Dueji and ‘Diet’ stamps: the importance of weight in Korea vs. the United States

Posted by on Dec 18, 2012 | 13 Comments

“What did you do last weekend?” I asked my class of 24 twelve year-old students.

“I played with these two pigs!” shouted one of the skinny boys, referring to two of his friends. His friend turned around and slapped him playfully on the head.

Later in the day, I was playing a Powerpoint game with another class. One of the images consisted of a fat guy eating a hamburger. “He looks like Sunny,” one of the girls exclaimed, as the other kids laughed and Sunny burst into tears.

Whenever students bully their classmates by calling them “fat,” and more commonly “pig,” dueji in Korean, I never know exactly how to respond. First of all, my Korean is not fluent enough to address the issue, and they certainly can’t understand if I try to explain it in English. Also, in a cultural context, it’s difficult to know where to draw the line. Calling other students “pig” is completely normal in Korean society, but at least for some kids, it must be affecting their confidence and mental health. I asked my co-teacher what we should say to the students when they bully the chubby kids (because most of them are certainly not fat by American standards), and she responded, “I think they’re used to it.”

As I’ve mentioned before in other posts, bullying the fat kid is not a “Korean” phenomenon. I remember the kids in my own elementary school classes who were constantly bullied for being fat, but the standard for being perceived as “fat” in Korea would be seen as “chubby” in the United States. Also, teachers in the US are MUCH more likely to directly address the problem, rather than the typical Korean way of avoiding problems and striving to keep harmony within the classroom.

Dieting is openly discussed and encouraged among people of even healthy weights, but I was still quite shocked when I saw these items marketed towards children while searching for Christmas presents for my two-year old niece.

dietstamp

This pencil stamp set was placed in the children’s aisle–and I’m positive it was the children’s aisle because it looked like florescent colors threw up among the shelves. The stamp on the bottom says, “Diet” and the stamp above that says “blind date” in Korean. I personally feel that the six year-olds or even twelve year-olds who use this stamp set should not be concerned with dieting and blind dates. Yes, the word “Diet” is in English, but the image of the scale is self-explanatory. These toys are giving kids (most likely girls) the impression that they should be most concerned with dating and diets.

diet notebook

Here’s another notebook, seen at Artbox, with “Enjoy your diet” written at the top. Granted, teenage girls and even older women use these cutesy cartoon-character plastered notebooks, but this is definitely marketed towards a younger girl, probably middle and high school students. Also, it’s in English, and most times, English is merely used as decoration in Korea. Even it wasn’t meant to be scrutinized, the designer must have written “Enjoy your diet” as the main text, due to it’s prevalence in Korean society. The text underneath completely contradicts the header, but hey, that’s Korean English for you.

My students have become so comfortable with me that sometimes they’ll even call me fat. They’re mostly joking around, but they still mean it. A few weeks ago, I told one of my classes that I went on a Buddhist Templestay, and all the food was vegetarian. “Ms. Shaw ate only vegetables because she’s fat and is dieting,” one of the students exclaimed (or at least that’s how my co-teacher translated it, since I didn’t exactly know what he was saying.) Although I’m at a completely healthy weight, according to Korean standards I’m still chubby.

This pressure to diet and achieve the ideal weight does not only apply to women in Korean society. Men also face pressure to diet. One of my chubby boy students, who speaks English really well, came into my class early one day and discussed his diet with me. “My dad said he would buy me a smartphone if I lose [a certain amount] of weight,” he told me. (He’s one of the exceptionally wealthy students at my school.) “But last weekend I ate a lot of naengmyun; it’s my favorite food.” We talked about snacking habits, since he is constantly going to hagwon, Korean evening cram schools, and doesn’t necessarily eat regular meals.

Korea’s openness towards weight can be a good thing. This student really does need to lose weight for his health, but I’m not sure if bribery is the best encouragement. The obesity rate is certainly much lower than the United States’, but I’m wary of how many people actually have eating disorders. The standard weight that Koreans try to achieve is too low in my opinion, and many kids lose their self-confidence at a young age, spending the rest of their lives on strict diets, trying to reach a goal weight that is either unhealthy or physically impossible. With the plethora of advertising promoting weight loss and constant pestering from family members and peers, the need to diet is quickly ingrained in children’s brains.

In the United States, a standard of unattainable beauty is also splattered throughout the media and advertisements, but weight is somewhat taboo to discuss. Many overweight children grow up ignoring problems and are encouraged to love their body despite their weight posing future health risks. Everyone should feel confident with their body but also realize when and if they need to make healthier choices.

In Korea, if someone is constantly commenting on “how chubby your face is” and encouraging you to diet, it means that they are comfortable around you and that they care. In the United States, we often avoid telling people we care about that they need to lose weight, because it’s either not that important to us or we don’t want to hurt their feelings. How can both countries reach a happy medium?

What are your thoughts about the importance (or lack of importance) of health and weight in your home country vs. current home abroad?

 

*Read more about these issues on The Grand Narrative, a blog devoted to Korean feminism, sexuality and pop culture. Here are archives for articles on body image and dieting in Korea. 

 

-Text and photography by Sarah Shaw @ www.mappingwords.com. All rights reserved.



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13 Comments

  1. Ashley
    December 18, 2012

    Koreans are so open to weight. I had a student that skipped lunch for 2 weeks and only at an apple a day to lose weight. & she’s one of the best students at my school. :(

    Reply
  2. Kat
    December 18, 2012

    I’m actually surprised I haven’t had more comments about my weight in Korea. I’m a good 20kgs over the standard Korean size. But the only comments I’ve had are to compliment me on how slim and beautiful I am…

    I did have one hilarious moment when my best middle school students made a comment about the photo on my work pass, with the intention of saying “you look much skinnier than in your photo,” which came out in a bad way… but I had the last laugh, and so did the class when I said “I’ll give you a piece of advice. Never ever tell a woman she looks fat. And never ever ever tell your teacher she looks fat, because she can do this”… I made him stand up the back with his hands up for 5 minutes, while he tried to backpedal by saying “You are as thin as my hair, you look like Taylor Swift.”

    But I have heard the dueji comment a lot (not directed at me), but whenever I hear students say it I make them apologise to their friends.

    Reply
    • Sarah Shaw
      December 18, 2012

      I think it all depends on their comfort level, to be honest. I’ve taught the same 210 students for 2 years, 3 times a week, so they know me pretty well now. Last year, I never heard them comment on my weight, but this year they’ll occasionally say something– most of the time in Korean. Maybe they did make some comments last year and I just didn’t catch it.

      hahah, “You’re as thin as my hair, you look like Taylor Swift.” ^^

      Reply
  3. Mimsie
    December 18, 2012

    I was tutoring a 6 year old girl last year in her home. When our lessons were finished, her mother (who was a former Miss Korea contestant, mind you) made her jump rope fifty times calling her “dueji” and “hobac” and refusing her daughter’s requests for an evening snack. My student would get so depressed and stressed, sobbing to me that she didn’t want to be fat anymore. I made her repeat “I am beautiful. I am smart. I am a good girl” whenever she acted like this. I like to think that the mantra may have stuck with her, but the reality of it is that in Korea, too much is dependent upon one’s appearance- health has nothing to do with it- especially for women. Sad fact.

    Reply
    • Sarah Shaw
      December 18, 2012

      I totally agree, Mimsie. Koreans place wayyyyy too much importance on appearance in general, not even just weight. That’s crazy about your student’s mother! It doesn’t surprise me though. I’ve heard other stories like that, as well. ㅠㅠ Good for you for trying to raise her self confidence.

      Reply
  4. Korean Gender Reader, December 15-21 | The Grand Narrative
    December 22, 2012

    [...] Dueji and ‘Diet’ stamps: the importance of weight in Korea vs. the United States (mapping [...]

    Reply
  5. J-F
    December 23, 2012

    Lol and you guys think the USA is a role model for weight? Give me a break, obesity is a MUCH bigger (and ugly) problem.

    Reply
    • Sarah Shaw
      December 23, 2012

      I’m sorry, did you even read the article or did you just fail to comprehend it? In no way did I suggest that the USA was a role model for health and weight.

      Reply
  6. Kerkie
    December 26, 2012

    I do have this to add: being heavier (chubby, or what have you) is not ALWAYS a bad thing. Just as being skinny or even thin is not necessarily a marker of health, just as having a little padding doesn’t necessarily equate with poor health, or even eventual poor health. Meso-, Endo-, or Ectomorph, I think it’s just sheer laziness to say losing weight (if chubby) = better health. My closest friend is 5’1″, teeny tiny and has a fried egg and cheese bagel every morning – not to mention a diet of beige food. I’ve been in the upper range of my weight range my entire life (overweight by most standards) but eat a fairly varied diet. She has hypertension at 26, as well as a few other medical issues such as acid reflex. My blood pressure, however, is pretty close to a 1:1 ratio (86/88) and the only medication I’ve only ever had to take is for allergies. I keep telling her skinny people have heart attacks too.

    Perhaps part of the fault lies with the term ‘diet.’ You can’t ‘go on a diet,’ really, because you HAVE a diet – from the day you are conceived you have a diet, it’s simply how and what you eat. You can change it, but how can you actually go on something you have always had? Besides, one of the reasons it is taboo to tell someone you love (in the US) that they should loose weight is because, I’m pretty sure, they are already WELL aware of what they should and shouldn’t do with regards to their bodies. It’s like saying ‘You’d be so pretty if you just lost some weight.’ It doesn’t come across as caring, it comes across as smug and a form of fat shaming. If my sister told me I should loose weight, I’d probably slap her. ‘Concerned’ or not, what would she, at 5’11” and a size 8, know about what I’m going through, mentally and physically?

    Reply
    • Sarah Shaw
      December 26, 2012

      Kerkie, you raise some good points. Being skinny doesn’t necessarily mean being healthy, and the same for the other way around. I should have clarified this more.

      I definitely agree with your thoughts about “fat shaming,” and already being aware that you’re overweight. I would also slap my sister if she constantly told me I needed to lose weight, especially because it is not normal in our culture to do that. Even if it is “normal” in Asia to call perfectly healthy people “fat,” I still think it can be detrimental to maintaining one’s mental health and it obviously lowers their self confidence.

      One of my best friends is Taiwanese, and throughout her entire life, her parents have called her “fat” and claimed that she is uglier than her sister. In my opinion, this is verbal child abuse, because these words, constantly repeated throughout her life, have had a negative impact on her self confidence and mental health. Even though this brutal honesty towards weight and appearance is part of Asian culture, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a good thing. (Unless one actually has a health problem, which I mentioned above– and even so, the issue should be approached in a somewhat sensitive manner.)

      Reply
  7. Ruth
    December 27, 2012

    This is a really good article. It really seems like both Korea and America struggle with the same issue from different angles. Honestly, the Korean obsession (as much as I hate to use that word) reminds me a lot of America from years back. I remember my grandmothers always commenting on weight and food issues and treating themselves horribly to achieve their own personal ideas of beauty.

    It seems like America has gone the other direction in an almost reactionary way. Like the entire culture was so ticked off at being told “you should look like this” that it decided it wasn’t going to talk anymore about it. There’s such a fear to hurt one another’s feelings anymore, that we effectively no longer express any real sense of caring or camaraderie with each other.

    While I also don’t agree with the overt value placed by Koreans on the externals, I appreciate, to an extent, that they are willing to be open (sometimes to the point of rudeness).

    The finding of the happy medium between apathy and hyper-criticism really seems to be the holy grail for a happy and self-confident society.

    Reply
    • Sarah Shaw
      December 27, 2012

      I agree, Ruth. I never connected Korea’s modern-day obsession with weight to 1950’s era America, but the correlation makes sense. It reminds me of my aunt telling me that before going to school everyday (in the 60s), she would roll up her skirt into a miniskirt after leaving the house so my grandmother wouldn’t see.

      Reply

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