Thursday, September 23, 2010

The skinny on eating disorders in Korea

South Korea is a country of tiny women and sometimes, even tinier men. The sight of anyone significantly overweight causes me to do a double take in the subway, and more often than not, it turns out to be a foreigner.

It’s a land of the “free size”, the one and only size available in most Korean-made clothing and probably for good reason: one size does generally fit all. I always thought that Koreans were just naturally small-framed, and to a large extent this is true; genetics combined with a (fairly) healthy lifestyle play a huge role, but what I didn’t realize is that the rates of eating disorders are high…and on the rise.

I guess I really shouldn’t be surprised, considering the tremendous value put on appearance here. Everywhere you turn, there’s a Korean looking in the mirror, glass (anything reflective!) at themselves; examining every bump and imperfection, adjusting their hair, make up, sometimes just unabashedly staring (and in the worst cases, popping their pimples…or even their boyfriends!). In Canada, I would be embarrassed to be caught catching a glimpse of myself while passing a mirror or taking a sultry self-portrait, but here, it’s entirely commonplace.

I’m not saying that appearance isn’t important; some Canadians could certainly take a little more pride in theirs (pajama pants in public…come on!), but when you have to send a photograph in with your resume to apply for a job, it’s not hard to see why Koreans might get hung up on their looks…and their weight.

Mirror, mirror on the wall…

As a result, plastic surgery is popular and widely accepted in Korea. I went with my Korean friend, (we’ll call her D), to get my hair done one Saturday afternoon, and was bombarded with advertisements for plastic surgery of all types as I flipped through a Korean magazine. When D started naming off all the different kinds of surgery that the Korean teachers at our academy had had done, I was exceptionally taken aback: double eyelid surgery, nose jobs, fat from the thigh injected into the forehead and cheeks (to make the face less flat), and even into the back of the head (to make the head rounder)!

Double eyelid surgery seems to be the big seller around here. If you’re wondering what the heck “double eyelids” are, they are the eyelids that non-Asian people have, i.e. not hooded eyelids (see the picture on the left). These surgeries are increasingly common: they’re often given as graduation gifts to girls from their parents after they finish high school.

The before and after pictures in the magazines suggested an interesting, if not disturbing, trend. To me, the before pictures looked very Korean, while the after pictures looked much more Caucasian, as if the person was only half Korean (see picture below). D told me that many Asian models and actresses who we in the West think of as being very beautiful, are seen in Korea as ugly, because they tend to have very “Asian” features, like sharp, defined cheekbones, small noses, and distinct almond-shaped eyes. I myself wouldn’t mind a nice delicate Asian nose, mine being a little above average in size, (maybe a slight understatement), but in Korea, I am often praised for having such a “high” nose, a term I much prefer to the usual ones I hear back home (usually more along the lines of “beakish”), although one little boy did tell me I looked like an elephant the other day (haha).

(*Check out this website for a look at the different types of plastic surgeries in Korea. Make sure not to miss the section titled "Reason why Asian nose is not beautiful"...absolutely disgusting.

My friend D has been pressured many times by her mother to get a number of facial surgeries, but has resisted (rightly so; she’s a beautiful girl)! Not only that, but her mother has suggested she get injections to decrease the size of her fat cells, and even sent her to a “fat camp” when she returned from university in the U.S. to shed the extra pounds she had gained while living there.

These are not the only disturbing stories I’ve heard. A friend told me that a friend of her friend, a Korean girl, found it unbearable to live in Korea as an overweight person. She said that it was difficult to make friends; no one would speak to her, and that sometimes she was even ridiculed in public by strangers. She ended up moving to the United States, where she happily reported back that she finally felt accepted and had made friends.

The Westernization theory: popular but true?

A recent survey of more than 13,000 people worldwide found that Koreans are among the most weight-conscious in the world, with 28% weighing themselves weekly, the largest number next to Americans (1). It’s not alarming then, in a collectivist society where being overweight or obese is rare and where adhering to the norm is imperative, that eating disorder numbers are on the rise.

It was difficult for me to find actual statistics in English on disordered eating in Korea, but what is clear from the few journal articles that I’ve read, is that rates in Korea are now similar to those in the West (2).

The only journal article I found worth mentioning is a trans-cultural comparison of disordered eating in Korean women of various backgrounds: second-generation Korean Americans, Korean immigrants to the U.S., and native Koreans. The study was conducted to examine the theory that Westernization of South Korea is to blame for the increasing levels of eating disorders in Korean women, a position that is popular in recent research.

According to Westernization, individuals in non-Western cultures are adversely affected by an introduction to Western beliefs and ideals, including the thin ideal. Eating disorders among Koreans may be caused by attempts to emulate the West as it is portrayed through media.” (2)

This particular study, however, disputed this hypothesis as it found that even though Korean Americans had the most exposure of the three groups to Western ideals and norms, they had the lowest rate of disordered eating when compared to women born in Korea (2).

Korea, j’accuse!

The authors of the article suggest that the blame may lie beyond Westernization, and may perhaps be more related to Korean culture than to Western culture.

Although only 0.2% of South Koreans list Confucianism as their religion, Confucian ideology is still largely influential on other religious practices (namely Buddhism and Christianity as the primary religions in South Korea) and on Korean culture as a whole (3). According to traditional Confucian gender roles, a woman serves her family by getting married into a prominent family. While matchmakers rate men primarily by occupation, women are rated mainly by looks, which leads parents to place great value on their daughter’s appearance, often over their abilities. This, coupled with the importance of self-restrictive behaviours in Confucianism, suggests a link between the ever-present Confucian ethical thought in Korean culture and eating disorders (2).

Regardless of the root causes, whether they be of Western or Asian origin, eating disorders in Koreans continue to climb, but hopefully with the right education and the appropriate prevention and treatment programs, the numbers will fall, and “free size” will no longer make the heavy girl feel imprisoned in her own country.


(1) Lee JY, Asia One Health. Koreans Among Most Weight-Conscious. Access date: September 23, 2010.

(2) Jackson SC, Keel PK and Lee HY. 2006. Trans-cultural Comparison of Disordered Eating in Korean Women. Int J Eat Disord 39: 498-502.

(3) Wikimedia Foundation Inc. 2010. Religion in South Korea. Access date: September 23, 2010.


  1. Hey Tess - great blog! A very interesting read. Insightful and well-written. Keep it up! As an athlete I've been trying to pay special attention to diet, especially over the past few years, so I'm always on the lookout for new ideas. A recent read that I found particularly interesting was "The Primal Blueprint" by Mark Sisson. It really changed how I thought about diet and might be interesting for you too. He also has a website at

    Anyways, just thought I'd give you a shout-out and hope things are well in Korea.


  2. Thanks so much Thomsen! I'm sure I could learn a thing or two from your nutritional habits! I will definitely check out the book. Thanks for the feedback!

  3. hey tess, i just got around to taking a look at your site; i got a smile at the insights you're having about this unique culture; it reminds me so much of my first year~ keep up the good work.

  4. Thanks Anthony! It's definitely been an eye-opening experience when it comes to food!

  5. Ridiculous. Im a korean girl. Ive always been an eater. Many of my korean girlfriends eat alot. and more frequently.
    Korean girls keep good diet and exercise frequently. They keep themselves busy and are active pretty much all day every day. Its unlike western girls. I know well cause i grew up in the states and lived in europe for a long time. Korean diet is also very healthy usually consisting of lots of veggies and fermented foods along with rice and enough fish/meat.

  6. Hi Anonymous,

    Thanks for your comments!

    I am definitely not trying to imply that all Korean girls have eating disorders. I'm simply pointing out that eating disorders in Korea are on the rise, as they are in many other developed countries, and highlighting different theories surrounding this increase (Westernization vs. Korean Confucian values).

    I also think it is unfair to say that all Western girls have a poor diet and aren't active, although this is the case for many I'm sure, but definitely a huge generalization.

    I certainly agree that the Korean diet is very healthy, especially when compared to a typical Western diet. As you said, lots of vegetables and fermented foods, with a much more healthy intake of meat.

    In your opinion, do you think it's fair to say that there is more of an emphasis on appearance in Korea than in the United States? For me, as a Westerner living in Korea, I feel that appearance is important both in Korea and in the West, but its importance is much more blatantly obvious in Korea, whereas in Canada, at least, it is considered almost vain to care about your appearance too much.

    Again, thanks for commenting and I'd love to hear more from you!

  7. I absolutely believe the eating disorder is on the rise in Korea. I'm sure a great number of Koreans don't even realize that they are suffering from it. I know that the majority of Koreans are not very familiar with disorder. Koreans definitely need to be more aware of this serious problem.

  8. Wow Tess your blog was very amazing to me. I just started watching KDramas and I most say that guys in Korea are so skinny for their normal height weight that my mouth drops. The more I watch KDramas I started see that eating disorder is not westerns thing,because in the western world men are support to be all muscle with six packs. I feel like they are too obsesses with looks. I believe Asians have very pretty eyes and this is coming from a girl with a lot of Asian friends from all over Asia.

  9. This article is probably a good summarization about eating disorders, but as you said, definitely not a generalization of Koreans in general. Some things (like the push for plastic surgery and daughter's looks over abilities) are not, I don't think, as prominent as it might be made out to be. Yes, Koreans do generally have a healthier diet than westerners, but many westerners are very good about eating and exercising well. The view of good looks are very different in the east and west. In the east, thin people with more delicate features and pale skin are more popular than what the west would like. A more toned (or muscular) tanner individual.(This is just a general idea.) As for the problem of being overweight, I don't really see any prejudice over weight. There are some chubby singers and celebrities, and I see some who are chubbier than others with friends on the streets. I guess it's really hard to stamp anyone with any sort of real label, because whether it's true or not, an individual is an individual, no matter what their ethnicity, culture, race etc.

  10. I think your blog is full of SHIT...Obviously you haven't explored Asia enough... If your so concerned about Asian or should i say "Koreans" women are to conscious about their weight, shouldn't Americans look at their weight? Lol I mean, it is a known fact more than half Americans are over-weight.Theres a higher chance of becoming ill through being over-weight. I think your just jealous,honestly.

  11. Gosh calm down. This person is just bringing up an issue and saying facts and their opinion about it. That is what a blog is for.
    They never said that there wasn't a problem with weight or eating disorders in the usa, they were simply speaking about the problems in korea. Calm the fuck down.

  12. To the nasty comment above: the author has great observations, I lived in Korea for a long time and 99% of what she has observed is true. Korean culture is very much about lookism and superficiality and plastic surgery is as common as a coffee there. Korean women are incredibly obsessive about their looks and as equally insecure and judgemental. I am good friends with a Korean woman who has been having some health issues, she went to the doctor, who promptly informed her that he problems were due to her being so obese and that she had the body of a 60 yr old (my friend is a 32 yr old mother of one who is 5"4 and a whopping 130 lbs, so obese right?) But thats Korea for you. Even the doctors buy into the "if you arent 45 kg...then you are fat". You cant even go to the doc with a cold without them.suggesting diet pills and diet shots. By the way, Koreans have the lowest obesity rate in the world and one.of the highest consumptions of diet pills.....if that says anything. Plastic surgery isnt "exaggerated" if you live in Korea you will see tons and tons of advertisements for it and once you have been there awhile, you can easily tell the Koreans who have had surgeries done from the ones who havent, there is a big difference (saw lots of eyelid.scars while there, kinda freaky) Expats have a joke "How do you know when you are in Korea? When "you have nice eyelid creases" is zaid seriously as a compliment".

    This isnt an article about the USA or Americans, this is about Korea and Koreans, so dont bring the old.arguement "Well AMERICANS are fat!" To try and distract. If anything, you sound like an insecure Korean girl who cant stand the truth about Korean plastized beauty.

  13. Um I'd just like to dispute your statement about how Koreans with double-eyelids look only half-Asian or even Caucasian.... I don't see how that's even possible since a Korean's eye looks really different to a Caucasian's originally anyways double-eyelids or not. Generally, most Asians have crescent or smaller eyes, where Caucasians have tended to have eyes which are rounder in shape. I, myself, am a Korean naturally born with double-eyelids, and I don't look the slightest bit Caucasian, often being referred to as the 'true Korean' when hanging out with my friends as I look the most Korean out of them.

  14. I can agree to your opinion somewhat.

    But If there are foreigners who want to know about Korea, it could make prejudice against Korea women. You can see and feel like this in Korea, but not everyone.

    I am Korean living in US for almost 1 year. I can not judge western just by my thinking because i can not judge them easily.

    I am a little bit upset because of the pictures you posted.
    I felt you just wanted to disparage Korean girls.

  15. yeah, good point anon ^

    Korea is a lovely, progressive and not at all judgmental place for a woman. There's nothing racist or sexist about underage girls getting surgeries to give them the eyes of a Caucasian Disney character. Nothing wrong with girls starving themselves so that a nice Korean boy will find them worthy of marriage. Nothing wrong with women and men making bitchy and judgmental comments about other women's bodies. This author clearly just wanted to disparage Korean girls. I mean, Korea is perfect, right? Can't have anyone believing otherwise. I would address the rest of your comment, but the last two sentences were the only ones that made any kind of grammatical sense.

  16. I've often thought recently that there is not enough awareness of eating disorders in Asian countries. In my experience Japan and Hong Kong seem to be the skinniest, but I believe Korea is heading that way too.

    Japanese friends have told me about girls of their acquaintance in their mid20s who have stopped menstruating due to their extreme thinness (is that a word?) and I've met many Hong Kong girls with heads the same size as mine, but thighs no bigger than my arms. They eat a lot at meal times, but then simply throw it up afterwards.

    I agree with everything the author wrote, and I think if more people could agree this issue and raise awareness about the unhealthiness of this ideal body image, only then can these women be liberated and move to a positive mindset of body acceptance.

  17. So as a Western person the first thing you think when you see a Korean girl get surgeries to look traditionally beautiful is "she's trying to look white". Okay, then. Because big eyes and a nice nose aren't considered pretty in ANY other culture.

  18. I don't know why but after reading this post it feels like it's wrong to be fat. Being fitness conscious is true. But not to this extent that you make the rest of the world feel like losers.

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  20. Im 5'4'' and was 130lbs(ive been losing weight). Growing up I was always underweight but then as I became 13 I ate more food due to stress. Even when i was underweight i ate nice portions but it was because i was so active that i never gained weight. There was nothing wrong with me nor is there anything wrong with being 130lbs. It just isnt right for me since im used to being thin and running a ton. But i really started to take into account that i was getting wider around the time i started involving into Korea culture(dramas and music). I scrapped the surface of a bad eating disorder by not eating anything at all, and if i did i used laxitives to pass my food.
    I noticed how some girls were 5'4" and weighed just 98lbs. Im not sure thats healthy to maintain, neither was an eating disorder.
    Atleast im on a better track now and losing good weight without needing to starve.
    More people should know that.