This post is just for the ladies. Dudes, you can read this too, but be forewarned, if the word “menstruation” skeeves you out you should really just stop reading this right now.
Gals, Korea is a magical land filled with magical chances for magical adventures… most of the time. However, if you’re a lady who is not the typical Korean size (aka small) and who thinks pads are essentially lady diapers and avoid them at all costs, moving to Korea is going to present you with some interesting obstacles. Fear not, gals! Life here can be normal, you just need to know where to go!
*Note: As there are no internationally recognized sizes, we use US sizes as reference in this post.
Korean Cultural Taboos
You might be a little shocked when you arrive to see Korean girls wearing the shortest of short skirts you have ever seen and wearing them EVERYWHERE! Seriously, I’ve seen women in business suits with mini skirts. In Korean culture, showing your legs has become very typical. Conversely, however, showing chest and shoulders is still considered VERY risqué! This is steadily becoming less controversial, but if you are wearing a strapless dress or a low-plunging neckline you are pretty sure to get some shocked looks from passersby. Invest in a cardigan or wrap to wear on your way to the party if you want to avoid the deadly KOREAN STARE!
News flash: you cannot buy make-up in grocery stores! Most Koreans buy their make-up from stand-alone make-up stores. These stores are EVERYWHERE and you will need to do some trial and error to find which brand you like best. Koreans also use a lot of different products that you may not have seen before. For example, Koreans rarely use foundation, but rather a product called BB cream. It provides a medium to light coverage and often has other benefits as well (such as whitening, wrinkle reduction, and blemish treatment). The best place to try out a ton of different brands and products is Myeongdong, where you can test out literally every make-up chain in Korea.
“Big Size” Clothing and Shoes
Many foreign women moving to Korea have a difficult time when attempting to find clothes and shoes in bigger sizes. Typical Korean stores don’t sell clothes above an American size 8, and even that size can be difficult to come by. There are some international chain stores here (H&M, ZARA, Forever 21) where you can find clothes up to an American size 12-16, but for larger sizes we recommend you go to the clothing warehouses of Dongdaemun or the (insultingly titled) “Big Size” boutiques of Itaewon. Itaewon is also your best bet for shoes beyond an American size 6, though you can also find Aldo stores throughout the city and they just opened a Payless in Myeongdong. For bras above an American cup size B, run to Solb stores!
Clothing and Shoe Repairs
One of the best things about life in Seoul is the presence of cobblers. Particularly in residential areas, but also in business districts, there will be small booths set up to do two things: make keys and fix shoes. They can also do most minor repairs in only a few minutes while you sit and wait. Clothes are also easy to get fixed at Laundromats (Koreans do a LOT of dry cleaning). You can even get things altered at many Laundromats or at custom clothing stores throughout the city.
A lot of Western toiletry brands are available in Korea, but not all of them. In general, many stores will have international brands, but will not offer as much of a variety in terms of specific intended effects (ie volume or curl enhancing). Your best bet for finding a large variety of products or something similar to what you used back home is either big box stores (like EMart or HomePlus) or the wonder that is Olive Young. All of these stores are sprinkled throughout Seoul, especially in large commercial or residential areas.
Most grocery stores, convenience stores, and pharmacies in Korea carry pads, but… come on… you want the good stuff! Not all pharmacies will carry tampons, but some will. If you want a sure-fire bet for cotton magic, Olive Young and Watson’s stores are here to deliver you from diaper hell. These two chains sell Korean brands as well as American brands like Playtex. Also, it’s not common to see sanitary product vending machines in restrooms and the stores that sell tampons normally close pretty early in the night, so make sure you’re always prepared!
Birth control pills are totally legal in Korea and will, on average, cost less than your home country (averaging between 6-8,000 won for one month’s supply). Go into any pharmacy and ask for 피임약 (this author recommends asking for the most popular brand in Korea, Mercilon). Condoms are also widely available in convenience stores, pharmacies, Olive Young and Watson’s stores, and even in subway vending machines. Morning after pills (사후 피임약) are also available without prescription, but some women have reported difficulty obtaining it, so you might have to try a few different pharmacies.
These are just a few tips on being a lady in Korea. What situations have you run into? What questions do you have about being a lady in Korea? Leave your questions and stories in the comments below!
Margaret has been living and working in Seoul since 2011. Originally hailing from the United States (Maine and Tennessee, to be precise) she’s more than found a home amongst the wonders of Seoul. She eats more kimbap that could possibly be healthy for her and has a bad habit of bursting into KPop songs to which she does not know even 80% of the lyrics. Check out her blog at margarettriesbeing.com for more in-depth (that is to say, rambling) articles on Seoul How-To’s, Survival Tips, and excessive use of animated gifs.