Update, February 2013: Please see here, here, and many other posts in my “Revealing the Korean Body Politic” series for my considerably updated, hopefully much more nuanced thoughts on Korea’s alphabetization trend, especially in light of what I’ve learned about historical Western precedents!
The original version of my article for today’s Korea Times:
Well known for donning corsets on stage since her comeback in May last year, few can deny that there is much to find cute in singer Son Dam-bi (손담비) tightening a miniature one around a bottle of ‘Today’s Tea’ in her latest commercial.
But while modern corsets lack the uncomfortable body-shaping functions of their Victorian counterparts, they remain an enduring symbol of the pressures women can be under to conform to often impossible ideals of appearance. And despite its lightheartedness, this commercial provides an excellent illustration of a distinctly Korean spin on this (source, right: kjutaeng3)
Beverage producer Lotte Chilsung invented the term ‘bellyline’ for use in this commercial, and it is this that the corset and supposedly the drink help with slimming. In itself, doing so is not at all worthy of any criticism, nor is the term dissimilar to, say, the English equivalent of ‘waistline,’ which would actually have been a much more appropriate choice here. But with that perfectly good term existing already, then why invent a new one?
The reason is that the term is merely the latest in a spate of naming particularly female body parts after English letters in recent years, a very curious fashion that seems unique to Korea so far. Consider the following best known examples of this:
- M-line (abdominals, for men)
- S-line (breasts and buttocks, viewed from the side)
- U-line (exposed lower back)
- V-line (one for face, and another for the line in-between breasts)
- W-line (breasts)
- X-line (long legs and arms, with a narrow waist)
(Source: Dark Roasted Blend)
And so integral to Korean pop culture are S-lines and V-lines in particular, that within five minutes of turning on a television you are likely to see either female celebrities strutting them on talk-shows, or prominent ‘S’s and ‘V’s displayed in commercials. Indeed, such is the current mania surrounding them that you can even come across examples completely unrelated to the original body parts involved, including in commercials for cell-phones, school uniforms, and even gas boilers!
Although this practice seems frivolous on the surface, says blogger Javabeans “it actually belies much more pernicious trends in society at large,” and something is surely seriously amiss when, rather than the media, you have a majority of female celebrities “vocally espousing their alphabet-lines and therefore actually objectifying themselves as a conglomeration of “perfect” body parts rather than as whole, genuine people.” But, why their alacrity in doing so? (source, left: 여자가 좋다. 남자는 필요없다.)
A clue is that this quote was made in the context of a breast cancer fund-raising party in October last year, the producers of which saw absolutely no irony in naming ‘Love Your W.’ And if nothing is viewed as untoward in doing so for an event supposedly about empowering women by encouraging them to respect more and take better care of their bodies, then you can imagine that there are few inhibitions for promoting the use of ‘lines’ to teenagers and young girls either.
Accordingly, there are even educational videos that promote healthy food such as fermented bean paste (dwenjang/된장) to elementary-school children that mention that eating it will be good for their S-lines and V-lines also. And one probably direct effect of this is the fact that many Korean middle-school girls have ‘face rollers,’ the repeated application of which is supposed to flatten one’s face towards a desired, angular, ‘V’ shape.
To be sure, the Korean media is not unique in placing undue emphasis on women’s appearances rather than their intelligence — the American media obsession with Michelle Obama’s fashion choices being a notorious recent example — nor is it in providing often unobtainable and unnatural role models and body ideals for women and girls. But the contexts in which those are received are important, and whereas videos like the above would rapidly be banned in schools in many other developed countries, and/or educators that criticized children because of their appearance rapidly fired, unfortunately both are par for the course in Korea.
(Han Ye-seul demonstrates yet another “V-line.” Source: Naver Photo Gallery)
To an extent, this lack of awareness and/or concern is understandable when a child’s entire life prospects are almost entirely determined by a single exam: parents have other priorities. But on the other hand, when a majority of netizens did not take pride in astronaut Yi Soyeon for being the first Korean to go into space last year, but instead criticized her for her appearance during the flight, then teenage girls will hardly be encouraged to study harder.
And on a wider scale, as Korea again faces an economic crisis, in order to recover it is worth pondering what lies behind Korea long having one of the lowest rates of working women in the OECD. Surely a good start to using this underutilized human resource, one of the best-educated in the world, would be to encourage both sexes to stop judging women, and women expecting to be judged, entirely on their appearance?