Eating disorders are not exclusive to Western cultures and various global and local aspects are increasing their prevalence in South Korea.
Eating disorders are mistakenly perceived as the consequences of Western ideals related to beauty and appearance.
This leads to beliefs that eating disorders are only experienced in Westernized cultures.
In reality, emphasis on the “thin ideal” is only one possible risk factor for these disorders and, while it does impact other culture’s adoption of these beliefs, other risk factors for eating disorder development occur in various cultures independent of Western influence.
In fact, research finds that 2% of the worldwide population are impacted by eating disorders .
One of these countries is South Korea and researchers are seeking to learn more information on how specific beliefs and customs in this culture are associated with eating disorder development.
It is important to clarify that, while Western ideals of beauty are not the sole cause of eating disorders in South Korea, they do have an impact.
One study described South Korea as “dynamic, with rapid industrialization, increasing urbanization, and marked economic expansion” and emphasized that, due to this, “rapid introduction of Western culture in Korea has led to various sociocultural changes, including Westernization in dietary habits, changes in the concepts of beauty, popularization of dieting and weight control measure, and changes in the view of obesity, especially younger people .”
Known as the “Western toxin effect,” the way that Western beauty ideals have influenced different cultures is increasingly researched.
A phenomenon that researchers believe has perpetuated the “thin ideal” is the K-pop (Korean pop music culture) scene, which promotes “extremely thin body shape and skinny-obsessed society among K-pop celebrities .”
Sadly, “Many of these stars are known for their extreme diets. Popular looks include “chopsticks legs” or “lollipop head,” a big head fronted with a cute face and Westernized eyes on top of stick-thin legs .”
South Korea is also one of the world’s plastic surgery capitals, at one point beating out Brazil and the US in procedures per capita, with the most popular surgeries being “double eyelid surgery (adding a crease in the eyelid to make it look larger, rounder, and more Western) and rhinoplasty, often to make the tip of the nose pointier .”
One plastic surgeon, Dr. Sewhan Rhee, “says it’s common to see Seoul “middle-school children get plastic surgery during their winter school break. It’s not considered weird. It’s considered normal .”
Additionally, freelance writer Nancy Matsumoto detailed in a 2014 Psychology Today article that “Korean culture is also one in which commenting and even bullying others about their size, shape, and appearance is not taboo .”
Cultural Views on Food
Social media has also influenced the way that we communicate and internalize beauty and appearance beliefs globally.
In Korea, a popular social media practice known as “Mukbang” is believed to contribute to disordered eating behaviors and is causing concern.
Mukbang is believed to have originated as a social engagement tool.
“In Korean society, dining is a deeply social activity and many Koreans find it almost unthinkable to sit and eat alone, not least in public; hence, mukbang has been described as a virtual substitute for socializing while eating on your own .”
While some report that engaging in Mukbang is helpful to them, studies also find that “watching mukbang videos can trigger and reinforce disordered eating behaviors such as binge eating or purging behaviors .”
Many articles have noted the “denial” of South Korean culture to face the internalization of the “thin ideal,” commenting on weight and appearance, and relationships to food and socializing as potentially contributing to an increase in eating disorder behaviors.
However, there is clearly an increase in prevalence, as “in 2011, the number of eating disorders cases reported among South Koreans ages 19-30 was 159; however, by 2017, the number of South Koreans with an eating disorder of any age was 189,698 .”
Even so, many will not seek treatment or support for their disorders.
A barrier to individuals receiving eating disorder treatment in South Korea is related to cultural beliefs regarding mental health such as these issues should remain within a family, that they are shameful or indicate weakness, that showing emotions is a burden on others, etc.
Receiving treatment is crucial not only to these individuals but to the cultural economy as a whole, as individuals with “binge eating disorder accounted for 42% of the economic burden; anorexia nervosa, 34.7%; and bulimia nervosa, 22.3% .”
Treatment centers are increasing in South Korea and the hope is that those that need help will seek it out despite the barrier of cultural stigma to mental health treatment.
 Lee, S. M., et al (2021). Economic burden of eating disorders in South Korea. Journal of Eating Disorders, 9:30.  Yang, S. et al. (2010). Disturbed eating attitudes and behaviors in South Korean boys and girls: a school-based cross-sectional study. Yonsei Medical Journal, 51:30.  Wu, Y. (2020). Eating disorders in asian countries. Exchanges. Retrieved from https://uncexchanges.org/2020/09/23/eating-disorders-in-asian-countries/.  Matsumoto, N. (2014). How the Asian pop culture boom is feeding eating disorders. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/eating-disorders-news/201409/how-the-asian-pop-culture-boom-is-feeding-eating-disorders.  Strand, M., Gustafsson, S. A. (2020). Mukbang and disordered eating: a netnographic analysis of online eating broadcasts. Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry, 44:4.
About the Author:
Margot Rittenhouse, MS, PLPC, NCC is a therapist who is passionate about providing mental health support to all in need and has worked with clients with substance abuse issues, eating disorders, domestic violence victims, and offenders, and severely mentally ill youth.
As a freelance writer for Eating Disorder Hope and Addiction Hope and a mentor with MentorConnect, Margot is a passionate eating disorder advocate, committed to de-stigmatizing these illnesses while showing support for those struggling through mentoring, writing, and volunteering. Margot has a Master’s of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Johns Hopkins University.
The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective on eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.
We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.
Published April 28, 2021, on EatingDisorderHope.com
Reviewed & Approved on April 28, 2021, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC