South Koreans have a reputation for being slim. But in recent years, obesity has been on the rise here, as people increasingly turn to instant and fast food and lead more sedentary lives. However, social perceptions on obesity remain focused more on physical appearances than on health, leading to slow change.
“Public interest in obesity is relatively low. Perhaps we want to continue believing that we are the second-thinnest country in the world after Japan. Or perhaps, we want to believe that obesity is a problem of style, not of health. But Korea has come too far for that,” wrote Moon Chang-jin, who heads a committee on obesity at the National Health Insurance Service, in the organisation’s 2017 Obesity White Paper.
According to the document, which followed the release of its first edition in 2016, 28.6 per cent of adults in Korea were classified as obese in 2016. Broken down by gender, 35.7 per cent of adult men were obese, while 19.54 per cent of adult women were obese based on their body mass index.
At the other end of the spectrum, 2.05 per cent of adult men were underweight while 7.78 per cent of adult women were underweight.
Another study from the same organidation presented in a seminar last year showed that in 2015, 1 in 7 women under 35 who live alone was underweight, while men in the same age group tended to be overweight.
The gender gap may reflect the way obesity is perceived in Korea – mostly from the perspective of beauty, rather than health. A search of “obesity treatment” on the country’s largest search engine yields results that focus on aesthetics rather than nutrition or exercise.
“When someone says that they are ‘obese’, they’re not talking about their weight in medical terms,” said Kim Ji-yeon, a 32-year-old office worker living in Seoul.
“Cutting down one’s weight is about becoming thinner to look better, especially because in Korea, being unattractive is still widely considered to be a sign of laziness or not being able to take care of yourself.”
Agencies such as the NHIS are trying to implement programs to raise awareness about the health risks of obesity and to reach out to communities through local clinics and schools, but these programmes are still in their infancy.
Rather than making lifestyle changes that lead to a healthier waistline, many Korean consumers are turning to dietary supplements that promise easy weight loss.
“When I’m on Facebook, I’m constantly seeing ads for weight-loss products,” said Kang Su-jin, a 28-year-old living in Seoul. “I don’t think that I’m overweight and I try to eat healthy, but when you’re bombarded by those ads, you start to rethink everything. I ended up buying weight-loss pills online – which were useless.”
Many of the products that are advertised as weight-loss supplements are actually registered as food products, without any official certification from the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety. Recently, six home shopping channels received penalties for falsely advertising products as having weight-loss benefits.
Another major problem is that unhealthy eating habits are beginning early. The proportion of obese students in elementary, junior high and high schools steadily rose from 15 per cent in 2014 to 17.3 per cent in 2017, according to data released by the Education Ministry.
Like in many other developed countries, South Korea’s obese population is also skewed toward those with low incomes. Processed and fast food, which are easily accessible here, is much less expensive than buying fresh produce to eat healthily.
When being in shape is considered an aesthetic luxury rather than a critical factor for one’s health, those who are strapped for cash tend to opt for cheaper options. According to culture critic Kim Hern-sik, media portrayals of health as being an aspect of beauty contribute to the marginalisation of these underprivileged groups.
“It’s true that TV programmes have generally moved away from blatant lookism and are increasingly favouring ‘healthy beauty’, but the problem is that it’s ‘healthy beauty’ and not ‘health’,” Kim said. “For people who are unemployed or have an unstable income, what they’re seeing is something unattainable. They don’t have the money or time to attain what they’re seeing.”