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. http://www.vipps-clinic.com/nose/content/c1_0101.php)
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).
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. http://www.asiaone.com/Health/News/Story/A1Story20100903-235376.html. 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. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religion_in_South_Korea. Access date: September 23, 2010.