The Male Gaze and the Korean Mass Media (Or: Ways of Seeing Son Ye-jin as Fat…)

(Sources: left, right)

Another week, another group of perfectly healthy women fat-shamed on Korean television. Yes, even Son Ye-jin too, no matter how disarmingly attractive she looks above.

It was such a pleasant surprise then, to see the following denouncement from Entermedia reproduced in the entertainment and celebrity sections of Daum and Yahoo! Korea too. The first time I’ve ever comes across a lengthy critique about the male gaze and impossible body ideals alongside, well, numerous examples of exactly those, the optimist in me hopes that this represents some kind of turning-point. Or, at the very least, a consensus that the offending programs clearly overstepped a line, even by the Korean media’s standards!

손예진 몸매 논란, 무엇이 문제일까 / Controversy About Son Ye-jin’s body; What is the Problem?

by Bae Guk-nam, Entermedia, July 2 2012

- 손예진이 통통하면 이득보는 사람들 / There are people that profit from Son Ye-jin being fat
– 미디어, 이 땅의 여성들 말라깽이 강박증 환자로 내몰아 / The media encourages Korean women to be obsessed with thinness

처음 제 귀를 의심했습니다. 다음에는 설마 그럴까라는 생각을 했습니다. 그리고 파급 효과가 엄청나다는 인식에 이르렀습니다. 바로 여성 몸매를 제시한 세 개의 방송 프로그램을 보면서 느낀 제 반응과 생각입니다. 그리고 세 개의 프로그램을 보면서 여성 몸매에 대한 매스미디어와 일부 남성의 편견에 찬 시선의 현주소를 알 수 있었지요. 그러한 시선은 이 땅의 수많은 여성들로 하여금 몸에 대해 과도한 집착을 하게 할 뿐만 아니라 육체에 대한 불만과 취약성, 결핍을 끊임없이 느끼게 만들어 지극히 정상적인 자신의 몸에 대해 비정상으로 바라보게 만드는 병폐를 심화시키는 문제를 야기 시키고 있다는 것도 절감하게 됐습니다.

At first, I doubted what I was I really seeing. Then I thought “Really? OMG”, and realized how much of a controversy would be raised. That was my reaction when I saw three recent programs about women’s bodies.

While watching, I got to know the reality of the deep prejudice with which the mass media and some men viewed women’s bodies. I realized that through this, Korean women don’t just get excessively attached to their body image, but are also disempowered through continuously feeling frustrated with their bodies, and coming to feel that theirs are abnormal .

여성의 몸에 대한 미디어와 남성의 시선, 그리고 그 병폐를 적나라하게 노출시킨 방송이 바로 지난 6월23일 방송된 MBC < 세바퀴 > 입니다. 이날 방송에서’남자들이 통통한 여자를 좋아한다는 말이 사실인가?’라는 설문에 대한 이야기를 나누던 중 이혁재는”출연진 중에서는 안선영과 안문숙 정도가 통통한 것 같다. 이경애는 통통한 게 아니고 고도비만이다”라고 말해 충격을 주더니 지상렬은 통통의 기준이 되는 연예인이 “손예진이다”라고 답해 출연자 뿐만 아니라 시청자들을 경악하게 만들었습니다. 헬스 트레이너 숀리는 여기에서 더 나아가 “조여정, 송혜교를 통통하다고 하는데, 저는 예전부터 그런 몸을 좋아했다”라며 안방 시청자의 몸매에 대한 인식에 대한 생각을 다시 한번 하게 만들었지요.

The problems of this media and male gaze were very evident in the June 23rd episode of World-Changing Quiz Show, broadcast on MBC [James — see here and here for Part 1 and 2]. On that show, the discussion topic for the panel was “Is it true that men like fat women?”, and comedian Lee Hyeok-jae (male) not only remarked that two female members of the panel — comedians Ahn Sun-young and Ahn Moon-sook — were fat (literally, he said “Fat like them you mean?)” , but that a third—  Lee Kyong-ae — was extremely so, shocking other panel members and the audience. Then comedian Ji Sang-ryul (male) opined that among women in the entertainment industry, Son Ye-jin was the standard [James - upper limit?], further adding to everyone’s astonishment. Finally, health trainer Sean Lee mentioned that people say that Jo Yeo-jung and Song Hye-gyo are fat, but that he has liked such body types for a long time, again making viewers at home dwell on the subject of fatness.

6월25일 방송된 KBS < 안녕하세요 > 에선 46Kg의 몸무게를 유지하라는 남편 때문에 고민이라는 한 여성이 출연했습니다. 남편이 연애시절부터 마른 여자를 좋아해 75Kg체중을 46Kg으로 만들어 결혼했다는 황은미씨는 “결혼한 지금도 46kg의 체중을 유지하라는 남편의 감시를 받고 있다. 매일 배가 어느 정도 나왔는지 남편에게 검사를 받는다”며 몸무게 대한 남편의 기준을 완화해 달라고 부탁을 했고 이에 황씨 남편은 “(애프터스쿨) 유이씨 정도면 좋겠다. 나이가 좀 있으니까 양보해서 48kg 유지해라”라고 답했습니다.

Then on the 25th, a woman called Hwang Un-mi appeared on Hello! on KBS, describing the suffering she’s endured because of her husband demanding she stay at a weight of 46kg. He’s liked thin women ever since they started dating, so she went from 75kg to 46kg before she they got married, and she said that “Since then, he still insists I stay at 46kg, and checks my belly thickness every day to make sure.” When she asked her husband on the show for some relaxing of his standards, he replied “I like a body like that of Uee’s from After School. But seeing as you’re older, I’ll let you go up to 48kg.”

6월19일 방송된 tvN’화성인 바이러스’에는 압박붕대로 얼굴에서 발끝까지 온몸을 감으면서 생활하는 일명 ‘미라녀’김유정씨가 출연했지요. 압박붕대로 체중 10kg 감량에 성공했다는 김유정씨는 “3~4년간 계속 압박붕대를 감다 보니까 요령을 터득하게 됐다. 살 많은 곳을 세게 감을수록 (다이어트)효과가 좋다”며 다이어트를 위해 몸에 사용하는 압박붕대는 복부 4개를 비롯해 23개에 달한다는 충격적인 설명을 태연스럽게 했습니다.

이 세 개의 프로그램은 여성의 몸에 대한 남성의 시각과 그리고 미디어의 행태, 그 결과의 양태를 단적으로 보여준 것입니다.

And earlier, on the 19th, “Human Mummy” Kim Yu-jeong appeared on Martian Virus on TvN [James — this show highlights strange and unusual people], who wraps herself in pressure bandages from head to toe in order to lose weight. She matter-of-factly explained “I’ve successfully lost 10kg this way, and have figured it out while I’ve been doing it over the last 3-4 years. It’s very effective if you have a lot of weight to lose,” and that she applied 4 pressure bandages to her abdomen each time, and 23 on her body overall.

These three programs clearly showed the male gaze on women’s bodies, and the media’s views on them too.

대상을 바라보는 방식은 우리가 알고 있는 그리고 우리가 인식하고 있는 것과 깊은 관련이 있습니다. 여성의 몸매에 대한 것도 마찬가지입니다. 안선영 안문숙 손예진 조여정 송혜교등이 통통하다고 바라보는 이혁재 지상렬 그리고 숀리의 언급은 상당수 남성들의 여성의 몸에 대해 바라보는 방식을 드러냈다고 봅니다. 이상적인 여성의 몸매마저 통통하다고 인식하는 이러한 남성들의 여성의 몸에 대한 문제 있는 시선은 방송, 신문, 인터넷 등 매스미디어를 통해 확대재생산되고 수많은 사람들에게 여성의 몸매를 바라보는 인식의 토대를 마련해줍니다.

The way we see things is deeply related to what we already know and what we recognize. And it’s same with women’s bodies.Through the mass media, the problematic viewpoints of these male entertainers, who believe even those women with ideal bodies are fat, has spread extensively. This has laid the groundwork for how many people view women’s bodies (source, above).

매스미디어와 상당수 남성들은 끊임없이 여자 연예인으로 대변되는 몸매의 이상형을 제시하며 수많은 여성들에게 몸매에 대한 채워지지 않는 욕망을 자극시키고 있습니다. 이혁재 지상렬로 대변되는 일부 남성들과 매스미디어는 현실에서 좀처럼 존재할 수 없는 완벽한 이상형의 여성 몸매 제시를 통해 여성의 정상적인 몸매 더 나아가 손예진 송혜교 등으로 대변되는 이상화된 몸매마저도 비정상으로 치부하고 있습니다. 이 때문에 수많은 여성들은 정도의 차이는 있지만 자신의 몸매에 대해 부족과 결핍을 느끼게 만듭니다.

Through female entertainers, the mass media and many men present women’s ideal body types, and this creates a lot of anxiety and anguish for women about their own bodies. Men like Lee Hyeok-jae and Ji Sang-ryul consider ideal women’s bodies like those of Son Ye-jin’s and Song Hye-gyo’s as abnormal, while at the same time presenting as ideals body types and shapes that are impossible in real life. And while some women will be closer to those ideals than others, all will still inadequate and lacking.

(Source)

여성의 몸에 대한 상당수 남성들의 시선과 매스미디어의 응시 방식은 수많은 이땅의 여성들의 몸에 대한 인식에 크나 큰 영향을 줍니다.’여성은 그녀 자신의 모든 것을 관찰해야만하고 또 그녀가 무엇을 할 수 있는가를 생각해야만 한다. 왜냐하면 스스로가 다른 사람에게 궁극적으로는 남성에게 어떻게 비춰질 것인가 하는 문제가 여성의 삶의 성공 여부를 결정짓는 가장 중요한 관건이기 때문이다. 여성 자신의 스스로 존재에 대한 느낌은 다른 사람에 의해 내려지는 그녀에 대한 평가에 의해 보완되어져야만 하는 것이다’라고 존 버거가 ‘Ways of Seeing’ 에서 설파한 것처럼 여성의 몸에 대한 남성의 시선은 몸매에 대한 여성의 인식과 태도에 지대한 영향을 미칩니다.

The way most men look at women’s bodies, and the way the mass media presents them, has a big influences on the way women themselves view them. Like John Berger said in Ways of Seeing [James — on the second page of Chapter 3 {p. 46} in my 1972 Penguin edition]:

She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to others, and ultimately how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life. Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another.

(James — Ways of Seeing was originally a documentary, which is now available online; see here and especially here for more information. It’s the second episode that is most relevant here)

매스미디어의 여성의 이상적 몸매의 강요에 가까운 현실는 남성의 여성에 대한 왜곡된 몸매의 시선을 강화시키고 그 결과 수많은 이 땅의 여성들을 자신의 육체와의 비정상적인 전쟁으로 내몰리고 있습니다. 물론 이 전쟁의 진정한(?) 승자는 여성도 남성도 아닌 여성의 몸에 대한 끊임없는 결핍의 이데올로기를 설파해 막대한 이윤을 창출하는 뷰티산업, 성형외과, 광고, 매스미디어 등이지요.

This reality of the mass media promoting [impossible] ideals of women’s body shapes distorts how men view women’s bodies, and in turn this encourages women to fight against their own bodies. The real winners in this war are not men, nor women, but rather the beauty, cosmetic surgery, advertising and mass media industries that make vast profits from propagating an ideology of an unceasing dissatisfaction with oneself.

여성 몸매의 이상형이라고 할수 있는 손예진 송혜교 마저 통통하다고 말하는 지상렬 등으로 대변되는 여성의 몸매에 대한 남성의 시선과 매스미디어의 응시 방식은 아내의 46Kg의 몸매 유지를 요구하고 애프터스쿨의 유이의 몸매를 이상적 몸매로 꼽아 아내마저 제2의 유이로 만들려는 남성들을 더욱 더 확대재생산합니다. 그리고 이 때문에 정상 체중인데도 아침엔 다이어트용 시리얼에 저지방우유, 점심엔 채소와 밥 반공기, 저녁엔 아무것도 먹지 않고 운동 2시간을 하는 주부들과 압박붕대 20여개로 감싼 기괴한 모습으로 다이어트를 하는 20대 여성들이 양산되고 있습니다.

(Source)

[It is the callous environment in which entertainers can describe female celebrities like Son Ye-jin and Song Hye-gyo as fat that is at least partially responsible for the husband that demanded his wife have a body like Uee's]. And it’s also because of that that both housewives and women in their 20s, all of healthy weights, will only diet cereal with low fat milk for breakfast, for lunch just vegetables and half a bowl of rice,  and nothing for dinner, yet exercise for 2 hours. Some will even also go the extremes of wrapping themselves with 20 pressure bandages.

여성 몸매에 대한 남성의 문제 있는 시선과 여성들의 완벽한 몸매를 지속적으로 강요하는 방송 등 매스미디어의 행태는 이 땅의 수많은 여성들을 이상화된 몸에 대한 과도한 집착을 초래하고 자신의 몸에 대한 끊임없는 불만과 결핍을 불러옵니다. 그리고 급기야 정체성과 자기실현을 왜곡된 방향으로 유도하며 정신없는(mindless) 몸매(body)만을 만드는 육체와의 전쟁터로 내 몰고 있습니다. 이제 여성의 몸매에 대한 문제 있는 미디어의 행태와 남성의 시선은 교정돼야합니다.

손예진씨, 당신은 결코 통통하지 않습니다!

Men’s problematic gaze of women’s bodies, and the mass media’s encouragement of women to desire impossible perfect body types, only leads to unhealthy obsessions and unceasing dissatisfaction. Furthermore, they induce a distortion of women’s identity and self-realization,  and creates a war in which women only fight to have a good body, not a good mind or spirit. This problematic men’s gaze and mass media’s attitude needs to be corrected.

Son Ye-jin, you will never be fat!

(Thanks to Daheefanel for passing on the story!)

23 thoughts on “The Male Gaze and the Korean Mass Media (Or: Ways of Seeing Son Ye-jin as Fat…)

  1. I hope I am not the only one whose only thought in reading this article is that I would so dump a man that in 2 seconds. Or better off, I would never date a man like that even if it means remaining single for the rest of my life!

    I am afraid to think cases like that are probably not the exception. Truly sad.

      • Perhaps this is pulling at straws, but maybe because she correctly perceives her work opportunities as barely worth pursuing, and thus her living best provided by a man, therefore making his demands “reasonable” in exchange for what amounts to room and board. When you can’t compete on intellect, hard work, personality, or validation thereof, you turn to aesthetics. Just hypothesizing.

    • You’re welcome. Frankly it took a lot longer than expected, partially because I don’t think the author really understands the concept of the “male gaze”, and uses that and many other similar-sounding terms – “the way men look at women’s bodies” etc. – interchangeably. But still, it was good to see the concept mentioned in a Korean internet article for the first time (not that there won’t be more out there of course, but I doubt they’ll be in the entertainment news!).

  2. I actually watched that particular 안녕하세요 (Hello) episode before this article came out, and boy did I ever have to work hard not to throw some bricks at my screen. Not only because of how insufferable that husband was, or how sad it was that the wife felt that she needed to lose weight to please him, but because the male MCs at one point ENCOURAGED his behaviour. Yeah, you read that right. At first they said he was going too far, and it was clear that the women in that studio were all pissed as hell (you could almost see the steam rising from the female guests’ ears), but then once they showed a picture of her before they lost the weight, the male MCs chided her with, “No wonder he wants you to keep that weight off!”. UNBELIEVABLE. And then when one of the female celebrity guests, Amber of f(x), vaguely hinted at a break-up, they (jokingly?) scolded her by saying, “How could you suggest that they get divorced!”. As if leaving him is somehow worse than being forced to endure his cruelty on a daily basis.

    Which is why it was so refreshing to read this article. Like you, I was pleasantly surprised at its length and the fact that, well, it existed at all. Let’s hope more articles and opinions like this come out in future.

  3. Why is it always the chubby to fat guys who keep demanding this? If you want someone to lose weight, how about you start with yourself? Unbelievable.

    • Do you mean in Korea, or everywhere? If the former, I do remember noticing and being shocked by it literally just one week after I arrived in Korea (one of my coworker’s obese male students would constantly comment on her weight), and if anything it’s gotten more common and socially acceptable in the 12 years since

      But what about out of Korea? I’ve been here so long, I’m a little out of touch sorry!

      • I mostly meant everywhere, but your comment about it happening to an extreme extent in Korea is quite shocking.
        I remember when I was in Japan, a rather chubby guy with a sense of entitlement (elite university?) said he likes his girls the skinnier the better. Then again, sure he can say that, the question is does he actually get one to go out with him.
        Here in Germany, I honestly, don’t know. People are calling each other fat a lot, be it true or not, but it’s mostly girls. Although I think I do remember being told to lose weight by a guy who should really have worn a bra… -.-

        • Well, I do think it happens in Korea to an extreme extent, yes, but I couldn’t really say after having only lived here for so long. So thanks for the anecdotes about Japan and Germany!

  4. This post is so timely, since I just saw an article about Song Jihyo getting ‘weighed’ (yes, seriously) on Running Man, and getting shamed because her actual weight differed from her constructed profile weight. http://www.allkpop.com/2010/10/song-ji-hyos-real-weight-revealed-on-running-man

    From what I’ve heard from other fans of the show, Song Jihyo is well known on Running Man for always being unafraid to throw aside her image and getting dirty, as well as outsmarting in both physical and mental skills on that show. To see her actively disempowered in an acceptable form like this, for ‘entertainment’ is really harrowing, and it really makes me wonder about just how far women’s bodies and psyches are played for laughs in Korea. sigh. Thanks a lot for this ( and wonderful usage of the Ways of Seeing video! That was one of my first videos in media critique as well.)

    • Thanks, and that’s a good way to put it.

      Honestly, I didn’t recognize the name, but recognized her immediately once I saw her face (here’s some photos if any other readers are curious). Again, while fat-shaming is always bad of course, it’s particularly absurd in her case.

    • To be fair, that segment on Running Man involved weighing three people together on one scale to measure their combined weight. What happened was that Song Jihyo got off the scale last, and one of the guys caught a glimpse at the reading when it was just her. It was totally unnecessary for him to mention it, but the others were cool about it. They were laughing more at the fact that she (or her agency?) lied on her profile, not because they thought her actual weight was too heavy for a girl. At least, that’s how I saw it. The men respect her as a competitor, as do the viewers. Also, Jihyo handled it extremely well; she didn’t seem bothered at all and made everyone laugh with her response (without putting herself down). Jihyo is my favorite cast member, so I would have gotten pretty angry if those guys even hinted that she was lacking :)

  5. I don’t think it’s necessarily fair to translate ‘통통하다’ as fat – it has more the connotation of ‘chubby’, ‘curvy’, or ‘ample’ than the negative connotation of 뚱뚱하다. If anything, my experience with Korean dating sites and personals finds a lot more men seeking 통통한 women than slim ones. I think the obsession in the media with thin bodies – both in Korea and the States, but sometimes even more in Korea it seems – has much more to do with social status or public ‘acceptability’ than what men find attractive. I feel even more of a disconnect in Korea than the States between what men say they find attractive and what girls strive to look like.

    The weird thing is that most of the guys I’ve spoken with and dated will say something like, “Most Korean men like really skinny girls, but I prefer fuller figures.” Even a lot men I’ve spoken to online or on chat, before they know what I look like (I’m a little chubby haha) will say that! And among guys I’ve dated, the same men who go on and on about how they like fuller figures – and even telling me NOT to lose weight – will still give me random diet advice. I find it really bizarre. It almost seems like it’s one of those ‘mass consciousness’ things that seems particularly prevalent here compared to other societies I’ve lived in, where everyone accepts a certain fact (“Skinny is better.”) and uses it as a talking point even if they don’t personally seem to agree with it.

    • Point taken about the translation, and that’s a good explanation of the realities of a palpable public/private divide about preferred body types. I’d just add that I was (naively?) surprised to hear from female friends about how much women seem to police each other on their bodies, although I suppose it’s not dissimilar to men competing against each other to see which of them is the most macho and so on.

      • Sadly in a world where women often have a hard time being acknowledged for anything other than their looks that often turns out to be one of the easiest ways to try to bring someone else down. Even me – when someone does something hurtful to me, treats me poorly, does at bad job at something important, whatever, one of my first thoughts tends to be, “She’s not even that pretty!” As if being pretty excuses awful behavior…it’s sad and I don’t completely know how to turn off that kind of reflexive thought.

        One of my favorite TV moments ever was on an early season of The Amazing Race when this slim, attractive girl stole a taxi from under the nose of another slim, attractive girl, who immediately screamed something like, “You fat b****!” I found it so hilariously random (and obviously horrifying).

  6. “Son Ye-jin, you will never be fat!”

    Was that really necessary? That one line was counterproductive to the sentiment of the entire article….So what if she’s fat? That’s her business only.

  7. Here in America there are a ton of fat people (most of whom I abhor) and thin people make fun of fat people and many girls are pressured to be unnecessarily thin.

  8. Pingback: A Disturbing Guide for Watching Korean Drama | k-drama-report

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