The Korea Herald


One in 7 Korean women in 20s underweight: study

Strict beauty standards glamorizing stick-thin figures push young Korean females to lose weight, raising risk of health problems: study

By Park Jun-hee

Published : Jan. 8, 2024 - 14:43

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One in nearly six or seven Korean women in their 20s are underweight, and almost half of these young women weighing less than average or classified as normal weight attempt to lose more weight to cater to Korea’s strict beauty standards idealizing thin bodies, a report showed Monday.

According to a study published by the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency on the percent of South Korean adults who attempt to lose weight and related factors using the Body Mass Index classification, 15.1 percent of women aged between 19 and 29 had a BMI of less than 18.5, or were underweight.

The findings came to light based on the results of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey conducted from 2013 to 2021.

BMI is calculated by dividing a person’s weight in kilograms by the square of their height in meters. It indicates body fatness and screens for weight categories that may lead to health problems. A BMI of under 18.5 falls within the underweight range, while a BMI from 18.5 to 24.9 falls within the healthy weight range. A BMI of 25 to 29.9 falls within the overweight range, while a BMI of 30 or higher is categorized as obese.

The data noted that a growing number of Korean women, especially young women, have a higher tendency to overestimate their body image as “fat” when compared to their actual body shape because Korea’s beauty standards idealize skinniness.

The percent of underweight women in Korea stood at 14.8 percent in 2019-2021, up 2.4 percent from 12.4 percent in 2016-2018, showing that young females have been reporting more weight loss intentions in recent years. Also, 16.2 percent of underweight women here had attempted to lose additional weight, while 53.9 percent of women with a BMI between 18.5 to 23 -- healthy according to the measure -- had tried to slim down in 2019-2021.

Expressing concerns about the underweight phenomenon particularly among younger women here, the study pointed out that underweight or normal-weight people who regularly go on diets to lose weight may increase their risk of cardiovascular disease as well as be prone to malnutrition, anemia -- a condition in which the body doesn’t have enough healthy red blood cells -- and osteoporosis -- a bone disease that develops when bone mineral density and bone mass decrease. Underweight women are also at a higher risk of adverse pregnancy outcomes such as experiencing recurrent miscarriages, according to the report.

Moreover, the study found gender differences in weight-related attitudes, citing the declining trend in the percent of obese Korean men trying to lose weight.

The percentage of overweight men in their 30s and 40s here who are trying to lose weight has been on the wane, with figures dropping from 57.5 percent to 56.9 percent for men in their 30s 2013-2015 and 61.9 percent to 54.7 percent for men in their 40s, respectively. In contrast, some 62.9 percent of Korean women with a BMI of 25 or above tried to lose weight from 2019 to 2021, while only 54.6 percent of men did.

In addition, the report explained that women tend to attempt to lose weight when they are stressed out about possibly getting fat, when they don’t have a chronic illness and in other words are in healthy condition or when they are heavy drinkers. Men who are non-smokers are more likely to attempt weight loss.

Regarding perceptions of body dissatisfaction and health problems, the study underscored the importance of rethinking Korea’s strict beauty ideals and practices, calling for better education about maintaining healthy body images and helping people here positively perceive physical appearance.