Korean Sociological Image #66 – Inventing Labels for Women’s Bodies

(Source)

Introduction – Objectification Done Right

This may be an old ad, but it’s just a great introduction to my Gender Advertisements in the Korean Context lecture. I’ll probably still be using it 10 years from now.

First, because it shows the value in spending a couple of extra seconds to really look at an ad. Most readers probably immediately notice the faux scratches and blotches on it, reminiscent of a phone screen overlay, but it’s easy to overlook that Kang Dong-Won (강동원) and Kim Tae-hee (김태희) themselves are also supposed to resemble the advertised phone. Once you notice that his collar resembles the reflection on the screen though, then you’ll quickly realize that his grey button represents the dial, and that her black belt buckle matches the cover of the entry port, the curve of her breasts the back of the phone at the top. It’s really quite clever.

But still: if they’re supposed to resemble the phone(s), then why weren’t models of equal heights used? Or why wasn’t the layout of the ad rearranged and/or Kim Tae-hee photoshopped to make her look as tall as Kang Dong-won? Either would have been quite easy, as this second phone ad with the two of them makes clear (source).

To explain, I raise Erving Goffman’s concept of “Relative Size”, or the fact that, if random men and women are paired off together, then in 1 in 6 cases the woman would be taller than the man, whereas in advertisements it’s as low as 1 in 200. Later, I consider the obvious rejoinder that Kang Don-won and Kim Tae-hee were primarily chosen for their celebrity status, discussing why 65% of Korean advertisements feature celebrities, whereas it’s only 10% in most other developed countries. Finally, there’s also the concept of “Licensed Withdrawal” to mention, one aspect of which is how men are often shown providing virtual shields for women.

Bearing all that in mind, what does this Samsung SHW-A210S Shape Phone on the right remind you of (source), released back in November 2010? Specifically, the side, which according to Samsung is a particularly attractive feature of the model?

S-lines Will Sell Anything

What? You didn’t guess Uee (유이) of the girl-group After School (애프터스쿨)? Well, clearly that must be your own fault, as Samsung not only said it’s specifically designed to look like her profile (source), but this and this blogger agree.

Perhaps these screenshots from the phone’s promotional website will help:

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Alas, Samsung was really just attempting to capitalize on Uee’s star power, and on men’s interest in seeing and women’s interest in having an “S-line” (again, the copy makes that explicit). Lest we forget though, that actually means a great set of tits and ass, and it’s testament to the saturation of the term in Korean advertising and popular-culture that Samsung could get away with linking it to a completely unrelated inanimate object.

But that’s not the main reason I’m highlighting the phone here – after all, it’s by no means the first time the S-line has been used to sell one. The Wondergirls (원더걸스), for instance, did so back in 2008:

Instead, what makes this advertising campaign stand out is because on the one hand, Samsung is taking advantage of one body label to sell something, but on the other it’s attempting to replace that label a new one of its own creation – the yoptae (옆태), or “profile”.

The Invention Process

Actually, the campaign starts quite innocently, with Uee simply sketching profiles of things, finishing by announcing that it’s now “The Age of the Profile”. Later on in the campaign, visitors to the website would be encouraged to submit their own sketches and photographs in a competition:

(Source)

But not before viewers were show which kind of profile the campaign was really focused on. Skip ahead to 0:40 for fashion tips on how to show it off:

Next, Men’s Health cover model (source) and fledgling drama star (and friend of Rain!) Jung Sueng-kyo (정승교) is shown working on his own profile. And you’ve just got to hand it to Samsung for thinking of something that can be applied equally to men and women:

Instead of running with that equally-opportunity objectification though, we’re quickly back to women’s profiles. It’s difficult not to wonder if advertisers are just a little too used to using women’s bodies sometimes:

Context – The Profit Motive

Usually, when Korean body terms are explained to non-Korean audiences, then they’re made out as simple equivalents of English ones, the S-line and now profile substituting for the “hourglass figure” for example. But unlike that term, which I’d wager goes back to at least the infatuation with corsets in the 1800s, the S-line wasn’t even around when I came to Korea in 2000: jjookjjook-bbangbbang (쭉쭉빵빵) was used instead. Moreover, not only are so many invented these days that it’s difficult to keep track, but the pace and especially audaciousness with which this is done in Korea is nothing short of outstanding (source, below right).

(Update:  I may be mistaken about how old the hourglass term is –  Stuart and Elizabeth Ewen, for example, only mention the “Grecian Bend” in Channels of Desire: Mass Images and the Shaping of American Consciousness {1992; p. 75}. But surely it dates back to at least the 1950s?)

You are probably already familiar with the unbelievable example of the X-line for instance, which is literally only possible in Photoshop, but you may be surprised to also learn that companies are also constantly trying to get the public to redefine “established” terms too, lingerie company Vivian (비비안) hoping to make the V-line better known as the line between a women’s breasts rather than a triangular jaw (which Kwangdong Pharmaceutical sells – yes really –  “Corn Silk Tea” to help you obtain). On top of that, Yes’ (예스) lingerie company and W Magazine would rather have that area of a woman’s body known as a Y-line and W-line respectively…while in turn other companies still would rather have the Y-line mean a woman’s back.

And that alphabet soup is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to that competition for buzzwords and (re)definitions that will stick with consumers. But unfortunately there’s only so much I could fit on a Powerpoint slide!

Media Promotion

Of course, the media and Korean public are well aware of this – the combined image on the left of that slide is testament to that (I added the two on the right). But in my own experience, usually the latter finds the situation more humorous than concerning (a generalization I’d be very happy – but don’t expect – to be proven wrong), while the former merely “reports” on the new body labels (and others like “Gold Misses” – more abstract perhaps, but still very much designed to get women to buy things), only very rarely criticizing the process and/or its effects. In so doing, it serves to simply promote the term, whether that’s in direct collusion with the companies or otherwise.

Take, finally, this inane example from Star News, a transcript of which (from here) I’ve translated below. If you get confused by some of the dates mentioned in it, please note it was aired in November 2011:

스타 노출의 변화, 옆태가 뜬다? The way stars show off their bodies is changing, the “profile” look is now booming

[Y-Star] 스타들의 노출이 많아지면서 섹시한 앞태는 물론이고 일명 숨 막히는 뒷태라 불리며 신체의 뒤 라인이 주목을 받고는 했었는데요 이제 노출의 키워드는 바로 옆태가 됐다고 합니다. 새로운 섹시함의 상징, 옆태에 대해 <스타뉴스>가 알아봤습니다.

While stars have been showing a lot of skin recently, and of course people’s focus is on their sexy “front figures”, and most recently on their so-called breathtaking “back figures”, now a new body-revealing keyword is emerging – the profile. A new symbol of sexiness, Star News has investigated.

드라마 <브레인>를 통해 1년6개월여 만에 컴백을 알려 화제가 된 최정원.오랜만의 제작발표회에서 모습을 드러낸 것보다 더 화제가 된 것이 있습니다. 바로 옆태가 훤히 드러나는 파격 시스루 의상인데요

A year and half since her last acting role, Choi Jung-won has recently made a comeback in the drama Brain. At a press conference about it, the topic of how she looked was much more interesting than the drama itself, as she wore a striking see-through dress that was very revealing in profile.

[현장음: 최정원] 안녕하세요 <브레인>에서 지혜 역을 맡은 최정원입니다

[Choi Jung-won]: Hello everyone, I’m Choi Jung-won, and play the role of Ji-hyae in this drama.

(Source)

이날 최정원은 이번 시즌 트렌드인 토트 무늬가 가미된 블랙 원피스에 은빛의 과감한 킬힐과 우아한 헤어스타일을 더해 한층 성숙해진 매력을 과시했는데요

On the day of the press conference, Choi Jong-won showed off this season’s trend of a black one-piece with a jigsaw-like design; silvery, bold killer-heels; and had an elegant hairstyle, all of which combined to make to make her attractiveness all the more mature.

특히 옆태가 훤히 보이는 파격 시스루 원피스는 주위 시선을 사로잡으며 집중 플레쉬 세례를 받기도 했습니다

In particular, her profile, visible through her striking one-piece dress, received a lot of attention, getting lots of camera flashes.

이 아찔한 옆태노출패션은 작년 11월, 애프터스쿨의 유이가 선보이기도 했었는데요 일명 옆태폰이라 불리는 한 휴대폰 광고에서 보일 듯 말듯 옆태라인을 노출한 미니 드레스를 입고 옆태 댄스를 선보이기도 했었습니다

This dizzy profile-revealing fashion was also shown off by After School’s Uee last November, in a dance wearing a now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t revealing mini-skirt in a commercial for the so-called “Profile Phone” (source).

그리고 월드컵 축하공연을 위해 무대에 올랐던 포미닛의 현아는 붉은 악마 티셔츠의 옆 라인을 과감하게 자른 의상으로 파격적인 노출을 해서 화제가 되기도 했죠

Also, in a public performance to congratulate soccer World Cup players, 4Minute’s Hyuna appeared on stage in a Red Devil t-shirt with the side cut away,  so revealing that it became a hot topic (see below).

지난해 유이와 현아에 이어 올해는 최정원 뿐만 아니라 많은 여배우들이 옆태를 내세운 몸매로 시선을 끌기도 했습니다

Following Uee and Hyuna last year, many actresses have drawn attention to their bodies by showing off their profiles, not just Choi Yong-won.

지난 10월 6일 개막한 부산국제영화제에서 파격적인 노출 패션으로 화제를 모았던 신인배우 오인혜.

This October the 6th, new actress Oh In-hye’s exceptionally revealing dress at the opening ceremony of the Busan International Film Festival also became a hot issue.

어깨는 물론 가슴을 거의 드러낸 오렌지 빛 드레스를 입은 그녀는 가슴라인과 등 라인을 노출한 것은 물론이고 아슬아슬하게 비춰지는 옆 라인은 보는 이들의 입을 딱 벌어지게 하기도 했습니다

Of course the orange dress showed off her shoulders, and almost completely exposed her breasts, but it was how dangerous she looked in profile [James - i.e., how close it was to also showing her nipples] that had people’s mouths agape.

그런가하면 지난 7월 14일 열렸던 부천 국제 판타스틱영화제 개막식 현장에서 가장 화제가 됐던 배우 곽지민은 앞트임, 뒤트임에 이어 옆트임까지 노출 포인트를 모두 갖춘 무한 노출 패션을 선보였는데요

(Source)

Also, at the opening ceremony of the Bucheon Fantastic Film Festival on July 14th, the hottest topic was actress Kwak Ji-min’s outfit, which, being open at the front, back, and the side, revealed almost everything.

[인터뷰: 곽지민] 반응이 그렇게 뜨겁게 될 지는 상상도 못했어요. 학교에서 특히 반응이 굉장히 뜨겁더라고요

[Kwak Ji-min]: I could never have imagined the reaction would have been so intense. It was especially heated at [the?] school. [Kwak Ji-min is 27, so I don't know what school she's referring to. Is she referring to a festival venue? - James]

Update: Thanks to (native Korean) Grace in the comments, who clarifies that Kwak Ji-Min is “referring to how popular that image is among schoolboys, saying that the reactions were hot from schools, i.e. the kids in school.”

드라마<내 마음이 들리니>에서 발랄한 캔디녀로 사랑을 받았던 황정음. 지난 5월 공개했던 섹시화보 제작발표회에서 언뜻 보면 평범해 보이지만 옆라인에 반전이 있는 의상을 입어 눈길을 끌었는데요 슬쩍 보이는 상체 라인이 더 아찔했다는 평가를 받았습니다

Hwang Jung-eum has received much love for her role as a vibrant and active candygirl [James - I'm told this means a young woman who's cheerful and extroverted, especially someone who overcomes some kind of adversity] in the drama Can You Hear my Heart.  In May, at a press conference for her new sexy photobook, at a glance she appeared to be wearing ordinary clothes, but if you looked closer you saw that she was wearing eye-catching ones that showed off her profile, making you think of her upper body in a new light [James - see here for my translation of a blogger's thoughts on how such "exposure" affects her career].

이어 지난 7월 한 패션매거진 화보를 공개한 윤은혜는 옆 라인을 살려 상의를 탈의하고 손으로 가슴부위를 감싸 안은 파격적인 포즈로 화제가 되었죠 그리고 상체 위주의 옆태 라인을 강조하던 다른 스타와는 달리 하체 옆 라인을 과시하며 아찔한 각선미를 보여 주기도 했습니다

In July, Yoon Eun-hye became a hot topic by showing off her profile in a photoshoot for a fashion magazine, undressing her upper body and embracing herself, covering her breast with her hand. Unlike other stars that emphasize the top half of their profiles, Yoon Eun-hye mostly shows off the bottom half of hers.

이렇게 과감하게 옆 라인을 노출해 제대로 된 S라인을 뽐내는 스타들이 많았는데요 새롭게 떠오른 노출의 키워드 옆태! 적정한 선을 지킨 옆태 노출로 진정한 아름다움을 뽐내길 바랍니다.

There are now many stars that have been showing off their well-made S-lines through boldly exposing their profiles like this, making “profile” the new exposure keyword! But let us hope that nobody overdoes it, only showing off sincere beauty by exposing their profiles (end).

(Source)

If you were confused by the second to last paragraph, then you weren’t the only one: as is clear from the image above (seen in the video), Yoon Eun-hye’s photoshoot was actually in October, and the other pictures can only be said to emphasize the bottom half of her profile (alas, not her bottom itself) in that her legs are physically longer than the upper half of her body. But speaking of Yoon Eun-hye, and to end on a positive note, by no means does all the above imply that Korean celebrities feel compelled to show off every new body term out there, nor – if they do decide to – that they can’t exploit them for their own ends, and/or simply to feel sexy. For much more on that, please see here!

(For all posts in the “Korean Sociological Image” series, see here)

9 thoughts on “Korean Sociological Image #66 – Inventing Labels for Women’s Bodies

  1. James, I’ll ask again just because you mentioned it in this post. I had commented on your “Who are the Korean Pin-up Grrrls?” post asking for a bit more clarification on what you had written, and you said you would respond but never did. I repeated that request in a comment on your “Wearing Hot Pants Says Something About You” post a few weeks after that, but you have yet to respond to a question that I feel is very important to have answered in this discussion, though I understand you’re a very busy person. So, here’s the initial comment again so you don’t have to go searching for it:

    Perhaps you could delineate the three concepts in discussion here a bit more? From my reading of this post, we have:
    1. Pin-up girl chic: use of the pin-up aesthetic in order to be sexually appealing, while nonetheless denying that sexual appeal is the, or even a, goal
    2. Pin-up girl: same as above, yet with at least tacit admission that sex appeal is the raison d’etre of this aesthetic, though not necessarily as a means of expressing feminine sexuality
    3. Pin-up grrrl: utilization of pin-up aesthetic as a medium for expression of female power/sexuality, primarily of feminine sex appeal against male rationality (not to suggest a lack of rationality in women, but merely that men’s rationality is the object to be overriden by the pin-up).
    Does this seem like a correct interpretation of the post? If not, what have I got wrong (if not all of it)? If it is correct, am I right in thinking that you believe Korean celebrity is typically in the 1st, occassionally in the 2nd, and very rarely (perhaps never?) in the 3rd?

    I’d be much obliged to get some kind of response, just so I can better understand your position on people who would use the sort of image vocabulary discussed above to their own advantage.

    • Sorry: frankly I’ve meant to catch up on your second one at least all this week, but because it was (by then) in a relatively old post indeed I didn’t really know where it was. I’ll try to compensate by responding to this one promptly, but as it isn’t really appropriate to this post I’ll belatedly answer you in the original Pin-up Grrrls post instead. See you there in a few minutes!

  2. id be curious to see any effects __-line advertising has had on the product sales of phones in particular. while korean women in particular may be especially vulnerable to fads rampaging about the meadows of the mass media landscape, when it comes to technology people are pretty keen these days, since the standards of excellence (ipad/iphone, for example) are so well-established. in short, you could probably get away with selling a young adult something to squish her boobs up, but you’d be hard pressed to sell her a phone, assuming the adverts for which contain the same imagery.

    great blog, by the way. ive been looking for something like this in english since i got here. one of the first things i noticed off the plane was that advertising here is almost universal in its desire to make people feel as worthless as possible about their bodies.

    • Thanks, and good questions. It would indeed be interesting to follow up on how successful such ads are (or aren’t), but I think you’re quite right that other factors are easily more important at the actual time of purchase. And I’m not even sure if tactics like this even get them better noticed in the first place either – using Uee herself might, but otherwise the media and advertisements are just saturated with S-lines.

  3. This may be extremely late but I just recently discovered your writing, and am currently poring through your various articles.
    Just something I thought I’d point out, but I am Korean, and I understood Kwak Ji-Min to be referring to how popular that image is among schoolboys, saying that the reactions were hot from schools, i.e. the kids in school.
    Great work on this site, and I hope to be hearing much more from you.

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