WHAT IS the perfect body? Or rather, what do you consider as the perfect body? Does a certain image pop up? It most likely will, but chances are your image of a perfect body will not be exactly the same as someone else’s, and this is a normal occurrence. “Perfect" is an abstract concept that is only achievable in theory, and it is also an ever-changing model that changes its appearance to fit the times. The standards for a perfect body differ in each time period and culture, but the idea of a perfect body lives on. In Korea, that standard has been envisaged as skinny. Though we may not actually be certain of what that perfect skinny body looks like, we have at least a small inkling of what we want to become. Diet industries want to satisfy your desires to achieve the skinny body. They tap into your aspirations by promising the best results in a short amount of time. They coax you into believing that their product can help you achieve the ideal. But where did this ideal even come from? Who defines what a perfect skinny body is? If you cannot define it, can you achieve it? But most importantly, do you even need to?
“It’s not too late to start dieting! Start now!”
It is without question that Korean society is riddled with impossible body standards and beauty ideals. The rows of plastic surgery clinics are enough evidence to show that the society clearly places a high importance on appearance. Alongside these clinics are also the endless advertisements for fitness gyms and body clinics, promising a healthier life by attaining a beautiful body. The idea of good appearance and good health have thus been clumped together, creating a diet mentality that intertwines the two into an almost inseparable relationship. In many countries, especially Korea, a beautiful body has always been a thin body, so the terms “healthy,” “beautiful,” and “thin” now work interchangeably with one another. Being thin is now seen as being healthy, so people are misled to believe they can only be healthy if they look that way.
“That way” is the widely accepted body standard that has been established by society. There is a certain body image that is not clearly defined but still vaguely imaginable. From the people we see on television, to the K-pop ideals, to even the people around us such as our friends, there is a certain image that we recognize and envy, even if we cannot define what that image is. Thus, the words “I need to go on a diet” has become a frequently heard phrase, one that is associated with losing weight and becoming skinny. Consequently, though skinny has become the new “healthy,” the term has lost its connection to physical well-being and has instead become distorted to fit the standards of an appearance-obsessed society.
The definition of “diet” falls into two categories. The first definition, which is seen in almost every dictionary, is “a regimen of eating and drinking sparingly to reduce one’s weight.”* In other words, to “diet” is to lose weight by restricting one’s food intake. The second definition refers to “the food and drink a person consumes daily and the mental and physical circumstances connected to eating.”** The second explanation gives the term “diet” a less restrictive implication, suggesting that it is more of a lifestyle than a prohibitive intervention in routine. However, the second definition is overshadowed by the first definition because many preconceived notions of dieting put beauty over health.
Korea has developed a very toxic diet culture in which thinness has become a desired health option because they have been advertised as such. It is not hard to find fitness gyms using before-and-after pictures of dramatic weight loss transformation to promote their facility, and the implication of these transformations often suggest the skinnier version to be the better, healthier body. For example, the slogan “beauty is made” beside the transformation photo implies that the “beauty” is the skinnier after photo and this “beauty” can be made by going to that specific gym.
Thinness has also become a moral virtue – a body that everyone should strive for. There is a strong belief in Korea that if a person is not in the thinner range, they are not taking care of themselves and are labelled lazy. Thus, it has become more difficult to see a diverse range of body shapes in Korea because the general public have a similar figure; body sizes that are larger than the ideal are criticized because they go against the general consensus on what a “normal” body should look like. The diet culture has created a misguided but normalized ideology that fat is bad and thin is good.
There seems to be little possibility for the ideology to change, mainly because it is constantly reinforced by diet industries. They use the vagueness of “a perfect body” to their advantage, ultimately constructing a broken dieting system that purposely sets people up for failure. Products are marketed as if they were an easy means to obtain the “perfect skinny body,” but the industries neglect to mention that this is an impossible goal to achieve. Instead, they constantly invent and reinvent criteria to make sure you never achieve the perfect body.
“The secret to my body figure”
Because society is living under the mindset that being thin ultimately equals being both healthy and beautiful, people’s main goal when dieting is to lose weight. Diet industries are able to reinforce this with their persuasive and effective use of words and imagery.
For example, diet products, which are easily seen in shops and makeup stores, promote the same message: lose weight by eating less. At first glance, this message seems reasonable; logically, one must be in a calorie deficit in order to lose weight. However, brands advertise their products in a way that demonizes calories. Words such as “calo-stop,” stamped in simple but bold letters on the box to communicate its purpose straight to the point, emphasize the idea that calories are bad, and consuming actual food will impede your diet because they supposedly have too many calories. Additionally, the words “slim” and “perfect” that are accompanied with a picture of a model manipulates the buyer to believe that the perfect body is the model in the box, and if they use that product, they, too, will be able to look like the model.
Muting hunger has become the promised effect of these diet products. They are regarded as better alternatives to nutritious meals because people can still feel full without eating more calories. Jelly packages stamp a low-calorie number in big, bold letters right in the middle of their product as if to reassure the consumer that it is a non-threatening food that will still make you feel full. Diet shakes also put emphasis on their calorie labels and use the slogan “drinking your meal” to guarantee that they will help you feel full while your body gets lighter. These claims essentially demonize meal-eating. Making substitutes to replace meals implies that food is unfavorable and will hinder weight loss diets. Additionally, by constantly reinforcing the number of calories in these diet products, meals are further seen in a negative light because they are compared to and emphasized as being more calorie-dense.
The narrative for these products is clear: when people say they are on a diet, they are most likely trying to lose weight to achieve the ideal thin body. To lose weight, one must be in a calorie-deficit, so eating meals impedes this goal. As such, it is more effective and practical to use diet products that are both low in calories and can substitute food by muting hunger. In theory, this method sounds effective, but the reality is much darker and quite frankly, very dangerous.
“The size-fit diet”
Dieting practices, especially those that rely on a restrictive calorie deficit, are not designed to last long-term. One of the main reasons is that the body cannot survive with such low energy and will eventually try to stabilize itself to keep it from starving. A study from Boston University School of Medicine showed that 98% of people who lost weight through restrictive eating ultimately gained it back within five years. This suggests that their bodies were trying to regain its balance to its original weight range. A theory known as “set point theory”*** supports this. The theory states that, much like how we do not have control over genetics like hair color and height, we also have no control in how much we should weigh. If we go under or over our set weight range, the body will try to adjust itself in order to go back to normal. If one goes under their set weight, the body goes into “survival-mode” by slowing down its metabolism and conserving energy. Thus, highly restrictive food diets are extremely difficult to maintain because the body will eventually urge the individual to revert back to old habits.
Though the so-called “failure” is simply a normal, biological reaction, diet industries will ignore this premise to continue selling diet products specifically designed for calorie restriction. They advertise them in ways that aim to make people believe that they can sustain the low-calorie diet, because that is the best way to market them. At its core, industries are tapping into people’s impatient desires to see results as quickly as possible, and surprisingly, they do live up to expectations. However, when the human body eventually regulates itself, people will often blame themselves for failing the diet because the product had delivered as promised, but they were the ones who were unable to follow until the end. This perceived moral failure then translates to the motivation to start again with the same methods, only with more determination, and thus the cycle repeats again.
With this process, facilitated by the diet industries, it becomes easy to fall into a common diet trope known as the yoyo effect, an unstable cycle in which you lose weight but eventually gain it again. Ultimately, people are more prone to slipping back into old habits but are left feeling guilty because they were unable to complete their goal. They soon fall back into the unhealthy reliance on these products as diet advertisements remind them that there is always something to change and always something to be dissatisfied with.
Essentially, diet industries set you up to believe it was your fault. People fall into a vicious cycle of wanting to pursue an obscure body image, become desperate enough to use and rely on the very appealing diet products, and ultimately fail because the body merely wanted to go back to normal. The cycle continues because people are prevented from forming a healthy relationship with food. The demonization of regular meals and calories has made it difficult for consumers to create a balanced routine of nutrition and exercise because they keep relying on quick fixes.
The broken system we are relying on to make us “thin” and “beautiful” ultimately does not solve the main issue of why people need to diet in the first place. At the crux of the issue, people are forgetting that a healthy lifestyle filled with nutritious food and self-positivity is the optimal diet of all. Diet industries are profiting off this lack of education and it is now our responsibility to change our assumptions about what dieting is. Healthy does not equal thinness. Healthy takes on any form as long as the individual provides their body with the right nutrition and exercise – they are healthy if they feel good and happy with their bodies. It is all the more important to maintain a positive relationship with nutritious foods and unrestrictive eating. Demonizing calories and labelling certain foods as “bad” or “unhealthy” creates a barrier that hinders people from developing a better understanding of their bodies because it habituates restriction, possibly even leading to eating disorders.
Is there truly a need to achieve the perfect body? This is the question people should remember before getting bombarded by the copious amounts of advertisements of what society wants you to look like. Diet industries have created a narrative in which consumers are led to feel as though they can achieve perfection by dieting. However, because the “perfect skinny body” was never clearly defined, the industries can constantly tweak the standards to make sure you never actually achieve this goal. Understanding the absurdity of this should be enough to finally say goodbye to “Calo-bye.”
*The Dictionary of Merriam Webster
**The University of Minnesota
***The FASEB Journal