Eating Disorders Increasing in East Asian Countries

Although I normally don’t read USA Today, I came across an interesting article while I was traveling a couple of weeks ago. It was about the growing number of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean women with eating disorders due to societal pressures. Apparently, it’s not enough to go to a highly competitive university, study abroad, and have excellent skills and references. A woman has to look good, dress well, and be skinny (less than 100 pounds, ideally). To be “overweight” is to be considered lazy and unproductive—how can a person who cannot control her own body, serve the company and its clients properly?

The scary part is that a growing number of women in Asia don’t think starving or doing extreme dieting (liquid fasts, getting tapeworms, et al.) is a problem. To them, it’s worth the sacrifice of getting that job—especially in a tight job market—as well as be skinnier than her peers.

But how about weight loss the “old-fashioned way”—through healthy food choices/portion control and exercise? Who has time for that, and who wants muscles? Culturally, muscles on women are not deemed attractive, so exercise is discouraged because it bulks people up. “Lose weight first, and then exercise,” says one of the interviewees from a slimming center. In fact, why not bypass the whole exercise thing altogether and get plastic surgery? Apparently cosmetic muscle reshaping (reducing unwanted muscle bulk) is very popular, too.

Based on accounts I hear from friends and family who’ve recently visited Korea, the obsession with appearance and being slim has gotten out of hand. It’s not uncommon for people to spends lots of money on questionable ways to lose weight—pills, herbs, sweat spas, plastic surgery, slimming centers, and more. My cousin Sindey (a size 0) visited her mom in Korea last fall and was nagged about being “fat.” (Ironically, when her mom was living in the U.S. fifteen years ago, she was worried that Sindey was getting too skinny at size 0. It’s amazing to see how her standards have changed.)

Sindey was also telling me that so many people have gotten plastic surgery that they literally all start to look alike. Even some of the guys look like girls.

When I watch the Korean dramas, I am amazed at how skinny the actors are. And if they’re skinny in front of a camera (which adds 10-15 pounds to a person), imagine how skinny they must be in real life.

In Korean dramas, I also see that when people apply for any job, they have to include photographs of themselves. Appearances have a lot to say on whether or not a person gets hired for the job. In fact, it’s not uncommon for background checks to include an astrological chart reading and/or a face reading. (I am curious to find out how plastic surgery corrections affect face readings, especially when you consider that many of enhancements are influenced by Western ideals of beauty, and the fact that the West was looked suspiciously upon—back in the day.)

Needless to say, after reading this article I was even more grateful that my parents came to the U.S. I can’t imagine myself weighing 100 pounds, let alone the last time that I ever weighed that little.

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3 thoughts on “Eating Disorders Increasing in East Asian Countries

  1. Oh my goodness. You know, I’m studying children and youth right now in university and have learned (but anyone could have guessed, probably) that the media has influenced boys and girls into believing that the body shapes in the media is the norm and they must reach this “ideal”.

    I just realized now that I’ve fallen underneath this trap when I think of countries outside of the West. I have conflicting views about Asians, though. I was also surprised at how Asians looked in dramas/movies/music stuff, but I concluded that either 1. they’re skinny because they all are small in Asian countries and 2. there are probably more normal-weight girls and boys in real life. I consistently have to kick myself to remind myself of #2.

    It’s crazy to think that people are going to extreme means to reach this ideal. Now that I think of it, my already skinny 15 year old cousin, was telling me about how she really admired this Korean (or was she Japanese? Hmnn…) model who was the 2nd skinniest — model (I forget which one), and she was gorgeous and wanted to be like her. That model was pretty in her own right but little more than skin and bones.

    Ahah, I’ve read your post on Korean dramas, so you have watched My name is Kim Sam Soon? I’m not a big drama-watcher, but a friend showed me this the first episode or two of this drama and I have a little problem with it. That woman is NOT fat. At least, I don’t think so at all, she doesn’t look at all overweight. She’s only bigger than the other stick-thin actresses. Thus, if little girls who watch this drama and sees this average-sized woman being called fat…? They might get ideas in their head that they themselves are fat. Of course, I haven’t watched the whole drama, and I’m sure that there’s a great messages about how appearance doesn’t matter and how hard work and heart can persevere over all etc., so yes, there’s that good message as well.

    Weeellll, sorry for this comment essay 😛 I think that I just found out that I feel more strongly about this issue than I initially thought.

    Great blog! I like reading your stuff. I hope that you accomplish that Korean cook book, and Arthur is definitely the bomb.

  2. Interestingly enough, Kim Sun Ah (the main actor in Kim Sam Soon) plays characters in other dramas in which other actors pick on her for being heavy—even though we know she really isn’t. As you pointed out, she’s only bigger than the other stick-thin actors and actresses. However, the strong characters that she plays are what really make the dramas worthwhile to watch. They start off bumbling and insecure, but eventually find that they are a lot stronger than they give themselves credit for—basically “don’t let others bring you down.” I think THAT message resonates more than her body size.

    There was a time in Asia that having a round face and some meat on the bones were considered a good thing (my grandparents’ generation), and skinny girls weren’t so highly thought of—especially as their breeding capabilities were in question.

    It was also a class issue—poor people were skinny because they couldn’t afford rich foods like meats and sweets. Now it seems the other way around. The poor are more overweight because they eat more processed/fast foods because it’s more convenient/affordable, while the wealthy can afford to pay for slim clinics, personal trainers, and plastic surgery.

    I don’t think one drama will necessarily define what’s healthy/overweight. If anything, fat/skinny is relative to where you are and what’s considered the norm. If all your peers/friends are obsessed with being skinny, then chances are likely you will be, too. Likewise, if your friends accept their body for what it is—chances are you will, too.

    Many times for girls, their obsession with weight relates to how “popular” they will be with the boys. They think that a guy will like them more if they’re skinny.

  3. Definitely, that is so true, messages about strength and perseverance is much more important than anything than just weight. Actually, those things just prove that weight should not be a factor in one’s success.

    Although, yes, this one drama won’t define what’s healthy for viewers, you can’t also deny that the media in general (magazines/movies/musicians/even manga and anime, or if you want to stick with the Korean motif; manhwa) that shows the typical “idealized” skinny body type would definitely impact people’s perception of their own appearance.

    But then again, you are complete right, there are so many different factors that impact a person’s self-image that the issue becomes really complex. Besides peers, and media, there’s also family to consider. An older sister’s offhand remark about her appearance in the mirror or talking about dieting etc. can resonate with a small child.

    Haha, actually, I have a story to tell… I worked at a camp last summer, and a 5 year old girl asked me to bring her to the washroom. In the washroom, I expected her to do her business. Instead, she took out a brush and began brushing her hair. Afterwords, she walked up and down the washroom while watching herself in the mirror and smiling and her reflection. “Don’t you need to go to the washroom?” “No, I just wanted to brush my hair”. Cute, huh? She was a total darling, and I probably did the same thing when I was her age, but I could totally see her as a teenage girl at that moment. Kids grow up so fast…

    Anyways, to make this comment EVEN longer, I totally know what you’re talking about Asians initially thinking that plump girls were beautiful. It’s kinda funny though because your grandparents are probably a bit older than my own parents, but my mom (Chinese born in Vietnam), years ago, also believed that plump girls =healthy girls. As the years went by, and she became more exposed to Canadian culture (immigrated about 20 years ago), her view of beauty slowly likened to the thinner girls.

    So yeah, heavy topic, eh?

    Haha, wait, one more funny thought. I was doing a presentation in seminar one day, and a classmate brought up the fact that although girls are aspiring to be these thing waifs, boys must now aspire to be vampires with the coming popularity of vampires among youth. Poor boys, how do they become these sparkly immortals?

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