Nudist Beaches for Westerners: Koreans’ stereotypes exposed?

( Alone with my friends by Kr. B. )

While spending all one’s free time searching for stories and images related to Korean sexuality would probably be considered somewhat of a peccadillo for most people, one advantage(?) of having written extensively on the subject is that after a certain point it morphs into legitimate research instead, this week sending me to wait in vain at an intersection for a good shot of one of ski resort Eden Valley’s (에덴벨리) notorious advertisements on the side of a bus for instance (but not unlike this, and by coincidence they’re looking for a new model), and the next day walking along the whole length of a subway train trying to relocate this advertisement for an advertising agency seen through the windows as it passed by the platform (surely it wasn’t simply a silhouette of a breast? Was it really that inane?).  Frankly then, it was somewhat of a relief to simply stay in one place and cut out the Korea Times article on plans for a nudist beach that is the subject of this post, albeit in full view of my boss and colleagues.

With such audacity comes great responsibility however, and I was definitely remiss in ultimately rejecting that as an…er…fluff piece, not noticing the links that fellow blogger and frequent commenter Brian did between those plans and Koreans’ often flawed and exaggerated notions of Westerners’ sexuality and attitudes towards nudity too. So, I highly recommend reading his short post on the subject before continuing, and assuming that you have, here I’d like to concentrate on those points of his that I think are a little more nuanced and/or should have been put more forcefully, starting with why we both read primarily “Westerners” where the article states “foreigners.”

minimalist-womens-figure-cartoon-cut-off-and-reversed

One reason is that while Brian suggests that there may be “pockets of interest among visitors from neighboring countries,” I doubt that personally, or at least that they would ever be sufficient to significantly influence visitor numbers, as Jeju Island where the nudist beach is to be established can’t really compete with other Pacific destinations in terms of a consistently pleasant and sunny climate nor a liberal social atmosphere conducive to public acceptance of nudist beaches. (source right)

This is despite Jeju island being well-known for both in Korea itself, but I think that the latter is actually quite exaggerated, partially because of older Koreans growing up to images of scantily-clad female divers, and partially because mainland Korea has moved on a great deal (although by no means fully) since the days of, variously: arranged marriages; relative lack of premarital sex (at least amongst those classes concerned about status and appearances); and finally Jeju being the only place affordable for newly middle-class couples to have their honeymoons, all of which would have naturally combined to give it a not entirely undeserved notoriety, encapsulated now perhaps in the (oft-mentioned) presence of sex theme park  “Jeju Loveland.” But the 1970s this ain’t, and while Jeju’s society as a whole certainly does still have a uniqueness and independent streak that sets apart from the rest of Korea, you could just as easily argue that it is by this stage actually quite conservative in its sexual mores, the current soaring birthrate for boys there for instance, over a decade after the problems with that convinced mainland Koreans that their preference for sons was misplaced, pointing to a much more patriarchal and therefore less liberal place than the rest of Korea.

So I very much doubt that Northeast Asians will ever be particularly attracted to the idea of stripping-off on an island where it often rains and even snows, and in a conservative part of country already well known for its conservatism too(!). Which begs the question of where the impetus for the whole idea came from in the first place:

Jungmun Beach, a favorite summer vacation spot among Koreans, has reportedly attracted ”undressed” foreigners who apparently wish to enjoy the sun while naked.

At risk of sounding like a stuck record, the Korean English-language media is notorious for its lack of professionalism,¹ and so in the absence of any actual reports then I’m much more inclined to believe that, well, they don’t actually exist, and that Jeju government officials came up with the idea completely independently: after all, actual tourists and their needs do seem to be the last things actually considered in initiatives like these. Moreover:

During a recent meeting, most residents were reported to have shown a positive response to the [idea], based on the assumption more foreign tourists would visit the island.

However, experts remain cautious. Jon Huer, a sociology professor at UMUC-Asia, said there still seems to be a gap between the idea of a nude beach and the Korean reality.

”I am sure it will attract foreigners and congregate curiosity. But I am not sure whether Korea is ready for it. It won’t modernize Korea, nor make it an open place,” he said.

Given his overseas experience, then Jon Huer should really know those “foreigners” better (update: actually, it seems he’s notorious for his ignorance). But a group of people that likes to strip off in public, more advanced than Koreans by virtue of their not being ready for this modernization and opening? Forgive my ignorance and naivety, but as far as I know Northeast Asians aren’t exactly well-known for any of those, at least not by Koreans. Moreover, there is actually a strong culture of single-sex bathhouses here, and hence in that sense a much healthier attitude towards nudity in Korea than in many more puritanical Western countries, so I’m rather confused as to why any Koreans would think that a solitary nudist beach would attract Westerners, well, at all really. Because they lack such freer attitudes towards nudity at home? Or because that’s the sort of thing more sexually liberated/perverted foreigners do? I’m much more inclined towards the latter, as I’m rather at a loss as to what else are nudist beaches supposed to “modernize” about Korea exactly, and one can’t help but notice the irony of those so coloring Koreans’ perceptions that they think that Westerners have more of a fixation with nudity than they do themselves.

프린세스-princess-tiara-andre-kim-lingerie-bra-underwear(Source)

So, as Brian notes, nudity at beaches has indeed been “conflated with sex, implying that the point of the former is to stimulate one’s appetite for the latter,” and which stems from:

…a pretty base assessment of the tastes of foreigners and foreign tourists. My first thought was that this plays into the image of the hypersexual, promiscuous Caucasian; after all, they always use foreign lingerie models on TV, and often use bikini-clad foreigners in advertisements and in the newspaper.

But although I don’t think Brian would disagree with me here, I’d stress that the ubiquitous images of scantily-clad Caucasians in the Korean media aren’t necessarily a reflection of those stereotypes, although they certainly do feed into them. With apologies to long-time readers for briefly mentioning this subject again – although in fairness its been a long time, and without knowing myself than I have – and I imagine many others would – (slightly) misinterpret the significance of ubiquitous images of semi-nude Caucasians, those are actually just as much if not more the result of the internal politics of the modeling industry, Korean female models often disdaining bikini and/or lingerie modeling because of the large numbers of Korean porn stars that have worked in that particular niche (as discussed here, here, here and here for starters!). Hence my inclusion of the rather Caucasian-looking cartoon figure above for instance, reflecting the use of overwhelmingly Caucasian models in the marketing of a new lingerie line by Korea’s best known designer.

(Update: There’s also a discussion on the subject going on at the Marmot’s Hole here)

(¹) To be fair to the Korea Times though, despite the flaws with the specific article that I critique here, the newspaper has actually been devoting a great deal of attention to general criticisms of the Korean tourism industry recently in addition to that article mentioned in the text. See here and here for instance.

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18 thoughts on “Nudist Beaches for Westerners: Koreans’ stereotypes exposed?

  1. I don’t remember if you waded into this swamp before, but the subject of nudity seems to me just a sub-category of both cultural beliefs about the body and politeness. For the record, I’ve been to a nude beach in the Aegean. Honestly, there was one gorgeous 30-year old woman escorted by her proud husband, and he wanted everyone to stare at his wife. The rest of the men, women, and children not only became visual noise, but I actually cringe to recall a few bloated forms. If anyone thinks there’s some titillating value, then they haven’t experienced much at all in a lifetime.

    It makes more sense to think about why my wife freaks if I step outside the house in bare feet or socks, or in the house with shoes. Or, why I have to wear slippers in the bathroom. For that matter, my wife still dresses herself in the bathroom after a shower. And then, there’s the rules about fingers and hands and eating. It’s not just black and white, us versus them.There’s eastern and western prudishness, and the two are wholly unrelated.

  2. Yes there certainly are, and thanks for passing on the anecdote, although I’m not sure if we’re disagreeing on anything exactly(?).

    But your comment about your wife makes me curious: I don’t mean to pry, and it’s not at all important so feel free not to answer (and I won’t assume anything if you don’t!), but do you think that your wife is rather conservative in still dressing in the shower in the bathroom? Or do you expect that that would be quite normal for Korean married couples?

    I just ask because it’s a non-issue for my own wife and I, although I confess that sometimes it feels a little strange when my wife continues to have no qualms about nakedness when her female relatives are staying over. Not that that’s not logical, but I always can’t help finding it funny that she’s free like that because we’ve all seen her, but that we have to get dressed in our own rooms and so on because we haven’t seen each other (nor want to).

    While we’re on the subject, now I’m also curious as to what the prevailing attitudes to nudity are like in various types of Korean households and how and if they’re changing over time, but given the delicate subject matter then I suspect I’ll never know.

  3. I’ve never had a direct discussion with Korean women about nudity, but from what I’ve gleaned from general conversations about the body and sex, married Korean women, like Western women, feel a lack of confidence about the attractiveness of their bodies. Christian women especiallly have been raised with very sheltered, conservative attitudes about sex. One woman had never heard of the term byeontae. Another blushingly confessed to me that she and her husband had had hot sex in the kitchen after the kids went to bed. “I thought you would be shocked because you thought I was a good girl,” she said disappointedly after I failed to gush over her sexcapade. Owing to the wonderful tradition of neighborhood bathhouses, Korean women are comfortable getting nekkid in front of others of the same sex, but I can’t see too many women over 35 parading their sagging boobs and loose tummys around the bedroom.

    • Sonagi, your comment raises sooo many issues I’d like to get into, but here I’ll just confine myself to two:

      1) I may be reading too much into your comment, but still, surely you’d agree that married Korean women tend to have much less confidence about the attractiveness of their bodies than their Western counterparts? After all, although I’ve never looked at that issue with regards to married Korean women specifically, it does follow on naturally from everything I’ve been saying about Korean women’s body images for the past two years, albeit primarily younger unmarried ones.

      2) I’ve raised the issue of Korean women’s sexuality after marriage and/or childbirth many many times before of course, and could still easily spend many more thousands of words on it (here’s a good intro though), but although obvious I confess that I never made the connection between that and their lack of confidence in their bodies – albeit starting much younger of course – until you wrote that you couldn’t “see too many women over 35 parading their sagging boobs and loose tummys around the bedroom,” so thanks for doing so. Something for me to…er…get my teeth into I suspect.

      Baltimoron, sorry, and it may just be me, but regarding your response to Songai I’m just not seeing where in her comment she takes the position that you’re reacting to, nor can I see where she implies that women are more mature at dealing with nudity than men either. Could you please clarify?

      I’d definitely agree on the effects of de facto gender segregation thing though: I’ve already mentioned its strong effects on dating culture for instance, and it would be surprising those didn’t extend to this aspect of interactions between the sexes also. You’ve reminded me that one of the many things I want to do is get some reliable stats on the numbers of single-sex schools in Korea, because I’m pretty sure that until a few years ago something like 5 in 6 middle and high-schools were but since then they’ll all been quickly combining and/or going co-ed as the numbers of students drops.

  4. Sonagi:

    Why do Koreans need nude beaches when there are saunas? Why not just make saunas unisex? And, if not, won’t the same negative reactions occur on nude beaches? Bathing is a much more mundane activity than sunbathing or swimming, and going to a sauna is usually a family activity. Id it because saunas are inside a building, so it’s easier to hide, and therefore less safe? A beach is very public and provides more protection afainst predation?

    Also, another implication of your comment: are women just more mature dealing with bodies than men? I have to admit, it took me a few years to understand that hugging was not necessarily an erotic activity. Is most of this discussion based on male hang-ups?

    James:

    My wife is relaxing, but her family is conservative. I can’t even go barefoot in their part of the house. I suspect that married Korean couples might or might not develop some level of comfort with their bodies, more so than in the past. Again, as with saunas, I think gender segregation undermines confidence around strangers of the opposite gender, and makes the opposite gender’s body both taboo and exotic. Public school, military service, college – our dorm floor was pretty much unisex with all the “visitors” – and traveling tore down many mental barriers. In all, men and women had separate facilities – mostly – but worked together. In the Army, everyone looks dumb running out of a tent because of a false alarm. And, again, most women looked like soldiers until they stepped out on the days off. Most male soldiers would say, “Who the hell knew there was a woman there?” Most people, men and women, just aren’t that remarkable on a daily basis. Perhaps it takes some people longer to realize that.

  5. RE: married Korean women versus Western women and comfort with same sex nudity

    I think it’s hard to compare Western women with Korean women because the attitudes of Western women are varied and thus difficult to generalize. My North American friends and relatives tend to turn away or use the bathroom to change whereas my European friends seem quite comfortable showing their bodies in front of me.

    RE: middle-aged bodies

    All of us, male or female, regardless of nationality, become painfully aware of the physical decline of our bodies as we approach middle age. Because women are valued more for their youth and looks, early aging is a more painful transition for us. As a young woman in Korean saunas, I was struck by the differences between the slender, smooth bodies of young Korean women and the sagging, rolling flesh of ajummas whose BMI would fall within the normal, healthy range in the US. Not only pregnancy but breast feeding has permanent effects on breast tissue.

    I noticed that Korean wives in their thirties would go on extreme diets to get as thin as possible, grow their hair long, and cake on make-up. They seemed to be trying in vain to look as young as possible and thus still appeal to their husbands working long hours engaging in the usual nighttime bonding rituals with their colleagues. Most Western women don’t have to cope with the discomforting, confidence-robbing awareness that their husbands have extramarital sex with women in their twenties.

    “Baltimoron, sorry, and it may just be me, but regarding your response to Songai I’m just not seeing where in her comment she takes the position that you’re reacting to, nor can I see where she implies that women are more mature at dealing with nudity than men either. Could you please clarify?”

    Ditto.

  6. Regarding the pockets of interest, on the wikipedia page we linked to it says there are a few areas in Hong Kong that are/were secretly used for nude bathing among locals. Stands to reason that you’d find similar areas in beaches all across the continent. Now whether those nude bathers would travel to a foreign country—and then travel to an island off that country—just for the purpose of going to a nude beach is another story. So I found it kind of insulting that the beaches were being marketed directly to foreigners, as if there’s something about our—”our,” as in six billion people—cultures that make us go for this. Why not just set up a small nude beach somewhere, market it in Korean for Koreans—as with almost every other attraction here—and be done with it? When you start talking about “foreigners” and “nude,” it’ll automatically sex it up and thus turn off more prudish locals.

    As an aside, I chuckled at the “undressed” foreigners in quotation marks because I’ve heard a few stories from friends who have gone skinny dipping. Perhaps these tales have reached Korean ears. The quote-unquote undressed just seemed like a polite way of saying “drunk and hairy.”

  7. Sonagi/James:

    “Owing to the wonderful tradition of neighborhood bathhouses, Korean women are comfortable getting nekkid in front of others of the same sex…”

    That’s the line that got me started on that train of thought which began with very old discussions in college with woman friends/activists about misogyny and rape prevention on campus. The arguments are reductive, having to do with male and female experiences of bodily processes, like menstruation and masturbation. I recall, though, the argument that women are more comfortable than men with the human body. Sonagi’s argument about Korean women got me thinking there might be a universal gender perspective here.

    • Sorry about not replying yesterday everyone, consequence of a bad cold and a quick post about Korean women boxers that turned out to be anything but!

      Sonagi: I agree that it’s difficult to make comparisons, although your observations about North Americans and Europeans do concur with my own experiences. FYI, in New Zealand I found many oddities with regards to that, probably the biggest being – for no discernible reason that I could see – that the vast majority of older gyms had big huge, communal showers for men, whereas my female friends told me that their changing rooms always had individual shower stalls, and were a little shocked and aghast at the thought of having to shower together like the men had to.

      Coming from a very liberal family myself, I never had any problems with it, but I did have a couple of male friends for whom the lack of privacy meant that they wouldn’t join gyms like that, and in hindsight it was absurd. I wonder what the reason for the difference is/was, and what other countries’ facilities are like?

      Back on topic though, I’m not surprised by the stark physical differences between agasshis and ajummas that you notice, and may I venture to guess that they’re much greater than they would be in most other countries? Of course, even just as a man I can speak all too personally of the deterioration of the body that comes with childcare – or too be more precise sleep-deprivation – and I’m not going to pretend that the deterioration isn’t that much greater for women either (although this commenter points out that breast feeding is a sure-fire way to reduce baby fat).

      On the other hand, much of what you say about the lack of confidence associated with that does seem compounded by the women themselves: for instance, I can understand tolerating infidelity when women couldn’t work and financially support themselves after divorce, and as you and I well know it’s still not exactly a picnic for working Korean women even now, especially with children to consider, but there still does have to be limits. And I’m confused by your reference of trying to look young and appeal to their husbands, because based on my own personal experiences, friends’, and from everything I’ve read about the subject, the vast majority of Korean (and Japanese) women do seem to almost entirely lose their sexual desires upon marriage or childbirth, far far more than can be explained by the natural and temporary loss of sex drive for up to a year or so as a result of the latter. There is a feedback loop of course – men working late hours, visiting prostitutes, wives feeling worthless and sexually frustrated as a result, their bodies deteriorating, having no sexual or physical confidence, so their sex drive diminishes, so their husbands find sex elsewhere – and so on, but despite that there definitely is something to the notion that the ajumma is a third, neater sex, and for many Korean women “ajummification” still seems to occur almost regardless of how progressive, liberal, feminist and/or house and child/work-bearing her husband is like.

      Sure, the term ajummificationis usually heard as part of a joke and I can see the humor, but like I say there is definitely a phenomenon there, and one which seems very self-inflicted from my perspective.

      Brian: Couldn’t agree more about everything you said. I’m sure too that there probably is actually something to all the reports about skinny-dipping Westerners, but in all seriousness everything the KT says about something – particularly us waegooks – needs to be challenged as a matter of course, so much of what is written in ultimately being one guy’s opinion. And speaking of which, where did they find that Jon Huer guy?!!

      Baltimoron: I see, although you did seem to be putting words in Sonagi’s mouth there(!), hence my quiry. But what do you mean by a “universal gender perspective” by the way?

  8. “But what do you mean by a “universal gender perspective” by the way?”

    Oh, just a slightly crude reductive argument about how the body forces perspective. Sorry, maybe it’s the IR training, but I reflexively think culture is bunk and nationalism and race are mental diseases. All are literally skin-deep.

  9. Ah. Being a bit of a structuralist of the Marxian variety myself, then I can sympathize. I might find it difficult to explain a society’s attitudes to nudity in terms of ownership of the means of production though!

  10. “And I’m confused by your reference of trying to look young and appeal to their husbands, because based on my own personal experiences, friends’, and from everything I’ve read about the subject, the vast majority of Korean (and Japanese) women do seem to almost entirely lose their sexual desires upon marriage or childbirth, far far more than can be explained by the natural and temporary loss of sex drive for up to a year or so as a result of the latter. “

    My reference applies to middle-class and upper-middle class women in their thirties and forties only. These are the women I socialized with. Based on conversations with those women about their own lives and the lives of their friends, it seems that this subgroup of women are sexually active. Part of the motivation seems to be a “if you don’t use it, you lose it” concern about losing the husband’s affection completely. A group of mothers haggled for awhile about which one would move from another city to ours in order to provide a home for some Korean children living in the school dormitory. None of the women wanted to move because eac feared her husband would take a mistress. These women observed that married men whose wives remained in Korea or lived in another city were indiscreet about extramarital sex. The woman who had sex in the kitchen acknowledged that her husband had physically abused her earlier in their marriage but believed that he had never been unfaithful.

    I once stumbled across a website with photos of women in their 20s, 30s, and 40s in various stages of undress. Some were plump and most were ordinary-looking. These women seemed to have a need to be sexually desirable to men. I don’t think married Korean women are as sexless as they seem, or at least, they still have sexual desire even if their conjugal relations are unsatisfactory.

  11. Extremely Interesting post , late to the conversation, but I was looking and considered writing a post as you mentioned, a lot of koreans themselves interestingly enough especially the younger generation know about the culture, hypocrisy, attitudes, yes of course international culture may appeal to westerns particulary americans which is interesting, but talking to a korean you get a difference sense not of a cultural aspect of life such as food or services (in the sense that they don’t care about it) but rather they are used to it and talk about other issues that people don’t really believe or care such as that many koreans are a bit etno centric even religious ones although they do not have expressed hatred towards non-koreans.

    Very interesting.

  12. It’s pretty absurd to make general assumptions based on one’s national origin. My girlfriend is from Jinju and typically walks around the house naked. She also walks around the house barefoot, and goes barefoot in the yard with me. She also likes sex, had no problem going to a nude beach in Miami, Florida on our trip there and is very confident about her body (especially her breasts).

    All of this despite growing up in a “traditional” Korean household with a sister with much bigger breasts and a mother who constantly told her she needed to loose weight.

  13. Pingback: Korean men and me, once more | Salt City Girl

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