Model Sarah Kim on Body Positivity & Embracing Her Cultural Heritage
Here’s an honest truth: It can be tough to love your body on some days.
Being constantly bombarded with endless carousels of beautiful faces and perfect bodies is probably why we’re so hard on ourselves sometimes. But things are changing—and for the better. What we’ve seen over the past few years is a huge shift in how bodies are being represented in the media and in society.
The cultural conversation about body positivity is changing thanks to unapologetic figures such as Ashley Graham to thank. On Instagram, curvy models like Sarah Kim are creating safe spaces for her followers, sharing her stories and advocating the idea that all bodies are beautiful and worthy.
Below, Sarah shares more about embracing her Panamanian-Korean-American roots, her modelling journey while struggling with her body image, and so much more.
Tell us more about yourself.
I was born in South Korea and my family immigrated to Panama City when I was 5 years old. At a very young age, I had to adapt to three different languages and cultures. I was ethnically Korean, strictly speaking only Korean at home with my family in order to not forget my roots, but lived in a Hispanic country attending an American run international school. It was difficult, to say the least—I felt lost in my identity, not knowing where I belonged.
After many years of searching and feeling lost, I had a revelation that no matter how hard I tried, I could never fit in just one culture or country because I am in fact, a combination of all three cultures. Sarah Kim would not be Sarah Kim without any of them. Without my Panamanian traits, I would not be loud and passionate. Without my Korean roots, I wouldn’t have learned to be thoughtful and giving. Being American has taught me to be creative and innovative.
This beautiful mix of cultures gave me the opportunity to speak three languages and graced me with global experiences that shaped who I am today. I relate to all of these pieces and am privileged to be able to have the opportunity to be submerged in and embraced by so many cultures and diverse groups of people.
How has your career journey been like? Are there any highlights so far?
I could name some of the big brands that I’ve had the privilege of working with, but throughout my career, I realised that the connection I make with the people on set is really what stays with me forever. The bonds, conversations, and listening to the stories and journeys of hair and makeup artists, stylists, photographers, creative directors and everyone on set is really what leaves an imprint on me rather than a brand I had the opportunity to work with.
What is the most valuable professional lesson you have learned?
It’s going to work with an attitude of wanting to learn. Go to that meeting, go to that photo shoot, that casting, that fitting ready to be guided, corrected, and taught. Having a heart of learning is an attitude of putting yourself in a place of humility. Even if you might know more or be better at the job, there is always room to learn from everyone.
What’s your go-to look for the day ahead? Do you plan your outfits ahead or pick randomly?
I am a big planner. Planning my day or events gives me a sense of control and peace, so I plan my outfits the day before. If I don’t plan my outfits, I notice I struggle to change from one outfit to another and end up being late to my function!
My go-to look varies depending on my mood. I have such a diverse style that it can really go anywhere from an edgy oversized blazer outfit to sweatpants and hoodies to a skin-tight dress. You really can’t predict what I will show up wearing.
How does the city where you live, in addition to your cultural heritage, influence your personal style?
I love New York with all my heart. It is my one and only favourite city in the whole wide world. I get inspired exponentially by the energy the city has. The way people are unapologetic and recalcitrant about who they are and in expressing their style is admirable. I get inspiration from every person I walk past. I take in one detail after another.
I’m also a fan of mixing modern fashion with accessories from my cultural heritage. The Kuna Indians, who once occupied the central region of what is now Panama and the neighbouring San Blas Islands, make beautiful accessories with beautiful colours that epitomise Panama, so I love incorporating such purses, jewellery into my outfits.
Did you ever struggle with body image issues? How did you overcome them?
Suffering from body image issues most of my life has definitely affected all areas of my life—mentally, spiritually, emotionally. It affected my relationship with myself, my family, friends and my partners. How do I love myself when I was taught to hate every part of myself? The thought that I was too fat and was unwanted and a failure crossed my mind every time I wanted to do public speaking, try out new clothing styles or something new.
Since the age of 7, I was persecuted for being a big girl. I didn’t have any of the must-have Asian features: petite, skinny legs, a flat stomach. I was bullied in church, at school and at home; my nickname used to be “Chinese-Japanese Sumo”. Because of the bullying, I used to hide in storage rooms and locked the doors.
I felt that my parents were disappointed that I did not have the image they wanted me to present. My father enforced his mindset on us—that women needed to be skinny and beautiful to get married, have a career, lead a happy life and be accepted and respected by our world. I spent my teens not being allowed to join family dinners and exercising every day, which I believe is what caused me to have a hateful and unhealthy relationship with exercising and food. When I was in college, my professor called me out in front of a hundred students by saying that I was obese. Nobody was there to stand up for me or to put him right. I felt voiceless. Powerless.
I wish I could say that I overcame everything with the help of therapy, motivational speakers and books, but the truth is I had to learn to look at myself the way God looked at me. Learning to love me the way God loves me reflects the way that I love others. Truth be told, I am still learning to love, understand, and forgive my body after all it’s been through, both mentally and physically. Sometimes it feels like a never-ending journey and it honestly might be, but that’s okay because quitting isn’t an option.
What do you hope to achieve with your platform? How are you using your platform to promote body positivity?
I want my platform to be a place anyone can come when they need to feel warmth, love, and encouragement. I want to create a space that is more than about my best moments or a certain lifestyle; it will be a space that reminds people that they are not alone.
I have grown a passion for creating short films showing my ups and downs, growth and vulnerability, hoping that it could encourage those who are going through similar struggles. After hitting over a million views, these short films I have created are a pivotal moment in my career because they helped me open doors and connect with the world.
What is your definition of beauty?
Having the ability to find beauty in the ugly. It’s easy to love those who are lovable.
“It’s easy to find beauty in what today’s society considers beautiful but there is clarity in seeing what others can’t see, in finding grace and harmony in places others overlook.”
Tell us more about your everyday beauty rituals.
Less is more. Many years ago I was a bit obsessed with trying to find all the right products for my skin and had many steps in my skincare routine—everything from exfoliators, toners, serums to eye creams and moisturisers. Sometimes doing too much can do more harm than good.
Today I keep my beauty routine very simple. I have 3 steps to my skincare routine and I like to use products that have no scent and are as natural as they can be.
What is your signature beauty look?
My smile! Never underestimate the power of a smile; no amount of makeup or designer clothes can compare to the beauty of a smile.
Which beauty standards are you passionate about disrupting?
I want to promote body positivity without limits and exceptions. We still live in a world where not all body shapes are accepted—you’re tolerable if you’re big with a small waist or have a big bottom and breasts. Cellulite is frowned upon. Stretch marks must be covered. Stomach fat is not attractive. This is something I am still working on today.
Being in the modelling industry, there can be a lot of pressure. I have to maintain my body shape because it can turn otherwise good days into a nightmare. It’s important to me that we shouldn’t stop ourselves from practising self-love in the body that we are in right now because how can you take care of something you don’t love? It’s time that we walk away from the beauty standards that our cultures and society have imposed on us.
How do you think people can mindfully practise self-acceptance and self-love?
I think before anything, it really starts with being able to see and admit that there is a problem. We can easily deny it by telling ourselves that “I’ll be fine. It will pass. One day I’ll learn to just live with myself”. The only way to start mindfully practising self-acceptance and self-love is by being self-aware and honest with yourself. Sitting down with yourself and having uncomfortable conversations reveals a lot about why our minds are wired the way they are. The mind, body, and soul need to be aligned in order to be able to be healthy, physically and mentally.
What are your goals for the future? What are you working towards?
I can sit here and say my goal for the future is to become a top model, which would be great, but my genuine desire is to become an inspiration to many Asians who have been quiet and stayed in the shadows for too long. I look at our industry and nobody seems to even notice it but there is not enough Asian representation.
The fashion industry as a whole is notoriously bad at encouraging diversity and Asian models are often lost in a conversation that is simplified to just black and white. How often do we really see a non-half-white, East Asian as the focus in magazines, billboards and commercials? Ultimately, it’s not just about having an Asian model for the sake of it, but demonstrating that Asian women are just as worthy to be in the spotlight as their white, black, and Latina counterparts.
Sarah’s Beauty Picks
Krave Beauty Kale-Lalu-yAHA 5.25% Glycolic Acid Treatment, SGD41
Physiogel Daily Moisture Therapy Facial Cream, SGD23.90
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