Eating Disorders, Body Dissatisfaction, and Self-Esteem among South Korean Women

By Kim, Soyoung | Social Behavior and Personality: an international journal, September 2018 | Go to article overview

Eating Disorders, Body Dissatisfaction, and Self-Esteem among South Korean Women


Kim, Soyoung, Social Behavior and Personality: an international journal


Historically, Korean women considered extra weight to be an indicator of higher status and better health (Jung & Lee, 2006; H.-R. Lee, Lee, Choi, Kim, & Han, 2014). Further, people in East Asian countries, unlike those from Western countries, have in the past thought that being thin represents poverty and unhealthiness (Jung & Forbes, 2007). Today, however, because of the Western influence on Asian cultures, Asian women value thinness; therefore, the prevalence of eating disorders has increased among Asian women. Despite this shift, there are not yet as many studies on eating disorders or eating difficulties in East Asian countries, like South Korea, as there are in the Western world. Western cultures generally associate thinness with healthy eating and exercise, and link extra weight with laziness or a lack of motivation (J. S. Lee, Lee, & Rho, 2012). As documented by Y.-S. Lim and colleagues (2015), in the past few decades the ideal female body in the Western world has become thinner and smaller. The conception of feminine beauty has steadily and progressively shifted toward images of overly thin models. Further, media platforms such as television and fashion magazines further perpetuate the Western ideal body to other cultures, including that of South Korea (Anschutz, Engels, & Van Strien, 2008; Matera, Nerini, & Stefanile, 2013).

In short, many South Korean women deal with a negative body image, like many women in the United States, with whom Korean women's body image situation has been compared (Y.-S. Lim et al., 2015). The perception that thin bodies are desirable leads to an exaggerated ideal, largely promoted by the media and celebrities. Although South Korean women tend to have a lower body mass index (BMI) compared to North American women, they nevertheless perceive themselves as overweight (H.-R. Lee et al., 2014). Nearly all the researchers I cite in the present paper discuss Westernization and how Western cultures have influenced Korean women's self-perception through mass media. It is important to acknowledge that an "ideal" female body is defined differently across different cultures, although in many Asian cultures, especially South Korea, people appear to be influenced more by Western celebrity culture than are others (Eisenberg, Nicklett, Roeder, & Kirz, 2011; Kempa & Jones Thomas, 2000).

Most people tend to assume that Korean women do not struggle with body image issues, but this is a fundamental misconception, because many Korean women are obsessed with dieting and attaining thinness, as are many high-status Western women (Jung & Hwang, 2016). Furthermore, South Korea has the highest rate of plastic surgery procedures among all Asian countries, and most of these are fat-reduction procedures that are meant to make the individuals who undergo these procedures look like glamorous Western celebrities (Jung & Forbes, 2007). The images of both Western and Korean women on television or the covers of magazines in South Korea tend to be touched up or photoshopped; consequently, women who compare themselves to these models are more dissatisfied with their bodies and experience more severe depression than do those who do not make these comparisons (Jung & Lee, 2006; H.-R. Lee et al., 2014).

On average, South Korean women are closer to what is assessed by the medical profession as their ideal BMI compared to Western women (H. Lim et al., 2014); thus, there is a misconception that South Korean women are less likely than their Western counterparts to develop eating disorders or eating difficulties. However, compared to North American women, South Korean women perceive a greater difference between their actual and ideal weight (Jung, Forbes, & Lee, 2009). Furthermore, in South Korea 14.8% of adolescent girls and 10.5% of adolescent boys have eating disorders (G. Lee, Ha, Vann, & Choi, 2009). Therefore, in this paper I discussed how body dissatisfaction and poor self-esteem can contribute to the development of eating disorders, harmful dieting behaviors, and negative body image among South Korean women. …

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