Mar 22, 2011  •  In Beauty, Korean, Personal

When “Healthy” Equals “Fat”

I myself have not been to Korea in a while, but I have plenty of friends and family members who visit regularly, and can confirm the fact that Korean girls hardly ever participate in sports, and would rather go on extreme diets than exercise to lose weight.

In fact, aside from low-intensity workouts and stretches, Korean girls are discouraged from exercise in fear that they will become too muscular, and thus be called “fat.”

Yes, you read that correctly. In Korea, having defined muscles = fat.

And if you can believe it, the direct translation of the word “healthy” — 건강하다 — actually has negative connotations. Because when someone tells you that you “look healthy,” it really means that you “look bulky.” Or, in the minds of image-conscious Korean girls, “you’re fat.”

I’ve always dismissed this phenomenon as another less-than-ideal quirk that is specific to my native country. However, when I saw the below clip from Arirang TV (an international, English-language network in Korea…probably the most popular of its kind) I became livid. Take a look:

Just the title of the segment is enough to draw ire: “A twist in figures! The beautiful stars with healthy lower bodies.” :-?

In the clip, reporters and so-called experts analyze the bodies of popular Korean celebrities who have thin upper bodies and “healthy,” muscular lower bodies. They clearly believe that having a “healthy” lower body is a flaw, and even go as far as to suggest outfits that would minimize the look of muscular legs as well as yoga poses that would help slim down the offending appendages.

What’s even more disturbing is that South Korea already has the lowest obesity rates in OECD.

Nevermind the fact that most Korean meals are half the size of those in the US, or that Koreans as a whole are much less sedentary than Americans due to the way their mass transit system is organized.

Because when you take into consideration “news” segments such as these, the proliferation of “thin is best” messages that permeate all Korean media, the image-conscious society and the unhealthy methods Korean girls employ to lose weight and look good (evidenced by the thriving diet pills/supplements industry and high rates of plastic surgery), one can’t help but wonder how healthy these thin girls are.

As a matter of fact, news of girls fainting on the subway, or of celebrities being admitted to hospitals as a result of their malnourished bodies — while sad — are not rare in Korea.

And jaw-shaving surgeries and calf-reduction surgeries, which go beyond liposuction to actually transform your bone and muscle structure, have become so popular in Korea that women fly in from all over the world to get it done in a country where not only do the doctors have the most experience performing such surgeries, but it is also quite inexpensive compared to similar procedures in other nations.

I personally think that the celebrities in the video who are criticized for having “healthy” lower bodies look great. Never would it have occurred to me that their legs are too muscular.

And the “before” legs in the picture above? I would actually love to have those legs.

But then again, I grew up in the U.S., where defined muscles are actually considered attractive.

Via The Grand Narrative.

17 Responses to “When “Healthy” Equals “Fat””

  1. Oh my gosh! That is horrible! I thought Americans were bad about picking people apart, but holy cow!

  2. Di:

    Wow. I can’t believe they equate healthy with sturdy/fat. And those celebs are not “healthy” by any stretch of the imagination. I wish I had more muscle tone in my legs.

    “But even her, who makes all the men want to protect her, has a fault. It’s her healthy looking legs.”

    Yikes! When did healthy looking become a fault?

    “Nevermind the fact that most Korean meals are half the size of those in the US, or that Koreans as a whole are much less sedentary than Americans due to the way their mass transit system is organized.”

    When I visited, I lost about 5 pounds just because of all the walking I was doing. Granted you’ll walk more sightseeing than you will in everyday life, but I wish my city had a transit system that was more beneficial to me. I would like that automatic extra couple blocks of walking in my day. And not only are food portions smaller, they’re made of healthier things too.

    • pj:

      It is not only Korea I live in Croatia and here it is seen in the same way. By an early age you are told that a woman with defined muscels is not attractive. I myself have calves that are exact same as the before photo and I am very self conscious and it is very often pointed to me that maybe I shoud do something about it but i am a hiker and i aint about to stop.

  3. Young girls and women risking their health and missing out on playing sports in order to look skinny and muscle-less? That really saddens me, but I’m not surprised. My MIL is a stickler for weight. She’s a tiny little woman who hasn’t eaten dinner in years. She has a protein shake instead to keep herself slim, which can’t be healthy. It makes me nervous to think one day we could have a daughter, and she could put her negative weight issues on her. But, I will do everything in my power NOT to let that happen!

    There is nothing wrong with muscular legs! Asians can be so obsessive about weight. I don’t get it!

  4. I LOVE THIS POST. I am learning a lot about Korea!!!
    I am excited to learn more through your blog and someday go visit!!!

  5. I haven’t been to Korea, so this is eye-opening for me – I bet I wouldn’t fit into any of the clothes at the stores there! I do know that when I went to Singapore earlier this year, I was told my four separate relatives of my husband that “Wow, you got a little fat, didn’t you.” Uh, thanks! My immediate family may be more Americanized than average, but my parents always encouraged us to finish our food and “get sturdy” so we wouldn’t get sick as often. To each her own, I guess.

  6. ice-cream:

    i’ve grown up in North America, but thin is the look here as well..not just in Asia. Look at Mischa Barton who went from thin to fat with so much cellulite on her thighs and back to stick-thin…as an example.

    As for the before/after leg pictures, I don’t get why someone would prefer to have the ones on the left. Those muscles are HUGE…huge calves!!! They’re super thick, which in turn makes you look shorter too when you wear shorts/skirts. THe pair of legs on the right look so much better -slimmer and matches the size of the thighs in a better proportion.

    • gook:

      The after pictures are so much better. I wouldn’t look at the woman on the left, but the one on the right is quite attractive(in my mind). Sorry to burst your bubble.

  7. ...:

    For the record, I have toned muscled legs, as well as a toned upper body, and I would not trade that for scrawny limbs.. Not only are they not healthy, but one would be a lot weaker with stick thin arms and legs!

  8. Jackie:

    i think it’s not good to be anorexic, but… the muscular legs in the picture look kinda scary… even in US that wouldn’t be attractive.

  9. Mishal:

    Omg, I’m from Asia too, but more from the middle east and When I went to go visit my family always called me healthy because I was a bit more muscular than the rest of my cousins. Even random people in the streets would make comments about my body TO ME! It made me angry that they looked “healthy” being bad, but now I understand that it happens. Even now my mother still bugs me when I’m doing exercises to not do too much or I’ll look like a man. :P

    • Wow…I may just be the only guy here because I happen to be a geek but I think you women are seriously confused. What straight guy in the world doesn’t like toned nice calves on a girl. The after pic is horrible strong calves are much more sexier

  10. Trotpris:

    WTF! xD jajaja this can’t be true XD I love my muscled legs =D jajaja I love kicking asses very hard xDDD

  11. Thrice:

    This is pretty much common in Asian countries since most people in Asia are skinnier and smaller, compared with the Westerns. I grew up in an Asian country myself, and even though I’m technically skinny (as my American friends would say) people from my hometown criticize my legs as too stout and would comment that my body’s shapeless lol. I guess they’re more nitpicky when it comes to appearance, thanks to the rise of slender models frequently displayed in the media.

  12. Idris Ayello:

    That’s so unfortunate. Every one of those girls are beautiful and have killer bodies. They’re shapes and legs would be all the rage in the states. They’d never be without dates!

  13. sophia:

    Im korean myself. your comment about korean girls hardly exercise is not true. Koreans are aware of importance of exercising and work out alot. Most of them eat healthy and work out regularly. Every korean girls knows that just dieting will end up regaining pounds. Come on, koreans are not stupid. Please write about things you are 100% sure of.

    • Please look at the date of this post — it was written 2.5 years ago. A lot has changed since then, and one of those changes is the increase in exercise (as evidenced by the skyrocketing number of gyms). As South Korea has the lowest obesity rate in the OECD, they must be doing something right. ;-)

      That being said, South Koreans still remain one of the highest consumers of diet pills and fad diet products, and you can’t deny that the nation, as a whole, is one of the most image-conscious and image-obsessed in the world. (And that the vast majority of Korean girls will prefer to have the legs on the right than the legs on the left.)

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