SEOUL – In the decades since democratization came to the country in 1987, one of the most obvious trends running through South Korean society has been diversification.
Don’t tell that to the fashion sector. In that space, the ultra-skinny model remains dominant. But if Instagram hashtags are a signpost to the future, that paradigm is starting to crack.
Meet Arya – a “natural-size model.”
A 29-year-old instructor in one of the country’s innumerable private academies, teaching nursing, Arya (@arya_modela) is the most everyday of everyday Korean women you might see on the street, any street.
Standing 160cm (5’1″) tall, Arya wears a 55 or 66 Korean dress size, not the 44 that is the desired size for models here. Nor does she fall into the preferred 45-51kg (99-112lbs.) zone for commercial models – with 50kg (110lbs.) being the Holy Grail.
This writer/photographer works with at least three models pushing themselves over that red line – including one who has just dieted, willed and weighed herself down from the high 50s to 48kg.
She is very proud of hitting this mark and is endeavoring to skinny all the way down to 45kg.
So, by Korean fashion norms, 56kg of body weight could be a confidence-deflating fact of life.
But Arya isn’t on a diet, isn’t constantly beating herself up for her appearance and isn’t too concerned about looking like the slight-of-stature models on Korea’s catwalks.
After finding my studio account on Instagram (hashtags on Instagram have been followable on Instagram since 2017), Arya played it smart by not sending me an easy-to-miss direct message via the Instagram service, but by posting the following comment: “I’m also a rising natural-size model. I’d be thankful if you visited my feed!”
This was chutzpah – brave, ballsy, brazen.
It was also, rather cleverly, a comment on another one of my models’ posts. The latter model goes beyond natural-size – in fact her self-described status is plus-sized.
The plus-size category in Korea seems to a concept directly imported from the Global North, or the “White West.” There, heated global conversations about “body positivity” have generated a “plus-size” modeling movement.
In Korea, a “natural-size” movement makes a lot more sense. In this land of harshly defined body normative specifications, women wearing size 55 or 66 (women’s size M or L in the US) can be cause for raised eyebrows. So seen through the prism of comparative physiology, a Korean “natural size model” is about the cultural equivalent of an American “plus-size” model.
Given this backdrop, Arya’s body assertiveness is brave in society and is ultra-brave in the infamously capricious fashion space.
The background to this storming-of-the-ramparts, from-below assault on the fashion establishment’s norms is the “ordinary model” trend that was covered in an earlier instalment of this series.
But even in this cohort, declaring oneself an “natural-sized person model,” requires confidence. Declaring oneself a “natural-size model” requires a higher order of assertiveness.
Arya’s attitude, then, is inherently pregnant with badassery. By definition, she is an unusual model and woman.
In fact, she wasn’t a model until two weeks ago. She had only been out officially and aggressively promoting herself as a model for five days when we met for a test shoot.
Her approach is paying off. She has been signed as the lead model at an online shopping mall that sells “cutesy-with-a-wink” dresses to women of her size and general aesthetic comportment, and has done other paid shoots.
If it is not clear from the above, it needs to be said that Arya’s attitude isn’t representative of most Korean 29-year-old women of her demographic stripe. But of the group who’ve made this unusual choice, she’s the perfect example.
She pops out of her social background – as an educator – in a controlled, consciously risque way.
Technically, she’s a newbie, but her look completely matches where she’s coming from socially and as a model. You might call her look “playfully conservative Puritan.” This is not demure propriety with a smile. This is prim and proper with a smirk.
So, why modeling? Here is what she told me about her radical decision.
“I challenged myself to be a model because I love myself. So I started with the new name ‘Arya.’ If I were to introduce myself, I’d say I am a person with many faces. I’m a natural-size model weighing in at 123 pounds, who stands at 5’3″. In any case, I’m here to break the stereotype that models all have to be tall and thin. I also want to say that if I can be a model, so can you.”
Through this personal sentiment of self-confidence, she has made a decidedly political act of aesthetic defiance and acute self-realization. Within the #naturalsizemodel hashtag, she is an intrepid player – and interesting company.
In sum, Arya is a telling example of a kind of ordinary audacity popping up among the teen-to-thirty-something generation forming and asserting their identities through the things they consume and the way they allow the things they buy to consume them.
Nowadays, in a time of K-POPPED fantasies, MARVELous realities, and a generally augmented life, you are what you buy and you are defined by your tastes, as worn on your sleeve.
I will leave the parting word do Arya. Her message may sound cliched – but in the harshly defined fashion world, is profound: “Love yourself.”
Michael Hurt is a visual sociologist who has been writing, teaching, and shooting in Seoul since 2002. For the previous installments in his series “Kool Korea by hashtag,” please click here and here and here.