Cultural Consonance, Body Image, and Disordered Eating Among Young South Korean Men
This dissertation, based on seventeen months of fieldwork in Seoul, South Korea, examines how culture affects young men’s risk of developing eating disorders. Eating disorders are among the deadliest of all mental illnesses, yet they are poorly understood among men and in populations outside of the WEIRD university students who comprise most study samples in body image research. However, the global proliferation in eating disorders among women and men necessitates increased attention to men’s culturally particular experiences of their body image. Taking a convergent mixed-methods approach and drawing on theories of cultural models, intersectionality, and embodiment, this research does three things. First, it uses cognitive anthropological methods to elicit and validate a cultural model of the ideal male body among young South Koreans. Second, it uses that cultural model to create a scale of “cultural consonance with male body ideals” to measure individuals’ ability to approximate that cultural model in their own bodies, which it then uses as a predictor for disordered eating in young Korean men. This analysis shows that cultural consonance affects risk of disordered eating beyond what traditional, individual psychological measures of body dissatisfaction predict. Third, four of these young men were selected for their intersections of cultural consonance, prestige of their educational institution, sexual orientation, and disordered eating risk to engage in in-depth ethnographic interviews to examine their embodied experiences of body image. Together, these data indicate that men in South Korea experience their particular models of body image as profoundly impactful on (1) their ability to make and maintain interpersonal relationships with one another and (2) their pursuits of class mobility (or class maintenance, for the upper-classes). For young Korean men, attention to one’s appearance and investment in its improvement are not viewed as undermining to their masculinity, but as facilitating their social integration and professional advancement in the highly competitive environment that is modern South Korea. Disordered eating, then, sometimes results from these pursuits.