I couldn’t help it. I laughed embarassedly at sonsengnim when he said “Ok, so explain to them, in detail, the difference between ‘chest,’ ‘bust,’ ‘breast,’ and ‘bosom.'”
So I scoffed during the conference when some people raised objections to teaching a lesson about celebrity boyfriends because it is heteronormative. Korea is heteronormative. Minus the handful of famous transgendered celebrities who are, for some reason, ok. Maybe there’s only that one guy, er, girl. What’s the point?
But when sonsengnim started going off in Korean about measurements — bust, waist, hip, throwing out numbers, even — I began to feel uncomfortable. Body image in Korea is huge –huge– thinness is idolized and plastic surgery is common with Koreans aspiring to a Western standard of beauty –doubly impossible. I don’t want to go into detail about boobs. They don’t have them yet, they shouldn’t be worried about them yet, or ever.
Tangent: Koreans don’t seem to know how to look at me. The kid at the stuff-booth at the film festival tried very hard to discourage me from buying a small t-shirt. I bought two; one is a gift, I told him, and he wanted to know which, the large or the small, was the gift, as though hoping that would explain my insistance on purchasing the small. Now, the small is bigger than the shirt I had on that day and it is bigger than most of of the shirts that I wear on a daily basis.
But it’s not, I don’t think, that they think that I am fat. I get comments ranging from general beauty to explicitly telling me I look thin to asking how I stay so thin if I do not worry about what I eat. The logic seems to be: premise –Korean women are very small, observation –the foreigner is larger than Korean women, conclusion –the foreigner must not be able to wear the smallest size t-shirt.
So I always make it a point not to be shy about my weight. If they think that I am beautiful, then I would like to point out that beauty can come with 65 kilos. Ok, 66 now. I’m telling myself at least half is muscle gain. Or maybe my bustline forgives the squishy midriff. End tangent.
So if I give my students the words to articulate the inadequacy of their bustlines in English, I’m not creating the obsession, only translating what they do in their own language. But then my class becomes one more instance in which they are reminded of what their bodies ought to and may not be. The importance of not being part of that is not something I think I can explain to sonsengim, who will ask me in front of everyone, to tell them, in detail, what is a bosom? Just thinking the word “bosom” makes me giggle.
And worse, I just realized, when I had them draw a monster yesterday (it was a listening exercise — the monster has x number of eyes, mouths, arms, etc) I made the monster fat. I didn’t say fat, but making it up as I went along, having obviously internalized the patriarchy –fat is monstrous– I said “big waist” and “big bust.” We didn’t have time today for that part of the lesson because I took too long yelling at them for talking, but next time the monster will be a skinny bitch.
Michael Hurt, coincidentally, recently wrote about body image in Korea on his blog. He’s more experienced and articulate than I am.
I don’t know what to do about the talking. As a matter of principle, I don’t want to tell my students to shut up, but it is a phrase they know and “please be quiet” gets me nowhere.