Vloggers, K-pop and family dinners – how culture impacts on body image

It is Mental Health Awareness Week and the theme is body image, which in the academic community is defined as the perception of and attitude towards one’s own body. When I agreed to write a blog on the topic, discussions around eating disorders immediately came to mind as it is a subject close to my heart. In the end I decided not to solely focus on eating disorders as the concept of body image goes much wider than this. It encompasses many issues such as body dysmorphic disorder and body-focused repetitive behaviours including skin-picking and hair-pulling. Moreover, not everyone with an eating disorder has body image disturbances, and issues around body image aren’t usually the root causes eating disorders eithers.

As a young person of Chinese heritage, body image issues in East Asians are of interest to me both personally and professionally. Some people hold the view that people from certain ethnic groups prefer a round face and curvy figure. Historically, this has been used by some commentators to argue that issues around body image are not as prevalent in East Asia as they are in the West. However, I would argue that the struggle with body image and the desire for thinness for women, in particular, is a serious problem among East Asians. A 2018 survey of Chinese college students found that only 13% were satisfied with their figure. I’d like to draw attention to some shocking (sub)trends that illustrate how various sociocultural factors interact to influence young people’s body image, something that in our globalised world is relevant to the discussion around body image anywhere with an internet connection.

Consumerism and women’s independence

Discussions on altering one’s body or a part of the body are not uncommon in East Asia. You can easily find YouTube tutorials on how to achieve a V-shaped face presented by East Asian vloggers. There is a thriving cosmetic surgery industry in South Korea. A friend once told me that some of her friends’ parents gave them vouchers for plastic surgery for their 18th birthdays. One might think that this trend can be attributed to “thin ideals” imported from the West, especially as common surgical procedures include double eyelid surgery or nose straightening, which result in more “Western-like” facial features. However, I believe other factors are at play here too, such as rising consumerism and women’s greater independence enabling them to take control of their own bodies. The financial ability to do so also signifies status and power.

Another contemporary beauty ideal that seems to be on the rise is the emergence of “soft masculinity”, with male K-pop idols looking “pretty” and wearing heavy make-up. This doesn’t seem to stem from the traditional Western beauty standard. A social media trend last year which is thought to have originated in China was the A4 waist challenge, where girls held pieces of A4 paper up to their waist so they could compare the size of their middle with the short side of the paper. This type of online activity seems deliberately designed to encourage social comparison, which inevitably makes people feel bad when they think they don’t measure up.

Triggering dinner dynamics

Comments from family members and peers can further exacerbate one’s struggle with body image.  In China, my experience is that people seem to think they are permitted to comment on others’ bodies freely. For example, whenever I visit my family, the first thing they usually tell me is whether I am fatter or thinner. This can be a compliment or a criticism depending on who is doing the telling. For older East Asians who have been through famine and poverty in the war and post-war period, the “zero food waste” mentality is strongly ingrained in their minds. It is common for grandparents to ask their grandchildren to finish every grain of rice in the bowl and tell them to eat more, whilst their mums are on diet and eat little at the dinner table. This may sometimes be followed by family members comparing the weights and sizes of different family members or people they know. For young people who are already be dissatisfied with their bodies, the family dynamics over meals can be triggering.

A report published earlier this year revealed that in the UK, funding for research into eating disorders is relatively low. Although funding for body image research wasn’t specified, one can only assume that it will be getting a small proportion of that dedicated to eating disorders. Whatever money body image research gets in the West, I think you can safely assume that it’s far greater than that being spent elsewhere.

Scant research

My literature search didn’t pull up much. I found some early research from the 80s and 90s suggesting the desire to be thin was not as common in East Asia as people had experienced food shortages and poverty. One interesting commentary from an East Asian psychiatrist in the 80s maintained that anorexia did not exist in China as Chinese food is too tasty! I am not sure if they would have a different opinion now. More recent research argues that body dissatisfaction is common and eating disorders are on the rise. These findings may not apply to East Asians who are born or live outside Asia though. Additional factors such as racism including stereotypes, discrimination and ethnic teasing will likely also play a role in the internalisation of specific beauty ideals, contributing to body shaming and poor body image. Most of the relevant research studies on East Asians outside of Asia were conducted in the US and there has been very little research on this in the UK. With increasing numbers of students and professionals from East Asia coming to the UK, more research is needed so that we can understand the specific factors that influence this group’s body image and enable them to be properly supported.

This is a guest blog written by a researcher based in the UK.