Open Thread #5: So What?

( Source: RaySoda )

To get you started, a provocative comment I just received on an old post, which would be wasted in obscurity there. With apologies to the author if this sounds impolite, but I ultimately find much of his argument superficial, although it’s always good to have one’s views tested:

…Hi, just stumbled on to your blog last night in between reviewing flashcards for my Chinese class, and I have to say I’m thrilled to find someone as interested (at least in this and recent posts) in the topic of standards of beauty, particularly in Korea. I do however have to argue a point. And this isn’t necessarily aimed at you personally or the views you hold, but you seem to be a willing enough participant in the discussions that occur because of your blog posts that I though I’d give it a shot.

Looking back over said “beauty” posts, I continually find myself asking, “so what”? So what if Koreans openly put an exceptionally high standard on external appearance? So what if women in Korea try to become most easily divisible by which letter they most look like? So what if even kids are targeted by the media in what amounts to little more than marketers seeking the widest possible audience?

Is all this something that doesn’t happen in western countries? You yourself have said that it is not.

Granted, I come from something of a biased perspective in a number of ways. First of all, I don’t think of women in ad campaigns, subconsciously or otherwise, as sex objects because I’m gay. Secondly, from my “objective” perspective on feminine beauty, I tend to lean more towards the thinner, petite side of women that are shown so ubiquitously in magazines from Vogue downwards. Thirdly, as someone who has been very tall (6′5″, so ~195cm)and called thin all his life almost in place of standard introductions, I can see where all of the body-consciousness in our society comes from; it’s only natural to judge someone first and foremost on appearance.

( Source: unknown )

Anyway, back to the gist, I have to say, is it a bad thing that Korean ad firms target womens’ physical appearance so blatantly? After all, at least it seems as though a Korean woman knows what’s expected of her in terms of appearance. In the West, on the contrary, we constantly say that size doesn’t matter, which we know perfectly well to be false. Heterosexual males may not be as turned on by a 100lb, 170cm woman as they are by one maybe 20lbs heavier, but the upper limit to what most males find attractive, by my subjective observations, is significantly lower than what the average woman in the U.S. (my country of residence) now weighs. Because we’ve told women (and men) that size doesn’t matter, things have, to be polite, gotten out of hand. According to the U.S. gov’t, which calculates these things based on body-mass index (admittedly a very poor way of doing so, basically just weight divided by height), more than two-thirds of women in America are overweight.

Although of course there are exceptions, in most East Asian countries overweight and obese people, particularly women, are fairly rare. I think in part it’s because the culture in that part of the world (yay generalizations!) says outright that size does matter, whereas we say it doesn’t, but really it still does.

In short, long-winded post aside, I’d rather be in a country where people say to my face that I’m fat instead of whispering it to each other as I walk by. At least that way, the social pressure to be thin is so much greater and clearer that it can’t be overlooked or downplayed to save face for those applying that pressure. And in terms of health, I think more would rather be underweight than overweight. After all, eating disorders affect, what, about 10% of women in the U.S., while obesity-related diseases kill millions each year. Just from the perspective of someone living in the U.S., I think maybe being a bit more upfront about the natural inclination towards “thinner” (when compared to the national average) women may not be such a bad thing after all.

Then again, having never been to Korea, you’re more able to say whether this is quite so helpful there as it would be here. Of course, culture aside, that brings us to the question of whether certain ethnic groups are naturally thinner or not, which is another issue entirely of questionable validity and fairness…(end).

( Source: Cocofun )

Actually I don’t disagree with all of that, and by coincidence its “so what?” tone struck a chord with me because of some similar advice about writing I’ve been putting into practice in recent months. Unfortunately, I feel too guilty about my daughters being glued to the television for hours to provide a proper critique this weekend sorry, and will have to rely on my choice of accompanying images to speak for themselves. Besides which, I’m much more interested in what you think!

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17 thoughts on “Open Thread #5: So What?

  1. I’ve been reading your blog for a couple of weeks, and I thoroughly enjoy your thoughtful commentary–I’ve learned much about Korean culture/sociology through your research.

    Anyway, in terms of what I think to your reader’s comment: The extreme nature of Korean ads, for example the s-line or v-line or whatever, is not just insulting–it’s demeaning. Basically, these messages ask women, How do you measure up? Women are told, from a very young age, that beauty equates to worth. If a woman doesn’t “measure up” to some aesthetic ideal, then she loses part of her value. The underlying message is, Unless you look like _____, you do not have worth. The “So What?” factor is that an entire generation has a distorted conception of self-worth and, therefore, their own identity. Women are losing themselves in an (imagined) sea of thin calves and stupid s-lines.

    This, obviously, should not be the societal norm. I’m not saying ads are the cause of this norm; they are probably, in fact, a reflection of the norm. But I have no doubt that these ads fuel and feed into the insecurities of women.

    • Thanks for the compliments, and yeah, you pretty much summed my own feelings for the rest. If I had to have one quibble, it would be that it’s better to think of ads and societal norms as feedback loops rather than one or the other being the cause and effect. But no big deal of course, and actually I used to write much the same thing until a commenter here pointed that out to me!^^

  2. Homogenizing beauty the way Korean media enjoys doing will end up blinding everyone to all the many types of beauty there are in this world. Plastic surgery does not change your genes and parents who have plasticised themselves are just preparing the next generation to feel they don’t measure up because they were not born as ‘beautiful’ as their mother or father.
    It goes for men as much as it does women and is starting to become more and more apparent lately – height, chocolate abs (whatever they are), hair, smile…

    Maybe we do judge first with our eyes, but if everyone starts to look the same we will have to relearn how to judge by deeds and words.

  3. Hmm well, my point may be at a slight tangent I’m not sure, but I basically think that, if we’re going to be judged on our appearances (as indeed we always will be to a degree if we’re being realistic) then it had better be for the right reasons. In my country (the UK), even after a decade of increasing awareness of health and nutrition it seems people still aspire to certain body ideals for all the wrong reasons, which I find immensely frustrating.

    Obesity kills, there’s no two ways about it! And it’s becoming a big problem here in the UK, not just the U.S. But instead of this dangerous trend being addressed we seem to have a backlash going on against the body norms shown on TV, in fashion etc of skinny beautiful women. Now there is this idea that, ‘It’s ok to be fat, because you’re just being yourself, you don’t need to be perfect.’ They are essentially confusing two issues, that of the superficiality of media culture and the imposition of unrealistic body ideals onto women, with the separate issue of obesity or being overweight and the dangers associated with that. They are symptoms, more often than not, of an unhealthy and inactive lifestyle.

    What is wrong with wanting to take care of your body and subsequently looking better not just for your appearance but because it means you feel better, you are less likely to suffer from heart and lung disease/diabetes/numerous other problems and you are ultimately taking pride in your body. I don’t like fad diets and the obsession here, and certainly in Korea from what I’ve read, with everyone (everywoman?) aspiring to one specific ideal or S-line, but that’s because they’re usually doing it for the wrong reasons, and certainly going about it the wrong way.

    I don’t understand why there isn’t more acceptance of the fact that if you want to look that way, it certainly won’t happen overnight, and it takes the combination of a balanced diet AND exercise to get there. I guess it’s just much easier to take the lazy route. Ultimately, I’d rather live in a society that says ‘Yeah ok, nobody is perfect, but you can aspire to look good BECAUSE it’s good for you, not because you have to be pretty.’ And although there appears to be far too much pressure put on women in Korea, and more importantly, for all the wrong reasons, at least the society can be honest with people if there is something they should improve.

    Oh and I’m Elly by the way, I emailed you a while back about quoting you in an undergrad essay on food advertising in the US and Korea and you told me all about being the Grand Geordie Narrator lol.

    • Hi Elly (i’m in the uk too) and i think you make a very good point about people here not wanting to look after themselves. The message is very confusing and even ‘eating advice’ is often so wrong.
      I myself am overweight, I’m working on it because i want to be healthy and with the fact i have broad shoulders and wide hips i know i will never, in a million years, look slender an waif like and really, I’d rather not too!
      I’ve seen recently on some sites, netizens (that critical faceless mass) have been pointing out any fat on girl singers bodies – and really thats a dangerous path to go down. The girls they are nitpicking at are maybe underweight. i wonder what they would make of Hyde Park in the summer and the UK ‘fashion’ for ‘muffin top’.

  4. Something I find evident from both the comment you quoted in the post and some of the other commenters here – and this is not a representation of them, rather than of something observable in their posts relating to society in general – is that there seems to be one huge issue that completely distorts general conceptions, especially among women I would say, of beauty. That is that people confuse being thin with being healthy. Yes, everyone knows that anorexia etc is bad for your health, but few seem to be recognising that the the opposite of unhealthy is not thin. Thin is often very unhealthy if you’re simply talking about your body’s silhouette.

    This is often a result of these fad diets and thinking that consuming certain products can actually make you thin and/or healthy. I can’t find exact statistics, but I know they’re out there, but in Korea especially, a huge percentage of women are medically considered “skinny-fat.” I’m aware that’s not a medical term, but I think it represents what I’m trying to say quite well. They don’t have good muscle tone, good muscle in general, and the internal, invisible health to match the image they believe they represent. Despite being small and – in terms of size – thin, they are not healthy: an unhealthy proportion of their body is fat, that digestive system is less than what it should be from eating the wrong foods, and the only exercise they get is shopping.

    When we think about this, it’s obvious to us, and we know it to be true, but I think sometimes people don’t give it enough thought: thin is considered good, and we equate it with health. I say this is especially a problem for women for various reasons, one of which I believe is the media. It’s clear that the media is a major “feedback loop” for the societal idea that thin is good, fat is bad, but in the case of women it does not always make the distinction between healthy is good and thin may not necessarily be so. For men, however, the “idealised” body is evidently one with profound muscle buildup and definition, and a body capable of spectacular physical feats. The male body that is idealised in the media is much more one of physical health than the female equivalent.

    To bring this back to Korea, then, I referred to this in a previous comment when I discussed how disappointed I was that presumably incredibly fit young women who can dance and sing for hours on end are used to advertise tea-based drinks that imply that their consumption will give consumers the bodies of the models. This, I think, is part of the reason why there is such a misunderstanding in Korea about what “thin” really is, as most people – most women especially – in Korea think that if they’re thin they must automatically be healthy, whereas fat is the opposite, and even if they’re aware this isn’t true, they end up preferring thin over healthy.

    I know this has been another long comment, but I also want to say finally that there are varying degrees of thinness portrayed in the media. Your commenter talked about being from the US, and another commenter briefly mentioned the physical differences between ethnicities with regards to natural body size and shape. I think it’s probably fair to say that the size of women portrayed in western media, no matter how thin, does not quite compare to the incredible thinness of Korean models, “singers,” actresses etc, or the ubiquitousness of equal thinness in the media and society in general. It’s actually quite astounding, as I think is evidenced by a search for the Wondergirls on Google. The thin that is propagated in Korea is scary-thin, even more so tan in the US or the UK, I would say. Yes, you may argue that Koreans are naturally slimmer than whites or blacks, for example, but not to the extent that is evidenced by just looking at Koreans. There’s a disparity there, and I think that alone is a “so-what.” Korean women are harming themselves by becoming unhealthily thin, for unhealthy motives, using unhealthy methods, and the media is promoting this. In the US, or the UK, or probably any other country with an obesity problem, people are becoming unhealthily overweight, but that is in part explained by a backlash against the images in the media, as modernwonderlust explained.

  5. “So what if Koreans openly put an exceptionally high standard on external appearance? So what if women in Korea try to become most easily divisible by which letter they most look like? So what if even kids are targeted by the media in what amounts to little more than marketers seeking the widest possible audience?’

    Because women spend time and money seeking to obtain certain features. There is an opportunity cost – money spent on looks is money not spend on education or saved for a house – and a risk to health or an adverse outcome with surgery. Even cosmetics contain carcinogens and DNA-altering nanoparticles that the body has no means to rid itself of. That is one reason why I do not wear any makeup, except on special occasions. Luckily, I work in an occupation in which this choice has no bearing on my professional image. Bras, especially underwires, are strongly correlated with breast cancer risk. Shoes can cause foot or calf muscle problems. Altering one’s appearance through clothing choices, makeup, and surgery are choices with consequences. That’s why standards of beauty are worth examining.

    If a particular preferred trait has an evolutionary basis, then it probably cannot be ignored so easily as the brain is hardwired to seek it, but if a certain desired feature is a cultural construct with no strong evolutionary origin, then it can be unlearned and rejected.

    “First of all, I don’t think of women in ad campaigns, subconsciously or otherwise, as sex objects because I’m gay. “

    People can sexually objectify those of the same sex or opposite sex regardless of sexual preference because sexuality is part of human nature.

    “Secondly, from my “objective” perspective on feminine beauty, I tend to lean more towards the thinner, petite side of women that are shown so ubiquitously in magazines from Vogue downwards. “

    “Thin” and “petite” are not synonyms. “Petite” means thin and short. Vogue models are thin but very tall. The website owner of femininebeauty.info has some interesting things to say about the influence of gay fashion designers on the preference for tall, lanky models with prominent facial features and Hugh Hefner’s bisexuality and his centerfold choices.

    “Because we’ve told women (and men) that size doesn’t matter, things have, to be polite, gotten out of hand. According to the U.S. gov’t, which calculates these things based on body-mass index (admittedly a very poor way of doing so, basically just weight divided by height), more than two-thirds of women in America are overweight.”

    Not to mention two-thirds of men. On this point, I agree with you that women’s magazines and the media do people a disservice when they describe overweight women as “real women with curves” yet use models with low BMIs in their fashion spreads. Men’s magazines don’t seem to address the issue of weight much, but popular movies like “American Pie” and “Knocked Up” or TV shows like “The King of Queens” deliver the message that ugly men of little economic means can get hot women.

    ” At least that way, the social pressure to be thin is so much greater and clearer that it can’t be overlooked or downplayed to save face for those applying that pressure. And in terms of health, I think more would rather be underweight than overweight. After all, eating disorders affect, what, about 10% of women in the U.S., while obesity-related diseases kill millions each year. Just from the perspective of someone living in the U.S., I think maybe being a bit more upfront about the natural inclination towards “thinner” (when compared to the national average) women may not be such a bad thing after all.”

    Based on all the research I’ve read on the causes of obesity, I don’t think social pressure ranks high. The best single source I’d recommend to understand why the US has gotten fatter over the past 30 years is a presentation by science writer Gary Taubes called “Adiposity 101: Why We Get Fat.” It’s available online. If watching it doesn’t change your understanding of the metabolic causes of weight gain, then nothing will.

    As for underweight versus overweight, it’s not just eating disorders but overall mortality. Research consistently shows that people at the high end of the normal BMI range live the longest. The belief is that having some fat and muscle reserves sustain people through chronic illnesses. Some studies have tried to account for the severe weight loss that often accompanies cancer, but I don’t think that’s completely possible. Weight loss is often a very early symptom and one that is ignored because it doesn’t seem serious and may even be desirable. Patrick Swatze wrote in his book that he had been losing weight for awhile before other more serious problems prompted him to seek tests and get a diagnosis. In a study on weight and mortality, his weight at diagnosis would probably be recorded as his weight even though his cancer had been growing for awhile and depleting his energy stores.

    • Just to add to what you say at the end, Sonagi, humans have evolved to be slightly “fat.” In times when food sources were more scarce, those whose bodies naturally developed better fat reserves were more likely to survive: they stored energy within their bodies which could be broken down when there was nothing to eat; in hot climates the extra energy obviously allowed fatter people to do more hunting or going in search of water; in cold climates they could shiver more (sounds stupid but it makes a difference) and had more energy to spend on raising internal temperature to stay alive, and again, it was easier for them to maintain hunting and gathering when others couldn’t cope because of the temperature. Quite simply, in prehistoric times, fat people were survivors, and we are all descended from the fatter but overall healthier and fitter people of such times, and so humans living today have a genetic preference for developing and storing fat reserves. the problems occur because food is no longer scarce and we no longer have to hunt for it, we can get it anywhere at any time, therefore the fat reserves we build up that are there to protect us get overloaded, and we rarely break into them for health reasons, so they work against us in the end.

      People just need to eat less and move more, it’s quite simple: that’s what is healthy. When advertising or society encourages behaviour that is not part of this, it’s unhealthy, and as Sonagi says, “There is an opportunity cost – money spent on looks is money not spend on education or saved for a house – and a risk to health or an adverse outcome with surgery.”

      • Modern hunter-gatherers are mostly lean with lots of muscle mass and fat stores that grow and shrink according to the food supply. However, they were not fat. Hunting requires not only endurance but also short bursts of speed and strength, which a fat person could not manage well. Indigenous peoples of cold climates are shorter and heavier to conserve heat.

        People just need to eat less and move more, it’s quite simple: that’s what is healthy

        Please watch Gary Taubes’ presentation, “Why We Gain Weight: Adiposity 101 and an Alternative Hypothesis” available free online at Dartmouth-Hitchcock. Google the title of the presentation and the link will appear first. It’s slow at the beginning but worth seeing through until the end. Taubes does a great job dismantling the scientifically flawed notions that a calorie is a calorie and successful weight loss is simply a matter of eating less and exercising more. He explains how different macronutrients – fats, protein, and carbs – are metabolized differently, resulting in different levels of fat storage. He also talks about the body’s amazing capacity to regulate weight within a certain set point range and how certain food combinations, particularly the combination of fat and carbs, throw off the body’s appetite control hormones. The food industry knows this because they’ve paid food scientists to develop meals that defeat the law of diminishing returns – the tenth bite tastes as good, even better than the first. Varying levels of obesity in developed countries give lie to the idea that humans are natural gluttons. An abundance of food and a dependence on automobiles do not sufficiently explain why Americans in particular are so much heavier than we were 30 years ago.

        Here’s a parting thought: most commercial infant formulas, food to nourish a growing baby, are comprised of 40% corn syrup solids and an additional 10% glucose or other sugars, both of which are more rapidly metabolized than the lactose sugar in breast milk. High blood sugars are harmful, so the body uses insulin to stuff the excess glucose into fat cells. No wonder formula-fed babies grow more rapidly than breast-fed babies. With more Korean women working after giving birth, I wonder if more Korean babies are being set up for a lifetime of metabolic disorders by being fed junk.

  6. where ever you live, if you look around, you’ll perhaps find that most people don’t look like the average hallyu star. from all the asian countries, i haven’t had the pleasure to visit korea so far but i bet even there most people don’t look that good.

    to me the s-lines, v-shapes, honey thighs and whatnot are something to aspire to. i like their fashion sense (most times), the cute and sexy looks, the fun dances and all the glitter and glamour. they stand out as a sort of distraction from reality as opposed to reality itself. it only becomes alarming when my little sister, who is at the start of her teenage years, begins to think that her thighs are fat (which they really aren’t) or that she doesn’t live up to the pretty girls she sees plastered everywhere (which is completely insane).

    imo it’s okay to glorify certain aspects of appearances but it would be much healthier for society to praise other values, namely the inner values, just as much. as one of your readers point out, this is when netizens start to criticize stars for showing flaws on undoctored pictures, especially concerning weight. that sort of mentality sets a false standard regular human beings can hardly ever achieve. i think this is why so many people are depressed these days.

    this recent allkpop article really highlights the double-standard in the entertainment industry and the pressure put on women: http://www.allkpop.com/2010/01/super-juniors-shindong-badmouths-fat-girls.

    really enjoy your blog, it’s always an interesting read!

    • That last comment reminds me of something; in Korea, physical beauty is sometimes considered something of a personality trait, whereas it absolutely wouldn’t be in some other cultures.

      Super Junior member Shindong: “I’m just saying. Honestly, I would want the person that I love to be more pretty or more handsome.”

      The fact that you can actually be praised in Korea for being physically attractive, as if it is something you have direct control over, like it’s some kind of talent, is completely played upon by the media, another answer to fall into the “so what” category.

      • i agree in varying degrees. from what i can tell, being physically attractive is more like an expected trait of women in asian cultures.
        if we put aside the thought that people are all unique in their own ways yadda yadda yadda you could simplify everything into 2 expectations:

        - a good woman is either young and beautiful or a caring wife/mother
        - a good man can be relied on concerning money

        of course life is never that simple. maybe that’s why a lot of women try to overcompensate with surgeries and countless men spend more on cars, brand-clothes and well, women than they can actually afford.

  7. Pingback: Tweets that mention Open Thread #5: So What? « The Grand Narrative -- Topsy.com

  8. The problem with this “so what?” is that using “attractiveness” as the shorthand for personal worth is stupid. Being attractive will help you get the job interview, but it won’t help you keep it. Being pretty will help you find a boyfriend and maybe a husband, but it won’t help you build a good relationship. Being thin will help people think you’re healthy, but it doesn’t always indicate health.

    And, as pointed out, the effort to become and stay attractive comes with costs, both in terms of time and money and opportunities lost. If I have to spend a good portion of my income on clothes and makeup and spa treatments and gym memberships, I don’t have that money for education, books, real estate. If I am spending an hour in the mornings fixing my hair and makeup, I do not have that time to spend reading the newspaper, checking the stock market, or catching up on sleep. And Korean women spend a LOT of time and money making sure they look good.

    The comment came from someone who has never been here, and that’s reflected in his not understanding how incredibly pervasive and incredibly narrow it all is, and how much stress this causes people who don’t fit those standards – and frankly, it’s most people. It’s a nation of people who don’t seem cognizant that even celebrities don’t really look like their pictures, and by and large aren’t taught the critical skills to analyze images. The result is a lot of very unhealthy stress for women, expressed in anxiety about appearance, unnecessary surgery, loss of income and time, and a generally lower quality of life. Even people who are already conventionally attractive are encouraged to think of themselves and their bodies in a negative way, and to be constantly vigilant in maintaining impossible standards. It’s not just women encouraged to look good, it’s women encouraged to be obsessed and constantly discontent with themselves. But believe you me, anxiety ain’t sexy.

    A little side about all the debate about obesity – being overweight is associated with a host of health problems, yes. But that doesn’t mean that any particular person we meet who is carrying a few extra pounds (or many) is individually unhealthy. You can, in fact, be overweight and fit as a fiddle. Likewise, you can be think and have diabetes, high cholesterol, and heart disease. The general association of obesety and health problems exists, but it’s not sound basis for judging people’s health. And remember, all our fat folks are still outliving their ancestors by a good margin^^

  9. Comments about how women who are encouraged to be thin and pretty isn’t really much of an issue and fat/thin/health/lifestyle debates, reflects an ignorance about the social problems in Korean society.

    It is very disturbing to see women in Korea, who are perfectly fine themselves, look at painfully thin, pointy looking faces and say that they are ‘beautiful’ and wish they could be like that when to me it’s just looks painful. It’s also quite weird to look at women and girls and have trouble telling them apart because they all look like clones. And also, how casually women talk about extensive plastic surgery.

    You really need to go to Korea and see it to be able to comment on beauty in Korea. For me whilst a trip to Korea is usually great, during that time I’ve never been more body conscious in my life, and I always feel really suffocated and frustrated the longer I stay.

    Thanks for a great blog James.

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