A Weighty Matter: Deconstructing the Korean Media’s Messages about Body Image, Cosmetic Surgery, and Obesity

Korean Drama Screenshot(Source)

I was quoted in the Korea Times today, on “Korean primetime’s ‘lookism’ problem”. Due to my sloppy wording though, the fact that I was actually paraphrasing someone else(!) got lost in the final article. So, to give credit where credit’s due, and to use the opportunity to provide some helpful links to further reading, here’s my original email quote:

As researcher Sarah Grogan pointed out in Body Image: Understanding Body Dissatisfaction in Men, Women and Children (2007), watching more television doesn’t necessarily lead to greater dissatisfaction with one’s body—it’s the messages it gives that are what’s important. So, whether it’s a variety program, a music video, an advertisement, or whatever, if what you’re watching stresses being thin, if it encourages viewers to compares themselves with the ideal men and women presented, and/or if it makes you feel like there’s such a huge gap between your own body and theirs, then you’re just going be left feeling ugly. Television everywhere is guilty of that. Korean television though, really stands out with the sheer amount of programming time devoted to appearance and dieting, with its uncritical narratives that cosmetic surgery is a safe and reliable means to financial and romantic success, and with the seeming unconcern with, even positive encouragement of passing those messages on to children. Call that a gross generalization if you wish, but consider this: although Korean children (of both sexes) are only about average weight compared to other OECD countries, Korea is the only country where 20-39 year-old women are getting thinner. Is it really so strange to suppose that the Korean media might have had something to do with that? So unreasonable to suggest that it could sometimes present more realistic images of women?

To be precise, it’s the 2nd half of the 2nd sentence (from “if what you’re watching” to “feeling ugly”) where I’m paraphrasing Sarah Grogan again (p. 112). But, without my making that clear, then it’s no wonder that reporter Kim Bo-eun didn’t realize, and so didn’t mention Grogran. My fault sorry, and, not just because I’m feeling guilty at the *cough* inadvertent plagiarism, naturally I highly recommend Grogans’ book, although frankly I’d wait to see if a third edition is coming out before you consider purchasing it yourself.

Most the of the subsequent links are self-explanatory, so I’ll just highlight a couple. First, the one to Joanna Elfving-Hwang’s “Cosmetic Surgery and Embodying the Moral Self in South Korean Popular Makeover Culture” at the Asia-Pacific Journal, because it’s a must-read. At best, I can only supplement it myself with this recent translation of mine (with links to many more articles) on how scarily unregulated—and genuinely dangerous—the Korean cosmetic surgery industry is, with a Chinese patient dying just last week.

Next, my latest article for Busan Haps, where I debunk recent alarmist reports about—yes, really—a ‘Korean Obesity Epidemic’, especially among children. To quickly sum up my findings for you here, despite the definite improvements that can be made to Korean children’s health, they are actually only about average weight for the OECD (which I suppose is news for Korea), and Korean adults are still the 5th thinnest overall. Like with smoking however, it is both misguided and unhelpful to think in terms of overall rates rather than specific demographics, two extreme cases in point being young, urban women who are getting more underweight, and elderly, rural, poor women who do indeed tend to be (slightly) more obese than ‘average’. World-Changing Quiz ShowSomething to consider the next time a columnist or show host lectures Korean women on eating less—which will probably be as soon as next week, in the run-up to Seolnal on the 18th (source, right: Entermedia).

Finally, another clarification. By “Korean television…really [standing] out with the sheer amount of programming time devoted to appearance and dieting”, I don’t mean shows explicitly devoted to those subjects as such (although I’m sure that, comparatively speaking, their numbers would still be quite high). Rather, it’s that those subjects pervade Korean programming content, with hosts on Korea’s disproportionately high number of variety and guest shows, for example, frequently commenting on especially female guests’ appearances, either by jokingly fat-shaming those that don’t fit the ideal, or by prompting ‘impromptu’ skits, dance performances, or testimonials about dieting and miracle fat-reduction products by those that do, to the extent that such body-policing becomes an integral component of the entertainment (Kim Bo-eun also mentions some examples in Korean comedy shows).

This is just my strong impression though, which I admit I can’t offer any content analysis to back-up, and which I doubt even exists anyway (would anyone like to do some with me?). If any readers have a different impression of Korean television then, and feel that I’m mistaken, by all means please tell me why!

5 thoughts on “A Weighty Matter: Deconstructing the Korean Media’s Messages about Body Image, Cosmetic Surgery, and Obesity

  1. I generally agree. It’s weird (even for me) to hear when a host says, “Wow, you’re so pretty / good-looking!” (especially) to a guest who is not a celebrity. Cannot imagine a host saying that on American TV, for instance. Even if it’s meant to be an honest compliment. I was reading a magazine featuring a female civil servant. The article liked to mention the fact she was pretty even though it had nothing to do with the main point. The disconnect is that a Korean host who might say those things usually doesn’t have a clue as to what it could imply. I think they truly feel they are simply+wholeheartedly complimenting someone.


    1. I agree that many hosts have no bad intentions, and genuinely feel they are simply and wholeheartedly complimenting someone.

      Speaking just in generalizations of course, I think two big reasons why they’re not shown the errors of their ways and/or confronted by guests is:

      1) Because the hosts tend to be middle-aged men, the guests being body-policed tend to be young women, and we both know that challenging or even just gently correcting people older (and maler!) than yourself, causing them to lose face, is very, very frowned upon in Korea. (This is compounded in the case of non-celebrities, who naturally would have very little confidence in front of the camera.)

      2) Because a disproportionate number of the young women are employees of entertainment management companies like SM Entertainment, who have not only been trained for years to accept and smile sweetly at pretty much everything a host says about them, but may (quite rationally and understandably) have every incentive themselves to revel in and exploit the positive attention being given to their bodies.

      Of course, I’m sure we both know of young actors and K-pop stars that have challenged the beauty standards expected of them, which is great (CL of 2NE1 quickly comes to mind). But it seems we hear about that more after the fact via magazine interviews and so on, rather than seeing the person being told on a show that they’re too fat and them disagreeing, let alone telling the host to shut up.

      But again, these are huge generalizations, the same dynamics occur (to a greater or lesser extent) in the media in any country, and I have to admit I don’t watch many..well, any Korean variety shows and so on any more precisely because of things like this (frankly, I just find them vacuous). If it turns out that in fact young women do often confront their hosts about body-image issues and so on though, then I’d be very, very happy to be proven wrong!


      1. Yes, you’re right. I would even say many guests are now okay w/ it. That’s the troubling part. If a person happens to be good-looking/pretty for some reason, it’s always mentioned (even if irrelevant). Like: “She’s pretty at that! (wink wink)” Conversely, I saw some people (online) bring up “looks” when opining about the recent “Nut Return” incident. Like: “She’s ugly at that!” As if it made everything worse. Granted, we all (to a certain extent) judge people by looks, but giving looks such priority (so openly) + being okay w/ it – that’s uncanny. At least in my estimation. Thanks.


  2. Hum, very interesting, like always. But I think it’s not only the matter of being over or underweight that is at work here. You did mention cosmetic surgery. The same with orthodontics. The ‘rehab’ beauty business started a few decades back, and not only in Korea. Sure, I’m certain there are particular traits to Korean culture – then again you’ll find idiotic ‘older male hosts’ just about anywhere – but the fact is that, now, whole new generations have perfect teeth, no matter the cost. Same face, same body, same teeth, same shoes (that they put on their head – that was another good one!), same everything and all so perfect. That’s scary. Step 1 to Brave new world? Maybe. And in 100 years from now, the fat women with bad teeth, a funky face and one leg shorter than the other will be the most sought after. :-)
    Great work!


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