Friday, August 26, 2011

Eating Disorders in Korea

Right now I am at work, editing this passage for a Korean EFL textbook:

Your friend, Suji, is eating only one meal a day to lose weight. You’re worried she will damage her body. You want to suggest a healthier way to lose weight. In this situation, what would you say to her?

This is being written for middle schoolers, because this is a huge problem in Korean society. Many young Korean women, and girls, are starving themselves to try to stay incredibly skinny. (And some dudes too.) Almost all the Korean women I know tell me that they want to lose weight and be thinner. And, as an American, it really shocks me. None of them are overweight. And Korean women, generally, are so thin to begin with. Especially compared to people in America, where obesity is a national epidemic.

There are overweight kids now in Korea, which is something that has never ever happened before. Koreans were generally much too poor to be fat for most of their history. Western junk food and fast food has permeated Korean culture, especially in Seoul. Kids are eating a lot of processed junk. I see some chunky elementary school kids. But, of course, anorexia is hardly better. And once those kids hit puberty, they start feeling really horrible about themselves in appearance-obsessed Korea.

A Canadian English teacher friend of mine told me recently that she had a 17-year-old student here in Korea who was on a special “diet” regime that involved only eating once a day. The student’s family checked her into a special “facility” that claimed, or was at least politely talked about, as being some kind of medical facility. And where the “treatment” revolved around coaching girls to eat as little as possible. As far as I can tell this is basically a place people send their daughters to pay to have them trained to develop eating disorders. Anorexia training. And probably at high prices. This is how Korean women are being reared to take care of their bodies, and think about themselves. It really freaks me out.

And here is a 2009 article from The Korea Times. Which is generally a terrible paper, and which I trust very little. They do pretty crappy reporting, and little to no investigative journalism from what I have seen. The fact that they are mentioning this at all should probably be taken as a sign that there is HUGE problem here. So huge that they cannot ignore it. And whatever the Times is reporting is sure to be a very watered down, whitewashed-to-be-more-acceptable version of the story. I have no doubt that their figures are too low, and the story is actually much more dramatic than this:

One in Five Women Undernourished

By Bae Ji-sook
Staff Reporter

Almost two in every 10 women suffer from undernourishment, with intentional starvation being the main cause, according to the latest survey by the Ministry for Health, Welfare and Family Affairs.

A prime example of this phenomenon is 30-year-old Cho, who, by her own admission, has tried almost every diet regiment that has hit the market since she turned 20.

"You name it. I've done it. From eating only one type of food such as bananas to the Danish macrobiotic diet, I have tried them all," said Cho. "Some worked but some didn't. The bottom line is that you should not eat."

Cho is not alone in believing firmly that not eating is the best method to shed pounds or remain slim. The 21st century has become the age of "Looks are everything" and "Being slim is the proof of beauty." The statistics support this ideology.

In its latest report, 19.2 percent of women were found to be undernourished. The figure is high for a developed country, the ministry said. About 11.6 percent of men are also not properly nourished.

Wanting to be "beautiful" was the key reason.

In the 2007 report, 48.7 percent of teenagers were on a diet, with 65.3 percent of females restricting their eating.

About 88.3 percent of the females were doing so to make their appearance better. This year, the trend has not significantly changed.

In this year's report, the number of females suffering from osteoporosis was five times higher than males

"There are various reasons causing the bone-weakening disease such as women giving birth or experiencing menstruation. The large gap between the sexes is one of many signs that an unhealthy diet is even more prevalent among women," ministry official Oh Sang-yoon said.

Experts warned that females could face even more severe health problems, if they do not maintain a balanced diet. Conditions from hair loss and depression to bulimia, constipation and anorexia are often seen among women who diet, Seo Jung-wan of the Korean Pediatric Society said.

Prof. Noh Dong-young of Seoul National University hospital says that underweight women have a higher chance of getting breast cancer than those of normal weight.

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