Revealing the Korean Body Politic, Part 4: Girls are different from boys

Ha Ji-won Breast Size Korean Attitudes(Sources: left, right)

The JoongAng Ilbo reports that having a full rack is seen as a disadvantage for women in North Korea.

This is in marked contrast to the South, where a thin figure and big breasts have become symbols of beauty.

According to defectors, if a woman appears well-endowed in the North, people think she is intentionally and lewdly stressing her femininity, and she can easily come to be regarded as a slut. You have an atmosphere that doesn’t allow women to wear revealing clothing, and the North is still a male-dominated society.

One defector from Hoeryong said she had a work friend with large breasts who often ate chives because she’d heard they make your boobs smaller. She added that she was surprised upon learning that women in the South actually have operations to make their breasts bigger.

(The Marmot’s Hole)

Alas, The Joongang Ilbo provides nothing to verify those claims. But, I see no reason why the defectors would lie, and negative stereotypes of large-breasted women are by no means confined to North Korea. Also, who would ever question that “a thin figure and big breasts have become symbols of beauty” in the South?

Korean Women Revealing Clothing AttitudesFortunately though, Liminality did, who in a must-read response shows that however much the Korean beauty industries and media promote such an ideal, and however much East Asian-women may have a genetic predisposition towards small breasts, female cosmetic surgery patients at least hardly consider themselves lacking in that department. In fact, quite the opposite:

  • Per capita, far more breast surgery operations are performed in European and North and South American countries than in Korea (or Asia)
  • Despite having the highest per capita number of cosmetic surgery operations overall, Korea only came 22nd in the number of breast surgery operations performed per capita
  • Of those operations, Koreans had slightly less augmentation and lift operations than their counterparts in the US and Brazil, and slightly more reduction surgeries (source, above; reproduced with permission)

Similar attitudes may exist in Japan too, where even lingerie maker Wacoal was surprised by the number of women who told told them they wanted a bra that made their breasts look smaller, and then by the huge popularity of the — yes, really — ‘Bra That Makes Big Breasts Look Small’ design they developed in response. Also, Japanese mail order fashion magazine Bellemaison has developed a ‘Chest Line Cover’ (see second image below) that “promises to be a cool alternative to wearing a real camisole as Japan prepares for another hot summer made even hotter with another year of power rationing,” which I’m sure readers of both sexes can confirm would probably be just as big a hit in Korea.

Bra That Makes Big Breasts Look Small(Source)

But readers don’t need me to tell them that showing cleavage is still a big taboo in Korea, or that there’s a big disconnect between ordinary Koreans’ — and even models’ — attitudes to fashion, body image, and sexuality and what you may see on Korean TV. And I can’t claim any special expertise on ordinary North Koreans’ attitudes either.

Chest Line CoverHowever, when I read that original post at The Marmot’s Hole, by coincidence I’d also just finished The Home Front and Beyond: American Women in the 1940s by Susan M. Hartmann (1983), in which she explains that the massive social dislocations of that decade — in particular, women suddenly entering the workforce in large numbers — were responsible for big changes in women’s fashion there, as well as preferred breast sizes. And, as it happens, North Korea is also going through a very turbulent period at the moment, with power relations between the sexes undergoing especially dramatic change:

Imagine going to work every day and not getting paid. Then, one day, you’re told there’s no work to do — so you must pay the company for the privilege of not working.

This is the daily reality facing Mrs. Kim, a petite 52-year-old North Korean. Her husband’s job in a state-run steel factory requires him to build roads. She can’t remember the last time he received a monthly salary. When there are no roads to build, he has to pay his company around 20 times his paltry monthly salary, she says.

“He had to pay not to work for about six months of last year,” Mrs. Kim told NPR, sighing. “You have to pay, even if you can’t afford to eat. It’s mandatory.”

So she is the one who must keep the family alive, as her husband wrestles with this state-sanctioned extortion.

Welcome to the Orwellian world of work in North Korea. In this reclusive country, profound social change is happening beyond the view of the outside world. The demands of politics have dramatically redrawn gender roles, forcing women to become the breadwinners.

(National Public Radio, December 28; hat tip to Matt at Gusts of Popular Feeling)
North Korean Women Bikes(Source)

The NPR goes on to mention that one major consequence of that emasculation is skyrocketing domestic violence, against which speculating about ensuing changes in fashions can admittedly sound frivolous. But those have changed regardless — indeed, by state decree. First, in July last year:

Supreme leader Kim Jong-un appears to be loosening the government’s grip on how women dress by allowing them to wear pants, platform shoes and earrings, ABC News reported.

Previously, pants were only permitted as uniforms for females in the factories or the fields — and not for making a fashion statement.

“If caught, sometimes they would cut your pants right there in public to make it into a skirt,” Park Ye-Kyong, who defected to South Korea in 2004, told ABC News.

That doesn’t mean North Korean women don’t enjoy preening, Park added.

“Yes, we were hungry but desire to look beautiful lies in any woman,” she said.

North Korean Female IdealIn addition, the next month a 20 year-ban on women riding bicycles was lifted. Ostensibly imposed for women’s safety, numerous sources also mention its supposed incompatibility with juche, related educational television promoting “the idea of a woman wearing a skirt while riding a bicycle [being] contrary to socialist custom.” (See NK News {source, right} for more on North Korean ideals of women). Moreover, in 2009 Human Rights Watch also noted that:

…the ban on pants and bicycles for women is symptomatic of a range of other, often-overlooked, problems.

Across North Korea’s conservative, male-dominated society, there is discrimination against women, a knowing disregard for the consequences of such policies, and an opportunistic manipulation of power by police officers trying to make easy money by preying on an undervalued and underprivileged population.

In light of that, most likely the lifting of the bans was mainly simple populism on the part of a new leader, as well as — despite those state gender ideologies described above — a reluctant concession to the new realities of female breadwinners. Sure enough, in typical North Korean fashion (pun intended), just 5 months later the ban on women riding bicycles would actually be reinstated. Also, while technically they can still keep their pants on, in practice opportunities for women to beautify themselves remain limited, with both sexes punished for straying from officially-sanctioned hairstyles; sharp divisions in what is permissible for married and unmarried women; and a general lack of (beauty-related) resources overall, including such simple things as hairdryers.

Perhaps, things are not changing in North Korea as much as they first appear?

One Million Yen Girl Part Time Woman(Sources: left, right)

Yet in South Korea at least, it’s true that the last 15 years have seen a vast increase in the numbers of women competing with — and increasingly displacing — men for irregular and part-time work, despite the (extremely low) overall female workforce participation rate remaining unchanged. This has spawned quite a backlash, and — à la The Beauty Myth (1991) — a rapid increase in (overwhelmingly female) objectification in popular culture. So, while again I stress my ignorance and lack of knowledge with anything North-Korea related, it’s not unreasonable to suppose that, surely, the sudden large influx of women into the workforce may also be having some sort of impact there.

The Home Front and BeyondEither way, reading about similar experiences elsewhere can inform an understanding of what’s happening in both countries. So, with the obvious — but still necessary — caveat that of course both countries are very different to the US in the 1940s, for the remainder of this post let me try to pass on some of what I’ve learned about what happened there.

First, it’s important to get a sense of the numbers (pp. 77-8):

  • The female labor force grew by 6.5 million during the war
  • In 1944, 37% of all adult women were reported in the labor force, but nearly 50% of all women were actually employed at some time during that year
  • The greatest changes took place among married women
  • 1 in 10 married women entered the work force during the war, representing over 3 million of those 6.5 million new female workers (3.7 million, according to Marilyn Yalom in A History of the Wife {2002; p. 320})
  • 2.89 million were single, the rest widowed or divorced
  • So, for the first time in US history there were more married women than single women in the workforce.
  • Note however, that the war resulted in many more marriages than there would have been normally — approximately 1 million more, according to Yalom. Moreover, wives of absentee husbands were twice as likely to seek jobs, with half of all servicemen’s wives being in the labor force
  • The percentage of wives that worked grew from 13.9 in 1940 to 22.5 in 1944 (Yalom says 15 in 1940 to over 24 in 1945)
  • The percentage of women with children that worked grew from 7.8 in 1940 to 12.1 in 1944
  • By 1945, half of all working women were over 35; slightly more than 1 in 4 were 45 or older
  • The typical female worker had shifted from younger and single to older and married, a pattern which was maintained in the postwar years

Should Your Wife Take a War JobAs Hartmann elaborates throughout her book, these figures represent an ensuing era of relative opportunity and freedom for many women (including sexual freedom; see Pin-Up Grrrls {2006} by Maria Busnek, pp. 213-224; see below also), even if it was usually simple economic necessity that compelled them to work in the first place (and usually at tedious, menial, and unfulfilling work at that). Accordingly, it definitely set the stage for second-wave feminism in the 1950s and ’60s, and deserves the place it’s gained in the Western historical imagination.

However, it’s also true that despite the huge public and private need for women to enter the workforce, that need was still considerably tempered by both sexes’ preexisting gender and racial ideologies, with both official propaganda and popular culture glamorizing women’s work and stressing its patriotic importance on the one hand, yet emphasizing its strictly temporary nature on the other. Not least, to nervous male workers and servicemen, who: lacked our knowledge that the war would lift the US out of the Depression (source, right); were very much judged by their ability to provide for their families, in an era where many simply couldn’t (note that one big difference between the Depression and the current financial crisis is that many people were literally starving during the former); and who sometimes had genuine difficulties with employment after demobilization, particularly in the shrinking war industries in which the women had been recruited (Hartmann, p. 63).

Buszek summarizes the contradictions of this era well (pp. 214-5):

Pin-up Grrrls pp. 214-5And in particular:

  • Despite the huge demand for workers, and the ultimate, relative flexibility both employers and male employees would demonstrate in incorporating Caucasian women into their midst, African-American women remained largely unwelcome (e.g., 10 months after Pearl Harbor, there were fewer than 100 out of 3000 women in Detroit war industries). So, while the numbers of them working did increase from 1.5 million in 1940 to 2.1 million in 1944, their share of the female labor force actually dipped from 13.8 to 12.5. By 1950, their employment patterns were very similar to those of 10 years earlier, albeit partially because by then their husbands were making more money. (Hartmann, pp. 60, 78-9)
  • Women of Britain Come into the factoriesPartially, the huge numbers of wives that entered the workforce is because there were previously bans against them by many companies, let alone being against social convention; even schools discriminated against them. It’s amazing how quickly bans were dropped once the need for labor arose though, with some previously hostile managers coming to express a “preference for married women as more stable and conscientious than their single sisters” (pp. 59-60). And this provides encouraging news for Korea, which unfortunately still largely retains those conventions, and where as recently as 2009 I was working for a company that — yes, really — fired women upon marriage (source, right).
  • Nevertheless, there remained extreme public and private ambivalence about working mothers. Officially seen as more of a social problem than something to be encouraged, officials did recognize “that financial need compelled some mothers to work and that in localities with severe labor shortages production goals would requite the employment of mothers,” and urged employers not to discriminate against them (p.58). But on the other hand, the government would also constantly remind them that homestay mothers were essential for children’s development; popular culture was full of stories of child neglect; and daycare provision, while expanded, was ultimately completely inadequate, paling behind that which was provided in the UK, and prompting frustrated managers of some defense plants to set up their own (Yalom, pp. 324-6).
Ellen DeGeneres, Portia de Rossi Check Out Katy Perry(Source)

But, lest we forget, this post is about breasts. And changes in women’s fashions which came with the contradictions involved with entering the workforce, with women having to confront rampant sexual harassment on the one hand, and often being blamed for the “distraction” they posed, but on the other relishing their newfound freedoms (Buszek, pp. 216-7):

Pin-up Grrrls p216-7However, the combination of war-time shortages and women’s entrance into the workforce meant that people suddenly became used to women in functional, masculine clothing and with more practical hairstyles, and that women’s fashions became more simplified, comfortable, less overtly sexual, and changed less frequently than before. So, when you learn that popular culture stressed the exact opposite, for example…

  • I pledge myself to guard every bit of beauty that he cherishes in meThat female workers were still “glamorous” and feminine despite their new roles (Hartmann, p. 199)
  • As were female sport stars, women’s sports enjoying a lot of popularity while their male counterparts were occupied (p. 194)
  • Lingerie manufacturers coped with wartime shortages and new demand by producing much practical bras, yet these coincided with pinup photographs that emphasized their subjects’ breasts (Jill Fields, An Intimate Affair: Women, Lingerie and Sexuality, 2007, p. 106). As explained in Part 3 of this series, this ultimately led to the fashion for large and uplifted breasts that remains to this day.

…then it is very easy and natural — indeed, this is my very strong impression from the books discussed here, although exact page references are suddenly proving maddeningly elusive(!) — to argue that this alternate ideal was imposed by, for want of a better word, the patriarchy, to encourage women to enter the workforce yet at the same time remind them that their place there was unnatural and temporary. And, to be clear, not for a moment am I arguing that this wasn’t very much the case (source, right).

However, as Hartmann explains on p. 198 below (echoed by the other sources), it’s also true that women themselves were just as passionate about preserving their femininity (indeed, they would understandably revel in impractical but much more feminine fashions once war rationing ended):

Hartmann, The Home Front, p.198In particular, and especially in light of the new opportunities open to them as mentioned, I think it’s both overly dogmatic and patronizing to dismiss choosing to use those feminine adornments as mere false consciousness and women’s own mindless incorporation of patriarchal values. Also, although it’s true that the period was rife with pop psychology theories (it was conveniently claimed that women like boring, monotonous work much more than men for instance) it’s very unlikely that men and women rationalized and articulated their choices and concerns in such patriarchal terms. Even if those did operate on a subconscious level, and patriarchy is still the only thread which can bring otherwise disparate developments in the period together, surely men did not think, for example, that if they saw more big-breasted women in popular culture, emphasizing the differences between the sexes as increased use of lipstick did in the workplace, that this would make them feel more secure in their jobs.

In addition, while changes in attitudes were certainly quick, they didn’t happen overnight, Jill Fields (p. 106) noting that “uplift” and “separation” trends in bras for instance, which accentuated the projection of the breast silhouette, had actually already started back in the 1930s. Finally, if you’re confused like I am, because I just noted above that bras actually became more practical during wartime, and am now stating that women could simultaneously be censured and praised for wearing distracting clothes, that’s because contradictory and competing trends coexisted simultaneously, the 1940s being just as messy, complicated, and contradictory as modern life.

Busty Girl Comics Double StandardAnd on that note, thank you very much for bearing with me in this admittedly equally messy, complicated, and contradictory post, the result of me personally trying to understand what patriarchy means in practice as well as theory. And, with the proviso that my relief — and frankly joy — at discovering historic parallels (and especially English-language historiography!) to modern North and South Korean developments should make me wary of projecting too much, and not blind me to the significant differences, I’m very happy to have pointers towards further study, and very much welcome readers’ own suggestions! (source, right)

Related Posts:

Update: See Fit, Feminist, and (almost) Fifty for “the medical condemnations of women’s cycling [which are] fascinating for what they tell us about what people thought (and maybe still think?) about women’s athletic capabilities and potential.”

Update 2: “Saudi daily al-Yawm cited an unnamed official as saying women can now ride bikes in parks and recreational areas. According to the official, the ruling stipulated that women must wear a full-body abaya, be accompanied by a male relative, and stay within certain areas. They are allowed to bike for recreational purposes only, not as a primary mode of transportation.” (Aljazeera)

6 thoughts on “Revealing the Korean Body Politic, Part 4: Girls are different from boys

  1. Its a pity in North America and throughout the world people did not focus on keeping the woods,forests,streams,lakes,oceans,etc. clean instead dumping useless heaps of messes of pollution that dont belong there as well as destroying needlessly other peoples woods without asking them first. Im sorry we should not have made complimenting your breasts a “crime”.

  2. Pingback: final fashion » click click – 02-06-13

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