19 South Korean Women Get Real About Body Positivity

Earlier this summer, photographer Sunmin Lee visited two major destinations for vacationers and surfers in South Korea, Haeundae Beach and Songjeong Beach, in order to get a better idea of how local women view their bodies. During her conversations with nearly 20 beachgoers, she found that more and more South Korean women are starting to push back against the country's narrow standards of beauty.

The women Lee spoke with could easily recall specific remarks people made about their appearance. But an overwhelming number of them were quick to add that, regardless of how others judge their looks, what matters most to them is their health.

Lee tells us these women are part of a larger nationwide trend. Being "fit" and able to exercise is simply a greater priority than being skinny for Korean women these days. And Lee agrees: "A woman's body should not be for show," she says.

Ahead, meet the women Lee interviewed and learn more about how body image is changing in South Korea.

Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.

It's your body. It's your summer. Enjoy them both. Check out more #TakeBackTheBeach here.

Photographed by Sunmin Lee.
Ju Hyun Oh & Moon Jyung Noh

Ju: "A good thing I’ve heard is that, even though my body is small, I have a good figure. I appear firm and my skin is nice. That I’m…voluptuous (laughs). It made me feel more confident and it encouraged me to exercise more. As I’ve gotten older, I have the notion that to keep my body this way, I should make more of an effort to exercise.

"When I see women, I usually compare those who exercise and those who don’t... I think I tend to judge people who exercise more favorably."

Moon: "One good thing [I've been told] is that my proportions are quite good. A bad thing? That I have no waist, and my butt is flat. Hearing that makes me feel old, like I should exercise more. At home, I’ll make an effort to move around more, and stretch. I’ll look at TV exercise programs... These days it’s about looking healthy."
Photographed by Sunmin Lee.
In Kyung Lee
"A good thing [I've been told] is that my face is small. But it’s also turned into a bad thing, because my body looks big in comparison. And I have a bit of a stomach, so I think about it a lot — style-wise and such. Since my lower body is thicker, I try to make it less noticeable. I also try to make my hair have more volume.

"When I look at women, the first thing I look at is their skin. The thing I hate the most is if their waist is too long, or if their legs are short, [whether they] style it to make up for it [or] if they just show it off as it is. I guess I too look at people severely."
Photographed by Sunmin Lee.
Hye Jin Lee
"Sometimes hearing that I have nice legs makes me feel good. But people's intonations can change how it makes me feel. From men, especially. It’s not, 'Oh, you have nice legs.' It's…something else. It makes me feel terrible."
Photographed by Sunmin Lee.
Mee Hee Seo
"In my entire life, probably because I’ve always been active, there’s something that’s always followed me: that because I exercised, my body is firm and muscular — that I was overflowing with health. That I was a 'body beauty.' I think I carried this with me quite a bit.

"When I was young, when men looked at girls who were 'fit,' it wasn’t very popular. Rather, a girl who had a beautiful face and was physically weaker was more desirable... Now, as I’ve gotten older, when I hear, 'Having a healthy body is better than having a pretty face,' I really love hearing that. I’m thankful.

"When I see men in their 50s and over, a number of them will comment on my body in a very sexual way. It’s different to how younger people see me — they see a [healthy body] as a very admirable thing. But when it’s someone older, they’ll look you up and down and comment, in that sexual way, 'Your body is amazing.' This makes me feel terrible. This is why it’s so hard to communicate with older folk.

"I’ve learned that if I exercise and work diligently, I can maintain my fitness. That I can make my body the way I want it to [be] as a surfer. And it’s also something I want to show [people] even though I’m not in my peak shape right now — I’m a little soft."
Photographed by Sunmin Lee.
Ji Young Lee
"A positive thing [someone's told me is] that I have a good figure. It makes me feel good.

"But, others have told me that, while I’m comparatively thin, my lower body is large — that I should lose weight there. It doesn’t make me feel too bad.

"Since I have a stockier lower body, I pay attention to people with athletic and long lower bodies. Sometimes it makes me jealous. If I see a person who’s fit, I think it’s because they worked hard to make it that way. And I should make more of an effort because of them."
Photographed by Sunmin Lee.
Sun Ae Han
"[I used to be told] that I was so thin. But now that I’m past 50, I’m an ajumma [a middle aged woman] and I get stressed out about my figure. I try not to focus on my figure but on my health.

"I try not to get sick. I’ll walk in the park or go swimming. I don’t want to think about whether I’m too fat or too thin. Rather than make judgements about others, per se, whether I see a person who’s thin or someone who's fat, as long as they’re in good health, I think it’s okay."
Photographed by Sunmin Lee.
Ji Bin Lee & Mi Hyun Yang

Ji: "[I've been told] that I’m tall, that I look nice, that my legs are long. I wasn’t trying to be tall, but, thanks to my parents, I am. It feels good [when people compliment my height]. But, since I’m tall, my hands are large. As a woman, when I’m photographed, I have to think about it more."

Mi: "[I've been told] that I’m not fat and I’m not skinny. And that, even though I’m skinny, I have all the 'appropriate' curves."
Photographed by Sunmin Lee.
Ah Leum Han
"When I’m teaching aerobics and my clients tell me I have a great body, I feel good about that. Since I have a job in the exercise field, I have to naturally take care of my body. When other people see me, they may think, My body has to be like hers; so I have to take care of my body — I make more of an effort.

"But, because I’m human, I can’t always control my diet. And if it’s the off-season, I’ll get a little soft. Although this is perfectly natural, when I hear negative comments about my body in this regard, I don't feel so great.

"A good figure is one where it fits the person’s body. But what you see on TV, and when you see celebrities today, they are so thin. A really healthy body is a good body. Every body is unique."
Photographed by Sunmin Lee.
Myung Ja Seong & Won Ha Jung

Myung: "When I was pregnant and showing, a taxi driver said I was beautiful, and I was shocked. It showed me a different way to look at my body. When the taxi driver said, 'A woman is most beautiful when she’s pregnant,' it’s the first time I had this thought — how someone looking at me in this new way could give me a new perspective into what the body is. [It made me think that] beauty isn’t only about the exterior. You know, young people are so concerned with how they look these days. Beauty isn’t only what’s on the outside.

"I see a person favorably when a person seems natural, or is happy in their body. When their body 'smiles.'"

Won: "When I was young, there weren’t too many bad things to hear. But after I was married, I got negative comments about my body from my husband. I thought once you become an ajumma, I thought all of your beauty vanished. So when I heard these things from my husband I thought, Oh, it must be because I’m an ajumma now.

"When you have a kid, your body becomes 'damaged.' When I was pregnant, or while I was raising my children, I never heard a compliment about my body. When you think of an ajumma’s body, you have the notion it’s not much of a body. You think it’s normal to lose it all. But, after turning 50, I had the thought that I had to change and control my own body. That I can make my own body. To build confidence in my own body.

"When someone presents themselves naturally, or presents themselves in a way that suits their body, I think that’s beautiful. I try to see the best in people. That being as you are is beautiful."
Photographed by Sunmin Lee.
Ok Hee Lim
"[I've been told] that I’m small, but I have a nicer bust than others. That made me feel good.

"Others have told me I have a bit of a pooch. But isn't a woman’s pooch charming? (Laughs). To me it is, anyway. I’m healthy — I can say this. But when I buy and wear clothing, I stress about it. It makes me want to diet. I’m actually dieting now.

"There’s a saying that you have to have a good heart — you can’t just have a good body. And they say a smiling person is nice to look at. So I try to smile more. A person’s whole life can be expressed in [their] smile."
Photographed by Sunmin Lee.
Yoon Kyung Kim & Bo Bin Kim

Yoon: "[People compliment me and say] that I’m on the slim side. A negative thing [I've been told is] that my lower body is heavier. I didn’t feel so great about that. So, I exercise more. Particularly my lower body."
Photographed by Sunmin Lee.
Bit Na Jeon
"[I've been told] that, compared to my short height, I have good proportions. My height used to be a complex for me, but it also helped me to work on it and build confidence.

"When I was younger, I was told I was too thin and that I didn't look nice. So, I exercised a lot. I ate larger portions and wasn’t picky."
Photographed by Sunmin Lee.
Hae Jung Jung
"I don’t recall hearing any [remarks about my body]. I don’t know if that’s because I never really cared too much about it so I don’t remember or because I’ve never heard anything.

"I tend to judge whether a body is healthy or not. Physically speaking, if you’ve gained too much weight, for instance, your blood pressure will go up, and your body will go in a direction more favorable to illnesses. So as I worry about these things, I think that’s why I may tell someone to stay fit. When I see friends or family members who have gained weight, or are larger, I tell them they should lose some weight to better their health — whether it’s arthritis, joint pains, or something else."
Photographed by Sunmin Lee.
Ye Seo Kwon & Mi Kwon Jo

Ye: "[A compliment I tend to get is] that my face is small. And a bad thing [I hear] is that I have no figure. When I heard that my face is small, the more and more I heard it, I thought, I guess it’s true. It made me feel good. And when they said bad things, I just wonder, Why are they saying this to me?

"I used to think that if someone was fat then they don’t take care of themselves. But, as I’ve gotten older, I don’t think that’s purely true. I learned I shouldn’t judge someone based on my standards."

Mi: "[A good thing I've been told is] that I’m tall and my legs are long. It built my confidence and I felt like I could wear what I wanted without thinking about it too much. A negative comment would be that, compared to my body, my face isn’t as pretty — that my eyes are small. As a child, it wasn’t great to hear, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned that physical appearance isn’t as important...

"Instead of judging people's faces, I look at their actions. The way they sit. How they walk. Even if their figure isn’t the best, their confidence is beautiful."
Lee's work is featured in Body Talk, a photo exhibit presented by Refinery29 on display at this year's Photoville, which runs September 13 to 24. Body Talk explores the cultural variations of body positivity and the act of claiming space both across the gender spectrum and the globe, captured through the lens of female photographers.

Photoville is the largest annual photo event in New York City built from repurposed shipping containers, combining over 75 exhibitions, nighttime events, workshops and panels in Brooklyn Bridge Park. It is free and open to the public.
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