Korean Women Are Not Alphabets!

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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)
A Woman and her lines(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?

29 thoughts on “Korean Women Are Not Alphabets!

  1. You forgot that pregnant women are a D-line (saw this while shopping for maternity clothes)! But the D-line isn’t one to aspire to…you want to go as quickly as possible from the D to the S…

  2. You know, I might just create a presentation on this during my next semester. Assuming I can piece together the sentences in Korean. :)

  3. Hear hear JT.

    There’s just so much pressure on Korean women to fit some kind of physical ideal and not enough appreciation of them as anything else that it must be suffocating…

  4. On the otherhand, I wonder how many of the typical / average / normal Korean women we pass on an everyday basis actually care. Some might have the ability to throw off such rigorous standards as something not worth dealing with, or treat them with the casual indifference that comes from not caring. While I’m not privy to how Korean men and women interact, I can hardly imagine a man saying to his woman: “You’ve got a beautiful S-line / V-line / X-line / whatever letter-line”… Perhaps one refers to the lines as we Americans might use the word rack or hourglass figure, among many others…

    Apologies if I sound a little dismissive about the whole ‘alphabet-line’ thing, but talking about them only serves to increase their legitimacy. Here’s hoping Korean women will begin noticing how beautiful they are WITHOUT worrying about their S-line and simply be themselves… Is that possible?

  5. X-line represents a figure with a small waist and long legs? I thought an X-line was an hourglass figure, a large bust, small waist, and round hips. X-line differs from S-line, which indicates a large bust and round bottom only. X-line as small waisit and long legs doesn’t really match the shape of letter as well as an hourglass figure. Whatever.

    How do Koreans say “lollypop”? Sure are plenty of those walking around.

    @Wangkon: (James: In case you’re confused (I was!), she means Edward)

    There is a lot of pressure in the US, too, but owing to greater individuality, many women tune out media messages and do their own thing. This is more true for women over thirty than under as the readership of Glamour, Marie Claire, In Style, and other beauty mags has a young demographic.

    The gap between the women and girls depicted in glamor shots and advertisements and real women is widening with the overuse of photo editing. Women and men are bombarded with photos of perfect women with large eyes, heart-shaped faces, clear white skin, high round busts, tiny waists, high round bottoms, and long skinny legs. Even among ethnicities in which these features are more common, a woman with most or all of them would be a one in a million. Korean women get surgery on their eyes and increasingly on their faces and breasts to meet men’s demand for women with large eyes and oval or heart-shaped faces. I wonder if the photoshopped legs and booties will alter expectations further.

    Most readers here are probably aware that the director of Sopyeonje had to search far and wide to find a young woman with tradtional Korean facial features to play the lead role in the movie.

    • Sorry for the delay in replying everyone.

      Chris–Being what I write about and all, then I probably do notice terms like “S-line” and so on much more than Koreans do, and so I admit that on that basis there’s always the potential for me to think that they’re much more influential than they really are. But despite that, I think it’s really misguided to think even for a moment that they’re regarded and used by most Koreans the same way Westerners do of their literal English equivalents. I may have been in Korea for 9 years now, but I’m still familiar enough with the Western advertising industry to know that the term “hourglass” figure, for instance, isn’t made a central feature of Western advertisements, nor do most Western female celebrities happily thrust out their asses and breasts for the sake of viewers at home when requested to by photographers and male hosts and fellow guests of shows. There really is a fundamental difference here.

      I’m learning slowly but surely that I shouldn’t presume to speak for all…hell, even any Korean women, but my own Korean female friends at least have said that boyfriends can and do say things like “You have a nice S-line” to them, and that they’re considered compliments (which is how they’re intended). Anf that was/is before having a sexual relationship too, and indeed some said that they wouldn’t mind even if a male colleague said it. Kansas this ain’t!

      Finally, I’d be the last person to write them all Korean women off as passive consumers and/or slaves to media-determined concepts of ideal women’s bodies, and my friends certainly aren’t either, but the fact that all the above exists at all doesn’t point to critically thinking about them as much as they should. I realize it sounds like a huge generalization, but I’m not going to bullshit and pretend that I don’t think that the Korean education system strongly inhibits the development of Koreans’ critical thinking skills, and so given that all too many Korean women accept advertisers claims that drinking their product (or whatever) is all they need to do to lose weight (see here and especially the second half of here), then I see no reason not to think that the Korean media being saturated with all these “lines” isn’t actually having quite a big effect on the way average women think of their bodies and behave.

      Sorry if that was a bit full-on though. Must speed through all these comments before my laptop heats up too much to prevent typing (no, really)!

      Sonagi–I’m sure I said “long legs and arms, with a narrow waist,” didn’t I? :D Regardless, that’s definitely one of the lesser known, more debatable ones. I based it on this, which I discuss here.

  6. You did. I get it now. The Korean use of X-line is still strange in that women don’t walk around with their arms raised and don’t even pose that way in advertisements.

  7. I had never heard of S-lines, or any alphabetic analogy for body parts, before I came to Korea from France. Is this a US thing?

    The power of americanisation and marketing, especially by means of television and advertisement, cannot be overestimated in Korea. By americanisation, I don’t suppose any active part played by Americans, of course. I mean a fictional America in the minds of the Koreans, who associate it, at a near-conscious level, with high-class status or, at least, social distinction. Hence Konglish, fair skin etc. By the way, there is no contradiction between a traditional fondness for fair skins and Western standards. But Michael Hurt goes too far, because I don’t think that US soldiers, despite their skin tone, have such a good press around here. Even a White European university professor marrying a Korean woman can face rejection. But, of course, this is reality, which does not contradict the above fondness in people’s fantasies.

  8. “Is this a US thing?”

    Not as far as I can tell. We do not use letters to represent face or body lines. We do pay attention to body proportions but not to face shapes. Nose jobs aren’t uncommon among actresses but chin implants are rare and jaw-bone shaving unheard of. Even in looks-obsessed Hollywood, there is more diversity in beauty. Scarlett Johansson’s and Salma Hayek’s surgically enhanced bosoms pop out their dresses. J. Lo and Kim Kardashian flaunt their natural apple bottoms. Lanky Cameron Diaz and Charlize Theron promenade their long legs. Demi Moore’s squarish jaw didn’t stop her from being a sex symbol for decades. Petite Eva Longoria has been a cover girl for several men’s magazines. Back in the 70s, there was a cookie cutter look on TV and in magazines as represented by the top supermodels and sex symbols of the era: Cheryl Tiegs, Christie Brinkley, Farrah Fawcett, and Suzanne Somers. The emergence of black supermodels like Iman and Naomi Campbell broadened the standards of beauty for Westerners.

    In Korea, the standards seem to be narrowing as Korea’s population, ironically, is becoming diverse. Every other female entertainer looks like some factory clone with a v-shaped face, large eyes, and a straight nose; plastic surgery fever is catching on among male entertainers, too. I’d hazard a guess that 80%+ of both male and female entertainers who have become popular in the last two years have had at least two procedures done.

  9. As Sonagi says, this is definitely not something that has been imported from the west. Certainly, western advertising brought in certain ideals of female beauty, but never in a way that classified them by body part. I would be very interested to learn how this phenomenon actually started, but I’m not sure anyone can actually provide a definitive answer for that now. I certainly can’t remember the first time I heard or saw the phrase S-Line.

    I think something that aggrieves me even more than using letters to describe body parts is that this is a firm indicator that in Korea there are almost unbreakable rules for what is and isn’t attractive or acceptable. What I mean by this is, being a bit chubby means you stand out, and is breaking the rules. It’s your own fault, and you must have done something wrong. Everyone wears the same fashion, there’s apparently no room to be an individual – unless you’re otherwise attractive in the standard way. Only one eye shape is acceptable and so on, I’m sure we could all add examples to this.

    The other thing is that these women seem to have been consumed by the marketing of their individual body parts, rather than for whatever talent they were originally known for. One example of this is Kim Yu-na – who by the way Romanizes her name really badly – and I refer to this in my new Korean Studies-related blog at asadalthought.wordpress.com (sorry about the shameless plug, but it is a new blog – some hits would be nice) and this particular post seems to coincide with what JT has written here.

    • Seamus–By all means plug away – I enjoyed reading it – although if I can offer some advice as one blogger to another, if you want more readers then always add your blog address to the “website/url” line when you add comments (I’ve done it for you), and it’s advisable not to make your blog public until you have 5 or 10 really good posts to show everyone up on it first, although it’s no big deal.

      Other than that, agreed on all points, and you may enjoy this series of mine prompted by my trying to find out why Koreans tended to be so uniform (no pun intended) in their fashion choices.

      Christian, sorry for not replying earlier, although Sonagi seems to have covered everything you mention (and thanks for that). Just one thing though, when you say:

      By the way, there is no contradiction between a traditional fondness for fair skins and Western standards. But Michael Hurt goes too far, because I don’t think that US soldiers, despite their skin tone, have such a good press around here. Even a White European university professor marrying a Korean woman can face rejection. But, of course, this is reality, which does not contradict the above fondness in people’s fantasies.

      That would really be better in this post, but regardless, I don’t think Michael Hurt would disagree with that. Yet U.S. soldiers based in Korea were indeed for a long time the tall, rich and (mostly) white symbols of prosperity and sophistication that Koreans aspired to, and it’s only been comparatively recently that they’ve come to be seen more as symbols of something else, like complicity in the Gwangju Massacre of 1980. Not that they or any other groups of Caucasians here can’t and don’t embody both though, regardless of how contradictory they are.

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  11. Hmm.. but does this mean Korean society needs to learn how to properly behave? Who will teach them the right way to behave as a society??? They must learn the righteous moral universal values of.. well.. I dunno, you tell us.

  12. The US doesn’t use the alphabets like Korea. We use FRUITS! Apple, banana, and pear–then the hourglass. Funny how we categorize body shapes, huh?!

  13. There certainly IS a standard in the US, why do you think women all dye their hair blond and tan till they get skin cancer, those are only a few examples. You simply don’t see it because you’re living in the midst of it. The only thing is the US has an opposing view to the issue while Korea still doesn’t BUT that is changing. You have to remember that 50 years ago, Korea was still a very poor country that developed extremely quickly. However it IS progressing and women are speaking up and people are starting to become less shallow and thinking more critically. The US went through this phase too so it’s ignorant to pretend the US was always high and mighty.

    • “There certainly IS a standard in the US, why do you think women all dye their hair blond and tan till they get skin cancer”

      Are you stuck in the 70s?

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  15. It’s an impressive article. My English is poor, so I have to read again, but I think it is nessasary to Korean.
    -I’m come from tg-

  16. I think this is just getting waaaaaaaaaaaaayyyyyy too RIDICULOUS!!!

    I really think that people are smarter than that and that sooner or later (more like sooner) people are going to get so fed up with the images of “perfection” that media use that advertisement is not going to serve its purpose anymore, people won’t even bother looking at such atrocities. They have deformed the human body in such ways that, in my opinion, is not attractive anymore, and I hope this happens PRONTO because I know of a few girls who have already put their health at risk while trying to get that photoshopped-freaky-abnormal figure!

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  19. Round faces in Korean culture were once believed to be “full of luck,” and women who had them were often thought to bring in great wealth. While there are still some older Koreans today who say and believe this, it’s interesting to see how much the Korean society’s perception of a beautiful facial shape has changed within a relatively short span of time. Koreans used to say that people with a narrow jawline and a pointy chin caused “all luck and good fortune to flow down and away from the person,” but it’s funny that now such faces are often prized, esp. among Korean women. But believe it or not, you’ll still find some old-fashioned Korean parents opposing their son’s marriage to a girl with a “V-line” face because they still adhere to the traditional belief. I think Korean society is full of constant clashes between the traditional and the modern, which provides for some very interesting cases to study (and probably explains why the country and its people may baffle a lot of outsiders who find it all to be very confusing and contradictory!).

    I’m not sure if I agree that women in Korea tend to be judged entirely by their appearance. It is definitely not enough to have just a pretty face these days. There’s a current joke about what Korean men look for in a potential wife that goes something like, “In the past, a woman had to be pretty to have a good chance of being married. Then it was the woman’s intelligence and level of education that mattered. But today, all that matters is whether the woman is rich.” But I’d argue that the ideal Korean woman today has all three of these–looks, brains, and wealth–and so many Korean women (being very jealous and competitive as they often are) strive to achieve this ideal, esp. since there are plenty of Korean women these days who already have all three.

    Here in America, “loving our bodies” might mean accepting our bodies as they are (even if we’re fat, for example). But in Korea, someone who is fat or obese is often perceived as someone who is not smart enough to control his/her weight and take care of his/her body (esp. since the majority of Koreans seem to know how to stay thin). And Korean parents think that telling their kids the honest truth about their bodies–even if it hurts them–is a true sign of love, because what parent wouldn’t want their kid to be the best that s/he can be? So in short, no, I personally don’t think such ads about S-lines or V-lines and whatnot are really harming young Koreans or objectifying Korean women (although I do think the alphabetization is a bit strange and funny–and perhaps cleverly simple too since it’s something viewers and consumers will easily remember–heck, even foreigners are talking about it). If one could choose between being fat and thin, who wouldn’t want to be thin (except perhaps if you’re from Mauritania)? And what woman wouldn’t want to make herself seem more beautiful and desirable?

    I think Fran said it best here–that Koreans are less hypocritical about their beauty standards.

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