Feeling Seoul-ful: "No Big Size," - Shopping in Korea

The tree is up and the lights are twinkling, yes, the holiday season is officially here.  My favorite time of the year when a diet of sugar cookies and pumpkin pie, and a wardrobe of slippers and sweat shirts, are not only accepted but encouraged, and the only running I'll be doing is towards a sign that says, "SALE."  With our new Holiday Show finally through previews and fully open, and my work with next season's script writers finished I decided it was time to brave the cold and the crowds and take a trip into Seoul to do some much needed shopping.  I needed to buy a gift for my boyfriend, as well as my at work Secret Santa, and much more importantly find a new holiday dress for the UNICEF concert I'm performing in this weekend.  The other 10 dresses I have just weren't going to cut it (I think any woman who has ever had a special event or a hot new coworker knows what I mean).   

Seoul is a shopper's paradise: subway stations, malls, markets, and virtually every street corner north and south of the Han river are filled with sweaters, skirts, leggings, and some of the cutest ballet flats I've ever seen all at ridiculously low prices....and in ridiculously small sizes.  I spent my college years a size 16, played in an intramural beer pong league, and considered Old Navy's Plus Size section proof that Jesus loved me.  And while 8 show weeks, and my inability to complete 9am dance workshops with a hangover, have helped me lose the beer and 40 pounds my size 9 frame is still too large for Korean clothing.  A fact I am reminded with again and again as each trip into a Korean clothing store begins with me pulling a cute dress of the rack and ends with a pint sized sales woman pulling it out of my hands, looking me up and down, and saying, "No big size," while pointing me towards the door. 

I know what you're thinking,  "Too fat for clothes?  Don't worry, girl!  Pull on your stretch pants and head to Payless."  If only it were that easy.  In Seoul, the only thing scarcer than a double digit skirt is a double digit shoe size.  Were this the case somewhere else, somewhere where say, moderately expensive shoes are found only in moderately popular shoe stores, this would be unfortunate.  In Korea, where a pair of glittering sandals and some fresh mandu will cost you less than $15 bucks and can be found on each and every street corner, it's downright painful.  I have tried to convince myself that this is a blessing in disguise.  If the shoes fit I would spend all my extra cash on them and then have to pay to ship them home.  That worked for about 15 minutes.  Water, water everywhere....

 So after a Toffee Nut Latte and a quick glance through the "99% real" Louis Vuitton wallets on display by a street vendor  I wandered into the first of a block of massive department stores determined to find a dress for my upcoming concert.  Miniature clothing be damned there are women in Korea who weigh more than 100 pounds, and though they are elusive creatures, I have seen them..fully clothed..and that gave me hope. 

 To begin my search I chose a small, boutique-like store on the 3rd floor.  I entered carefully, keeping my head down, trying to avoid any eye contact that would cause a saleswoman to offer to help, and then help me right out of the store.  Like a navy seal sneaking through the water and onto an enemy beach, I slowly made my first lap around the perimeter determined not to draw attention to myself: no stopping, and definitely no touching the clothes.  Cocktail dresses and perfectly ornamented cardigans called to me, oversized knits and colorful blazers beckoned me, their buttons shining in the flourescent light.  I thrust my hands deeper into my jacket pockets, and squeezed them into fists until my knuckles turned white and my fingernails made crescent shaped imprints in my palms.  I kept moving knowing that even one pause, one hiccup, and I would lose my resolve. 

I was nearly three quarters of the way around when I saw it.  Hanging between a slim pair of black winter wool shorts and a saffron yellow pea coat was the dress, not a dress, the dress.  The black strapless bodice was made of tight vertical pleats which banded just below the bust line in a gloriously tummy-friendly empire waist, while the skirt had amazing diagonal shuttering.  And while I'm not usually a fan of sequins (nothing says "showgirl" like sequins) these perfectly placed sparkles  said, "holiday party," not, "pole dance."  My feet stopped walking, my fists uncurled, my act was over. 

There were 3 sizes of the dress hanging and after eyeballing the biggest one I reached for it to look at the tag and determine if I should hope, or give up now.  Just as I reached inside the neckline and my fingers curled around the tag, there she was: my pint sized nightmare.  In one swift movement she had the dress in her arms, the tag out, and was giving me that all too familiar look I knew could only end in pain and disappointment.  "Try on," I asked hopefully, gesturing towards the fitting rooms at the back of the store, "Ok?"  She lowered her gaze to my feet and I knew what was coming.  As her eyes slowly made her way from my boots to my leggings I made a last ditch attempt at victory.  Dropping my purse to the floor I quickly whipped off my jacket, thanking God that I had worn a form fitting top instead of a bulky sweater.  "Look!" my mind screamed, "Look!  Look how much slimmer I am without my jacket!" 

I don't know if it was the look of desperation in my eyes or my tummy control underwear but somehow I had done it.  With a nod and a quick, "Ok," she turned and started towards the dressing rooms.  I stood there in shock.  It had happened, I had finally passed the Korean-saleswoman-eyeball-test-of-shame, I was worthy.  And that's when it hit me.  If I was going to let this saleswoman decide my worth, I had much bigger problems than fitting into a cocktail dress.  I can bench press 60 pounds and hit a high C.  I can do my own french manicure and last Friday I successfully made Julia Child's Favorite Roast Chicken..using a toaster oven.  I have a wonderful family, great friends, a boyfriend who loves me, and a cat who bites me far less than he used to.  I am worthy, and I don't need a pint sized Korean saleswoman to tell me that. 

I'd like to say that I swelled up with self pride, told the saleswoman exactly where she could stick that dress, and left the store, but that would be lying.  I picked up my stuff and followed her to the dressing room, and while she waited outside the door, tapping her child sized foot, I took my sweet time trying it on, and it fit. 

StarPoet   StarPoet wrote
on 12/9/2009 2:27:48 AM
Great story and a lesson for us to learn. I like that you still kept your dignity and your self respect no matter what the saleslady thought or expressed. "The critics in the world will always try to make you into something you know you are not" Also, I have a co-worker from Seoul that says the same thing you write about in your story. She says that since she is "bigger" than most South Koreans, she gets the same treatment you got here. But when she shops here in the USA, no problems!!!!

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Another entry in a writing project documenting my time living and working in South Korea.
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