The Deal With Korean Females and Being Thin

Often on English-language KPOP entertainment sites and blogs, people will comment or write about how Korean girls can be too skinny, need more meat on their bones, junk in the trunk, etc.

I was one of these people, thinking that having that bit of fat here and there looked fine attractive to a certain limit.

Yet, while living in South Korea these past few years, my point of view has changed.

Now, this is comming from an American girl who’s used to seeing overweight, obese women who can still look pretty and curvy. I’m not saying it’s bad to be overweight, but in Korea, the pressure and standards are a lot different.

I feel the need to write out my own experience because I feel that some of blogs and people who comment about Korean girls being too skinny don’t have the right to make such judgments when they haven’t been exposed to the pressure and self-consciousness. But I’m not here to point fingers and say that those people are wrong, but I just wish to show a different point of view to foreigners/those unfamiliar with how modern Korean society is like.

In the USA, I was average weight. Maybe a bit overweight, but certainly not obese.

Comming to Korea, I found that I was horribly overweight and I started becomming self-conscious of my body and image. I didn’t let it bother me the first year living in Korea, but over time I was getting frustrated with the lack of larger, pretty Korean clothing and feeling fat by just eating out in public compared to the thin, ‘beautiful’ Korean girls.

Koreans are very judgmental about first impressions as well, or basically their first impression of your outer image. If your fat, they think you have no self-restraint and bad eating habits and are basically an ugly person. Things like this are what Koreans usually think.

Now, I’m not saying ALL Koreans think like this, but I’m sure if you go to Korea and ask someone about this, they might reply with something to the same extent.

Back to the subject, I wasn’t only feeling pressure from the public, but also indirect pressure from the media. Seeing all these thin KPOP girl groups (SNSD, Wonder Girls, 4minute, KARA, etc.), I had this feeling of wanting to be thinner so I could be more attractive, not only to myself, but to society as well.

Now, if I was still living in the States, I wouldn’t give a rat’s ass about being thin. Sure, I might want to lose a couple pounds to slim down a bit, but I probably wouldn’t care as much about the fat on my body since every other American girl has extra flab and fat. I’d probably be satisfied with losing 10 pounds and being able to fit into some older clothing of mine.

In Korea, losing 30 pounds isn’t enough for me. Being able to fit into that skirt that I wasn’t able to fit into a year ago isn’t enough for me. Being a few sizes smaller in my jean size isn’t enough for me. In my mind, there’s this voice telling me I need to lose more pounds even though I already got rid of the extra 30lbs.

I’m don’t binge/throw up my food, starve myself, eat once a day, or any of those unhealthy methods that just disgust  me.

At times I might think about doing that to lose weight, but when I think of the health effects in the long run, I decide it’s not worth it.

I eat three meals a day (breakfast, lunch, and dinner) and I excercise daily. Sure, you always hear this from people that that’s what you need to do to lose weight, but I kid you not that if you want to lose some of your extra flab that eating healthy (also watching your calorie and fat intake) and excercising really is how you can lose weight.

I remember watching a Korean documentary on Korean females’ weights, where the first half was about an obessed Korean female, the other half was about an anorexic, bulemic Korean female.

I don’t overeat and stuff myself with unhealthy food like the obsessed Korean and I certainly don’t use unhealthy techniques to achieve weight loss like the bulemic Korean girl, but sometimes I wonder if I’m not any better than the anorexic Korean. I can’t stop thinking that I need to lose more weight. I keep track of whether I’m average weight with a BMI indicator, and so far I am. But I can’t help but think what will happen if I start reaching the ‘underweight’ scale on the BMI chart and still thinking I’m fat.

Will it matter if I still eat healthy foods? Will it matter if I still excercise? Will it still matter if I don’t starve myself and make sure that I eat enough where I feel content but not overly full or deprived?

Although I’m not a full Korean (only half), I can fully understand why Koreans want to be so thin and slim. The environment, society, and even the media brings pressure to have the body of a toothpick to be considered ‘attractive’.

I want to be one of those toothpicks.

And that scares me.

EDIT: Here’s a follow-up post (or part 2) nearly a year after this post. http://jennikim.wordpress.com/2011/02/16/the-deal-with-korean-females-being-thin-2/

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23 thoughts on “The Deal With Korean Females and Being Thin

  1. I’ve been thinking about this subject a lot because I’m about to move to Korea….Here in the US I know that i’m considered healthy at 5″4 and 125 lbs, but i know that in Korea that is considered morbidly obese and i’m torn with that….it scares me a lot to know that when i go to korea people’s perceptions of me will change from “that’s a healthy cute girl” to “that’s an ugly disgusting fat girl”…..Frankly, it scares the shit out of me knowing that I’m going to a country that has the highest percent of plastic surgery per citizen and where anorexia is rampanet….a country full of fake anorexics and where that is considered “healthy”….one side of me is torn between wanting to fit that idea…if I just lost 20 more lbs i’d be considered “pretty” there but if I lose that 20 lbs, i won’t be able to have a period nor children and I’ll be sickly underweight….it actually rather disgusts me that Koreans believe unhealthy is what is healthy….and any doctor will tell you a BMI lower than 17 is unhealthy…anyway it just scares me and i find myself already dieting hard before i go to lose 20 more lbs to be 105 lbs.

    • oh please, you’re not gonna not have periods or diiieeeeee omggeee if you become 105 at 5’4. THats not even korean skinny realy, just slim. I’m 5’6, 106 and the periods come at full force, a head full of thiccckk shiny butt long hair ive been growing for years, and all my blood tests are perfect. I work out an hour of cardio a day and viola, im healthy aaand beautiful.

  2. Pingback: The Deal With Korean Females Being Thin (Part 2) « Jenni Kim's Thoughts & Rambles

  3. Well you know not all of us binge, get plastic surgery, are anorexic, etc. And no you don’t have to be 99lbs to be considered “normal” in Korea. As long as you look thin/healthy weight no one really cares. You’re just putting too much pressure on yourself. I went to Korea recently and especially now there are a lot more bigger people than there was a few years back. Korea is slowly growing more accepting. Personally I dont care what others are like; I think you should just keep yourself healthy. Though I do have to say that I’d much rather see thin people than obese ppl. I;ve experienced both of these while living in Texas and Korea.
    And I bet most of those girls you see who are extremely thin and unhealthy to you actually aren’t that thin or unhealthy. I’m 5’8″ and 105lbs yet I don’t look like I’m anorexic or unhealthy at all. I don’t go on diets or starve myself. I just keep myself fit and drink lots of green tea. I still eat what I want, etc. Many of my friends are like this too. We just have higher metabolisms and a lighter structure(?) im not sure if thats how i should put it. anyways, living in the U.S. I’ve gained more weight than i ever did while staying in korea. Id have to say the lifestyles were the biggest impact and yes like you said, how no one seems to care here (U.S.) that im not a size 0 anymore and instead says i need to go eat a horse or smthg whereas in korea i’d be considered normal. also the plastic surgery thing is a lot influenced by the average standards of beauty. while in school in texas ive had a lot of my friends tell me that ppl have made fun of them for their eyes, nose, etc. many of those friends then went on to get surgery. even i have recieved those insults een though i have the double eyelids. ppl will say, “chink” etc.
    sorry to hear your experience there has been less than pleasant

  4. Hey, this was an interesting post. I’m actually on the opposite situation as you as in now living in the US coming from Korea. I have to say, the lifestyle here is different and in America, I’m having trouble buying clothes. I’m 177 cm (5’10) and 50 kgs (110 lbs) and 99% of the clothes I find are too big for me. I was really surprised how no one cares about their weight here, I constantly see people that are extremely obese (like I don’t even understand how that’s possible). And I really hate this especially when I sit on a bus and the people next to me is like 300 pounds and takes up like a half of my seat. Even the media here has fat people, its so weird. And people here have weird fashion, it seems like only Koreans and some other Asians (Chinese, Japanese) dresses like me. I’ve been here for 3 years and I’m still not used to this. And its even harder for guys to fit in. My bf is 183 (6′) and 56 kg (124 lbs) and people in my college keeps calling him skinny when he’s normal weight. Nothing against America because the education and air here is good compare to Korea but people need to lose a lot of weight here.

    • Naturally, our bone structure tends to be a lot bigger than Asians, so its virtually impossible for us to be (or appear) as thin as you guys. I’m 5’10” and 145 lbs and I look very thin. So much so that people often ask me if I’m ill or if I have an eating disorder! I have very broad shoulders and wide hipbones as well, as opposed to the typical Korean female who has very narrow shoulders and no hips at all.

      When you see an Asian much like yourself, being 5’10” and 110lbs, it looks normal. You look like an averagely thin Asian female. Now when you look at American Supermodels, who often have the same stats as you they look extremely sickly!!!

      Just saying.

      I understand that many Americans should lose weight, but using “numbers” to show how obese we are is just silly. Its more important to focus on the overall health of America as a whole. The truth is that we need to blow up every single fast food chain, microwave, and bakery that still exists here. Its the death of this country.

      • I completely understand you Hyunaepark! I’m in the USA now from Korea and one thing I really like about American culture is that they embrace having curves and being larger. Of course, it’s not good to be too big, but nonetheless there’s not as much pressure to be size 0 as there was to be in Korea.

        And I completely agree Angel. I learned this the hard way by losing a lot of weight and looking overly thin and sickly (although I wasn’t, I was just too skinny for my body frame). My Chinese friend is 5’5 and 130lbs but she looks thinner and more slim than me although I’m only half an inch shorter and currently the same weight. It’s just genetics and how Asians have a different body structure than other races.

    • I completely disagree with you. While there are a lot of overweight people in America if you look at the statistics the United States is pushing fitness. Americans are encouraged to lose weight through healthy methods such as exercising and eating nutritious food. I’m 5’4 and I’m closer to 140lbs but its mostly all muscles. If I went to Korea would I be judged?

      • Uyen, even if the US is attempting to push fitness and health, obesity is still a major, major problem. I think around 30-40% are obese? I’m sure Hyunae wasn’t trying to be offensive, but it’s true that there is a weight epidemic that is occurring.

        Also, I don’t think that the numbers are that important. As the others said, genetics or something is a big variable in that. As long as you appear healthy and thin, I’m sure you won’t be judged. But you’ll probably get pressure to be thin since that’s almost everywhere in Korea. By the way (this is a little irrelevant) I found that I lost way more weight much easily at Korea. I wasn’t really trying, but I think I was doing it subconsciously? Also, their lifestyle is much easier to lose weight to.

    • Hyunaepark,

      Hey there! Obesity is definitely a big issue (lol… no pun intended)… lots of health problems as well as inconveniencing other people (like the bus situation). And I agree- when you’re living in an MEDC it’s really important to remember that, just because you can eat as much as you want, excess isn’t always a good thing and there’s nothing healthy about being obese.

      That said… excess isn’t good at either end of the scale- and malnourishment (being significantly underweight) also creates serious long-term health problems.

      Not trying to lecture you here (I know that sounds pretty hollow but it’s true). Just noticed that the heights and weights you gave are an indication of malnourishment. http://www.nhlbisupport.com/bmi/bmi-m.htm
      I’ll just included a short list of some of the symptoms of malnourishment and if you feel that any of them apply to you then maybe just take some time to re-evaluate your eating habits (it’s so easy to lose track of what’s happening when you’re busy!) and come up with a weekly menu that ensures you meet your minimal nutritional requirements!
      If this is totally irrelevant to you, please just ignore me! I’d feel guilty if I didn’t say anything when it might have helped you in the long term- in case you were unaware that there were health risks associated with being underweight!

      If you feel happy with yourself and have a healthy body and energy levels, that’s the most important thing.

      Not getting enough food into your system everyday can cause some pretty serious health issues down the track including heart failure and osteoporosis- (heart problems will such as anemia and low blood pressure will improve with lifestyle changes but osteoporosis will most likely stay once it’s set in).

      The following are some symptoms of malnutrition (starvation):

      Changes in body metabolism associated with weight loss leads to a lowering of:

      Heart rate
      Blood pressure
      Breathing rate
      Body temperature (which may result in feeling cold)

      Other physical symptoms include:

      Thinning or drying of the hair
      “Lanugo” hair (a fine hair that develops on the face, back, or arms and legs)
      Dry skin
      Restlessness and reduced sleep
      Yellowish color on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet
      Lack of or infrequent menstrual periods

      Self-induced vomiting and laxative abuse are associated with physical complications such as:

      Swollen salivary glands (evident by swelling on the sides of the face)
      Erosion of tooth enamel, increase in dental cavities
      Fatigue
      Body fluid loss
      Bloating, swelling of the feet and ankles
      Soreness or tears in the lining of the mouth or throat
      Constipation, stomach cramps
      Numbness and tingling in the limbs
      Dizziness, weakness, fainting

      Anorexia nervosa can lead to serious symptoms, such as heart problems, seizures, and kidney damage. Death may even occur as a result.

      Osteoporosis (the loss of bone mass) is common in anorexia nervosa. It can lead to a variety of problems, including a tendency toward stress fractures and other bone abnormalities.

      http://ehealthmd.com/content/what-medical-problems-can-anorexia-nervosa-cause

      Hope this was helpful or better still- unnecessary.

      Cheers :)

  5. HI! I went to korea last January and the tour guide said that koreans are really just health conscious. For example, when your child is overweight, the school will call the parents and tell them to make their child lose weight.

    Another is their doctors are not allowed to use the elevators in the hospital except for emergencies. Since doctors usually don’t have time to exercise, they are required to use the stairs.

    And usually they have dinner by 5pm, so no food intake after 6pm. And they really love their pickled dishes, kimchi.

  6. I agree with this blog. I’m a native Korean but I moved to America when I was young. I saw a lot of skinny idols on Korean televisions, but I never really minded. Then in high school, I gained a lot of weight. However, a lot of my classmates and friends thought I had a perfect body although I was not really fit. I worked out before coming to Korea when I graduated high school because I knew that (like every year), my relatives and friends were going to say, “Oh, you gained some weight. I remember back when you were skinny.” It really made me sad whenever Koreans were so straightforward about my physical appearance. I stopped eating unhealthy food and started to eat less and hit the gym every day. The pressure to be skinny and perfect is huge. I see why a lot of Koreans have plastic surgery after high school (some even during high school), but that’s a different story. I wouldn’t say all the skinny Koreans eat healthy food because I know several who just starve themselves and don’t exercise. That’s how they can be so skinny, but I think being fit is better than being skinny.

  7. I’m judged for how I look in China… I use to be so thin and my bones were not as wide. My bmi stood at 12.1 before but now I’m 17.7 and my family members judge about how fat I am. My friends don’t say I’m fat, but when I look in the mirror I just think I look fat. I’m 5’3 (160cm) tall and 100lbs (45kg). I know that is like the ideal weight for most people but for my family they think I should be thinner because of how I was before… my parents make me eat a lot but they say that I should also lose weight so I sometimes give some food away and eat until I’m full. I’m aiming for around 85-90lbs without doing much so I’m pretty much still healthy

    • This documentary was about 2~3 years ago and it was when I was living in Korea, so the show was on the Korean TV. I have no idea about the name, what TV station it was on, etc. it was just a show I was watching randomly when I was switching channels. Sorry I could be of little help :(

  8. I really really like your conversation about Korea because I want to go to Korea and I want to know more about them it was a big help for me…thank you very much…

  9. wow i never realized how big being skinny in Korea was and i didnt realize the pressure that you and those girls faced every day over there. What is the average weight that a korean girl wants to be? Im actually wanting to take a trip in a couple of years there and want to know what tips would be good to know before i go over there.

  10. Yeah, im planning to Take a trip to korea in a few years also, with my friend and we both wanted to know the average weight over there cuz we dont want to be straight up told to lose weight when we get there -_- and we figured being only 5’0 we’d have to dip low to 90 pounds ;o !! Plus, i heard (notsure if its true) that over there their really rude/mean to people who AREN’T korean 0_o …..?

    • People aren’t rude and wont’ judge you if you’re fat or overweight. Especially if you’re a foreigner, you can get away with more (whether it’s not being the typical Korean body type, or having a different fashion style than average Korean, etc.) And I’m considered a foreigner (since I am only half Korean and look more Japanese than Korean) yet I am not treated rudely. Sometimes people are rude in general, and you might run into them, but on an average, I met a lot of helpful, kind people while I was in Korea. To assume you would be treated so rudely in Korea because of your weight or physical appearance was not the intention of my blog post. Korean people in general are very nice and overweight or not, I would prefer to live in Seoul than the USA or any other country because of the culture and people. The only people who would tell you straight up if you need to lose weight is family (especially in Asian families. I have Korean, Japanese, and Chinese friends who complain that they’re mom is telling them they are fat or to lose some weight, but it is said in a more endearing helpful way rather than being very cruel and hurtful about it).

      I hope I do not sound judgmental, but your view seemed very naive and immature to assume something about a whole society. I’ve had more than enough foreign friends who are a bit overweight or rather large, but have a lot of wonderful, genuine Korean friends (some even dating Koreans! Lucky~). My point is that the media (especially in K-Pop and Korean Dramas) play up that you need to be thin in the Korean society and that puts pressure on the people who live there. But Korean people themselves will not put that pressure on you or tell you that you should be skinny or that you are too fat.

  11. Hey people from different areas around the world,
    I am from Russia, but I moved to California when I was only 6 years of age. I have always been known for being the skinny athletic cute adorable bubbly girl. Well now I am known to being the Russian that is reckless and optimistic about everything and also the girl that can insult everything and anything but still make it funny and not hurtful. Well I am now 5’4 (from my last doctor check up) and I weigh around 120-125 it jumps around because of body weight. I have a huge appetite, but I choose to eat the healthy things such as apples and other fruit that don’t consume of as much sugar as others. I drink water daily, and I am naturally athletic. People here say I’m “normal” when in reality I am feeling as if I am over weight at all time although it’s practically all muscle. I do have fat, but I do not have a “muffin top” instead I am said to have good curves that are proportionate. Koreans and Japanese and Chinese and Thai teenagers here weigh around 110-115/116. I have noticed that many of these Asian cultures have very low marrow bones. I for one have very broad and masculine shoulders. Genetics may be one of the causes for the bone wide, but I honestly think it’s what we are surrounding that is influencing our habitats in eating and and being in physical shape and having that flat stomach and having those elegant shoulders and back, and having that collar bone showing. (In my small like family we consider showing collar bones as beautiful feature in a young lady and in a young man.) Kids(ages from 3-25) don’t feel burdened upon Koreans having that beautiful elegant look. If you want to loose 100 pounds for your own benefit go on ahead, but if you are loosing those 100 pounds to impress people that you already know will judge you by first physical impressions, then go to another area such as Russia where no one will pay much attention because there people enjoy eating food that is mostly meat and fish and vegetables that are boiled. Whoever read this large more then 5-10 sentences I am truly thankful. Annyeongihaseyo(formal goodbye in Korean), or if you’re younger then me (I’m 16) then Annyeong Dong-saeng. ^^

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