In Making the Fat Free (Sal-puri) Ritual ‘Produce Choi Haeun’
Young Feminist Artists' Narratives: Theater Director Choi Haeun
In January 2020, at Theatre Sinchon, ‘Choi Haeun’ is on stage dressed in a pink school uniform and wearing a pink curly wig. The main song for Produce Choi Haeun, “Call Me Love”, is playing.
“Mom and Dad told me/ that they had me because they love each other/ Someday love will come to me […] White dress with a rose bouquet/ a diamond ring that promises eternity/ And kiss kiss kiss/ I am now his his his/ Tell me that you love me”
Choi Haeun idol-dances to the music’s optimistic lyrics about a girl who longs to be loved. But Choi Haeun, in fact, is a woman in her thirties who weighs 90 kilograms. By all measures, she cannot be loved like an idol.
“Where is the one? Why is the one not showing up?/ I’m now thirty, I don’t care who you are/ The only one who would love me”
Choi Haeun becomes desperate.
“Don’t ask me my name/ Who I am or how I’ve lived/ It’s useless without being loved”
Choi Haeun smiles and dances to the still-energetic music, shouting to be called ‘love.’
“Call me ‘love’!”
Where Did Choi Haeun Come From?
Ever since I was young, I liked pretty things; I played with my mother’s jewelry; for my school excursion, I wore a white dress with a beret. I was crazy about things like lace, frills, ribbons, and flower patterns (and in fact I still am). All my photos from that time always show me making a pretty pose, one knee bent toward the other.
When I was young, I ate fried chicken with my sister while watching the Miss Korea beauty contest. We evaluated which participant was beautiful but had small breasts, and we judged which participant looked good in a dress but not in a swimsuit. At that time, I thought I would be able to become beautiful. So, I thought I would never have a problem finding love and being happy since I would be beautiful.
And whatever I did, I could not escape the ‘pig.’ When I was good at studying, I was a showy pig; when I was confident and energetic, a pushy pig; when I did what adults told me, an annoying pig; when I got along well with my friends, an oblivious pig [who didn’t realize no one really wants to be friends with a fat kid] ; when I put on make-up and dressed up, a funny pig, and when I did not, then just an ugly pig. The only way to escape being a ‘pig’ was to not become a pig. So, I needed to lose weight. To look like a human being. Furthermore, to look like a woman. To be loved.
I, who had loved beauty, could not help hating myself who was not beautiful. It was an impossible proposition that one so ugly could love herself. I was worthless for not losing weight and not being beautiful; it is a lie that one loves worthless things.
Yet, it was painful to lose weight. A diet of chicken breast, salad, and sweet potato every day. An hour-long intense strength training session plus a two-hour-long cardio exercise session. Short-term weight loss was achieved due to this self-abusive diet, but it was followed by repeated yo-yoing. Almost twenty years of my entire life has been spent as mostly extremely obese.
I have lived most of my life as a worthless being. Why am I fat? Why am I ugly? Why can’t I lose weight? Why am I lazy? Why can’t I achieve self-management? Who would love me the way I am? Of course, I do not have the qualifications to be loved. Not to be loved is then meaningless. I endlessly blame, curse, disdain, stamp out, feel disgusted by, and hate myself.
Desire to Be Loved and Desire to Be “Corset-Free”
After twenty years of living this way, Produce Choi Haeun was created in the winter of my twenty-ninth year. This work is a parody of Produce 101, an idol survival audition program in which the public votes to decide which trainees will make their music debut. To be honest, I enjoyed watching Produce 101. I even had my own so-called “choice” trainee. I fervently voted. I still listen to the music by the group who debuted thanks to that program and still watch their stage performance videos.
But enjoying this program, I simultaneously grew worried. Why do I like this? Why do I love watching this sadistic and inhumane program which judges these young girls based on their appearance and marketability, lining them up and defining their fate? Wasn’t I a feminist? Having lived through Megalia, the Gangnam Station murder case, the corset-free movement and the #MeToo movement, hadn’t I truly become a feminist? As a feminist, why did I enjoy this program?
Looking back, my anti-feminist ideology did not stay at the level of simply following Produce 101. Other thoughts ensued and if anyone found out about them, I would have deserved to hear them say, “You are totally nuts.” Thoughts such as…
“While I despise men who view women as mere sexual objects, I evaluate my self-worth based on whether men can be aroused by me. While I am upset about sexual harassment and spy-cam crime, when I actually experience sexual harassment in the subway, I am happy and brag about it rather than being angry. While I respect women’s sexuality, I am jealous of pretty women who are sexually liberated and view them as ‘sluts.’ While, of course, I agree with the abolition of the anti-abortion law, my thoughts turn to the fact that I will never have an abortion but only because I do not even have a man to have sex with. I have taken a step back as if these are someone else’s matters. At the same time, I’m going wild like a crazy person. To hear that I am sexy. To hear that I can get you excited. To hear that you want to f**k me. Because I am more humiliated that I am not even included in the sexual objectification that everyone feels disgusted about.
These are the actual lines from Produce Choi Haeun. I cannot bear these contradictions. Feminism liberated me from a certain degree of pain but gave me a new type of self-censorship and skepticism that I had not thought about before. A desire to be loved for my external beauty and a desire to be free from this by practicing the ‘corset-free.’ Both sides are me. It is obvious that both sides are me, but these two are like a sword and a shield that find it difficult to coexist, as the sword is constantly broken and the shield is countlessly pierced. This destruction and death is familiar; I encountered them anew every day. In no time, I became too skillful in destroying and killing myself.
Sal-puri: The Fat Free Ritual
The ending of Produce Choi Haeun is a sal-puri dance. Sal-puri is a pun meaning ‘fat free,’ and a ritualistic act that purifies and comforts the soul of Choi Haeun, a person who needs to endlessly die out while living. And on stage, Choi Haeun, who loved dance and wanted to learn dancing but discouraged herself by thinking “How can this body dance?”, finds her wish coming true.
After trying it, dancing didn’t seem like much of an obstacle. Of course, I am not as expert as professional dancers whose dancing has been sculpted for years. I waddle and stumble. I am breathless and in pain. Nevertheless, I, Choi Haeun, am dancing and acting onstage. I present myself as I am in front of many people. Dancing and being onstage are really not such a big thing.
“I am standing onstage. At ninety kilograms. Without any qualifications or conditions. Just because today is a performance day. Just because this theater was rented, and an audience gathered. I am meant to be onstage like this. Here is ninety kilograms of mass, existing without any special meaning. With an unmeasurable spirit. With an untraceable mind.”
While creating Produce Choi Haeun, this speech was like a ray of light when my contradictions intensely collided with one another. A contradiction is not necessarily bad. Removing one side while supporting the other is not the only best way. All of us are individuals experiencing discord within ourselves who live each single day with intense inner conflicts stemming from various desires. Once we finally accept this, we are able to see what we really want, like the way a ray of light is so narrow and wavy and hard to follow.
Where is Choi Haeun Going?
The audience reaction to Produce Choi Haeun was very intense. Although it was performed under humble circumstances at Theatre Sinchon, which has only about twenty seats, it got a bigger response than any other performance that I had presented. The raw appreciation and rousing words from audience members directly tugged at my heart and filled my body with boundless energy. In this sense, what makes people live is another person’s life. When a life considered completely separate confronts another life, we may be able to understand or empathize a little with others or ourselves for the first time.
I am preparing the sequel to Produce Choi Haeun. It will be a solo performance in July this year under the title Produce Choi Haeun S2: Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger, and it was selected for the third Feminism Theatre Festival.
Produce Choi Haeun was originally created out of a strong desire for beauty, as I longed to be onstage after seeing all the beautiful idol trainees in Produce 101. But after this theater work, I now have a different idea. The idea of being healthy and strong. Instead of hating my body that does not fit the standard of beauty that society defines, I need to have a more intimate conversation with my body, because I need to live with it my entire life.
I, Choi Haeun, am starting to explore my own body. I am examining the current condition of my body, and studying what to do to be healthier and stronger. For three months, from April to June 2020, I will go on a diet and exercise, not for beauty but for health. This change in purpose means there will be some changes in process. Replacing starvation with a low-carb and high-protein diet and exercising for muscle-building and endurance, not for losing fat. Even though it seems like I am doing the same behavior, the basic driving force is not self-torture but self-love.
Self-love. What does it mean to love oneself? It was one of the things that I was least able to do. Yet, after finishing Produce Choi Haeun, I now feel it may be possible. I don’t want to be sick anymore. I want to be physically and mentally stronger. Harder, better, faster, stronger. I want to test myself to see how strong I can become. I want to push my limits. I want to find out whether what I have wanted is waiting for me at the end of it.
Specifically, for this new performance, I will use various measurement results, photos, and recorded findings. The first day of every month I will use an In-Body test, take body size measurements, and register any changes. I will also experiment on how illness measurements have changed my unhealthy self: fatty liver, hyperlipidemia, high blood pressure, menstrual irregularity among many others. I will document my daily diet and exercise. Based on these materials, I will look for what it means to love oneself.
Aside from myself, Choi Haeun, too many women’s minds and bodies are sick due to patriarchal oppression. Even as feminists, they cannot call themselves feminists because of contradictions that stem from these diseases. In this way, we are living proof of our self-contradiction: ‘I am a feminist and I am not.’ While Produce Choi Haeun was a theatre piece about illness and contradiction, Produce Choi Haeun S2: Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger is a performance work about healing the illness and solving the contradiction. I want to confidently shout out with all my might that true self-production comes from self-acceptance, not from self-denial. I am a feminist, so strong and so happy.
To the Countless Choi Haeuns in the World
After the performance, female audience members cried a lot and hugged me. Since the performance occurred in the first week of 2020, people joked that I was the person who made women cry the most in 2020.
Interestingly, there were a number of ‘beautiful’ people in the audience who also cried, holding me tight. These people must have heard that they were beautiful since they were young and seemed like people who would not experience any difficulty in being loved by the opposite (or the same) gender. Seemingly, these people would not be the kind who would emphasize with Choi Haeun that much. These were the people with external beauty whom I was badly jealous of.
These women, however, held tightly onto me, asked me if I was okay, wished that I would not be sick, told me how painful it was to watch the performance, how deeply moved they were, and that they understood me. So to speak, I met countless Choi Haeuns there. Whether beautiful or not, ‘corset-free’ or not, having a partner not or not, this society has made us all Choi Haeuns.
When performing Produce Choi Haeun, I was actually not that overwhelmed by emotion. I tried to keep calm while talking about all kinds of topics from gaslighting and hate speech to the life-changing experience of sexual violence. I was very vigilant about not getting overwhelmed by emotion so that my story became a tale of woe or a lamentation.
While meeting with countless Choi Haeuns, my effect on them became a little clearer. In each of our minds, there is a young Choi Haeun, hurt by others’ words and behavior, crouching and crying. A lethargic and sad being who cannot hold anyone’s hand and walk one step further to anywhere. I too, like a scrap, needed to abandon and shun myself in order to live for people’s recognition based on the world’s standard. Nevertheless, that being opened her mouth and initiated a conversation with another lonely scrap that was sleeping silently inside of you. That is the ‘love’ that we have been longing for.
Please Don’t Get Hurt
It is somewhat embarrassing to write this long article about a work that I wrote. But regarding the works that I have created so far, I have told people ‘I wish you feel as you saw and remember how you felt.’ This thought is still the same now.
What is fascinating about making theater is that nothing can be done solely by my own will. There are many individuals in disharmony involved in the process of making a theatrical work. There is a writer, director, actress/actor (even though I was the only one who held all of these roles in the solo performance Produce Choi Haeun), and most of all, there is an audience. A theater work which is staged is already out of my hands. Whatever meanings would be generated would depend only on the audience. In this sense, speaking to them about the way to interpret my work outside of the actual work feels like either a violation of their rights or an excuse to fill in the blanks in the work.
Even so, why I speak about my work for readers who either saw Produce Choi Haeun or didn't and are meeting me through this writing is probably caused by a simple reason like being on stage.
The following is a paragraph written in the program book for Produce Choi Haeun. This is why I wrote this article: to bring these words to the countless Choi Haeuns in this world.
“Ah, I just thought of what I wanted to tell you. Please don’t get hurt. But if you have been hurt, please believe that it was not your fault. I wish we could all be less hurt in this world where it is harsher for a person who is hurt than for a person who inflicts the hurt. Eventually, this is all for us to be happy. I wish you happiness.”
About the author: Choi Haeun operates the one-person theater company ‘Be the Crossroad’ and a writer in the theater critic circle ‘Theater Criticism Group Siseon.’ Choi has created narratives about women and feminist theater works such as Pansori Performance Dooda, 43kg of Ivory, One Night with a Vampire, and DRAGxWomen Gukgeuk, among many others. Like a ghost, she wanders across all boundaries such as the boundaries between directing, writing, and acting, the boundary between creation and criticism, and the boundary between theater and non-theater.
Translated by Jieun Lee
Published: April 14, 2020
*Original article: http://ildaro.com/8700
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