Lived experience inspires Korea’s first Eating Disorders Awareness Week
Lived experience will feature in Korea’s first Eating Disorders Awareness Week (EDAW), for which I’m responsible. I’ve often been told not to scale up things so hastily, not to put too many irons in the fire, but such cautions seem useless because I’ve developed a simple suggestion from Prof. Youl Ri Kim into this unexpectedly big, full-fledged weeklong event.
When I contacted Prof. Kim at first, the primary issue I wanted to tackle was that Korea doesn’t have its own Academy for Eating Disorders (AED). Prof. Kim suggested that we hold our first Eating Disorders Awareness Week to promote our causes and draw public attention in advance of launching the Korean AED. We could organise a week of quality sessions about eating disorders!
Prof. Kim’s passing suggestion was an instant catalyst for me. I am an eating disorder memoirist, with more than 20 years of lived experience, who has worked for 17 years in publishing, digital healthcare and content marketing. Several options of weeklong plans began blooming in my head. All I needed was minimal funding and approval.
From the standpoint of a writer with lived experience
Before diving into organising this project, I had been developing an intervention app for patients on the binge eating spectrum at a health tech start-up in Seoul, and the frustration and disillusionment endured there fuelled my determination to create this first eating disorder awareness week. People with anorexia basically can risk their lives for their viscerally felt needs and the most urgent purposes. If I have experienced fear in organising this first EDAW for Korea, it has dwelt more in the question of execution (“Will this first EDAW be a successful and grateful experience for all participants? Can I make it work?”), rather than of preparation. I could reach out to anyone, make offers of collaboration to anyone anytime, write as many articles as I could, give a talk anywhere, anytime, if necessary, and work, day and night.
To attract corporate sponsorship, I set up a private non-profit organization. I improvised the title for four people – Ms Nam, who is my local bookstore owner friend; Jinsol, who has lived experience, is a youtuber and researcher who wrote a master’s thesis on the narratives of eating disorders patients themselves; Chaeyoung who appeared in director Boram Kim’s latest documentary film about eating disorders, A Table for Two; and myself. The Rabbits in Submarines Collective was my improvisation. With that name, I intended to argue that (eating disorder) patients, beyond their deficiencies, can sense the stress signals of the society and react to them.
We, the rabbits in the year of rabbits!
I changed the catchphrase of our EDAW from “Seeing Eating Disorders in Systems”, which I coined for my first draft, to “No More Superficial Narratives on Eating Disorders!” for our promotional poster. We have planned seven sessions and allocated one per day for the week.
On the first day, February 24, five women with lived/living experiences – that is, me; Yuna who’s an eating disorders psychotherapist; Jinsol, Chaeyoung and Min, a former indie documentary producer-turned-into-an electronic music artist – will open the week. On the second day, February 25, a popular STS researcher and author, Prof. Soyeon Leem, whose latest book on women’s experiences of plastic surgery, written in the style of Annemarie Mol, is drawing public attention, will be in conversation with me. Prof. Leem and I are writing a book around women’s bodily experiences and the outer forces experienced, and we expect this work to be published next year.
On the third day, Sunday February 26, two talented artists with lived experience will stage a small concert for us. Eunsun Baek, beloved poet by young women readers, and Barbara, indie singer-songwriter and vocal coach, will recite Eunsun’s poems and sing a couple of songs, including Jaurim’s Shining. This is one of the favourite songs of Dabi, my departed fellow patient, to whom I dedicated my memoir.
The female face of shame and coming up short
We have planned many non-medical, but rather literary or sociological talk sessions for our first EDAW. This is because firstly, we want to attract public attention to encourage conversations about eating disorders as widely as possible. Secondly, we don’t have as many treatment centers or eating disorders professionals as in Australia, the UK, the USA, and Canada where assets and resources enable the nationwide networks to co-produce their annual EDAW. Regarding eating disorders, the support network is literally barren in Korea. I’m an avid reader and writer and have “street knowledge” about eating disorders as a person with decades-long lived experience, so our scheduled sessions and invited speakers mirror what can be scavenged from my life itself.
On the fourth day, February 27, Euna Park will join me in a discussion of women’s experiences of shame and mother-daughter relationships. Euna is a chief editor whose works include the Korean translations of The Female Face of Shame (Indiana University Press, 2013) and Vivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments.
And on the final day, March 2, feminist critic and writer, Heejin Jeong, adored and widely read by young women readers in Korea, will discuss how we can write our own illness narratives without being swallowed up by the easy and familiar plot of “therapeutic culture”. Such culture is well analysed in Coming Up Short: Working Class Adulthood in the Age of Uncertainty authored by Jennifer Silva.
Soon after my memoir was published in August 2021, thankfully with the appraisal of Ms Jeong, a popular literary magazine Littor published an edition inspired by Silva’s book and Ms Jeong contributed a pungent and hard-hitting essay about the burgeoning genre of mental illness memoirs, mainly written by young women. I felt startled and cowered at first, but soon became thankful for Ms Jeong being exemplary in integrity and sincerity. When inviting her for our talk session, I suggested that she discuss illness narratives and the very subject she’d discussed in the magazine, and she seemed delighted at this suggestion.
Ms Jeong shared that she had been suffering from binge eating disorder for about 30 years, and that with her overweight and painful body, shaved and scarfed head, and her being dressed in second-hand clothes, she felt she “lost the civil rights” when going out in daylight. I could see, almost feel in my skin, what she wanted to convey, and her words broke my heart.
At the frontline of eating disorders treatment and meal support
On February 28 and March 1 respectively, the one and only meal support practitioner in Korea, Ms Juran Ahn, and Prof. Youl Ri Kim will take to the stage. Ms Ahn was a psychiatric nurse when I first met her in November 2001 at the first-in-nation eating disorders inpatient clinic. That inpatient clinic is long gone – apparently, NO eating disorders inpatient programs remain in Korea – but she and I have kept our friendship for more than 20 years.
Even after the inpatient clinic closed, Ms Ahn continued to practise the “supervised table” as a group therapy-style outpatient program. She’s one of the wisest persons I know, and her wisdom and her exemplary “warm and firm” attitudes towards patients must largely have originated from her own tumultuous life. Even 20 years ago when I met her for the first time, she already possessed such virtuous characteristics, and now I consider that she’s a real “expert”, incomparable to any doctors or professors.
Prof. Youl Ri Kim will meet the audience at a science bookshop and present a lecture about the most recent research on eating disorders and their treatment. Prof. Kim’s special lecture will be especially helpful for private psychotherapists and general psychiatrists who are struggling in treating eating disorder patients.
I’m devoting all I have to this awareness opportunity
To my surprise, I’m often called an activist. We could fortunately receive charity funding from LUSH Korea and the staff whose nickname is Coconut calls or emails me with the greeting, “Dear activist Ms Jeannie Park.” In real life, I’m nobody, repeatedly failed and poor, often unemployed and indebted, and a little-known writer who has one book published and that is a confession of my own illness history. But in organising this first EDAW, my failures and sufferings have channelled utmost power.
Our EDAW will start on February 24. We plan to freely open the YouTube live streaming link to all so that we can reach out to those who can’t travel far, those who are sick and weak, and teenagers and young adults living with their parents who might be unaware of their children’s suffering, or be in denial.
Johnson, Erica L. & Moran, Patricia (eds.); The Female Face of Shame. Indiana University Press, 2013.
Gornick, Vivian; Fierce Attachments: A Memoir. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1987.
Silva, Jennifer M; Coming Up Short: Working Class Adulthood in the Age of Uncertainty. Oxford University Press, 2013.
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