Here's the Skinny on Korea's Rush to Stay Thin

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Here's the Skinny on Korea's Rush to Stay Thin

Wiping beads of perspiration off her face with a small towel, Kim Mi-sook, 29, gets off the treadmill and heads for the exercise bike. She has been working out for more than 30 minutes now, joined by some 10 other women donned in polyester sweat suits despite the sweltering heat inside the packed small neighborhood gym in Yeonhi-dong, Seoul. "The idea is to sweat it out," said Ms. Kim as she starts cycling at a brisk pace.

What exactly is she sweating out? "All this flab, of course" replied Ms. Kim pointing at her abdomen. Asked if, at 162 centimeters and 54 kilograms, she considered herself overweight, she glanced at the floor-length mirror to her right, and said, "Of course."

Well, her baggy sweats might be hiding a few flaws but she certainly does not look overweight. How does she know she is overweight? "Well, I feel heavy. I must be fat when I have a hard time finding clothes that are not too snug. Plus, everyone on TV is so slim," said Ms. Kim who is convinced that she has not been able to find a husband yet because of her "weight problem." She confesses to having gone on several fad diets since high school when many of her classmates went on diets to improve their prospects at upcoming job interviews. After years of thinking herself fat, she finds it hard to believe that her Body Mass Index (BMI) - calculated by dividing the body weight in kilograms by the square of the height in meters - is just 20.58 and puts her firmly out of the overweight category.

According to a definition of obesity adopted by Asia-Pacific countries in 1998, a BMI of 25 and over indicates obesity while 23-24.9 identifies one as overweight. "Slightly over 20 percent of the population falls into the obese category using that standard," said Kim Yong-seong, an endocrinologist at Inha University Hospital, Inchon, and member of the Korean Society for the Study of Obesity.

Compared to the United States where recent government statistics found 60 percent of the population to be at least overweight and almost half of those people obese - obesity there defined by a BMI of 30 or more - the population here is relatively lean.

However, judging by the fervor for exercise and diet among Koreans, people here appear to think they are fatter than they actually are. In a telling indication of the country's obsession with staying slim, Roche Korea said last week that it sold more than 9.5 billion won ($7.4 million) worth of Xenical, a prescription weight loss diet pill, in the first 100 days of its sale, outstripping sales of Viagra in its first 100 days by about 2.5 billion won. The local diet-related industry, including dietary supplements and weight loss programs, is estimated to generate nearly 2 trillion won in sales annually.

In a country where popular stars are idolized, reed-thin actresses and singers who dominate the media have played a significant part in fanning people's desire to lose weight. And the discrepancy between the ideal and the norm is striking when it comes to weight, as it is in other countries.

"A study tracking the changes in the physical attributes of Miss America from the 1950s through the 1990s found that the pageant winners were getting taller and slimmer while the woman next door was getting taller, but heavier as well," said Lee Young-ho, neuropsychiatrist at Inje University Baek Hospital, and head of the hospital's Eating Disorder and Obesity Clinic.

While there are no comparable studies in Korea, an overseas study in the late 1990s showed that 80 percent of young women were dissatisfied with their bodies. "I suspect that that figure holds true for Korea as well," said Dr. Lee, attributing the high percentage to modern Korean society's overzealous pursuit of the Western ideal of thinness.

Although it is abnormal for such a large portion of the young female population to be discontent with their weight, it is so prevalent it has been termed "normal discontent," according to Dr. Lee.

Dissatisfaction with the body often expresses itself in the form of dieting. Because of the high failure rate of dieting, once you start on a diet motivated by the desire to attain a thinner body, not necessarily a healthier body, you are on a dangerous path. "When an impossible ideal is the goal, people can take it to the extreme, resulting in eating disorders," said Dr. Lee.

"There are several types of eating disorders-anorexia nervosa, bulimia and binge eating. And dissatisfaction with the body is at the root of them all," he said.

And Dr. Lee reports seeing an increasing number of anorexia nervosa patients, people who literally starve themselves, at an ever younger age, some as young as 7. It is estimated that one in four young women now have some form of eating disorder, according to Dr. Lee.

"My bet is that five years down the road, the current diet fad will culminate in a serious rise in the number of anorexia nervosa and bulimia patients," he warned.

by Kim Hoo-ran

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