“If you just lost A LOT of weight and got plastic surgery, you could become Miss Korea!” Miss Korea, oh, Miss Korea—the promise of a thin beauty ideal was always dangled in front of me like a cudgel. Growing up, I was rarely asked about my interests, my dreams, or my fears with the intensity with which I was asked about my weight and eating habits. As a chubby kid, I felt both painfully exposed and invisible. I never wanted to be white or change the shape of my eyes. I wanted to fit in with other Koreans. But it seemed like I would never belong until my body size literally fit within an impossible ideal.
It was not until I first took an Asian American Activism class as an undergraduate that I began to question all the kinds of oppression that I had internalized as normal and expected. Later I got involved in Korean American activism with other self-described outsiders, who are adopted, mixed-race, queer, and or transgender and faced multiple various forms of marginalization within the “mainstream” Korean American society. This activist community gave me the language and analysis to see all the ways one can rage and fight against what “one should be” and to carve a totally new way.
Over ten years ago, I went on a trip to Korea as part of an activist delegation. It was my hope that I would reconnect with the motherland to heal all of my intergenerational trauma. (Spoiler alert: I did not.) I did, however, encounter vital Korean movements: fighting for peace and reunification, disability justice, LGBTQ justice, adoptee rights, environmental justice, workers’ rights, and more. It was life changing. Yet, at one point on the trip we stayed on a farm with an activist farmer who asked me out of the blue, in front of my whole group, “Why are you so fat?” No one else said anything at that moment. I realized, even then, my lifelong shame and humiliation would still flood my body, reminding me it never left. And, I will always be grateful to a friend on the trip who talked to me about the incident afterwards, explicitly naming it as fatphobia.
I took a fat activism workshop with Leslie Kinzel, which changed my life. I learned that you cannot conflate weight and health, and even more importantly, you don’t owe anyone your health. Unfortunately, doctors first prescribe dieting and weight loss for many conditions that don’t have anything to do with being fat. I went on a solo campaign to undo the fatphobia that I had internalized my whole life. (It’s still a struggle, if I’m honest.) I read Lindy West’s book Shrill and laughed till I cried. I began religiously following fat bloggers and fat activists. I know too much social media consumption can be toxic, but I am trying to heal my fat inner child. I learned a lot but at the same time, I didn’t see many or any Asians speaking about fatphobia in those early days of my awakening. Thankfully, now I see more mid-sized and fat Korean content creators across my feed. I hope this trend continues.
My life experiences led me to an obsession with Korean beauty standards. I decided to explore this obsession in the form of the play. Some of the questions that plagued me were: When did goodness and beauty become intertwined with thinness? Why do we want to be beautiful? Why do our parents want us so badly to be beautiful and thin?
In researching for my play, I went down a rabbit hole. I read the book Ugliness: A Cultural History by Gretchen E. Henderson. A book on my reading list is Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia by Sabrina Strings which explores the racialization of fat bodies and makes the connection between white supremacy and fatphobia. I also listened to an episode of This is Love about an “Ugly Club” in Italy whose members embrace and celebrate ugliness for inspiration. The most revolutionary work I read on ugliness is by Mia Mingus, who writes gorgeously about ugliness and disability. Old school fairy tales were also an obvious source of inspiration for me. “The Old Women Who Were Skinned” is one story that shows up in my play that explores the dark and violent pursuit of beauty.
I wanted to explore the dark underbelly of beauty and what we might lose when we get it. My favorite podcast about this topic is Maintenance Phase, which debunks and decodes Wellness and weight loss, both of which are often sold to us as a means to our own personal fairy tale endings. You Must Remember This is a podcast that “explores the secret or forgotten history of Hollywood,” a place which is the setting for many a dark fairy tale. So many episodes are dedicated to undeniably certified gorgeous people, who even with pretty privilege, are exploited, commodified, underestimated, and or discarded after they are no longer young or considered beautiful. So many lives are destroyed in pursuit of beauty and immortal fame. Yet the allure and desire to be attractive is irresistible to most of us. It is this uncomfortable tension that I am interested in. While I hope to continue discussions about this topic, I also recognize my privilege in fat spaces as a small to midfat person, and I thus face less structural marginalization in society than folks who are larger on the size spectrum and who we should be taking the lead from on this issue.
In the process of writing this play I realized my family fat shamed me because of fatphobia, and undergirding this was the fear of death. They said it was for my “health health health” but all they saw was “death death death.” This gave me the idea to make the family grave a driving force for the parents in Jar of Fat to pressure their twins into losing weight so that they can fit together in the afterlife. The twins who are very close at the beginning are driven apart by their diverging paths in confronting the pressures of anti-fat bias. One twin yields to her curiosity for how thinness and beauty might feel, while the other twin fights to forge a new way to live life on her own terms. Both paths are hard because neither health nor beauty can protect us from eventual death. In developing this play with an artistic team with public presentations, I most treasure our conversations about anti-fat bias, especially personal stories that made me feel less alone.
Seayoung Yim is a playwright and educator from Seattle. She completed an MFA in playwriting at Brown University and is a member of the Ma-Yi Writers Lab. Her play Jar of Fat won the 2022 Yale Drama Series Prize. She lives in the Northeast.