This week I wanted to write another mental health post, and it’s one that I’ve been wanting to write for a while. Having just finished up 2 years in South Korea, I’ve been able to really reflect on my experience as someone who has struggled with disordered eating and body image issues living in the plastic surgery capital of the world. With such an intense focus on the ideal body type, and a very narrow view of what beauty is, Korea can be a very difficult place for an expat to thrive in. Here’s my experience, and what I wished I knew before I moved to Korea.
Body Image in Korea: The Pursuit of Perfection
South Korea is known for its narrow beauty standards, especially for women. In fact, the ‘ideal’ body type for women is around 162 cm tall and 42 kg in weight, a pretty dangerous goal that would leave you with a BMI of only 14, which is seriously underweight. Beyond height and weight requirements, there is also a strong sense of what constitutes a beautiful face.
There has been a video circulating recently featuring the 2013 finalists for the Miss Korea competition, critiquing how similar they all look. Originally this was attributed to the emphasis on plastic surgery in Korea, but it turns out that actually, the contestant’s headshots were all photoshopped by the same person, giving a very clear indication of what these contestants ‘should’ look like to represent the most beautiful women in the country.
It is so bad that the newly crowned 2018 Miss Korea Soo Min Kim has been harassed online for being too fat, and not beautiful enough to carry the crown, despite her stunning model-esque appearance. Soo Min spoke candidly to Asian Boss recently, and the video is really worth the watch for the insights she gives into the damage the plastic surgery culture is doing to Korea.
Another aspect to this whole mess is the rise of K-pop on the global stage. K-pop stars are worshiped by fans, but the their seemingly glamorous existence has a dark side. Many K-pop wannabe stars undergo extensive surgery and weight-loss in order to fit into the industry packaged superstar mold. With K-pop rising in popularity across the globe, more and more people are being fed this very small version of what beauty and success looks like, and may be enticed to extreme methods to imitate their favourite stars.
Of course, there is a push back against what many see as unattainable beauty standards for women. Last year was the first time a Korean major channel news anchor appeared in glasses on camera. There is also a rising anti-makeup movement that sees Korean women destroying their makeup in defiance to the massive emphasis that Korean society places on women to look perfect at all times. The so-called ‘escape the corset’ movement is steadily gaining traction, with some supporters also cutting their hair short into more ‘boyish’ styles that go against beauty trends.
Body Image in Korea: Medical Tourism
Medical tourism is a huge industry in South Korea, and it is primarily focused on plastic surgery. The Ministry of Health and Welfare states that Korea spends around $1 billion per year in order to attract medical tourists. There’s even an English website for potential tourists to research different procedures and providers, and get an online consultation.
I also was recently made aware of the ‘Gangnam Unnie‘ look, where a number of women in Korea’s opulent Gangnam area look eerily similar after undergoing plastic surgery to look beautiful. Basically, if you have big eyes, a small defined nose, small lips and a v-shaped face, you’re the standard of beauty in Korea, and people spend thousands of dollars to get this effect. This isn’t only attracting Korean women, however, with Vietnamese, Russian, and Chinese medical tourists in the top three countries for medical tourism in 2018.
I certainly saw this emphasis on plastic surgery and medical tourism living in Korea. Every major subway station and high-rise building was plastered with picture perfect images of smiling young women offering the full range of cosmetic surgery options. Targeted ads on Facebook and Instagram filled my screens with doctors, cosmetics, weightloss pills, and a variety of potions and props to help me attain the best possible figure and face. At some point you switch off and become numb to the constant bombardment, but it certainly filters through into your subconscious after a while.
Expats in Korea: Already Different
Here is where I want to get a little more personal. I have struggled with body image issues for as long as I can remember. In high school those issues grew into disordered eating, and it has taken me many years of therapy and reflection to get to a better place. However, as most people with disordered eating habits can tell you, these intrusive thoughts don’t ever go away for good, and it can be difficult for me to keep things together when I’m under stress.
Moving to Korea was stressful in ways that I hadn’t really expected. I knew that there would be culture shock, and I knew that my anxiety would be pretty high as we tried to learn a new way of living. What I didn’t realise was how profound the effect of Korea’s beauty focus would be on my body image.
Over and above the beauty focus, Korea also has a culture of speaking very openly about other people’s bodies. It is a sign of care and love to comment to your friends that they look tired, or even sick, rather than to ask if they are feeling okay. Sometimes this can also lead to people making direct comments about your weight. I have met school principals who made gestures of my curves with a big smile on our first meeting. I’ve also had co-teachers ask me directly about how I need to exercise more or on how much I love eating.
Being a young married couple in Korea means that Chris and I should be trying to have kids immediately. There is no real understanding of a couple choosing to be child-free as we have. What this meant is that at least once a week I was asked if I was pregnant, usually with someone gesturing towards my belly or even actually touching it. Although I know that it probably was just a cultural thing of expecting me to be trying to have a baby, it really did wear me thin having to hear that I looked pregnant over and over again, from children and adults alike.
Being a Westerner in Korea already means that you are more likely to be taller and bigger than the average Korean. Although the standard of beauty is 173 cm tall, the average Korean is nowhere near that. I’m also currently around double the ideal weight, and Westerners in general have larger frames than Koreans. So even if you are short and thin, chances are you’ll still immediately stand out in Korea. I am neither super short, nor super thin, and I felt my difference every single day.
Shopping for clothes was also an ordeal at times. Although I haven’t personally had the experience, friends of mine have been shooed out of shops with shouts of ‘no big size!’ ringing in their ears. I stuck to shopping at more Western brands simply to avoid the feeling of not being able to find anything near my size. Where I’d be a medium to a large in South Africa, in Korea my size was labeled anywhere from XXL to XXXXL. I know that logically the label on a piece of clothing means nothing, but unfortunately, that’s just not the way my brain works.
It was also difficult for me to manage my eating in Korea, where every lunch was eaten together with coworkers, and open to criticism whether I was seen to eat too much or too little. I would simultaneously be told that I was fat and given more food, in a confusing and uncomfortable dance. I want to be completely honest and say that had it not been for Chris I am 100% sure that I would have fallen back into old eating habits. With Chris around I couldn’t skip meals or ‘forget’ to eat, and I had to be open about what I was feeling. Without Chris, I wouldn’t be as okay as I am at all, and it’s absolutely an example of why it’s so important to pick a supportive partner.
Mental Health in Korea: Stigma and Secrets
Korea is not the most open society when it comes to mental health. There is still huge stigma around being in therapy, and even around asking for help or being on medication. Korea has the highest suicide rate of the OECD countries, with around 40 Koreans dying by suicide daily. Almost 95% of Koreans report that they are stressed, and around 28% of elderly Koreans report being depressed. Forefront has a fascinating article on suicide and mental illness in Korea, stating that the barriers to mental health treatment “derive from cultural factors like low trust of strangers, the way that an individual’s reputation reflects on one’s family, and lack of awareness and recognition of alcoholism and depression as legitimate medical problems.”
As an English teacher in Korea, although I wasn’t too worried about losing my job because of my mental health, I certainly wasn’t going to ask to take a personal day to get myself to therapy. Koreans don’t even take sick days when they are physically unable to work, so the idea of taking time away from work for a mental health issue is not even a possibility. This is again where it was so helpful to have Chris, because I could definitely see how a single person in a small town could feel isolated and alone.
Body Image in Korea: How to get Help
If you’re in Korea and struggling with body image, disordered eating, or any other mental health issues, the most important thing is to realise that you’re not alone, even though it can feel that way. The first step to recovery is to admit that there is an issue, so just realising that things need to change is a huge win.
My best advice is to reach out to people around you, whether they are in Korea with you, or available online. Friends or family members that know you and love you are a great support system, and you shouldn’t be afraid to reach out. Having problems with your mental health is no different to having physical health problems, and should have no shame attached. You would head to a hospital if you broke your leg, so don’t hesitate to get help if you need it for your mental health.
There are some great therapists available in Korea that speak good English, but to be honest they are mostly available in the bigger cities. If you are in a smaller town, consider getting online therapy via email or Zoom, a secure video chat program similar to Skype. If money is an issue, and we all know that counselling can be expensive, then consider reaching out to online support groups by searching online. You can find some great groups on Facebook, and many large mental health organisations have forums that you can join in order to find support.
Mental Health Resources
Here are a few groups that I have found to be super helpful over the years. Let me know if you find anything else, and I can add it to the list so we can help each other find support.
Our mental health is just as important as our physical health, and we shouldn’t let the stigma around therapy get in the way of us reaching out for the help. Living in Korea can be pretty stressful when you don’t fit into the tiny box of what is considered beautiful, but it is possible to still thrive there, if you make sure to get the support you need.
Pin this to your mental health board.