Kim Gee-yang is taking on the beauty industry in a country leading the world in cosmetic surgery. "When I was in LA, I was too skinny to do plus size modeling, but in Korea, I am just a fat woman, yeah," she said.
SEOUL — Kim Gee-yang struts down the runway dressed in a black corset and leather skirt.
She doesn't fit traditional catwalk standards: At 1.66 meter (5ft5) tall and about 70 kilograms (154 lbs), she is average height and, well, curvy compared to many other South Korean women in their 20s.
Gee-yang got her break in modeling after sending her photos to the 2010 Los Angeles Full Figure Fashion Week. "When I was in LA, I was too skinny to do plus-size modeling, but in Korea, I am just a fat woman, yeah," she told me.
And in image-conscious, plastic surgery crazy Korea, there's also a lot of pressure for women to be skinny. Gee-yang says Korean women like her have a hard time finding clothes that fit them.
Anything above an American size 6 or European size 40 is considered plus-size here.
"I'm kind of an alien in Korea. People who are plus size in Korea, they are not interested in a social life, they don't go shopping," says Gee-yang. "They don't want people staring at them."
And everyone constantly reminds them how big they are, she says. "My mother always told me, "you are so fat and you have to lose weight," and when I met my friends they said, "you are fat" or "lose weight.""
Gee-yang says at first her parents didn't want her to go into modeling, but now they're proud of what she's accomplished.
Gee-yang has done runway shows in Miami and the Caribbean in addition to LA. She's also been a finalist in photo contests for Benetton and American Apparel. But she has yet to find work in fashion magazines or on the runways in her home country.
In the end, Gee-yang started her own magazine featuring plus size models. It's called 66/100, the maximum sizes respectively for women and men's clothing sold in Korean retail stores. Gee-yang is an 88.
I went with her to a printing house as copies of her magazine came off the presses. On the cover, Gee-yang is clutching a chunk of boiled pig's feet with her manicured fingertips. The picture accompanies a feature article titled "Innocent Pleasure."
Gee-yang writes that you shouldn't feel guilty for eating what you like. She also says you shouldn't feel ashamed of what you look like — 66/100's motto is "No Matter What, You Are Beautiful." And her magazine has inspired other women here to give modeling a shot.
Twenty-three-year old Lee Hyun-gyeong poses for 66/100's online clothing shop; she wears a Korean size 99. A year ago, she won the magazine's makeover contest and now she says modeling changed her life.
"I was afraid to have my picture taken. Compared to other people I looked bigger, I always looked sad in pictures, I thought I was ugly," said Lee.
"Now my friends and family say I seem so much happier and they say they never knew how pretty I am."
Gee-yang has many supporters for her magazine, but there are still plenty of haters. And the harshest remarks appear online. "Those comments, I get really upset cause they hurt other people who support me, or other people who are plus size," she says.
But Gee-yang thinks she's taken away the power of those online insults by printing them in the latest issue of her magazine. It's given her the ability to laugh at them.