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Sucks to be you – Korean attitudes towards being fat, skinny, and everything between


Did I just go there?

It’s true. I know it’s a sensitive subject. I may not be able to do this delicate matter complete justice but I do want to resume dialogue about this matter. I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels this way. However, like always, I pledge to be open-minded and sensitive. But, I will have to at least recognize some differences between American and Korean ideas of healthy body types. Please take this entry as my own opinion sprinkled with a generous serving of sarcasm. Eat up. It’s good for you.

It’s safe to conclude that neither country has a single, uniform opinion about what a healthy body looks like. For some, it’s being dangerous skinny enough to shop for summertime bikinis in the toddler section. For others, it’s all about how happy they are inside and has very little to do about their outward appearance. Healthiness and sexual attraction also don’t always line up equally. But, aren’t women naturally suppose to be more curvy? Wow, second paragraph and already I’m wincing. I’m getting uncomfortable just typing about this.

Matter of fact, let’s just go ahead and set the thermostat to “Chilly” cause it’s about to get cold up in here. I volunteer myself for this next example. I’m 6 feet (1.8 meters) tall and always a little short of 180 pounds (80 kilograms). For many, I’m considered to be fat among Koreans. Soak that up.
Matthew is a Fatty

At my current body type, I’m by no means scrawny. By the same token, no one would consider me obese. However, by and large, in America it’s not crazy to consider my body type to be quite normal (if not skinny). Now, on the lifestyle side of things, I would consider myself on the healthy end of the spectrum. I was a vegetarian for years, I’ve never smoked, I jog regularly, I eat lightly and frequently, I avoid soft drinks and candy, and I drink a crazy amount of water everyday. However, apparently I’m some gargantuan foreigner with an insatiable hunger. Feed me Seymour Korea.

Feed Me Seymour Korea

My first encounter with my own personal grossness of a body occurred just a few years ago. When I met my first Korean language tutor, after a few meetings, she and I ate lunch together at the university sandwich shop. While waiting in line and deciding which sandwich to order, she turned to me and remarked “Are you sure you’re hungry? You look like you’re already full.” At which point she poked my stomach. At least I have a nice personality, right? Thanks 누나.

Culture shock, anyone?

Matthew Should Stop Eating

For Koreans, first of all, fatness is not a taboo subject like it is America. It gave my tutor no pause to talk about my stomach. We weren’t even very close at the time – Hell, I had practically just met her. Was my stomach really that huge? Was it the age difference? Was it just her?

Nope. I’m just a monster. Apparently my beer gut is the stuff of legends. What is a “M” waist size in America is an astronomical “XL” here in Korea. “M” no longer stands for Medium….more like Monster. Another horror story comes from my encounter at a top-notch Korean resort. While searching for a few chairs to steal for the my group’s table, a small group of high school girls stopped to stare and remark about my body. They laughed, pointed, and talked about my gut. I believe the word “pregnant” was used. Now, at the time, my Korean was not perfect (will it ever be?) but it was good enough to understand the general point of what they were saying (let alone the body language, right?). But, I should be fair in saying that I was the only visible foreigner at the resort on that day. I’m sure that played a role…but then again, maybe my Robin Williams-like forest of chest hair scared them…

Moving on.

But it’s one thing to be skinny and another thing to be healthy. They don’t always mean the same thing. Being skinny does not make one healthy and being healthy does not make one skinny. If someone is genuinely overweight, it’s also fair to say that they might feel a little sensitive about their weight. It’s a valid struggle to maintain a healthy lifestyle whilst still maintaining a lifestyle that fits everyone’s tastes. In my case, my answer is to avoid Western food and eat Korean food – it’s delicious, healthy, and good for you. But not everyone digs on soybeans, tofu, fish, and levels of spice that are only rivaled in deepest depths of Hell. I respect that.

But in Korea, there are lots of skinny people running around. Really, there are.  Seriously, look at this chart. According to the data, two out of three people in the United States are considered to be overweight or obese. Good job, everyone.

OECD Obesity Index Korea Fat

Finally some data so you can justifiably hate on them scrawny girls in 신촌… Just makes you want to eat a double cheeseburger and glower, doesn’t it? Coming from America, I’d just assume be pushing the scales like the rest of my countrymen. Maybe that’s why I don’t particularly notice other Americans who are overweight. To me, it’s just one aspect of a person and not that big of deal. But looking at the data on the chart, I can see why Koreans might be acutely sensitive to people who are overweight – foreign or otherwise.

This discussion requires a deep understanding of the sociological and cultural pressures that Koreans are subjected to, and I’ll go ahead and not volunteer myself for that. When backed into a corner, I refer to the smartest Kiwi I know. In absence of greatness, I concede that Korea has obvious cultural pressures to be anything but overweight. It can’t just be the natural diet of the people; while Korean food does, in my opinion, tend to be closer on the healthy side, we’re still talking about a land filled with enough Dunkin Donuts, 삼겹살, and 우동 to adequately fill the gullets of the masses to unhealthy proportions. So, something else must be going on. Will we ever know for sure know what makes Koreans so paper thin? Social Pressure? Good genes? 김치?

As I’m sure most of you can guess, I’m confident and happy with my own body type. Sure, I don’t look like Brad Pitt but honestly I’m not worried about it. To me, there’s more to life than being thin (or being among socially acceptable levels of “skinny”). After all, if I had a chance to either lift weights or spend time with my family, I’ll pick the latter any day of the week. But, like all things, it’s all about balance, isn’t? For me, the balance comes from being active, eating right, watching my sugar intake, jogging, and having a healthy and accurate self-image. By no means do I see myself as overweight. I urge those who do place external pressure on people who are a few sizes short of a “zero” to examine why they do so. Whose needs are trying to be met? Does such pressure really do anything other than make the other person uncomfortable?

Rant over.