I left all my bartending shirts in America. I knew that changing into a teacher meant a change of neckline as well. Then once I was in Korea, I was shocked at how much skin I would see on a daily basis. Not cleavage, but legs. I had thought miniskirts died in the ‘80s, but really, they just moved out of America.
In Korea, there seemed to be no such thing as too short when it came to skirts. However, women always covered their torsos. Women would even wear miniskirts to the gym. Pairing a miniskirt with a turtleneck was a common look. Another popular style for tiny Asian women was leggings with a super baggy t-shirt hanging to their knees. Nobody wanted to show off their boobs, but showing vaginas seemed perfectly acceptable.
My friend Claire had a boss who took photos of all the teachers so as to hang a brief biography of them on their classroom doors. Claire was looking at her bio as soon as they hung it. “I couldn’t figure out what shirt I was wearing, because it was a black shirt that came all the way up to my chin. And I didn’t think I owned a shirt like that,” she told me. “Then I figured out it had been this black scoop-necked shirt. But my boss colored in my chest black in the photo.” That naughty Claire with her sexy clavicles.
Korean girls with breasts wanted to lose weight. It seemed big breasts were very much undesired, whereas twig-like legs were hot. Bare legs were always showing through the winter, but they were out even more in the summer. I even started noticing the occasional butt pads on Korean women. Sometimes they wouldn’t be noticeable, but other times a woman in a tight dress would be walking and her unmoving butt would have fabric creasing in at the top and where the legs began, as though to say, “This is my butt pad.”
Maybe it’s just me having had curves all my life, but stuffing my butt is the last thing I would ever think of doing when leaving my house.
Everything is smaller on Korean bodies. My feet, though an average size in America, were sasquatch-sized in Korea. Many foreigners couldn’t buy any shoes in Korea. Luckily, I could fit into the largest size sold, but almost all shoes sold in Korea were stilettos or wedges that gave women a four inch boost.
Skirts that stopped at (sometimes enhanced) butt cheek level and stick legs teetering on heels that would scare a stripper became a regular sight for me. I stopped doing double takes, even when passing one of these women on hiking trails. One night I slowed my pace while walking my evening trails to talk to an English-speaking Korean woman. I asked her if it was hard to walk in her heels. “No, no. It’s okay. These are only 5’s, so they’re okay for trails. 7’s or 10’s are too difficult on trails but they’re okay for wearing to go out.” I was confused about the numbers until I figured out she meant how many centimeters tall the stilettos were. So we walked on together, me in flip flops, her in 5 cm. tall stilettos.
I got so used to the body type of Korean women, that when I saw a poster with Philippine singers in short shorts, the women appeared fat. I looked hard at the picture, knowing my thought was irrational. But from the knee up, their legs went towards each other, creating thighs. I later saw the Philippines performing, and estimated them to wear size 3’s, but they really did look fat compared to the Korean’s with their stick figures.
After I saw Koreans naked I realized they do gain weight, just not in a western way. They tend to pooch out at the belly, but never grow a butt. And I know this because even after a few months in Korea, I’d seen countless naked women.
Although all locker rooms go hand in hand with nudity, Korean locker rooms are more nude than most. For Westerners, changing in a public place is usually done with as much modesty as a person can muster with undies clinging to their ankles. Most people tend to face their body to their locker, swimsuit or sweaty clothes come off, and fresh clothes are hastily put on. Nudity is a hiccup in locker room time.
Not in Korea.
In Korea, the majority of locker room time was naked time. Women walked around, clothes nowhere to be found, cleaning out their ears and talking to their friends. They’d lotion up their entire bodies, put on a face full of makeup, fix their hair for the day, and THEN decide to look for their underwear.
Men’s locker rooms were apparently the same. When my gay friend joined the gym, our buddy decided to let him learn of locker room etiquette on his own. Later on he was laughing about it. “I have never seen anything like that,” he said. “These grown men were like, running around and jumping on the benches in the nude. Even I don’t want to look at that.”
“Have you seen the guys blow drying their hair?” Another friend joined in. “They work on their head for a bit, and then go like this.” He positioned his hand as though he had an invisible hair dryer in it. He moved it around his head, and then shifted his pelvis out and moved his hand down, fake drying his pubes.
Pubic hair was scary in Korea. I’d heard the rumor from friends who dated Korean women that cutting pubic hair was seen as bad luck. Other people told me that shaving off pubes made a woman seem dirty or infertile in Korea. Most western boys didn’t like that about Asian women. However, as Korean women frequently are naked around the other women in their family, they can’t suddenly shave off their pubes without being busted for having a western boyfriend. I myself had been in enough locker rooms to see far too many naked Korean women. I can attest to the bushiness of their bushes just as they can attest to my dirty infertility.
Blythe, Tasmin and I started going swimming once a week. We had to face the changing room the first time we went to the pool together. I had come with my swimsuit already on, as I’m not a big fan of having my white ass facing out for these skinny-butted Asian women to see. Blythe and Tasmin had to put their swim suits on in the changing room.
Now, Blythe is a girl whose body hair is well maintained. In England, her lack of bush is normal. However, in a place where pubes are lucky, she probably seemed like a bad omen. As we locked our lockers, an old woman came over to Blythe and started sputtering a stream of Korean. Our blank faces communicated that we couldn’t understand her, so she started miming, making a scrubbing motion, pointing at Blythe, pointing at Blythe’s vagina, and then pointing to the shower. Her message came through. “She just told me to wash my vagina!” Blythe said in shock.
We walked away, shaking our heads, heading to the shower room and more nudity. I had never understood how women with a fuzzy bush could look smooth and shaved when they had swimsuits on. When we reached the showers, there was a woman inside shaving her bikini line. The rest of her pubes could be braided, but apparently a public shower was a good place to touch up her bikini line.
Although adjusting to another culture means diving into new customs and trying new things, I always knew I’d never completely adapt. No mini skirts or butt pads for me, thanks.
(written in 2010)