11 4 / 2012

So as promised I am going to discuss the other side of my opinion. While obesity is physically harming America at a greater rate, I think that the opposite end of the spectrum, anorexia or extreme weight loss is more prevelant in Korea and while of course very physically damaging I think it is more psychologically damaging overall for Korea. 

First of all let’s talk about the hands on experince I’ve had with this issue. Out of my 3 classes of 5-6 year olds over my time in Korea, each class between 9-12 kids in each class at least TWO sometimes 3 of those children were on “diets”. Mind you unlike America there were no kids in my class that could even be considered chubby for their age and height. Yet already at 5 or 6 kids would tell me, “I can’t eat that cupcake because I want to be a ballerina and ballerinas only eat fruit.” I also had students tell me, “I can’t eat that, mom said if I eat sweets I’ll be in trouble/fat/ugly/get bad grades” This is already at 5 or 6 years old! 

My older students were worse. Mainly girls of course because they boys at least pretended to not care. My students age 8-12 regularly compared their weight and height and would as a class judge each student as healthy or fat. Some classes were not that extreme and would just talk about how fat other people are or pick on the heavier kids in the class. Obviously my Korean teachers and I strongly discouraged this with some success but any efforts to tell them that they were kids and all still growing and changing was laughed off. The girls that were slightly larger were already outcast and feeling ashamed of their body, even by their friends that they played with everyday and lived beside. Now I know kids will be kids but I remember as a kid these things didn’t occur to us until a much later age. I was pretty chubby in that awkward almost a teenage stage for about a year and my friends treated me no different. Not in Korea, your best friend will slam you down as fast as she can if you don’t fit the exact norm size of a Korean kid.

Now women in Korea…oh lord. I have never met a more f’ed up group of dieters in my life. Obviously it starts very early in life, often by their mothers, but almost every Korean woman I met between 20-40 was obsessed with her weight. I can think of a few exceptions who were abnormally strong willed, bull headed, and independent for Korean women. I have heard of some of the craziest diets in Korea. One girl I know went on an all liquid diet for a month. Another girl got shots to “break up” her fat cells (I have no idea if this is a legit treatment but it seemed to work from appearance at least). My best friend gave up fried food and skipped dinner every day, replacing it with a water full of lemon juice. Then there are the girls who just stop eating or are even denied food by their mom because their mom thinks they’re fat and controls the portions served at meals. Chances are if your momma says your fat in Korea you are not going to sneak into the fridge after mom goes to sleep. 

This is backed up by facts from Korea’s top universities that said women age 20-39 in Korea have a rising problem with being underweight. Up to 13.2% in 2007. Yet overall there is a growing number of overweight people in Korea - except this one demographic. So what the heck is going on with these women? My opinion, the physiological pressure to be thin is OVERWHELMING in Korea. You have to be a sack of bones in Korea if you want to 1. Be pretty at all 2. Get a boy friend 3. Be respected by friends and admired 4. Have a successful career 5. Turn that bf into a husband. Of course there are many other factors that effect these by from my many friends this general idea of why you need to be thin resonates loud and clear. 

Of course studies consider that overall Koreans have a lower BMI than western societies. Helped in part by their active lifestyle and healthy traditional diet which have been promoted to prevent over weight problems since the 1988 Olympics when an influx of foreign foods and people poured into the country. But that’s not enough to explain why 13.2% of this demographic is underweight. Studies of Korean undergrads have shown that the lower a woman’s BMI the more inflated her perceived weight is. Meaning the skinnier a Korean girl is, the fatter she thinks she is. Psychological effects of eating disorders and skewed body image. In studies with Korean coeds and American ones the Korean women rated considerably higher in body dissatisfaction. 

Studies have proven that much of this is related to the Korean “collective” identity standard. Where as Americans are taught to be individuals and embrace different talents, skin colors, etc Koreans are not at all. In fact in Korea being different is often times not good at all because they view themselves as a collective people. Also there is an increasing influence from outside forces, foreign media, projecting a foreign beauty image. We all know the plastic surgery obsession in Korea is fueled by this but so is the desire to be stick thin. Then there is another psychological factor, 72% of Korean women attend college, a higher % than in any other country. However there has been a huge societal backlash in the form of reenforcing strict physical parameters on women. Intentional or not it is proven that in Korea the images being slammed at women to be weak, thin, passive things is there and greatly influencing the way these girls see themselves.

Think about the pressure we face to be thin in America, multiply it by at least 50, insert a homogenous society and that might start to explain the psychological pressure these girls feel everyday. However it is proven that in all other demographics of the population the average BMI is increasing. So obviously this problem is very generalized to a specific group. Think about it guys. How many abnormally thin ajjumas do you see? Not many. Most older Korean women have a healthy layer of skin on them and seem far from underweight. I’m not talking about a soccer mom I’m talking about women over 40 or 45. Have you ever seen an anorexic ajjuma in Korea? Cause I haven’t, not that I can remember. So if annorexia is a problem in Korea it’s very limited compared to the number and variety of people effected by obesity in America, therefore making physical illness from obesity in America more prevalent. However what I mentions is just the TIP of the iceberg of the mental dilemas of Korean women and their weight.

A 2010 survey by the Korean Ministry of Health state that 1/5 of Korean women are undernourished. The survey says that this is all due to dieting. Obviously this is terrible. Yet it’s entirely possible to be malnourished and obese too. Of course annorexia is disgusting to look at and extremely dangerous to people’s health. It is liable to slow your heart rate and usually leads to a faster death than obesity. But still…I think people have a hard time distinguishing between being very thin and anorexia, especially coming from the West where the Korean idea of thin (not underweight) is our idea of extremely thin. Yet having traveled the road of anorexia with a close friend as a teenager I have a hard time labeling the typical skinny Korean girl as actually anorexic. They are often underweight and scarily thin but people that truly have anorexia have many more problems than the fact that they look like a skeleton. Their hair thins and often falls out in chunks. Their eyes protrude in the scariest way I’ve ever seen. Their growth is stunted.

Yes there are girls in Korea with anorexia. Yes it is a terrible disease that kills people. Yes we often cut slack to people who are underweight because of beauty standards.  Pressure on women to look like SNSD is disgusting and disheartening. How can any woman strive to be a person who is the product of professional handlers, plastic surgery, and photoshop? It’s impossible to reach the level of perfect portrayed to Korean women. However the number of Korean women suffering from being underweight are a much smaller percent of the population than those effected by obesity. However the amount of pressure and shame put on Korean women for their bodies is staggering and truly upsetting.  It’s mind blowing the pressure to be stick thin in Korea and it targets one specific segment of the population. Hence why I think the struggles of Korea’s women are more psychologically harmful VS the much more wide spread physical side effects of obesity in America. Both are very dangerous but there is no way to even compare the physical effects when the % of Americans who are obese squashes the number of underweight people in Korea. 

http://www.people.fas.harvard.edu/~expose/issues/issue_2011/hellgren.html

http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/news/nation/2011/04/117_56823.html

  1. chickenxpindaloo reblogged this from mysocalledkoreanlife and added:
    So l’ve been surrounded by this for tje past five and a half years.
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