Hot Sweaty Korean Women

What makes this commercial so special?

No, it’s not because of Park Ga-hee’s great body, which isn’t unheard of in K-pop. It’s not because she’s leader of the girl-group After School, which I’ve been writing a lot about recently. And it’s not because she’s no manufactured K-pop idol either, once literally penniless on the streets of Seoul after running away from home.

Those do make her more attractive and interesting, but they don’t speak to the commercial.

Rather, it’s special because she’s sweating.

Yes, sweating. Because as I first highlighted over 2 years ago, Korean women generally prefer passive means of losing weight to active ones like exercise. (Update, 2013: post since deleted sorry.) Indeed, even the ones that do attend gyms rarely seem to exert any actual effort while they’re there, and I’ve seen less than a handful dripping with sweat while on a treadmill.

A gross over-generalization? Actually, I very much hope so, and, admittedly not having gone to a Korean gym myself since 2004, then I’d nothing better to learn that things have changed since. But my 2008 post did seem to strike a chord with readers’ own experiences back then, and in turn the underlying attitudes to exercise that they demonstrated were corroborated by one of the few English language studies of the subject: “Content Analysis of Diet Advertisements: A Cross-National Comparison of Korean and U.S. Women’s Magazines” (Clothing and Textiles Research Journal, October 2006), by Minjeong Kim and Sharron Lennon. With apologies to long-term readers for my frequent references to it, but it’s worth (re)highlighting some parts here to remind ourselves just how unique the Fat Down (팻다운) commercial really is:

In his study with Korean female college students, Kim (1998) found that a predominant portion of respondents engaged in dieting for appearance rather than health, and a majority of respondents had previously engaged in dieting. The most common method of dieting was to restrict caloric intake, whereas a similar study with American female college students found that exercise was the most common dieting method among American women (Grunwald, 1985). (p. 350)

(Source: 영원같은 찰나)

Granted, those are old studies. But ponder the fact that one question I posed to my university students for their final vocal tests this week was “What are your plans for the summer?”, and fully 20 out of 55 of the women said they would be dieting to wear a bikini on the beach.* Which not only surely reflects an obsession in itself, but notably none said merely “losing weight” either, and definitely not “exercising” or “working out” (by way of comparison, 1 out of 65 guys said he would be working out). Hence the tests took rather longer than expected, as I felt compelled to step out of my remit as an English teacher and point out that none of them needed to lose weight whatsoever, that Korean women were already the slimmest in the OECD, and that could they at least consider maybe exercising rather than dieting?

(*As readers explained in the comments, I took the word “diet” much too literally. My mistake.)

And there are were plenty more anecdotes like that available in that post from 2008. But I like to be above passing on mere anecdotes these days, so consider some of the empirical evidence provided by Kim and Lennon instead:

The percentage of diet ads in relation to total ads was far greater in Korean women’s magazines than in U.S. magazines. (p.357)

Also (source. right):

A current article in one Korean newspaper (“Half of High School Females Are Not Qualified,” 2002) reported that more than half of Korean high school women suffer from an anemic constitution caused by malnutrition because of dieting. Also half the prospective blood donors from several high schools were not qualified because of deficiencies in nutrition. (p. 357)


Content analysis of the types of diet products/programs indicated that there are a variety of diet products easily available in Korean magazines….Diet pills, body attachments such as a diet belt, and oriental diet herbs were three of the more frequently advertised diet products in the Korean magazines sampled. However, none of them was reported as being clinically approved….Korean magazines promote more passive diet methods than active diet methods. Ads for passive diet methods such as diet pills, massage, aroma therapy, diet crème, or diet drinks that one must take, put on the body, or smell to lose weight were more prevalent than diet ads requiring one’s active participation such as exercise equipment or aerobic videotapes. Passive dieting ads reinforce the idea that buying a product will solve weight problems with no effort on the part of the user. (p. 358)

See here, here, and here for examples and further discussion of such advertisements, and you may also find these electric breast massagers and apple-hip seats interesting. Meanwhile, shame again on the Brown Eyed Girls…but please don’t take this post as an endorsement of Fat Down myself: I know nothing about it, and certainly do not know its ingredients or effectiveness. As you can see above though, I do at least recall that Jung Da-yeon also endorsed it, a woman in her early-40s who became famous a few years ago for being a momjjang ajumma (몸짱아주마), literally a “good body married woman”.

(Update) Related, I like the no-bullshit attitude of this advertisement for a cosmetic surgery in yesterday’s Busan edition of Focus newspaper (p. 6), which reads: “How much will you have to drink before you’ll get a V-line?”, a reference to this drink’s supposed ability to give you that face shape.

(Source: Focus)

33 thoughts on “Hot Sweaty Korean Women

  1. Having been to the gym once a week for about two months, I can say that I’ve personally not seen any women put in much effort. The only sweating beasts are the men (myself very much included). The women tend to stretch a bit, run for a minute or two, then go home.

    Of course, that’s just one gym. I don’t know if it’s different elsewhere.


    1. Yeah for sure, and the four I went before I decided to just stick to jogging outside after 2004 may well not have been all that representative either. But judging by everything I’ve read and heard from readers after writing that post in 2008, I’d still wager money that women really working out hard at the gym are the exception rather than the rule here.

      Happy to be proved wrong though!


  2. I’m not sure I really get this advert. Maybe I’m just thinking too hard about it. I understand what it’s saying literally but not what the actual message of the advert is. What is supposed to be the benefits of this product as portrayed in the advert? It seems to me that it’s saying the selling point of the product is that it helps you lose weight by getting rid of your sweat. But again, not exactly sure. The writing talks about the different types of sweat, then shows the sweat essentially being flung away from her body. Then the tagline is: “sweat is different”, or perhaps more fluently in English we’d say something like “sweat is not all the same.” At the end, it says “The diet with different sweat,” or again in better English, “The diet where the sweat is not all the same,” followed by, “before exercising, Petdown (sorry, Fatdown).” So what’s it saying?

    Also, I noticed you didn’t mention the fact that Koreans refer to anything done to get skinnier as a diet, whereas in the English language diet refers to what you eat. Not hugely relevant, just thought I’d throw that in there!


  3. Isn’t “diet” sometimes a kind of Konglish term that actually includes exercise, though? Or am I making that up? I feel like I’ve heard my female students say stuff that made it sound like that.


    1. That’s what I mean, sorry. In Konglish, diet is anything done to try and get skinnier, so it can mean doing exercise, stretching, drinking corn tea, eating less, eating better and so on.

      That’s another one I don’t get – Korean female friends I have are absolutely adamant that stretching makes you skinny. And that eating meat makes you fat. Quite clearly stretching would not make you skinny, and eating fat will make you fat, but eating lean meat won’t. consuming energy that you don’t burn off will make you fat. Basically, it seems there is a general lack of knowledge among many people of how the human body, food and exercise work and react with each other.


      1. Okay, well:

        I’ve heard Americans say stretching aids weight loss, and advise stretching both before and after exericise. They say a regular stretching routine is useful for boosting the effectiveness of other exercise, though, and that it doesn’t burn much energy on its on. (Unless you’re doing some kind of serious yoga stretching, which actually can burn off some fat, I’ll offer anecdotally from the experience of friends.)

        Eating meat: well, but how often does someone specify “lean meat”? A lot of Korean guys seem to prefer samgyeopsal, and that’s the opposite of lean.

        Sweating: well, you know, there’s a physiological element, right? Genetically, most East Asians and Native Americans are predisposed to have pale, dry earwax, while most everyone else has the brown, moister stuff. Turns out this is controlled by the same genetic mutation that affords its lucky recipient with a reduced propensity to sweat. As with the single eyelid, this seems to be a trait selected for by some environmental conditions; I’ve read likely it was cold, arid climatic conditions in the case of the reduced sweat. Sweating less would be advantageous, possibly to the point where those who had it dominated the local gene pool in certain groups ancestral to modern East Asians and Native Americans.

        That’s not to say Koreans don’t sweat, but they do tend to sweat less than we Westerners do, and have good genetic reasons for doing so.

        So in a sense, this commercial with the massive sweat is, again, displaying a Western-centric bionormative (?) standard, or could be said to.

        (Personally, I think the notion is that one sweats away one’s fat, so the sweat pouring off is actually transmuted fat… whee, magical diet drink. Well, but magical thinking is common in Korea for all kinds of things — kimchi’s health benefits, certain folk-notions of English acquisition, etc — so why not diet too?)

        But that’s also not to dismiss the very clear and observable differences in approaches to exercise. .

        My experience taking a swimming class with Koreans was that they were quite concerned about form, about “doing it right” and less concerned about whether they were able to get across the pool without stopping. Form seemed more important than comfort, than sustainability, and so on. (Hence the unavoidable sight at municipal pools of dozens of middle aged women all doing their butterfly stroke at a snail’s pace, taking up every lane.)

        But at the same gym, I’ve noticed some people do put in a serious effort. While most who get on the treadmill just walk, some of them walk fast and for a long time, and a few work up a serious sweat. Women tend not to use the machines as much as the guys, and to use the treadmill a lot — especially walking. Some of them (including a few individuals I know) do this for physiological reasons, such as a strong tendency to experience vasovagal syncope, or a bad ankle. (I myself would have to walk, not run, too; I have bone spurs in my heels that make running bad for my feet and legs — if I run too long a couple of days in a row, I usually end up having to limp for a few days afterward. Doctors have thus far been useless in dealing with it.)

        Meanwhile, I’ve noticed just as many guys as girls doing exercise that seems purely for show: getting on a stationary recumbent bicycle and pedaling at 15km/hr at the second lowest setting for ten minutes, then hopping off and walking on the treadmill for 15 min. (Which makes me wonder why they don’t just go for a walk and save the money.)

        Or, I saw a guy just the other day showing off (to I guess she was his girlfriend) how to do barbell curls. The first time, he had tiny weights on it, and made a huge show of the exertion. When I glanced again, he was making an even bigger show of it — exhaling dramatically during the lift and making a pained face, but it was just the barbell, with no weights. Perfect form… completely useless. And the strain looked slightly-acted out, since the barbell wasn’t particularly big or, to me, heavy-looking, and likewise he wasn’t some tiny stick-figure guy.

        And yeah, “diet” is Konglish for anything involving weight loss. I make a point of saying “No,” when my students ask me if I’m “dieting” when they see me coming out of the campus gym with my kit bag. “No, I’m just exercising and eating healthily.” Most of them seem to be catching on by looking


  4. When I had a membership to an all-ladies gym, I saw plenty of sweaty ladies. The ladies ranged from school girls to full-fledged 아줌마s in their fifties. No one really ran on the treadmills, but plenty of walkers and cyclists. They would get the sweatiest in the dance classes, though I have to admit the place wasn’t well-ventilated.


    1. Sometimes I wish the gym I was in was slightly less well-ventilated… because the ventilation is from leaving the main door open, and the chill outside air blows straight into the exercise room… :)

      And I’m not saying Koreans don’t sweat… just, many Koreans have a lower propensity to sweat. I gather it takes more exertion to get it going, and they don’t tend to sweat when inactive, and the general output is less. This will also vary individually based on health, fitness, and all other the random variables that make people vary in little ways.

      I’m the only one I’ve noticed who leaves droplets little pools sweat on the floor of the gym where I work out, but I certainly don’t think I’m the only one making a serious effort there.


  5. I have to agree with Seamus as far as my interaction has gone with Koreans and diet/exercise. Of Course my girlfriend felt the need to diet when she hit 125 pounds…as do any of the Korean girls I know when they get remotely close to that number. The basic knowledge of how food effects exercise and muscle growth seems to be lost on those that I have experience with as well. I forget which movie we were watching one night and they had one of those ridiculous machines that I remember seeing in videos from the 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s where a person would put a strap around their waste while this machine would jiggle it. I laughed so hard when I saw that and she couldn’t understand why, they are exercising to lose weight. I still don’t thinks she believed me when I tried to explain how meaningless such a thing was.


  6. My Korean female friends and other Korean girls I met were very careful about their line, but it’s true I haven’t seen any of them doing some “real” exercise.

    I was once invited to a basketball game between two teams of friends from two Universities in Seoul, and I thought we would all be playing, but when I said I’d rather not because one of my feet was hurt and I had to be careful about it, they were surprised and told me “But you don’t need to play ! It’s only the guys who will play, and we will support them (!)…”, and then “But you’d like to play ?”. Lol. To what I answered that, hadn’it it been for my foot, I would have loved that. It’s since that time that I noticed that the only ones I actually saw doing some serious exercise were guys, … and the girls who were taking dancing lessons.


    1. And here I finally am! Lot’s to cover, so I’ll do it all in one big comment rather than responding to people individually like usual.

      First up: as many people have pointed out, the word “diet” does indeed mean many different things in Korean, and I even said that myself in that post 2 years ago, so for one I shouldn’t have taken my students’ responses at face value. Given what else I know about Korean exercise culture and what others have pointed out here though, then I’d still wager that the vast majority did indeed literally mean diet, but I’m willing to concede that the men=exercise and women=diet dichotomy I identified isn’t as great as I imagined.

      Next, about sweating as a sign of physical exertion. Yes, I fully agree that Koreans do sweat much less less than Caucasians (which is partially reflected in their use of deodorant too, or rather lack of), and in that vein men sweat up to 50% more than women do too (or so my memory of a Rexona ad says), so in a sense I’m merely projecting a measure appropriate only to Caucasian males like myself onto others. In hindsight though, I’m emphasizing literally (and liberally) sweating too much in the post, as I really meant physically exerting oneself, and I realize now that sweating is a poor proxy for that. But then red cheeks, tortured physical expressions and/or grunting with pain (sans sweat or otherwise) don’t sound all that photogenic (albeit partially because of socialization perhaps – you see them on men on TV often enough), so we’re even less likely to see those on women in commercials!^^

      Having said that, I saw precious little of those other indications of physical exertion from Korean women either, and moreover I do think that, just like it is literally impossible to run without your pulse rate increasing, and with the proviso that Koreans sweat much less than Caucasians as stated, it is still impossible not to sweat at least a little if the exercise is worthy of the name. Again though, perhaps I’m biased: when I used to swim as well as jog in New Zealand, occasionally I would get so hot while doing so that I would get an instant burst of sweat all over my body, despite me being surrounded by relatively cool water, and it was an enervating, very fulfilling feeling. With factors such as endomorphins kicking in when I do exercise, and headaches and sinuses clearing up too, then as you can imagine I love a good workout…and can’t believe for a moment that all of these people listlessly walking on a treadmill at a snail’s pace, or doing a few turns of a exercycle while reading a magazine, or hell, even putting on make-up before doing it, have the remotest idea of what exercise is all about, let alone have ever experienced the same feeling, or get any benefits from their gym attendance. Like you said Gord, and I did in earlier posts too: it’s all about form over substance.

      On a final note, I don’t mean to imply that whether through personal preference or injury, exercise like simply walking isn’t also beneficial or effective. Just so long as it is done for a long enough period, and that one doesn’t get comfortable with it and hence subconsciously or otherwise stop pushing yourself. Again, I say that due to my own experience: I walked 3-5 times a week in the mountains for an hour or more one winter here because I found jogging next to the beach just too damn cold…but ended up heavier at the end of the winter(!), and in hindsight it was surely because I was never trying to complete the same walk in less time, or going further in the same time, or going a steeper route, and so on and so forth. I was just really repeating each day what my (already too heavy) body was comfortable with instead.


  7. Interesting note. MMA fighters from Asia tend to believe western people have a different kind of sweat. It’s said that its greasier than asians and due to the amount of sweat, an advantage.


  8. “once literally penniless on the streets of Seoul”

    this is actually an extremely common story for many young idols, including DBSK’s Jaejoong and Yunho, the former of whom was once so hungry he resorted to eating other peoples’ leftovers at the restaurant where he worked, and the latter of whom lived for several weeks in a train station.


    1. Are those true stories, or are they part of the “life story” that is generated to make their “rags to riches” narrative as an idol star more compelling for the fans?

      (I’m not accusing, I’m asking. My vague impression is that lots of stars all over the world have embellished or manufactured a certain kind of background story for themselves, as part of the celebrity persona…)

      (Though, with a number of Koreans I know well enough to know, hard-luck stories are indeed true life stories… which is why I ask.)


      1. That’s a good question, and I’ll remain open-minded about Park Ga-hee for one until I know more about her. Given how particularly difficult it is for independent artists and/or dancers to break out in the Korean music industry though, dominated as it is by a few huge companies like the Korean economy is dominated by a few chaebol, then it doesn’t sound unreasonable to suppose that there are indeed many young hopefuls genuinely stuggling to survive until they get noticed by SM Entertainment or whoever.

        Not that I think you’d disagree Gord! Gives me the inspiration to finally write that “Seoul Dreams” post I may have mentioned to you 2 years ago too…


        1. See my reply below — I’m inclined to believe her for a number of reasons, one of them being that her initial induction into fame was through SM Entertainment, which appears to make a habit of picking up young kids who are starving on the streets for whatever reason.


          1. Jae,

            Thanks. Wow. That just adds an ick factor to the whole commercial business of popular entertainment. Makes me wonder whether anyone’s tried setting up a more, er, humane, non-profit talent agency for such kids? Hmmmm.

            That would probably be branded as Communist, of course. But it sounds like a hell of an NGO to try run — in a good way.


          2. Heh, yeah. Honestly, the entire kpop business is pretty horribly shady. I never feel anything but bad for the little boy and girl bands, who are often extremely underpaid, starving, and have dictated to them what they can wear, who they can be seen with, and what they will be doing with their time off.

            So Nyeo Shi Dae (who when not being forced to act on their arranged “cutesy” image are some of the most spirited, crass young women in the business I think I’ve ever seen) aren’t allowed to be seen in public without makeup — they’re “punished” for it, apparently. A member of Super Junior was forced to perform three days after his father passed away; another member was made to continually perform with a kidney infection. Broken ankles and legs are given walking casts so they can keep performing. These kids are constantly fainting from dehydration, fevers, and exhaustion, and are generally given a night of rest, and then sent right back out.

            Many, many, many kpop stars come from desperate situations or were in places of desperation around the time that they were taken in by their companies, so most of them don’t know any better, or know that fighting this, or leaving, will bring them even more trouble. A good example is the Dong Bang Shinki situation that’s going on right now, wherein three of the members are suing SM Entertainment for fairer terms or contract release, saying they’ve been paid pittance (they have) and that they’re worked nearly to death. One of them is Kim Jaejoong, the boy I mentioned before as eating other peoples’ leftovers. Apparently he, at least, decided enough was enough.

            I cringe occasionally at the critique of these young people, because none of them have any say in what they promote, how they promote it, and often in what they say or do. The system is incredibly sick, and the people who suffer the most for it are these young stars who genuinely have little control over their lives. I hope people remember to keep that in mind when discussing them, generally.

            (As for a more human agency: Rain’s agency, J. Tune, has a new boy band out called MBLAQ. So far, so good — their leader cracked a rib on a variety show a few months back, and was — gasp! — nearly absent from performances and tv shows while he rested and recovered. They also seem much happier and more well fed than a lot of others do. We’ll see, I guess.)


          3. I can’t find where I wrote about it, but one night while my band was taking a break between sets in Hongdae, back in 2002 or 2003, we went outside and happened on a film crew. The PD, I think it was, happened to be on location and thought my bandmates (who were ethnically Asian) couldn’t understand English, and he started bragging to me about how the actress in the scene had been a really great lay, and about his various casting couch adventures. My bandmates (2 of the 3 were native anglophones) commented and he was a bit surprised that I wasn’t the only one who’d understood… but he never seemed quite *embarrassed* by it. Rather, he seemed surprised that I wasn’t impressed.

            Yeah, someone should start an NGO talent agency, a sort of Boys and Girls Town for giving these kinds of kids a chance without the nasty exploitation.

            Better yet, these kids should get together and do a class action suit against these companies, sue for back wages, and sue them out of business. And then start their own.


          4. Is their treatment of those they sign any better than the big entertainment companies?

            I ask because I know at least one (well-known) indie rock label that was screwing people over, despite playing all hip to the need for something that wasn’t evil and corporate.


          5. I have no idea, but Tablo seems to be a pretty smart guy. His master’s degree is legitimate, despite what some psychotic netizens refuse to believe, and his most videos are, in my view, brilliant parody –certainly a very large cut above the usual low-brow, slapstick “comedy” that is the norm here.

            (If you haven’t seen the Korean movie “The Host” then you’re going to miss most of the humor.)


          6. Ha, I’d love that. IMO, that’s more or less what Rain did. He used to work for JYP, who is known for locking trainees in unheated basements in winter for punishment, and when he got pretty big, he left and founded his own company. The aforementioned MBLAQ are his first project.


          7. When he left JYP, did he sue for any of that crazy shit? I mean, when you get to locking kids in unheated basements during winter, it sounds to me like child abuse, of the sort that — were Korea anything like the US or Canada — would be actionable.


          8. He didn’t, because for some reason stories like these are told by young artists on variety shows to indicate how hard they’ve worked. Rain for his part seems to keep a pretty careful neutrality about JYP, which is business smart, because JYP does have some degree of influence, and there is a rather large certain “side” of people who would netizen him to death for being “ungrateful” or something similar.


      2. I’m more inclined to think they’re true than not — in both the cases I named, they’re stories told only once and then never again and both times with a great deal of obvious shame and tears. Jaejoong in particular had to be coaxed for all the details by the show’s host and he’s generally the sort of “character” that acts out in just about everything.

        Both Jaejoong and Yunho are from SM Entertainment, which seems to have made a general practice of recruiting the extremely poor and desperate or the in-some-way vulnerable (Super Junior’s Lee Donghae comes from an extremely poor family; Choi Siwon comes from a wealthy situation but was disowned by his father before auditioning, meaning that he was an “unattached” fifteen or sixteen year old when the company snatched him up.)

        I’m an avid follower of a huge number of Kpop groups, and these stories of dirt poor desperation followed by sudden elevation to star status don’t ever ring false — they just ring as obvious (on the company’s part) opportunities to cash in on scared and hungry teenagers. They’re more likely to sign on the dotted line for those slave contracts we keep hearing so much about, after all.

        (Mild irony, possibly: Park Gahee was an SM Trainee as well for some time.)


  9. Regarding anemic high schoolers, a female student of mine told me a few years ago that students at her school had donated blood, but when I asked if she had, she told me girls couldn’t give blood. She said it was because their iron was too low, but the reason she gave for lack of iron was that it was caused by menstruation, which I thought was pretty odd at the time.


    1. No, it doesn’t sound that unbelievable to me.

      I’ve been told by a Korean doctors (yes, Lime) that cases of anemia, already sort of common among women to begin with, are exacerbated among Korean women because of all the crazy dieting.


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