slimmer. I could choose to be pretty today.”
|Kim poses as a photographer takes her picture.
Being plus-size in Korea
Given Korea’s reputation as a country obsessed with appearance, views toward Kim haven’t all been positive.
“There are a lot of hateful comments online,” Kim says. Asked if she ever feels an urge to lose weight because of such comments, however, she said she is now past that stage.
On the other hand, she has also received feedback from fellow plus-sized women in Korea who thanked her for making them realize it was okay to be bigger than others.
While Korea is hardly alone when it comes to a fixation on appearance, some scholars believe it is intensified here due to an ultracompetitive society.
Koreans say there is enormous pressure to marry at a young age and to a partner of high standing, making a person’s looks of utmost importance. Appearance is also important on the job market.
Kim says plus-sized people are a minority in Korea and subject to inconveniences. Most domestic apparel brands at department stores do not have sizes that fit people like Kim. Even foreign brands, which tend to offer a wider range of sizes, have begun reducing stocks for bigger sizes, as the majority of sales come from smaller ones, according to Kim.
“The thing is, people who wear smaller sizes can always opt for a larger size if their size is out of stock, but people like us can’t do that,” she said.
Still, Kim says she’s comfortable enough in her own skin that she doesn’t feel the need to lose weight.
Living as a plus-size person in Korea “is inconvenient, but that doesn’t make me unhappy,” Kim said.
A better future
Kim is not affiliated with an agency or company. Much of what she does, from modeling to publishing the magazine, is done at her own expense.
She recalls spending nearly 10 million won ($9,200) to travel to the United States for modeling jobs.
It occurred to Kim that she could be spending the same money in a way that benefitted a much larger pool of people, prompting her to launch 66100.
The title of the magazine represents the people who are on the border line of becoming marginalized, according to Kim.
The first two numbers in the sequence represent the women who fit into a Korean size 66, the equivalent of a U.S. size six. Korean sizes for women range from 44 to 77, and Kim says those who wear size 66 feel threatened because they are close the largest size.
The final three numbers represent men who wear size 100 clothes, who Kim says may also feel they are approaching too large of a size.
The magazine is beginning to turn heads. Kim says she is now receiving funding from a number of city-funded projects. The magazine is available at bookstores offering independent publications.
Kim says her next step is to create an online shop for plus-size apparel by bringing in brand-labeled products. Ultimately, Kim hopes to make a web portal for plus-sized people.
Korean society and its uniform standard of beauty “is not going to change all of a sudden, but I will go on with my endeavors until the country becomes more receptive of diversity,” she said.