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South Korean female bodybuilders are challenging their country’s beauty ideals

We all have perceptions about what’s beautiful, often defined in large part by our culture’s ideals. In America, it’s all about having a thin frame, just the right amount of curves, sun-kissed skin and long hair. In South Korea, it’s all about being petite, delicate and very feminine.

However, brave South Korean female bodybuilders are daring to break that well-established mold. The BBC just profiled one, Jeong Yeon Soon, who began strengthening her body after seeing photos of the very toned Madonna. Jeong Yeon Soon was a former beauty queen, who suddenly realized being happy and healthy was much more important than fitting the cultural ideal of beauty she’d come to know so well.

That doesn’t mean her journey is easy now, though. She’s on a five-times-daily, chicken-potatoes-veggie diet, often in the form of hearty shakes. Soon says her lifestyle is hard for others to understand, and it’s hard for her to make friends and go out on dates. In a country where women will often undergo full-body liposuction — even a procedure to remove muscles in the calves so legs appear smaller — to achieve an ideal of beauty, Soon’s muscular physique has raised some eyebrows. “People say, ‘Oh, what’s that? Women should be feminine and small.’ They say, ‘She must be transgendered.’ I heard that!” Soon confessed in her interview.

It’s always hard when you’re blazing a trail yourself, so I feel for Soon. It must be hard to get the stares (and even disapproval) of those who don’t necessarily understand or feel comfortable with what you’re trying to do. But I’m also so proud to see her take this road. Trying to change the literal structure and stature of your body to be more “delicate,” like many South Korean women are expected to do, is ludicrous. It’s not natural. It’s not sustainable. And ultimately it’s not healthy, from both a physical and psychological perspective.

Like Soon, we need more women all over the globe to opt for being strong, fit and healthy over whatever bodily form our culture’s currently glorifying. If we can all work on being our happiest, healthiest selves, we’ll naturally redefine what it means to be beautiful.

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