“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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