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In a country with beauty ideals that pre-makeover Barbie would struggle to meet, South Korean plus-size model Vivian Geeyang Kim is facing down online trolls in her defiant campaign to persuade curvy women they have nothing to be ashamed of.
Kim has modelled for US firms, but at 165 centimetres (5.4 ft) tall and weighing 70 kilograms, she was described as “too skinny” for some full-figure fashion show work in America.
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But in her looks-obsessed homeland, she is constantly mocked and ridiculed on social networks as “flat-out fat” or “disgusting.”
“In South Korea, the ideal weight for women is 50 kilograms, and many women who weigh more than that think they are fat,” the 30-year-old said.
“That is a ridiculous, impossible standard that cripples many South Korean women’s self-esteem. And that has to change,” she told AFP after a recent photo shoot.
This picture taken on July 30, 2016 shows South Korean plus-size model Vivian Geeyang Kim checking her photos during a photo shoot in order to update her online clothing shop at a studio in Seoul. (AFP)
Kim, who is a US size 10, runs an online clothing shop and publishes a fashion magazine specifically for plus-size women in South Korea — a first in a country where beauty is defined by rail-thin teenage K-pop stars and TV actresses whose diets are strictly controlled by their management.
– Radical surgery –
The pressure to conform is such that many turn to the country’s $4.6-billion plastic surgery industry which offers everything from a nose-job to radical double-jaw surgery.
In a 2013 study by Samyook University in Seoul that surveyed 154 female university students in the normal weight range — a body mass index between 18-23 — almost 95 percent said they were unhappy with their bodies.
This picture taken on August 6, 2016 shows South Korean plus-size model Vivian Geeyang Kim (L) helping her client Baek Soo-Jung (R) to choose a swimsuit at her clothing shop office in Seoul. (AFP)
More than 60 percent felt they needed to lose weight.
The sort of weight-loss advert that was banned earlier this year in Britain for its image of a bikini-clad woman and the slogan “Are You Beach Body Ready?” would barely raise an eyebrow in South Korea.
Similar products are promoted on posters pasted on subway walls and women’s toilet stalls, showing models mocking “lazy girls” or asking questions like: “How long are you going to roll around like that?”
It is precisely this type of widespread, casual body-shaming that Kim is seeking to tackle head-on.
“People hate it when a ‘fat girl’ like me parades her body without looking ashamed … they say I should not be seen in public or on the media,” Kim said.
This picture taken on August 6, 2016 shows South Korean plus-size model Vivian Geeyang Kim putting on a makeup at her clothing shop office in Seoul. (AFP)
Her public stance has triggered an online backlash that has included death threats and vicious abuse that, in some cases, she has responded to with lawsuits.
“Despite all this, I love my job,” she said.
“I wanted to send this message to girls like me out there that they are not alone and they are beautiful no matter what.”
– No opportunity –
After a failed bid to compete in a local modelling TV reality show, she left for the United States in 2010, where she eventually worked a number of full-figured shows.
Read: This documentary on plus-size models will change how we look at female body
On her return, she searched for similar opportunities in the South Korean fashion scene — only to realise that there were none.