The Skinny on Koreans


Koreans are skinny. Have you noticed? I mean, if you live in Korea, it’s pretty hard not to.  I know that people say you can’t stereotype. But, it’s actually the truth. Koreans are skinny – really, really, skinny. 

My Disclaimer

I know I’m asking for all the haters to start commenting about how obesity is rising in Korea and raise other objections, but I don’t care. When I look around, I see skinny people. Also, as a disclaimer, I realize this is an opinionated piece. But, I’ve lived in Korea for two years, in two different cities, and in two different work environments; I am entitled to write what I’ve experienced. Also, this is not a scientific study. I’m writing merely based on my experiences and observation.  I love Korea, so please understand that my criticism is not an attempt to stereotype or offend an entire country.  Every individual is different and there are image and health issues in every country.  I might not agree with Korea’s intense pressure to be thin, but I certainly commend Koreans on being so much healthier on average than people from the West.  I love Korea, and although there are some things I will criticize about Korea, the purpose of this series is to explore health and eating habits of Koreans to help improve the health of everyone. 

Supershrink Me

If you’re like me, you are from a Western country (I am from Canada). You are used to all shapes and sizes and probably feel pretty normal and confident in your body. Maybe, you are even in decent shape, and back home you are usually considered to be on the smaller side. Well, all that changes once you move to the ROK. No longer are you small. In fact, you are probably bigger (and when I say bigger, I mean “fatter” to a Korean) than all of your coworkers, the average person on the bus, and even the bathroom ajummas at your school. Even if you are okay with this, you will find that many outspoken Koreans are not. “You are fat!” They will tell you. “You are not small!” “You need to lose weight.”

A picture from when I first arrived in Korea taken in the fall of 2011. I was told I was fat here.
A picture from when I first arrived in Korea taken in the fall of 2011. I was told I was fat here.

Yes, these are all comments I’ve had directed at me. And, for your reference, I am actually considered small back home. Even if you do lose weight, Koreans will still make you feel bad about your previous size. Last year, when I lost some weight, I had some Koreans say to me “oh you look so much better now. You were SOOOO fat before. How many kilos did you weigh?” And then they would continue to remind me about how fat I had been as frequently as they could  which was not fat and only a difference of 3 kilos. Anyways, my rant is over.  When it comes to your weight in Korea, my points are:

  1. You are never skinny enough for a Korean.
  2. If you do lose weight, they will make you feel bad about how fat you were before.
  3. If you gain weight, you are fat again.
  4. Never believe a Korean when they say you are fat.

This can be a struggle for most people, and whether or not you agree with Korean body ideals, you will still be subjected to the opinion of all the people around you. Or so I have experienced.

Taken in August 2012, after I'd lost 3 kilos. Here I was told I looked good but that I had been sooooo fat before.  (Side note- actually this was not a healthy weight for me at all. I was underweight in this picture and was having health problems because of it).
Taken in August 2012, after I’d lost 3 kilos. Here I was told I looked good but that I had been sooooo fat before. (Side note- actually this was not a healthy weight for me at all. I was underweight in this picture and was having health problems because of it).

Health Tips from Korean Eating Habits

Despite some negative experiences, I thought it would be fun to ask my coworkers some questions about diet. How is it that Koreans are so skinny? What do they actually eat on a regular basis? And, if I wanted to eat like a Korean or pick up some of their skinny tricks and habits, what should I do?  I might not agree with their standards of beauty, but there are obviously things they are doing correctly that I can learn from.

So, I made a simple questionnaire and sent it to a handful of my Korean coworkers. I also posted it on some Facebook groups where some other expats completed it providing their opinions.

The results were really interesting to me. Many of the tips I didn’t agree with – I found that all my coworkers reported extremely low caloric intakes that are not healthy at all. How often they really eat that little I can’t say.  It’s one thing to write down that you only eat this amount, and it’s another to actually do it. However, I can assume that their answers were pretty close to what their normal caloric intake is on a regular day, especially since I can observe my coworkers at work.

Now, I know I’ll have some people say,

“but Koreans have REALLY high metabolisms! I see them eating junk food all day and they don’t get fat! I took a girl on a date and she ate so much rice and so much samgyeopsal AND we had ice cream after dinner!”

Now, I’m sure this is true in some respects – perhaps genetically Koreans are at an advantage. Perhaps they do have “skinny genes”. And yes, I’m sure that they can eat huge amounts of BBQ for dinner. But, I also don’t think that’s a regular everyday occurrence for them. I also think that when they eat larger meals, they tend to under eat the next day.

Regardless, Koreans do have some tips that we can use in our own quests for healthier lifestyles. 


1. Be a social eater. You will notice that in Korea many of the restaurants you go to are meant for group meals. Actually, at a lot of the BBQ places, you will not be allowed to eat there alone! But, social eating can be one way of helping you watch what you eat. You might think twice about how much you eat when you are surrounded by other people. Also, I think that by eating with their families for so many years, Koreans are accustomed to eating their vegetables. I know more than one guy back home who orders his steak and potatoes and leaves the “rabbit food” where it belongs – right there on the plate! Which is so wrong! In Korea, vegetables are highly prized and are featured accompaniments with each meal- as they should be!  I’m sure that by eating so many meals with their moms telling them to eat their veggies has caused the habit to become ingrained. But wait, your mom told you to eat your veggies too and she isn’t Korean? Okay – point made. I don’t know why Koreans eat their veggies with no problem!  However, I do believe that by sharing our meals with others, we can adopt healthier habits and also ensure that we are dedicating some time to the important social relationships in our lives.

2. When you want dessert, split it. In Korea, if you go to Starbucks and order a piece of chocolate cake, they give it to you with multiple forks without you even asking. Um hello – did I really want to share it with my friend? Well, no, not really. But in Korea, they just assume you aren’t going to eat that whole thing on your own – and isn’t that a good idea?

3. Actually split everything. This goes along with rule number 1.

4. Enjoy real food. Have you noticed how little in the way of diet foods are available in Korea? Diet pop? Diet cookies? Diet yogurt? Sure, they have some, but not many. I’ve noticed with Koreans that they don’t really eat “diet foods”, which I think is a healthy habit. Back home, in Canada, there is an overwhelming amount of “diet food,” most of which is completely processed, nutrient void, expensive, unhealthy, and bad tasting. And, people who tend to eat them often don’t enjoy them as much as they would the real deal. I know people who eat five 100 calorie snack packs of Oreo Crisps and still don’t feel like they ate one real Oreo. (And no, I was not the person who ate the five packs.  If it was Skinny Cow Ice Cream sandwiches on the other hand, then you might have caught me J) The bottom line is to think like a Korean. Enjoy the real deal, in moderation, which brings me to the next point – moderation in the form of portion size.

5. Portion size. Have you noticed how everything is in baby portions here? A can of coke is not the size it should be! What is it – 250 ml? I’m used to 355ml. What a rip off! But then, who is really being ripped off – the country with an obesity epidemic, or the country where you have to buy two cans if you want more? Portion sizes in Korea are much smaller! I don’t tend to eat out very often, but generally, if I do, I’m happy with the portion I get. Bibimbop? Kimbap? Bulgogi? Whatever dish you order, you can usually be safe to assume you aren’t going to feel like a whale after eating it, or feel guilty that you didn’t only eat half your entrée, which is typical advice for eating out in Canada where they usually advise to save half your entrée to take home. But really, if I wanted a meal for tomorrow, then I could order a meal tomorrow.  The bottom line is, when it comes to portion control,  Korea wins. Smaller portion size means you really need to evaluate your appetite before ordering more food. Second, when you do decide to opt for a real dessert, like Baskin Robbins ice cream, you get a little baby 1/2-cup portion. It’s not enough to make you fat, but definitely enough to make you satisfied.

6. Eat food for the health of it. Never before have I seen people regularly eat strange foods just because they are healthy!  Ok, so I’ve seen a couple people drink those wheatgrass shots from Booster Juice (which taste like mulched up lawnmower grass-blech!) But here, a large amount of people regularly consume things that seem strange:

  • Onion Juice – EWWWW!!! I could never drink this, but I see my co-teachers downing these little tetra packs daily! They say it’s good for their skin.
  • Fresh Tomato Juice – Koreans drink smoothies made from fresh tomatoes, sometimes with the addition of other fruit. When I see a smoothie – I think like banana strawberry – yum! NOT tomato!!!
  • Dried Anchovies and gochujang for beer snacks. Anchovies, full of DHA, are the healthy part.  Gochujang and beer – not so much.
  • Fermented Fish Intestines and Other Sea CreaturesOk, so I don’t see my co-teachers eating these, but I do see them at the supermarkets and always there are free samples. I made the mistake one day of trying something that did not taste good at all and have never ventured back to that corner again!

There are seriously so many foods here that are based on the health benefits first, and taste second. I know that some people will think kimchi on this, but kimchi is only the start, and the taste can be quite good depending on the batch. Some of these foods do not taste good at all, yet they are regularly eaten because of their benefits. And to think that back home some people are proud of themselves for “choking down that bowl of oatmeal” – Get real! Korea wins when it comes to eating food for health benefits

These are just a few tips I think westerners can learn from Koreans regarding better eating habits.  Stay tuned for my next article.  I’ll share what my co-teachers revealed in their daily diets, their “secret Korean diet tricks and tips,” and more of my thoughts on the Korean diet and what we can learn from their habits to improve our own health.

What have you learned about healthy eating habits while in Korea?

What is the strangest healthy food you’ve seen being consumed here?

I’d love to hear your comments!

A picture of me from now- July 2013. I am fat again by Korean terms. But I don't really care- I am way healthier now.
A picture of me from now- July 2013. I am fat again by Korean terms. But I don’t really care- I am way healthier now.

Kayla McColl is the writer of the blog Kabochas and Coconut ButterFitness, food and health are personal passions of hers. She is a competitive fitness competitor and has competed in multiple Bikini Bodybuilding competitions. To learn more about Kayla, click here.

79 thoughts on “The Skinny on Koreans

  1. Wtf…Korean women are not skinny. They are NORMAL. Just because they are 50-60kg doesn’t mean they are TOO skinny. They are simply naturally thin.

    It’s amazing how much body-shaming is done BY women to OTHER women. If a girl is very skinny and you can’t understand how that’s possible, then there must be something wrong with her or the culture she is from? Seriously? That’s bullshit and the writer should be ashamed. Just because your default weight is heavier than Koreans doesn’t mean they are the ones who have to change.

    I hope Korea NEVER compromises on this issue. Never allow the feminists and hamplanets to take over and tell girls that being fat & unhealthy is acceptable.

    TO Noe Alonzo: it’s cause you’re a male. Males aren’t allowed to speak on women’s body issues (although women comment on men’s shoulders or “that Vline on Brad Pitt in Fight Club! Omg!” all the time)


    1. I did not say that there is something wrong with them and their culture. I said this is what I’ve experienced and I don’t agree with it. No way was I body shaming anyone- in fact, in my experience, I am the one who has been getting body shamed.


      1. Nice job writing about it! We must consider the fact that they usually drink just water during meals. At Korean restaurant they don’t offer (push you to buy) a coke or juice or other beverages like foreigners do.


    2. No, you’re right j kimchi. I should allow my students to freak out about dieting in the 7th grade, and to call their close friends ugly and fat. Oooooor I can try and foster a healthy environment for my students which focuses on a healthy and encouraging environment, where physical beauty comes secondary to having a good heart and being a good person.

      The writer of this article is not body shaming anyone. If anything she explaining the healthy and unhealthy aspects she has experienced here about Koreans and their eating habits. And as a feminist, I have never told someone it’s okay to be unhealthy – whether they are Korean or American.

      Someone would have to be blind to not see how historically (whether in the East or West), women have always felt pressured to exceed a certain level of beauty. This isn’t about body shaming anyone, this is about a writer telling us yet another narrative of a woman’s pressure to be a certain way. Though the lens today is about a person in Korea, this happens everywhere. So before you think think this writer is attacking Korean women, you are missing the point.


        1. I’m a woman, I teach at an all girls school, and I volunteer at a center working with sex trafficking victims. It’s given me a unique perspective😉 . Keep writing and sharing your experience, more women need to hear these kinds of narratives ^^


    3. Perhaps “skinny” should be redefined here because when I think of skinny I think of lack of muscle and small bodied — in my eyes skinny is unhealthy but thin is acceptable. The skinny I see here in Korea is not particularly healthy. I run my own boxing club that has well over 90 members and every single member gets their body fat, muscle percentage, weight and body measurements taken EACH month. You’d be shocked to see the body fat percentages of these so-called “skinny” women and the lack of muscle. I have much respect for all my members because they are trying to become healthier and there has never been any “body-shaming” done here. Having said this though, when about 70% of my female Korean members have a body fat that is high average and a muscle percentage that is below average of what is healthy, then there is a great concern. Moreover, yes they are naturally much thinner due to genetics and diet but their over obsession with being the “ideal” 49kgs is not healthy. Whether it’s water drinks that advertise they’ll give your face a sharp v-line, cereal commercials that say in two weeks you can get skinny enough for your bikini, or whatnot, there is this misconception in Korea that skinny is in but it doesn’t mean it is healthy and I see the proof walk through my club door every day. I have lived in Korea for well over 9 years, done professional boxing for about 5 and have my own boxing club and I agree with Kayla.


      1. Thank you Amy. I don’t think Korea is the only place with a “skinny fat” problem. I think many Westerners are also at an unhealthy body fat percent, and I have noticed this in Korea. However, I do think that the older generation in Korea is generally much more mobile and fit than back home. Whenever we go hiking it is always the ajummas and ajoshis pushing us out of the way and definitely not the younger Koreans. Do I think everyone should exercise? Of course- but I know that our eating habits play an even larger role on how our bodies look, which is sort of my goal with this blog series: to glean what we can from healthy food habits. I also think many Koreans take it too far with the sort of contraptions and gimmicks you mentioned, but ridiculous diets and tools are everywhere.


  2. Growing a thick skin is another tip! It sucks being called fat in Korea, but the way I see it is we (as foreigners) will never be able to live up to their ideals. For the most part, our bodies are just different, as are our outlooks on weight and personal appearance. When I get the “fat” or “you look tired today” comments or even suggestions to upgrade my wardrobe, I have learned to just roll my eyes. It’s sad that unrealistic expectations for one’s physical appearance are more of a concern than one’s personality or even intelligence at times. Hopefully, this will be something that changes in the future, but for now, it’s far too culturally ingrained in the society. Foreigners living in Korea should just try to not let it get to them so much.

    On the other hand, I kind of wish it were more socially acceptable to point out one’s flaws in America. There are so many *real* obesity issues present and because of our culture, it is often considered rude/condescending to tell someone they need to try to exercise or eat better. Koreans might consider this to be a lack of concern for one’s friends’ well-being and future (because in their minds, who’s going to marry someone that’s 300 pounds?).

    Which way is better?? Maybe neither. Maybe somewhere in the middle.


    1. I totally agree with you Mimsie on all your points. It is a huge cultural taboo for us to comment about each other’s weight- even when their weight is definitely a problem and hurting their health. If there was some kind of middle ground I agree that would be beneficial, as you said.


  3. Great article. I too wondered about this subject. At 5’8 and 58 kilos, my korean doctor literally said ” i know you may be considered small in america but you arent here in korea.”

    Eye wide open. Jaw dropped.

    Now the intersting part is why I was there to see that doctor. My korean girl friend had suggested i go see the fat injection doctor.
    I had never even heard of such a thing. But as a gal who works out daily, but was interested in spot reduction, i decided to check it out.

    I was shocked. Imagine a military hospital with about 30 beds lined up and down both sides of the room. A girl in each bed recieving treatment as well as 10 girls in the inside waiting room with about 10-15 waiting in the lobby for their turn.

    There are about 3-5 different types of injections, some are definitely more painful as you can hear girls moaning and on the verge of screaming/crying.

    The medication they give you consists of a metabolism speed caffeine pill, an apetitie suppressant and a laxatives.
    You are advised to take 2-3 times a day. After 1 day i felt crazy and jittery and well…quit.
    Too much to sacrifice.

    Before this experience, before my kindgertner didnt eat birthday cake for a full year because she didnt wanna get fat, before i overheard the 2 adjummas openly and loudly talking about my body in front of everyone in the locker room and how pretty the front of mu body was but the back of my body was uglt because my hips were too wide and butt too big, before i watched my korean co teacher eat one egg every day for lunch for 2 weeks in front of the students stating she was on a diet, before my korean friend told me she felt lucky to be able to eat a whole bag of cookies while white girls bodies allows them to eat justa single one…i too thought “korean girls are just naturally skinnier.”

    And although I know that is partially true, korean girls are generally and often naturally smaller than me….theres a lot more to it.


  4. There is no need for the defensive disclaimer… Koreans put way too much pressure on themselves and others, especially in regards to physical appearance. If you think their comments about your body is too harsh, I happen to know that they hold back on Westerners. I’m a Korean-American and at 158 cm / 57 kg and am not so lucky. Friends back home would think I was crazy if I even tried to complain about my weight. True, I rather be at 25% body fat instead of the 28/29 that I am, but I’m working on it. This body shaming done in Korea needs to stop. I wish I knew Korean for “mind your own business”.


    1. I believe you- many times I am thankful that I don’t speak Korean so I can’t overhear them! In no way do I think that Koreans aren’t just as harsh on each others bodies as they are on ours- I definitely believe you and I do not agree with this at all.


  5. Loved this article, Kayla! It has been fun to observe Korean eating habits while working so closely with three female co-teachers for two years. I’m just trying to stay thin at the same time as eating tons of fried chicken. For a country that has so many ways to eat healthy, they sure do know how to make a batch of the fattiest, greasiest, most delicious fried chicken ever.🙂


  6. You raise several different points and they are not clearly distinguished so lets address them..
    1. Koreans are skinny.
    Wrong! Skinny implies abnormal. A negative connotation. Most Koreans are normal and most believe they are normal. So are Koreans skinny or normal? Compared to a Westerner they may seem skinny but thats what happens when you compare apples to oranges. Koreans are in fact not skinny. They are normal. Why do you suggest using a Western criteria to then judge a Korean negatively?

    2. Products are too small.
    Of course they are to a Westerner. But to a Korean the right size. Why again would you use a Western criteria? Becuase you think Koreans should offer products based on Western criteria? So if you agree the product should be the size it should be then why go to that country and then describe them as being too small. The proper way to describe something in another country is to say the size is right for Koreans but for bigger person like me they are too small. This respects the country you are visiting. Simply saying its too small implies it is wrong size for anyone who reads your words.

    3. Koreans tell Westerns they are fat or should lose weight.
    Maybe someone wants to make you feel bad and saying it with malice. Maybe. But maybe you should think about the intent. Is it maybe spoken in concern. To mean well? Or may be out of habit without much thought? Or maybe not knowing what else to say to a foreigner because Koreans want to say something and so that is all they can think of? I think there should have been more done to try to figure out what the intent was before painting a broad picture that all these people meant to be rude or hurtful.
    In Western culture you are expected to say exactly what you mean to say. But you will find that in Eastern cultures there are two different kinds of talk. Serious talk and small talk. There is a lot of small talk and a lot of it revolves around looks. Think of how many people pickup National Enquirer type magazines. What do they like to talk about? Looks. And because small talk is spoken a lot Koreans don’t take it as serious and literally as you do. Of course some really mean what they say about looks and some hear it and take it more seriously and some go as far getting plastic surgery. But the reason they go under table has a lot of other forces involved than the pressure of things people say to them about looks. The best way to deal with all the talk about looks is to think of it as small talk and they really don’t mean what they say or they are just meaning well. Of course some people are mean and want to hurt you but those are rare. As it is anywhere in the world.
    And yes they are also guilty of speaking about Westerners using a Korean criteria of normal and preferred size or weight. Ah ha! Are you not doing the same thing?



    1. Jo, I think that Kayla was actually speaking positively of what you refer to as ‘product size’. Her point was that at first things seemed small, but she came to realize that the smaller portions were more realistic (and healthier) than larger portions in other countries such as the US and Canada. I have to agree about portion sizes, Kayla. When I first moved to the US I found myself looking at muffins, thinking “Is this really supposed to be for one person?” I know we should all have the self-control to eat an appropriate quantity, but when it tastes good, combined with that old “Don’t waste food!” it’s easy from someone to eat more than they intended/realized. The size of Korean portions tends to take that burden away from the consumer. And that’s a positive thing.
      Kayla, I thought it was really interesting what you said about people eating vegetables. I was amazed to see how my Korean friends’ children and younger relatives quite happily ate vegetables and even wanted more! I never saw a parent struggle to get a kid to eat up their veggies. It really impressed me when I lived there.


      1. Thank you Annov! I agree with you.

        I have also noticed this about children eating not only vegetables- but everything that was put on their plate. Someone else commented on this on Facebook, that not eating vegetables is not the case with Westerners. But I know how picky my sisters and I were with food, and how we loathed the zucchini, chard and beets my father served up! I still remember how much I hated it! My tastes have changed now, and I actually love vegetables, but that is different. So yes, I’ve also been very surprised at how children especially eat what their parents provide for them without complaint.


    2. What a condescending reply, totally off the mark. Why would she not use western criteria wring for a western audience from a western perspective. She never said portion sizes are too small. And I think you “Or maybe not knowing what else to say to a foreigner because Koreans want to say something and so that is all they can think of” suggestion was a lot more judgmental of Koreans than anything she has written.


  7. Some of these comments you observed are generation-sensitive. In my mother’s generation, being fat was a luxury given the war and the imperial control from Japan prior to it. It was a compliment to be told you were big since you must be getting nutrition. Americans then were envied for their girth. Younger folks making these comments, I agree, are coming at it very differently. Their comparison is also the west. But to them fat = unhealthy = west, and skinny = healthy = Korean. And it would not surprise me if this attitude is more prevalent for women than men and that they are unaware of how their culture controls their view of health and weight. The two are linked, but Korean pop culture seems to draw from western aesthetics of women’s beauty which is still unhealthy-skinny and applies it to Korean standards. So in an ironic way, Korean beauty today is really western beauty paired together with “health” which may (or may not) make things worse.


  8. I just have to say that you aren’t fat in that 2011 picture. You are slim yet healthy, and even while not exposed I can see you’ve got toned muscles. I’d love that body. Your current body seems to be a little skinnier than the 2011 photo. 🙂

    I’m about 1 lb underweight and still got flabs in my abdomen area which I really want to lose so much. I might’ve acquired a little Korean mentality that I still want to lose weight but it’s not because I consider myself fat. I don’t want to be skinny, I just want healthy, firmer muscles so I exercise when I have time. I put more effort on my diet, and I mean a healthy diet not a restricting one. I sometimes limit my carb and meat intake and I don’t forget my fruits and veggies. I feel bad when I don’t eat at least 1 fruit a day. What I did learn a good thing about Koreans is that they incorporate a lot of veggies in their meals and that’s one good thing to follow. (disclaimer: I don’t live in Korea, but I believe I’ve seen much of Korean culture in my country, and it seems more and more Koreans come to and live in my country)


    1. That’s great that you are focusing on getting healthy, and not skinny. I think that is the most sensible, long term, maintainable approach in addition to being the healthiest and most desirable.


  9. I am very fortunate to work at a school where I am not ridiculed for being overweight. I have been taking very good care of myself and have lost 18 kgs since February. No one at my school or in my circle of Korean friends has ever called me fat or told me I have to lose weight. They are all very supportive of my weight loss journey and they have my back. Even our cleaning ajumma tells me how great I look! Unfortunately, I know this is not the norm and I am very lucky. We live in a country where body image is #1, and they want to take the easy route to look good. Just look at all of the plastic surgery ads on buses and in the subways. If something is not perfect, just go get plastic surgery and you’ll be fine. I really appreciate your article, and I think you did a wonderful job. And yes, you do see bigger people walking around Seoul nowadays, but it definitely isn’t like back home. Walk into most clothing stores and try to find something larger than a medium. If you find it, let me know!


    1. Thank you Tricia! And congrats on your weight loss- 18 kilos is a substantial number.
      I also find the clothing sizes an issue here. I find myself shopping at places like Forever 21 and H&M, which seem to carry larger sizes- not always though, and they definitely have a much bigger supply of the XXS,XS and S. I also don’t like how their “free size” or one-size-fits-all is not a free size for me haha. Usually my shoulders are too wide to fit through many of the dresses, and no way would even my calf fit into a pair of free size pants. Perhaps this is another method Koreans use to maintain their size- no longer can they get the cheap deals at the subways if they gain weight!


  10. I’ve been living in Korea for ten years and I’ve noticed that there are more fatter Koreans now than before. I remember pointing to my husband on my first year here that it was difficult to spot overweight people here, but now I see more fat people everyday. BTW, I’m also fat and I’ve never been insecure with my weight. My husband has always been skinny even though he eats three cups of rice per meal.


    1. I believe you- I’m pretty sure there are statistics to prove this as well, that obesity is rising in Korea. That’s why I’ve been looking at the habits of the older generation for the most part- they seem to have a good handle on their health, and good tips for us to pick up on.


  11. This was a very interesting article and well balanced. I think it’s important for woman who live in / or who have lived in different parts of the world to talk to talk about these things.

    For the last three years I’ve been living in Korea as well. When I arrived I was surprised by the fact so many people called me fat, but as a woman who has always been bigger than other women, I’m used to comments on my size. Plus, I was fat at that time. Eventually, though, the change in lifestyle and diet melted away the excess fat and the comments stopped. However, what I noticed is that, for smaller women, the comments keep coming. Maybe because there is some hope for them to be the ideal, whereas it’s obviously impossible for me to ever Korean size so there is no reason to bring it up.

    However, I’ve always been curious about cultures ideas on “fat” so I started looking at it more closely. One thing I found was that Korean’s also aren’t taught the proper way to talk about the human body in English and this adds to the problem. They are only taught the word “fat” so they use it to describe anyone who is bigger than them. It might just be that the person has wider hips, bigger breasts, or more muscle. I discovered this using pictures of different men and women and having Korean’s explain what they looked like. If they said, “They’re fat”. I would ask them to explain what made them “fat”. What they really meant were things like, “She has wider hips”, “She has breasts”, or “he is too muscular”. Statements we usually have no problem with, but with Korean English it all comes out as “fat”. In short, even muscle is “fat” in their book simply because they don’t know what else to say when someone is different. For most of folks, it has nothing to do with actual fat. I am not saying this is an excuse for everyone, but it is a big issue. Using this information we were able to teach our kids healthier ways to talk about the body in English.

    Finally, there is also a big difference between the cities and the countryside. I live in rural Korea and spend a lot of time visiting remote islands. In these places I receive a lot of open admiration for my strength and height. They are very excited to see an obviously strong woman and they will tell me, “ahhh, good!” with a big thumbs up or say things like, “Strong is very beautiful. Don’t ever feel bad about it.” My Korean girlfriends tell me I don’t need to be an smaller. So, for me, Korea has only made me feel more confident about being, as my children put it, a “Woman hulk”. However, as I get closer to the cities I feel the judgements increase, but it’s the same in the USA.

    All that said, I feel bad for anyone, in any country, trying to reach the “ideal” body type. It’s an impossible dream.


    1. Well said, Lanae. I agree that there is of course the problem with language. But I still don’t know if that makes it acceptable to say to a woman “big hips” in a passing comment- no matter what language. The comment has already been made that Koreans don’t moderate themselves from making comments, so yes I guess this is to be expected. I’m glad that you have found positive experiences as well. It’s nice to feel admired for being strong, and you definitely should be. I’ve noticed this at times as well- for example some of the trainers at my gyms have been impressed that I actually lift weight, however other trainers at the same gym have told me I need to lose 5 kilos to be acceptable. Again, everyone is going to have an opinion on your body, no matter where you are, just as you said, reaching an ideal body to everyone is an impossible dream.


      1. Well, I guess I just don’t see it as any worse in Korea as other places. English, French, Italian, Middle Easter and Spanish people have all been cruel to me for simply being outside the norm. They make endlessly rude comments. Plus, even with obesity being epidemic, in the USA cruelty about being “fat” is at rampant. Most of my overweight friends wont go to gyms because of the comments and rude behavior. Even I stopped going to gyms in the states because the comments I heard about people were so hostile. So I just see the verbal abuse of women who don’t fit a social norm as a universal issue and not a Korean issue.

        However, I can completely agree that Korea has an interestingly archaic view of what “healthy” is. I attempted to find a trainer to help me work on a back injury and I was told by one guy that I needed to “lose weight” before I started using weights. Which, you know, a) isn’t how weight training works b) losing weight wasn’t why I was there. I realized pretty quickly, I wasn’t trusting a lower back injury to a Korean trainer any time soon. They couldn’t get their head around the fact I wasn’t there to look better, I wanted to feel better.

        Also, I found it interesting that Koreans actually think that muscle on women is “ugly”. They don’t want to see any definition, which is why I think the skinny-fat thing is so common. Working out would also make them “ugly”. So different than how I was raised where the stronger you looked the prettier you were. Only women that looked like they could kill a bear with with their own two hands were worth anything.

        For me though, that’s why living in different places is so cool. I see how things I think are “a given” are just a culture view point. There are so many kinds of beauty and expectations for success, and I realized I can’t make everyone happy. If I’m pretty in Korea then I’m ugly in Alaska🙂


    2. As an Australian and a male my experience in Korea was similar but different.
      I wanted more vegetables then I was getting served, particularly green and fresh vegetables.
      I found the serving portions too big and couldn’t finish the meals (but I realised they had a much lower energy content when I lost an unhealthy 3kgs in a month, unhealthy in that I was losing muscle not just fat).
      I didn’t see men under the same social pressure that I saw the women under in terms of their weight. One of the women that I was working with had started going to the gym not to get fit but to lose weight…she was skinnier than any Australian that I’ve ever met (considering her build). As per Coach Amy’s observation her body fat percentage was probably high but the muscle mass would certainly have been under what a Westerner would consider normal.
      From what I observed and my opinion many young Korean women (emphasis on corporate business) are not necessarily too skinny but are very inactive and have very low fitness levels and so their thinness is often not a lack of fat but a complete lack of muscle. Please note that I said “young”; this is not at all true for the older Korean women, they on the other hand can be very active (hiking comes to mind🙂 ).
      It is good to here that there is a different perspective on body size outside of the cities.


  12. Three years and I’ve never seen a thin female foreign co-teacher. All have been overweight and fat. How can they live like that!?


  13. Hi Kaya,

    Someone posted your articel link on facebook and i was intrested about your story. I’ve been overweight all my live so leaving in korea for the past two years was a challenge, but nobody told me i was fat here ever. I think because i am a stay at home mom and in a different situation. What i wanted to say about this is that i worry sometimes if i see young girls being so extremely thin at such a young age or seeing woman my age with a verry small waist. Because where lies the end of beiing thin. And how long can there body’s go true with this. I think i’m lucky that i can’t understand korean because i know they talk about me, but i also think of the korean woman who choose not to be skinny. One korean lady told me that she said to her husband you can accept me for who i am or get a diffours, and another told me she gets spoken to by strangers that she’s fat and needs to loose weight. I hope in the future that woman can be more them selfs in korea and that the standerd of beiing thin will change. Not because i jugde anybody or don’t respect there culture but because it’s not healthy. I had a confersation with my friend back home who is verry thin and has trouble with eathing and we found out that beiing overweight or underweight has a lot in commen. So i wish everybody healthy lives and beiing happy with themselfs.


  14. If you think tomato smoothie is gross, may I introduce you to GAZPACHPO! A Spanish treat. One of the finest things I have ever eaten/drunk.
    Agree about most of these points.


  15. interesting perspective. it’s always good to hear what others think about their experiences with foreign cultures, especially about issues regarding women and body image which seems to be prevalent around the world. i also wrote about this (from a korean-american viewpoint) earlier this year and i was surprised at the stance i took, even after years of hearing that i was ” too fat.” check it out if you have time…


  16. This article is basically the writer griping because she lost her thin privilege. Even though this woman is of a medically normal weight (in her photos she conveniently shows off), it’s not good enough for her. She also needs to be explicitly “considered to be on the smaller side” by everyone. Cause she’s special.

    The bottomline is that she lost her badge of honor as the only “petite” woman around and thus the attention and validation that goes along with it. Now that she is confronted with a culture that doesn’t give her that validation, something MUST be wrong with that culture. Case closed.


    1. How about not copying verbatim from the Red Pill. Any original thoughts lately? She is just saying she struggled with the ideals of weight in Korea, she never once presumed her ideas were superior. In fact, she continues to provide eating advice she learned in Korea! That group might want to consider a different demeanor if they ever wish to attract members of the opposite sex. As of now, it appears the Red Pill is a bunch of lonely, angry, men who presume they have best worldview – albeit a very lonely one.


      1. It scares me that more than one person thinks like this on planet Earth. For the record, female bodybuilders don’t have “skinny privileges”, they pay for how they look with sweat and dietary will power. Angry males who visit Kimchibytes from the Reddit channel (the one that exploits women as sexual conquests) need a serious reality check,


    2. I actually enjoyed this article and didn’t in anyway see her as “complaining” but making a pretty good point about how weight is thought of and expressed in Korea. She wasn’t bragging or complaining, just sharing her experiences which I also found to be true when I lived there. And I liked that she showed her pictures, it really helped to know what she looked like to match with her words. There’s no need to be so nasty about this woman or what she wrote.


  17. Thank you for the interesting post!

    Just one thing: I think most Koreans drink/eat tomato juice, dried anchovies, and fermented fish intestines because they like the taste. Actually a lot of Koreans dont consider fermented fish intestines healthy at all because they are very high in sodium.


  18. I think it’s because of the body type. Most koreans fall into the ectomorph category, (thin muscle, and dont store fat easily) while you are clearly a mesomorph. So it’s not about fat. When they say you’re fat,maybe they don’t know that basically you’re just athletic, muscle-y type. They’re not accustomed to variety in body type because their society are quite homogenous compared to some multi races society out there. If you try to be as skinny as them that means you’re shedding your natural muscle storage, of course you will encounter health problems.


  19. So much negative being thrown around, wow. From my two years here I’ve been called fat time and time again, then as soon as they need something picked up or moved guess who gets a phone call. Different body types, yes. Different metabolism, yes. But it’d be nice to see men who can pick up at least their own body weight, be it 120 lbs or 300 lbs.

    Interesting read, keep it up.


  20. Yes, to become and stay skinny, there are sacrifices to be made. First off, your priorities are different when you want to be skinny, and as skinny as you can get. Second, the light-headedness goes away after a while and the skinny girl feels just as healthy, of course. Third, those petite little cute skinny girls are not heroines or world-rulers (if a a woman ever rules the world, will she be a light-headed petite and skinny procelain doll-looking woman who deprives her brain from energy/nutrients coming from carbs?). I noticed that when I actually was involved in academics and had to study to earn excellent grades, I stopped being as skinny as I used to be. Because, guess what, I actually couldn’t focus for too long and to go too much into detailed depth and remember every detail as effectively without food that are not just vegetables (I am a vegetarian and do place emphasis on healthy nutrition, by the way). No matter how skinny you are, what should matter is the quality of what you say or talk about and what you have achieved in life, not the shallow comments from a skinny smiling girl who will not be taken seriously.
    To stay as skinny as they are, someone must have all the time and energy in the world to invest it all into such interests and priority of being skinny. If one’s priorities are more sophisticated, then one won’t be interested in becoming and staying skinny consistently.
    Thanks to the author of this article for the critical analysis of her observations.


  21. wow, i guess having curves is not allowed, they must think sexy means skinny, you look great, you go girl. these people got issues!


    1. They don’t have issues it is just apart of their culture, being skinny has been apart of Asian culture beauty standards for generation. They just think differently to weasterners. I find this very upsetting….
      Please search it up of ask someone if you must but I know this because I’m an Asian my self, truth is I sometime consider my self overweight Asians tend to say these comments to encourage you its just very up front I get told I’m fat by my cousins bluntly but it motivates me to eat healthier and less pizza slices ?


  22. I am naturally slim. 5 foot 1 3/4 inches, 104lbs before and after my daughter. My mother was the same after 12 children. She was born in the 1930’s. My culture skinny was not sexy and had to fight with people like this author and their comments against people. Especially on job interviews. I refuse to apologized for my size. I’m too old for that now. When I was younger I would drink supplements in between meals and junk food just to gain weight. Being skinny in my culture is like being fat in others. My culture loves thick women and growing up I felt inadequate. I stopped when I was 109lbs with high cholesterol. Not much of a difference in weight gain but I was still called too skinny. I could careless. I could only please myself.


  23. My best friend is actually Korean but she’s become Americanized, meaning in Korea’s standard, she has become fat. Now me and friends/classmates around her think she is very beautiful and her shape is unique. Is that just us being nice because she’s our friend? No. She is beautiful and her shape is very beautiful. She’s wider at the hips and may be a bit thicker on her thighs but she has a flat stomach and a small waist and is considered to have a very pretty size. However, her family always talks about her weight and it really puts her down. I think that it’s because the more Americanized she becomes, the more sensitive to these comments she becomes- but, that doesn’t mean that if she were to continue living in South Korea, she wouldn’t be as sensitive to the topic. It would be more common and maybe less of an impact but the point that it would hurt her feelings and make her feel down about herself would not change. And I’ve heard a lot about how some women, due to the same feelings, have really unhealthy habits just to fit that image. Is that everyone? No. Is South Korea the only place with this problem? Hell no. I think South Korea in the “skinny image” is about as ruthless as that in America (I can’t speak for other countries). Though you see more body shapes and you are told to accept people no matter the size, that’s not necessarily how society is. We still have that unseen push to be skinny or maybe, as this is probably more common for the American ideal, be “curvier” without the folds.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is: No, it’s not healthy and it is not something SK’s society should be pushing on women (and men, actually). But, we have the same problem in every other country. It’s just not as pushed on to us as it is in SK. Does it make it right? No. Should it stop? Yeah, probably. Is the push to be skinnier unhealthy? Not necessarily. I think they really mean to make you healthier and the ideals or the means to get there has kind of gone down a different path.

    And I think that’s what the author was trying to say. While there are some unhealthy habits and tips to become “skinny” in South Korea, there are also some really good tips and ideals to go by to become healthier. If SK would just have their goal set on “healthy” instead of “skinny”, then women wouldn’t have to do so much to fit their ideals. You’d have all shapes and sizes but they would all be due to healthier habits. So what I’m trying to say is, their hearts were/are in the right place, it’s just become a bit corrupted and blown into proportion- quite literally.

    However, I would just like to point out that, read carefully, SOUTH KOREA IS NOT THE ONLY COUNTRY IN THE ENTIRE WORLD TRYING TO MAKE PEOPLE FIT THEIR “IDEAL” IMAGES.

    And, side note, it is not just WOMEN. It’s also men. In America, or possibly the west in general, the push is to be bigger and bulkier- manlier. In South Korea, it’s to be thinner. That is not to say that is EVERYONE’S ideals. It’s just how the majority think.


  24. Looking like the ideal image the society thinks (or, to put it simply, “being pretty”) is very important to certain type of Korean girls. They put substantial amount of their time and energy on their looks. And being skinny is one of the basic things they have to accomplish in order to become socially ideally pretty woman.

    And many asians not just Koreans idolize and idealize looking like a doll. Noticed any common denominator between plastic surgery ads and Korean celebrities? They try to look like a doll. They wear heavy make up, have eyelid plastic surgery, diet to be skinny, to look like a doll. In most cases, “looking like a doll” is a huge compliment in Korea. And that doll is not Korean doll, it is Barbie doll. They want to look like western girl, I mean western “young” girls, mostly pre-teens. I can pretty much go on and on forever on this.

    I don’t understand why so many Koreans get butthurt about their ideal women type and try to say the norms and opinions are different from that of weterners’. They want to look like western young girls. They idolize western young girl for their long eyelashes, beautiful eyelids, fair skin, etc. Sometimes, mostly determined by the contexts tho, telling Korean girls for being “so Eastern beauty” means she has no double eyelids, she has big face and no western like traits, thus she is unattractive woman from Korean’s pov. Maybe being skinny is one of the few thing Koreans don’t have to try hard as they, along with many asians, are skinnier than westerners.

    Back to the main issue here, asian cuisine including Korean cuisine is not very fat-based like McDonalds’ which is what Koreans think the typical meal of westerners. Even though I believe Korean cuisine alone cannot make you fat, but it doesn’t necessarily make you skinny. As Korea became more superficial, the percentage of skinny Koreans increased.

    But it is not only South Korea where this happens. In (almost) every human society this happens. And not every Korean girl tries to fit that social image. But more and more Korean people are hopping on that oh-so-narcissistic bus, to become perfectly fit into Korean made western doll.


    1. I have a problem with all this shade I can see thrown at Korean people here. First of all, most Korean idols actually don’t cake the makeup on. They keep it light and natural; it’s considered more attractive that way. And even if they did, what’s so wrong about that? I think American idols are more guilty of “wearing heavy makeup”. We’ve all seen the before and after pictures of celebrities with and without makeup.

      About your comment about how Korean people are trying to look more western, I do not agree with you there. We just like attractive traits, and it just so happens that some westerners have those traits. First of all, having long eyelashes are just traditionally considered attractive by the majority of the worldwide population, no?

      I think having white skin is just attached to the stigma that you’re not a laborer who works out in the fields or something; thus making it so that you have a good office job with sufficient pay. (Although I’m not sure about this. I’ll have to go ask someone, so please don’t take my word for it. I heard this in an Eat your Kimchi video.) Not to mention that if you’re often exposed to the sunlight, you’re more likely to get a lot more wrinkles when you grow up. Don’t forget that the West considered having lighter skin as very desirable in the past as well. Also, sure, I guess we sort of idolize pretty western girls. But that’s because they have those attractive traits; not because we wanted to look more western in the first place.

      And please don’t say that we think looking Eastern is an insult. Have you ever heard of the phrase “yamato nadeshiko?” It means a traditional Japanese beauty. If you don’t believe me, look it up.

      Alright, re-reading this, I feel like I’m just spewing out hatred. But that’s really not what I meant with this post. I’m just trying to say that I believe you’re wrong on a few points here and there. So please, if you do respond (which I would be surprised if you do, this post is SO long!), do not do so by retaliating with anger. That really was not my intention. I’m just trying to get a good debate going on. I love those! Sharing my opinion and seeing how other people think is very interesting to me.


  25. You said that this would be rather opinionated, and as a Korean person myself, I think you’re spot on! At first I was a little iffy, but it’s clear that you know your stuff. I also drink onion water. It really isn’t as bad as you think, it’s pretty much tasteless! You should try it out if you haven’t.🙂


  26. You should know that Asians and ‘weasterners’ or English have very different body shapes, throughout all of Asian histories and from my friends backgrounds her mom and gran were both atleast 45kg when they were 18 and yet they were still healthy and able to bare Children. It is great your telling us about how you feel about Koreans telling you your fat, you should try telling them that you don’t like it because that is what adults always tell kids to do when they get told something they don’t like. But you should also keep in mind that there is a very long history of Asian beauty standards that has not changed for many many years.
    I really liked your article I disagreed and agreed in some areas >-< sorry but keep up the good work you should know that you shouldn't let their comments get to you because they are just use to giving feed back like that, if I received feedback like that I would be motivated to exercise more because of my Asian background. my friend is Korean and she is close to reaching 60kg it is considered fat and gets told by her parents that she is fat all the time but she never lets it get to her because she understands that back when her mom was 18 she was very beautiful but thin. I hope you don't think I'm not putting you down of anything I think it is very admirable that y wrote this but I sorta feel a little hurt even though you wrote you didn't intentionally Steryotype (you know what I mean) it sorta like you writing an angry message to Asians that they are blunt and rude. And the biggest reason why this article may be hurtful is because some people may take this the wrong way and think that asians( Koreans in general) are rude and intentionally hurt you.
    I think you're body weight is just fine BTW and congrats on getting healthier again!!??


  27. Hello there,
    I’m Asian (not from Korea though) but I don’t think you’re fat. You have a very ideal body and I envy you, really! Lately I’m so into researching about Koreans especially about their food, eating habit, and idols (lol). I admit that I find some of these idols have amazing body, which you considered as skinny perhaps, and some of them are so skinny that I find them super creepy. Sometimes I watch their dramas or TV shows and when I see a skinny Korean girl running while wearing a short skirt, I just wince because I’m afraid that she can’t stand or run properly then falls with that bony legs. It worries me that a lot of us, Asian as a whole not just those East Asians, are following that skinny trend. It makes us think that we are never skinny enough and starve ourselves. That’s not healthy at all. I think it’s better for us to eat healthily, exercise, and not judge people by their body image. It pains me when I see people judging others by their body image like it’s the most important thing to say about others. Even though I’m Asian myself, I don’t like our body shaming culture. I disagree with it. Why do we say hurtful things to others? If a person is healthy even though not skinny to our liking, why don’t we say something good like “Wow, you look good today. I’m glad you’re healthy!” or something like that. I admire the Westerners who don’t judge too much about others’ body image, but choose to look into their personality. Thumbs up for the Westerners!


  28. I have lived in S.Korea and have made a few good friends too. I found that people are very generous and warm. Korean people have a great skin and hair, i believe that really comes from their eating habits which i found very healthy and rich in protein and nutrition. I care a lot about healthy eating myself. I agree to many things in this article.
    But yes as i observed, many girls are not skinny but super skinny there. I once went to gangnam subway market place with my korean girlfriend and while i was browsing for sundresses, the lady there came to me and said, that won’t fit you. Firstly, I was checking that for my younger sister:-/ and it would have been a small size, while i fit in medium size dresses, (59 kg weight, 5 feet 3 inches height). What a rude woman that was! I felt so bad then.
    It’s true that they judge other girls with even a slight more fat on body and thats all the definition of beauty, HA!!
    My korean friend(5 feet 5 inches, 56 kgs weight ) told me that her friend told her not to wear sleeveless tops because she thought her arms were fat!!!
    That was just awful given her height and weight!
    We live in a sad world, every society does that, women are judged greatly by their appearance and rarely by their knowledge or personality.


  29. In the gym photo, the women next to the blog author looks as large if not larger….would they be called fat too?

    I suppose it may be a comfort to know that beyond the few who fetishize Asian women, many Westerners would consider the Korean ideal to look boyish, prepubescent and unwomanly. Jokes about flat butts, flat chests, and short legs on Asian women abound :X. Not saying that is right, but the ones who live in the US have to suffer overhearing THAT. I know thin Asian women who are insecure in the states because of all the focus on breasts and butts, yet when they gain weight, it goes to their belly and thighs. They notice how European and African women may have a waist as small as theirs, yet have more breasts/butt. They have to deal with being seen as less of a woman and less sexy.

    Basically, a very thin, in-shape woman of European heritage is still likely to have fuller breasts and butt than a Korean woman, and that is considered more attractive to MOST other cultures. In those studies about body shape, Asians preferred a higher WHR, aka less curvy and more ruler shaped bodies, as compared to the rest of the world which found closer to .7 ideal (the more classic hourglass).

    I also wouldn’t be surprised if some jealousy was at root of calling the author fat, given her photos show her at a similar size to women around her.


  30. I live in Korea and have had a very different experience. At 173cm and 65kg I’ve never been told that I was fat. I was actually very surprised to see “normal” sized and overweight people here. I see more thin, young people in the “cool” areas like Gangnam. The older people are also very thin and short.


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