Employment and weight status: The extreme case of body concern in South Korea

Seung Yong Han, Alexandra Slade, Cindi SturtzSreetharan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Scopus citations


For an industrialized nation, obesity rates in South Korea are extremely low. Yet, reflecting an extremely fat-averse, thin-positive society, efforts to lose weight are now reportedly very common. Since the 1980s, South Korea has experienced an increasingly flexible and insecure labor market which was exacerbated by the 1997 economic recession. In this social and economic setting, body shape and weight status, as human capital, may have gained significant bargaining power in the labor market. Consequently, we propose that Koreans, particularly those who are employed in “stable” jobs (i.e., non-manual and regular jobs), would increasingly engage in intense weight management and reduction activities even when not technically overweight or obese as a means to job security and upward mobility. Using nationally-representative data from the Korean Nutrition and Health Examination Survey (KNHANES), we identify the changing role of weight concerns versus actual body weight in predicting South Korean efforts to lose weight between 2001 (KNHANES-phase 1) and 2007–2009 (phase 4). The patterns were examined by occupation type (manual and non-manual jobs) and status (regular and non-regular jobs). Oaxaca decomposition analysis supported that people's perception of being “fat,” rather than actual weight status, was crucial to explaining accelerated weight management efforts in South Korea over the decade (coef. = 0.062 and p-value <.0001 for male with regular work; coef. = 0.031 and p-value =.002 for female with regular work). Occupation status, rather than employment in itself, mattered. Job stability predicted increased effort; the pattern of change through time suggests efforts to invest high levels of effort in appearance positively impacts both employment opportunity and stability.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)115-121
Number of pages7
JournalEconomics and Human Biology
StatePublished - May 2018


  • Body image
  • Employment
  • Obesity
  • South Korea
  • Weight management

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Economics, Econometrics and Finance (miscellaneous)


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