The Korea Herald


[AtoZ into Korean mind] Fatphobia pervasive in Korea

Why remarks about another's body size might not necessarily raise red flags in Korea

By Song Seung-hyun

Published : March 24, 2024 - 17:22

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"Your face looks good."

When Justin Ku first heard this remark from one of his relatives here, he took it as a compliment. He later discovered that the phrase is more often used by Koreans to point out when you've gained weight.

"I was shocked by how casually they said it," said Ku, 34, who had emigrated to the US when he was young and moved back to Korea as an adult.

Ku is not alone in his surprise at the prevalence of body-shaming embedded in the fatphobic social atmosphere of Korea.

This issue gained attention here last year when a TikTok video went viral, sparking an online debate.

The video featured the interior of a Seoul subway station with a pictogram on the ground depicting an overweight body shape with an arrow directing such riders to take the escalator, next to another pictogram of a standard-looking, slim body and an arrow instructing such other riders to take the stairs.

While commenters debated the original intention of the pictograms, many interpreted them as an everyday display of fat-shaming.


Good intentions?

In Korea, comments that could be perceived as fatphobic are often accepted and regarded as well-meaning, rooted in a concern for one’s health.

Expressions like "If you enjoyed it, it's 0 calories," and "If it's delicious, you won't get fat" are often shared in a lighthearted way, typically before or after indulging in consuming a lot of calories, as a playful justification for enjoying them.

"I use those phrases a lot casually with my friends," said Min Soo-yeon, a 31-year-old office worker in Seoul.

"Honestly, I don't see much of a problem using them. They're just a fun way of saying, 'Let's enjoy high-calorie foods without feeling guilty or having concerns about gaining weight.'"

But some critics say the expressions ironically underscore the extensive focus on weight management in Korea. While these sayings appear to brush off calorie concerns, they actually highlight the pervasive guilt associated with consuming too many calories.

What also lies underneath is a deeper, prevailing belief that being overweight implies a lack of self-control or discipline, and is the result of being lazy.

According to a 2021 survey conducted by the Korean Society for the Study of Obesity among 1,000 people aged 20 to 59, 58 percent agreed or strongly agreed that obese people look lazy, while 56 percent also agreed or strongly agreed that obese people seem to lack willpower and self-control.

These factors easily normalize negativity toward larger bodies.

This trend is particularly prevalent among K-pop singers, who are praised for their self-discipline when staying thin and criticized harshly for any weight gain.

In 2021, Itzy's Yuna, at the age of 17, openly discussed her dietary habits, emphasizing how she only eats chicken breast and salad without dressing for dinner in order to stay thin.

She received praise for what was perceived as doing a good job at "self-management," or "jagi gwalli" in Korean, a term which means maintaining one's physical appearance, fitness and health, but is often used to refer to staying thin.

However, in 2022, Ive's Liz, also 17 at the time, faced harsh online criticism for gaining weight. Many Koreans claimed she was failing at such self-management, asserting that staying thin is one of her responsibilities as a K-pop band member.


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Consequences of fatphobia

Kim Ji-yang, a plus-size model and organizer of meetups themed around encouraging body diversity, believes that a society saturated with fatphobic comments is detrimental and in need of change.

She said that pointing out someone's weight should not be done and is no one else's business, when the causes for weight gain are diverse and each individual knows their own body best.

"Talking about another person's body and weight itself is a problem. It is nothing more than hate speech," she told The Korea Herald.

"There needs to be an end to the perception that being obese is something that needs to be eradicated."

Doctors also warn against attributing being overweight to an individual's lack of willpower.

“Many people are obese not only due to lifestyle habits such as eating too many calories and not getting enough exercise. There could also be factors like one's genetic predisposition or biological factors,” said Kim Yoo-hyun, a family medicine doctor.

“Also asking severely obese patients to lose weight on their own just through willpower is like telling them to control their menstrual cycle," she added.

Dr. Sean Wharton, an obesity specialist who leads Wharton Medical Clinic in Canada, also emphasized the need for a change in such societal perceptions in Korea during the International Congress on Obesity and Metabolic Syndrome 2023, organized by the KSSO.

"Appropriate obesity treatment is only possible when prejudice against obese people changes," he said.

He explained that negative perceptions of obese people can stimulate anxiety, leading them to adopt unhealthy habits such as consuming a lot of calories and avoiding exercise, creating a vicious circle.

A study conducted by Seol Kyoung-ok, a psychology professor at Ewha Womans University, also concluded that the social perception of a skinny body being beautiful, reinforced through the media, can lead to eating disorders. The research involved 326 female university students in their early 20s.

"Accepting societal beauty standards shown in the media can lead to negative emotions about one's own body. When these emotions translate into the behavior of comparing one's appearance with others, it significantly increases the likelihood of eating disorders," she said in an article published in 2023.

Body dysmorphic disorder is becoming a problem in Korea among teenagers, who tend to care a lot about their appearance and their peers' perceptions.

According to a survey conducted by the Ministry of Education in 2017, among teen girls who are considered to be of normal weight or underweight with a body mass index below the 85th percentile, one out of three considered themselves "fat."

To tackle the issue, the Education Ministry noted that though not mandatory, some local schools are providing education to students on creating a healthy body image.

“We do health surveys, and they ask you what you think of your own body. Based on the results, school nurses may conduct such classes, if necessary,” said ministry official Kim Jin-hyung.


"A to Z into the Korean mind" traverses the complexities of the Korean psyche, examining an array of mental and emotional phenomena and their cultural nuances through keywords in alphabetical order. – Ed.