Speaking against cliched narratives about eating disorders – Korea’s powerful message

Speaking against cliched narratives about eating disorders – Korea’s powerful message

Speaking against cliched narratives about eating disorders – Korea’s powerful message

Korea’s first Eating Disorder Awareness Week (EDAW) has exposed the serious issue of eating disorders within families and communities. The hard schedule of seven consecutive days to mark this EDAW concluded in front of a small audience in a dimly lit bookshop. People stood and applauded, and the engineer stopped YouTube live streaming. My flu-ridden body felt unreal with relief, celebrating our accomplishment with friends from the Rabbits in Submarines Collective.

Our EDAW took place from February 24 to March 2. Unintentionally,  I surprisingly found myself initiating everything, and organizing and networking to make things happen. The whole process seemed to automatically flow out of me. Although feeling exhausted sometimes, I never felt overwhelmed or embarrassed at the burden of work.

On the eve of the opening day, I negotiated a week’s unpaid leave from my employment. This was a wise decision because the weeklong schedule of a daily session, which I had set myself to complete, was intense. Such anorexic behaviour!

Not as victims but as experts in experience

I intentionally opened the week’s events with our talk session – that is, with five women speaking about various lived experiences of eating disorders. We were neither two, nor three, but FIVE, and we each pondered a very different experience and distinct personal theme. We were bright, thoughtful, and eloquent. So much, that I felt a little proud of myself for belonging to this gang.

We all had agreed that we didn’t want our talk to appear like a rather shallow, medicalized confession in a group therapy, so I started our session, quoting, “Experience is not given in reality as knowledge, but as collapse” from Rick Land’s The Thirst for Annihilation. I suggested that we talk about our initial experiences of eating disorders as collapse, our trials and excuses we made to deal with them, and the knowledges or revelation begotten by us, long afterwards, one by one.

* You can watch the whole live streamed video of the session here [in Korean].

Our talk stretched for about two hours until given notice that the bookshop needed to close its doors for the day. A therapist among the audience later messaged,“I listened to all those stories, freed and untethered from any diagnosis, not flattened, each multi-dimensional and different. I can’t forget how Jeannie Park saw her friends and how she thoughtfully listened to them. Her attitude felt like a bodily message of hospitality, exuding openness and humility to listeners of her story.”

On the second day at a different independent bookshop, this time the vibe more like Verso or Haymark, I talked with Prof. Soyeon Leem, an author, feminist and Science and Technology Studies (STS) researcher. We discussed the diet industry, cosmetic surgery industry, and the medical industrial complex which focused on mainly young women afflicted with neither wounds nor diseases as their “patients” to pay for medical treatments on offer. We also explored why women’s bodies are regarded as being deficient, in need of medical correction.

* You can watch the whole live streamed video of the session here [in Korean].

Tears and laughter

On the third day, at a special bookshop equipped with a studio, Barbara, and the poet, Eunsun Baek opened a small concert. The two artists, meeting each other in person for the first time that day, immediately became so talkative together that I was happy that I could make them friends. Their talk was honest, and so hilarious that an audience member posted under the live streamed YouTube video that it was like a tragicomic, making her laugh and cry at the same time. (The two women even candidly shared their harrowing alcohol addiction episodes, but in such a way that their genuine humour and humility made the talk exceptional). And I must mention how Barbara’s singing Anyone by Demi Lovato made the whole audience weep.

* Watch the whole live streamed video of the session here [in Korean].

On the fourth day, I talked with editor Euna Park about three books that comprised my anorexia memoir, Swallowing Practice, Vivien Gornick’s Fierce Attachment, and The Female Face of Shame edited by Erica L. Johnson and Patricia Moran. Euna extracted quotes from the three books to make slides, and I was almost shocked at her exquisitely sensitive arrangement.

In our talk, she raised the question of how people with anorexia consider their bodies and food things weirdly objectified and distanced. She spontaneously coined the term, “Trauma Aesthetics”, and this triggered my curiosity and inspiration – I now want to research eating disorders in the realms of aesthetics and ethics.

* Watch the whole live streamed video of the session here [in Korean].

On the fifth day, we didn’t gather at another bookstore. Instead, we set up a small stage at a private eating disorders clinic where Juran Ahn, the psychiatric nurse and clinical psychologist who has long practised meal support at her “supervised table” for eating disorders patients. When I was a 20-something patient with anorexia in the nation’s first, newly built, eating disorders inpatient clinic more than 20 years ago, Juran was the wisest nurse among the newly hired nurses working two shifts. So, our friendship has lasted for more than 20 years now.

We sat side by side and talked about the struggles encountered in regaining the ordinary meal routine and the fear and obstacles patients faced on the way. We joked and laughed, but our cameraman, a serious young man studying philosophy, later confessed he was about to cry in several moments during our talk, not because of what we talked about, but because he could witness the deep understanding and empathy evident between us.

* Watch the whole live streamed video of the session here [in Korean].

Dearth of epidemiological research and patient advocacy

On the sixth day, in the small hall of a science bookshop Galdar (this name was said to be from Galileo and Darwin) Prof. Youl Ri Kim discussed the galling situation we face. That is, the serious eating disorders pandemic long neglected by public authorities. There hasn’t been proper epidemiological research on eating disorders in Korea until now.

In 2006 the National Mental Disorders Epidemiologic Survey funded by the Ministry of Health & Welfare concluded that the lifetime prevalence of eating disorders in Korea was almost “zero” – bulimia was 0.1 and anorexia was 0.0. Since then, eating disorders were not included in the annual mental disorder surveys until 2021.**

This was a ridiculous situation, especially noting that the pivotal epidemiological research on autistic spectrum disorders (ASD) was executed in the city of Ilsan, South Korea, by a large research team from Korean and the USA, heralded by Dr Roy Richard Grinker in the late 2000s. I am well-acquainted with Dr Yoonju Koh, one of the primary researchers and the director of Rudolph Institute of Children’s Social Development in Seoul, so I asked her how such a rigorous project could be started. I learnt that Autism Speaks, the largest non-profit autism research organization in the US, was behind the gigantic research project. So, ASD had patient advocacy but eating disorders have not.

* Watch the whole live streamed video of the session here [in Korean].

The concluding session of the EDAW’s final day was a special small and cosy occasion. In the small, secretive bookstore called Librairie de Nuit, owned by my friend and the fierce comrade from our Rabbits in Submarine Collective, Ms Nam, we invited a select few audience members and our beloved, brilliant feminist critic and writer, Dr Heejin Jeong. Heejin seldom leaves her house, and never grants permission to be filmed or photographed but, to my surprise, she gladly accepted my invitation and thanked me for the opportunity to participate in the EDAW and its cause.

Earlier in the evening, I met Heejin at a nearby, small, vegan restaurant to dine together, and we discussed many things. She even presented me with an autographed copy of her newly published, co-authored book, The Masterpieces Offend Women. She wrote, “Dear my comrade, Ms Jeannie Park, who I admire.”  How happy I was!

Heejin spoke about her decades’ long struggle with binge eating disorder, her so-called “functional”, “non-organic” depression, and many strange illnesses, for example, months of vaginal bleeding and incessant nose blows. She criticised the young generation of feminist “influencers”, lamented her difficult life, lectured eloquently about how historically we’re encouraged to think of women’s bodies as “vessels”, inferior ones at that, and then started to urge me to pursue graduate studies. This was a vibrant, clever, and refreshing talk and gathering, and we all felt grateful.

* Watch the whole live streamed video of the session here [in Korean].

Next step – to harness the power of awareness to study, discuss and find solutions 

So, the seven days were over. We made everything we had planned and prepared for the week to come true. How could such a thing be possible? How did we accomplish this? I don’t know. But one thing is clear: we were all eloquent as the narrator of our own story and the audience listened. They listened to us with their hearts, and we felt we’re moving the right direction, fast and sound.

Korea’s first EDAW has achieved our aim of drawing many willing people’s attention to the serious issue of eating disorders within our families and communities. I hope we can harness this new awareness, and channel the people’s power and talents to study, discuss and find solutions.

CAPTION: Songmin, the electronic music artist, seated; Jinsol, stretching out her arm; Chaeyoung, smiling at the back; Yoona, the therapist with lived experience, holding poster; and chief organiser, Jeannie Park.


**Cho MJ, Chang SM, Hahm BJ, Chung IW, Bae A, Lee YM, et al. Prevalence and correlates of major mental disorders among Korean adults: a 2006 National Epidemiologic Survey, Journal of Korean Neuropsychiatric Association. 2009; 48:143–152.



I am experienced in concealing my identity and thrusting myself into certain scenes, where I witness and remember, and finally carve the stories out with language, maybe like a war correspondent. I have expertise gained by experience with eating disorders and other problems. Currently I am working in the digital mental health industry in Seoul.

2 Responses

  1. anna says:

    Dear Jeannie,
    I found your blog unexpectedly after days of searching for more information online on eating disorders in South Korea. I am graduating in Asian Studies in Italy and I am dedicating my bachelor’s thesis to EDs in South Korea, a topic that is still considered much of a taboo, especially in a country where dieting and skinny culture belong to everyday life. I want to thank you for what you’re doing for the community of people like us that suffered in the past and still suffer from invisible diseases like these ones, your words were truly inspiring and I’m delighted to know you recently held an EDAW as well.
    Thank you for sharing your experience and keep up the great work.

    Lots of love xx

    • Jeannie Park says:

      Thank you, Anna! All through it and now, what I’ve realized is the society in general here in Korea isn’t sensitive at all to the sufferings of the ED patients, partly because – I suspect – those who speak out about their pain are mostly young women and the women are still second class citizens to this society’s subconsciousness. Such discrimination against women hasn’t yet be properly unlearned, washed down from it. It’s not simply because the lookism-dominated society pressures young girls to discipline themselves ruthlessly to stay thin, but this society is surprisingly unable to hear women’s voices.

      After our first EDAW, I’ve continued to try many things with my friends – our Rabbits in Submarines Collective friends, all those young, talented women with living/lived experiences, researchers and writers living here in Korea or abroad. Actually, this July is going to be one of the busiest month for me 🙂 So thank you for your sincere support and solidarity, and please keep watching out for us! ♡

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