Corée du Sud La quête du galbe

Corée du Sud La quête du galbe Eva John(Source)

For French speakers, a Libération article about body image and cosmetic surgery in Korea that I was interviewed for recently. Many thanks to Nouvelles d’Asie ‏for and A G on Twitter for passing it on, and for the above photo.

Unfortunately, it’s one Euro for a month’s access. But you can’t ask for much cheaper than that!

Update: The article is freely available now.

Media and Body Image Workshop, Bar Carmen, Seoul, Sunday 30th, 5-8pm

(Sources: left, center, right)

Yes, it’s back on, and I promise that none of my relatives will be in hospital this time!

Once again, please see Disruptive Voices’ Facebook Event page for more details and RSVPs, or if you’re not on Facebook then please feel free to ask any questions in the comments here, and/or to just turn up to Bar Carmen in Itaewon on the day. (Note that it’s not on the main drag though, but on the other side of the hill: see here or here for maps.)

Those Damned Double Eyelids…

How can a society still have Caucasian beauty ideals if its members explicitly don’t want to look White?
Park Bom 2NE1 Can't Nobody Screenshot(Source)

Ubiquitous skin-whitening ads. Cosmetic surgery clinics with only Caucasians on their websites. Until a few years ago, almost never seeing a Korean lingerie model.

With parents, hagwan-owners, and recruiters demanding only Caucasian English teachers too, you can hardly be blamed for assuming that the corollary of White privilege is Caucasian beauty ideals. Add the large numbers of Korean women who get surgery for double-eyelids or more prominent nose-bridges, features widely perceived as much more common among Caucasians than Koreans, then who hasn’t once thought that Korean women go under the knife because they want to look White?

Of course, actually talk to Korean cosmetic surgery patients, and most take great offense to that notion. And they would surely know their own motivations—much better than any outsiders or newbies to Korea, who may not realize what intellectual baggage and racial stereotypes they’re bringing with them. Also, light skins have been associated with non-farming elites for millennia; Caucasians may be used on cosmetic surgery websites more in an Occidentalist sense to signify class and lifestyle than specific body features (limited stock photography options may also be a factor); and Caucasians were really only used in lingerie modelling because moonlighting pornography actors tainted it for Korean models. Even double-eyelids may not be as Caucasian as thought, as it is commonly claimed that possibly as many as 50% of Koreans have them (although in my experience, little to no evidence is ever provided for any figure—even by academics).

Korean Cosmetic Surgery Clinic Website(Source)

That said, I think commentators can sometimes come across as a little smug and superior as they point out the mistakes of “expats-turned-anthropologists“; after all, they’re just strangers in a strange land, trying to make sense of the place. What’s more, they don’t form their opinions in a vacuum, they’re not all simply racist, and I hardly countered all their observations with that last paragraph. So it would be incredibly myopic and defensive to just dismiss them, and/or to pretend that current Korean beauty ideals haven’t been at all influenced by the “the very real presence of white people” in Korea in the last 60 years.

In short, Korean beauty ideals are complicated. And sure: perhaps by all those “expats”, I’m really just talking about myself (that’s complicated too). Either way, over the years I’ve been reading about body image in Korea, I’ve often been taken aback by the number of academics who didn’t acknowledge how convoluted the subject is. Some just seemed to take Caucasian body ideals as a given. Why? Were they just being lazy? Were they simply parroting the narratives about Korean cosmetic surgery that dominate the English-language media? Hadn’t they ever—damnit—actually talked to Koreans, who would have vehemently denied wanting to look White?

Reshaping the Female Body, Body Image(Sources: Left, right)

Apologies though, for not taking note of who said what at the time, but I’m not here to attack some convenient strawmen. Instead, I want to pass on an alternative explanation that I’ve just come across:

  • First, that because different body features, types, and weights have different positive or negative associations (e.g., fat people are lazy), however unfairly and irrationally (jumping ahead, flat noses and eyelids without a crease have negative connotations in the US).
  • Next, that because these associations are legitimated—indeed, perpetuated—by the seeming scientific rationality and objectivity of cosmetic surgeons
  • That consequently, Korean cosmetic surgery patients tend to choose from a limited number of (positively-associated) procedures that tend to make them look more Caucasian (or, more accurately, a heavily Caucasian-influenced, Westernized, increasingly global ideal) than Asian, rather than the other way round (with the proviso that “Caucasian” and “Asian” are largely social constructs).

In other words, they can still retain Caucasian beauty ideals despite not wanting to look Caucasian personally.

Caveats abound. One of the most obvious of which is that it sounds like I’m saying any empowerment patients feel—and most do feel empowered—is really a sense of false consciousness, their choice of positively-associated procedures really being heavily circumscribed by society, their surgeons, and themselves. I’m very wary of any notion of consumers as dupes though, so I was glad to stumble across the work of Kathy Davis for an opposing viewpoint, as described in Body Image: Understanding body dissatisfaction in men, women, and children by Sarah Grogan (2nd ed., 2007). Yet she too acknowledges empowerment still occurs within the context of culturally-limited options (page 70, my emphases):

The question of why women are willing to undergo unnecessary surgery to make their bodies conform more closely to accepted norms may help us to understand the nature of body dissatisfaction in women. Kathy Davis (1995) in Reshaping the Female Body: The Dilemma of Cosmetic Surgery looks at cosmetic surgery from a broadly feminist viewpoint. She argues that understanding why women engage in a practice which is painful and dangerous must take women’s explanations as a starting point. She attempts to explore cosmetic surgery as one of the most negative aspects of Western beauty culture without seeing the women who opt for the “surgical fix” as what she calls “cultural dopes”(i.e., by taking seriously their reasons for having cosmetic surgery).

Page 71:

Women she interviewed [in the Netherlands] reported that they experienced the decision to have cosmetic surgery as a way of taking control of their lives, and that cosmetic surgery was something that they had decided upon for themselves, rather than under pressure from partners or knife-happy surgeons. They were clear that they had made informed choices, based The Politics of Women's Bodieson weighing up the risks and possible benefits of surgery. Davis takes the position that cosmetic surgery may be an informed choice, but it is always made in the context of culturally limited options. She argues fiercely against the idea expressed by many authors, including Kathryn Morgan (1991), that women who opt for cosmetic surgery are victims of male lovers, husbands, or surgeons. She also disagrees that women who opt for cosmetic surgery are the dupes of ideologies that confuse and mystify with the rhetoric of individual choice.

Davis (1995) sees women as active and knowledgeable agents who make decisions based on a limited range of available options. She argues that women see through the conditions of oppression even as they comply with them. The women she interviewed reported that they had made free choices, although these “choices” were limited by cultural definitions of beauty and by the availability of particular surgical techniques. The “choices” need to be placed within a framework that sees women’s bodies as commodities.

But the journal article which inspired this post is “Medicalization of Racial Features: Asian-American Women and Cosmetic Surgery“, Medical Anthropology Quarterly 7(1), pp. 74-89, March 1993 by Eugenia Kaw, which I read on pages 167-183 of The Politics of Women’s Bodies: Sexuality, Appearance, and Behavior, ed.by Rose Weitz (1st edition, 1998; source, above-right). Originally, I intended to summarize it for you here, but since i started writing I found a PDF of the article, so frankly I see no need—interested readers can download it and read it for themselves. Instead, let me provide some copy and pastes here to give the gist for any much-too-busy-but-still-quite-interested readers.

First, from page 79, on the negative associations of “Asian” features:

Eugenia Kaw 1From page 81 on the how the medical industry legitimizes and perpetuates those negative associations:

Eugenia Kaw 2Finally, from pages 85-86, on the clear patterns that emerge despite patients making “truly individual choices” (alas, Kaw too is guilty of casually throwing in that 50% figure!):

Eugenia Kaw 3Again, caveats abound. Not only is Kaw’s article quite dated, but there are dangers in extrapolating studies based on Bay Area surgeons and patients to Koreans (to be clear, Kaw herself never does so). As Ruth Holliday and Jo Elfving Hwang explain in “Gender, Globalization and Aesthetic Surgery in South Korea”, Body & Society, June 2012 18: 58-81 (page 7 at this downloadable link):

In researching cosmetic surgery in Korea, a further problem of ‘ethnic’ cosmetic surgery studies which focus on Asian-Americans is that their results have been generalized to apply to ‘countries of origin’; that is, Koreans in Korea. Accordingly, what are seen as ‘whitening’ practices in the West are also presented as ‘Westernizing’ practices in the East without much consideration of localized discourses that intersect with more globalized practices of cosmetic surgery. Explanation of Korean cosmetic surgery only in terms of Westernization seems unlikely given Korea’s strong sense of nationalism, as well as its national relationship with other regional powers, for example, Japan.

Indeed, their article is a real eye-opener in its own right (no pun intended!), and made me realize how Korean cosmetic surgery is even more complicated than I imagined, and how much more I have to learn. For example, from page 13 (source, below-right):

Blepharoplasty [eyelid surgery] in particular has often been explained in terms of ‘Westernization’. However, it is worth remembering that whilst many Koreans already have a double eyelid, many Westerners undergo blepharoplasties too. Wider eyes signal youth, energy and alertness. Korean women have used temporary eyelid tapes and glues for decades, most usually justified as easing the application of make-up. Eye surgery is seen as a more convenient permanent fix (the surgery takes ten to twenty minutes depending on technique) which saves time and allows greater participation in sports and swimming, for example. Blepharoplasties (like breast augmentations) Korean Eyeappear to have originated in Japan (the first performed by a surgeon named Mikamo in 1896) and were originally used to treat children born with one single and one double eyelid (Miller, 2006). East Asians tend to have more adipose fat in the eyelid than Caucasians and importantly men and women who have too much fat removed are seen negatively as artificially western. Wider eyes may be desirable, but they must be wider Korean eyes, not Western ones. The most important aim of cosmetic surgery is to create a natural look that ‘enhances’ the body without losing the ‘Koreanness’ of the subject who undergoes surgery.

Like most epiphanies then, this is really a starting point for me rather than the final word, and I realize it may already be familiar to the many readers who’ve done more research into cosmetic surgery than myself (thank you for indulging me!). Nevertheless, I do think that the Korean public and cosmetic surgeons and patients will share many of the same associations as their Bay Area counterparts. And, even if I’m mistaken about that, investigating public associations of and (especially) medical discourses surrounding certain body features promises to be a fruitful new line of investigation for understanding body image in Korea. I’d be very interested and grateful to hear your thoughts on that, and your own observations.

Update: It wasn’t really relevant to the making of this post, but Joanna Elfving-Hwang’s “Cosmetic Surgery and Embodying the Moral Self in South Korean Popular Makeover Culture” in The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 11, Issue 24, No. 2, June 17, 2013, focusing on the Korean show Let Me In, would be an excellent starting point for more on those medical discourses.

Update 2: I’ve been blogging for so long, sometimes I forget what’s already been posted! Please see here for one of my most-heavily commented posts, in which a reader discusses how those negative associations of monolids came about.

Media and Body Image Workshop, Bar Carmen, Seoul, Sunday 23rd, 5-8pm

Pear Banana Body Shape(Sources: left; right, “Bunch” by Amanda S. Lanzone)

And I’ll be the guest speaker! Please see Disruptive Voices’ Facebook Event page for more details and RSVPs, or if you’re not on Facebook then please feel free to ask any questions in the comments here, and/or to just turn up to Bar Carmen in Itaewon on the day. (Note that it’s not on the main drag though, but on the other side of the hill: see here or here for maps.)

Blogging-wise, unfortunately the timing is terrible sorry: my father-in-law is having a major operation in Seoul in a few days, and my wife will be attending to him, leaving me to look after our children until the night before the workshop. A demanding enough job even when we’re both here, that means that all my spare time will be spent on preparing my presentation (yes, they really do take that long!). So, apologies to readers, and I’ll get back to writing here as soon as I can.

Update, Saturday 22nd: PRESENTATION HAS BEEN CANCELLED — I’m not used to this sort of thing sorry, so I’ll just say it: I’m afraid my father-in-law’s condition has rapidly deteriorated, and there’s a possibility he may not make the night. I’ll keep you posted, but of course I can no longer give the presentation. Sorry everybody, and thanks for understanding.

Update, Sunday 23rd: To clarify sorry, the workshop itself is still going ahead.

My father-in-law is still in critical condition.

Update, Thursday 27th: There were some very scary moments, but I’m happy to say that father-in-law recovered earlier in the week, and is due to be discharged today :)

What? She’s NOT Pregnant??!

Seeing Through Clothes and Arnolfini Portrait(Sources: left, personal scan; right)

Sorry for the slow posting everyone, admittedly somewhat ironic during the semester break. I’ve just been busy with a lot of offline work recently, and unfortunately for you readers it’s still ongoing.

Also, I’ve been fulfilling a New Years’ resolution to spend much more time in the bedroom with my wife. As in, I’ll turn off my computer at 10pm and lie in bed reading books, while she calls English teachers from her desk alongside me (she’s a recruiter). Now four weeks into 2014, she only occasionally tells me to fuck off back to my study and make more money from writing, so all is good.

One of those books is Seeing Through Clothes by Anne Hollander (1980 ed.), picked up in Nampo Book Alley. Bursting with revelations for — ahem — complete beginners to art-history, I was especially surprised to learn that the woman in Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait above-right isn’t pregnant, despite the strong impression of that I’ve had for a good quarter-century or so. So, with apologies for not reading something more Korea-related on this occasion, please allow me to pass on what I’ve learned, starting with pages 109-110 (my emphasis):

Because of the desirable quality of a big female stomach for so many centuries [James -- The shift in emphasis to the bosom would come in the late-seventeenth century], pregnancy was not represented in art by showing a distended belly, even in genre scenes. If an unmistakable indication of pregnancy were intended, it seems to have been customary to show an otherwise unwarranted disarrangement of clothing: stays unlaced a little from the bottom for example, or corsets left off entirely and extra loose folds of smock noticeable in front….The swelling abdomen was too conventional a female attribute to be useful for specific references to pregnancy. Giovanna Arnolfini, in Van Eyck’s famous double portrait, often thought to be pregnant, is in fact demonstrating how a young bride’s fashionable slim soldiers and chest might be set off by an equally chic abdominal swell, exaggerated on purpose to display the fur-lined green excesses of her gown. Her own desirability and her husband’s riches both show; a well-known mode of bourgeois female self-presentation.

In this particular style of dress, a woman’s belly provided the central accent point of her costume. It was the place where the balance was struck between elaborate headdresses and dragging skirt — or, for virgins, DresdenTriptych rightbetween a dragging skirt and a long mane of hair [James -- Compare the right panel of the Dresden Triptych, by the same painter; source]. The domelike belly was not only erotically pleasing but elegant; it connoted elegance rather than fruitfulness. In the nude art that corresponds to this kind of fashion, it would also have done so.

More on those last points in a moment. First, given the common false conception (no pun intended) of a pregnant wife, again I was surprised that greater attention wasn’t given to that in the voluminous Wikipedia entry on the painting:

Although many viewers assume the wife to be pregnant, this is not believed to be so. Art historians point to numerous paintings of female virgin saints similarly dressed, and believe that this look was fashionable for women’s dresses at the time.[32] Fashion would have been important to Arnolfini, especially since he was a cloth merchant. The more cloth a person wore, the more wealthy he or she was assumed to be. Another indication that the woman is not pregnant is that Giovanna Cenami (the identification of the woman according to most earlier scholars) died childless,[33] as did Costanza Trenta (a possible identification according to recent archival evidence);[16] whether a hypothetical unsuccessful pregnancy would have been left recorded in a portrait is questionable. As mentioned above, some viewers have argued that the woman in the portrait is already pregnant, thus the protruding belly. Harbison, however, maintains her gesture is merely an indication of the extreme desire of the couple shown for fertility and progeny.[34]

Note 32 leads to Chapter 4, pp.105-6 of The Arnolfini Betrothal: Medieval marriage and the enigma of Van Eyck’s double portrait, by Edwin Hall (1994):

The comparative approach I advocate for elucidating the meaning of the London panel is readily exemplified with reference to the female figure’s supposedly pregnant state. Documented as early as the Spanish royal inventory of 1700, this mistaken inference continues to be drawn by modern viewers seeing the picture for the first time. But among those familiar with Franco-Flemish works of the fifteenth century a consensus has developed that this is not the case, for virgin saints, who obviously cannot be pregnant, also appear gravid in many contemporary representations. The woman in the London panel has thus often been compared with the Saint Catherine in the right wing of Van Eyck’s Dresden Triptych, who is similarly portrayed (Fig. 48), as is the bride in the marriage vignette of Rogier’s Seven Sacraments Altarpiece (see Fig. 21) as well as the Virgin and one of her attendants in Israhel van Meckenem’s Marriage of the Virgin (see Fig. 50). And a protruding belly is seen in many female nudes, including again virgin saints, as in a depiction of the martyrdom of Saint Catherine in the Belles Heures (Fig. 49).[25] Whether or not this feature is explained by fifteenth-century perceptions of idealized feminine beauty, these images clearly reflect some contemporary Flemish convention whose precise meaning is no longer readily apparent.

Dressed Maja vs. Nude Maja(Source)

Another revelation from Hollander is that nudes tend to be posed and/or presented as if they were still wearing the fashions of their era, which incorporated sexual standards and symbolism which may no longer apply today (e.g., those “erotically pleasing domelike bellies”). One consequence is that we “may even mistake an erotically intended image [of the past] for an idealized one — if it lacks the shapes, proportions, and details we are accustomed to responding to in contemporary life” (p. 88; this is given as an example). Another is the gravity-defying breasts of the Nude Maja on the cover I scanned; ironically, again something I’m only noticing for the first time (my emphasis; p. 91):

One of the most telling features on the nude maja’s body is that it seems to show the effect of corseting without the corset — which, on the other hand, is very definitely present in the dressed version. The high, widely separated breasts and rigid spine of the recumbent nude lady are as erotic as her pubic hair fuzz or sexy smile. Her breasts indeed defy the law of gravity; and her legs, accustomed to appearing through the lightweight and rather narrow skirts of the day Visualizing Beauty Gender and Ideology in Modern East Asia[James -- It was painted circa 1797-1800], are self-consciously disposed for effect, like those of a twentieth-century woman. It is the emphatic effect of her absent modish costume that makes her a deliberately sexual image.

And on that note, thank you for the indulgence of any art-history majors still reading, and I’d really appreciate any suggestions for further, much more recent reading on the links between historical and contemporary ideals of body image — or rather, the representations in popular-culture thereof (Ways of Seeing by John Berger {1972} is good of course, but frankly I found the final chapter on that to be its weakest, and of course it’s also old). Naturally, anything on Korea in particular, and for one I’d be interested in hearing if Visualizing Beauty: Gender and Ideology in Modern East Asia edited by Aida Yuen Wong (2012; source) is worth buying for instance, which I’ve been wavering about because it only has two chapters on Korea. Or are there any other possibilities, in Korean (but not this one!) or in English? Thanks!

Disruptive Womyn: Media and Body Image — Presentation in Itaewon this Sunday

Disruptive Women Media and Body Image(Source)

Minji Kim, founder of the 몸매불문 나되기 / Real Beauty Doesn’t Hurt project, and whom many of you will remember from this post, is giving a presentation at Bar Carmen in Itaewon this Sunday. As explained at the Facebook event page:

Media has had a massive impact on ourselves and how we view and value ourselves. Even when we try to turn a blind eye or are fully aware of the internal system of “media” and all that it entails, the effects and subliminal messages are deeply massaged into our minds.

We live in a world that sends us all sorts of messages about the ‘perfect’ body. We are constantly receiving image related messages from different mediums, both within the media and our surrounding environments, indicating what society views as ‘beautiful’.

Naturally, instead of embracing and celebrating diversity in all body types, we concentrate on a dangerous notion of physical perfection.

While the media provide a necessary and valuable community service to society, the other reality is that media is responsible at times for misleading as well as perpetrating these ‘perfect’ images which are often than not digitally enhanced (airbrushed) and manipulated before final production.

Real Beauty Doesn’t HurtLadies, let’s join together to discuss how media has or hasn’t impacted your self-worth. Let’s also discuss the relationship(s) we have with our bodies, our relationships with others, etc.

There will be tea available (for free) and wine and beer for purchase (source, right).

Hope to share in this conversation/discussion with all of you~

And in Korean:

우리는 외형적 “완벽함”을 요구하는 사회에서 살고 있습니다. 미디어 외 여러 매체를 통해 우리 사회로부터 인정받는 전형적인 “미인”이 무엇인지, 나아가 여성으로서의 값어치를 외형으로 측정받는다는 메세지를 매일 일상 속에 끊임 없이 받고 있습니다.

이렇듯, 개개인이 가지고 있는 다양한 몸매를 존중하고 축복하지 못하고 우리는 미디어와 사회에서 제시하는 위험한 ‘완벽한 외모’를 쟁취하기 위해 힘을 쏟습니다.

미디어는 우리 사회에 여러 필요하고 가치있는 서비스 및 정보를 제공해주는 역할을 함과 동시에 포토샵 및 디지털 편집으로 왜곡된 “완벽한” 이미지들을 대중에게 강요하는 역할도 하고 있습니다.

여러분! 다른 여성들과 함께 <Media and Body Image> 에 대해 이야기 함께 나누면 좋겠습니다. 사회 속 미의 기준이 우리에게 어떻게 영향을 미쳤으며 미치고 있는지 나아가 우리의 미래를 위한 발걸음을 어떻게 나아갈 것인지 의논해봅시다.

See the link for further details, or alternatively the project’s blog or Facebook page (both in Korean).