“Sexy Concepts with James Turnbull”

Lee Hyori Bad Girls SBS Inkigayo 인기가요 25 May 2013(Source)

Ahem. But really, they’re just a very small part of my July interview with Colin Marshall for the Notebook on Cities and Culture podcast, where we also discuss:

…what Westerners find so unappealing about Korean plastic surgery; the associations of the “double eyelids” so often surgically created; why he used to believe that Koreans “want to look white”; the meaning of such mystifying terms as “V-line,” “S-line,” and “small face”; the uncommon seriousness about the Western-invented concept of the “thigh gap”; how corn tea became publicly associated with the shape of the drinker’s jaw; Korea’s status as the only OECD country with young women getting thinner, not fatter; Korean advertising culture and the extent of its involvement with the “minefield” of Korean irony; the prominence of celebrities in Korean ads, and why the advertisers don’t like it; how long it takes to get tired of the pop industry’s increasingly provocative “sexy concepts”; the result of Korea’s lack of Western-style reality television; how making-of documentaries about 15-second commercials make the viewers feel closer to the celebrities acting in them; why he doesn’t want his daughters internalizing the Korean sense of hierarchy; why an expat hates Korea one day and loves it the next; how much homework his daughters do versus how much homework he did; the true role of private academies in Korea, and what he learned when he taught at one himself; the issues with English education in Korea and the oft-heard calls for its reform; the parallels between English test scores and cosmetic surgery procedures; the incomprehension that greets students of the Korean language introduced to the concept of “pretending to be pretty”; and how to describe the way Korean superficiality differs from the Western variety.

Apologies in advance for not being much more succinct when I spoke (I’m, well…er..uhm…working on that), and by all means please feel free to ask me to clarify or elaborate on any of those topics.

Also note that Colin has interviewed over 30(?) other expats and Koreans, men and women, and Korea and overseas-based speakers for the Korean component of his series, all most of whom are much more articulate and entertaining than myself, so I strongly encourage you to browse his site. I myself was blown away by Brian Myers’ interview yesterday, which was full of insights and observations that all long-term expats will be able to relate to (and will be very useful listening for those thinking they may become one), and Bernio Cho’s is essential if you want to understand the Korean music industry better. And those are just the two I’ve listened to so far!

A Weighty Matter: Deconstructing the Korean Media’s Messages about Body Image, Cosmetic Surgery, and Obesity

Korean Drama Screenshot(Source)

I was quoted in the Korea Times today, on “Korean primetime’s ‘lookism’ problem”. Due to my sloppy wording though, the fact that I was actually paraphrasing someone else(!) got lost in the final article. So, to give credit where credit’s due, and to use the opportunity to provide some helpful links to further reading, here’s my original email quote:

As researcher Sarah Grogan pointed out in Body Image: Understanding Body Dissatisfaction in Men, Women and Children (2007), watching more television doesn’t necessarily lead to greater dissatisfaction with one’s body—it’s the messages it gives that are what’s important. So, whether it’s a variety program, a music video, an advertisement, or whatever, if what you’re watching stresses being thin, if it encourages viewers to compares themselves with the ideal men and women presented, and/or if it makes you feel like there’s such a huge gap between your own body and theirs, then you’re just going be left feeling ugly. Television everywhere is guilty of that. Korean television though, really stands out with the sheer amount of programming time devoted to appearance and dieting, with its uncritical narratives that cosmetic surgery is a safe and reliable means to financial and romantic success, and with the seeming unconcern with, even positive encouragement of passing those messages on to children. Call that a gross generalization if you wish, but consider this: although Korean children (of both sexes) are only about average weight compared to other OECD countries, Korea is the only country where 20-39 year-old women are getting thinner. Is it really so strange to suppose that the Korean media might have had something to do with that? So unreasonable to suggest that it could sometimes present more realistic images of women?

To be precise, it’s the 2nd half of the 2nd sentence (from “if what you’re watching” to “feeling ugly”) where I’m paraphrasing Sarah Grogan again (p. 112). But, without my making that clear, then it’s no wonder that reporter Kim Bo-eun didn’t realize, and so didn’t mention Grogran. My fault sorry, and, not just because I’m feeling guilty at the *cough* inadvertent plagiarism, naturally I highly recommend Grogans’ book, although frankly I’d wait to see if a third edition is coming out before you consider purchasing it yourself.

Most the of the subsequent links are self-explanatory, so I’ll just highlight a couple. First, the one to Joanna Elfving-Hwang’s “Cosmetic Surgery and Embodying the Moral Self in South Korean Popular Makeover Culture” at the Asia-Pacific Journal, because it’s a must-read. At best, I can only supplement it myself with this recent translation of mine (with links to many more articles) on how scarily unregulated—and genuinely dangerous—the Korean cosmetic surgery industry is, with a Chinese patient dying just last week.

Next, my latest article for Busan Haps, where I debunk recent alarmist reports about—yes, really—a ‘Korean Obesity Epidemic’, especially among children. To quickly sum up my findings for you here, despite the definite improvements that can be made to Korean children’s health, they are actually only about average weight for the OECD (which I suppose is news for Korea), and Korean adults are still the 5th thinnest overall. Like with smoking however, it is both misguided and unhelpful to think in terms of overall rates rather than specific demographics, two extreme cases in point being young, urban women who are getting more underweight, and elderly, rural, poor women who do indeed tend to be (slightly) more obese than ‘average’. World-Changing Quiz ShowSomething to consider the next time a columnist or show host lectures Korean women on eating less—which will probably be as soon as next week, in the run-up to Seolnal on the 18th (source, right: Entermedia).

Finally, another clarification. By “Korean television…really [standing] out with the sheer amount of programming time devoted to appearance and dieting”, I don’t mean shows explicitly devoted to those subjects as such (although I’m sure that, comparatively speaking, their numbers would still be quite high). Rather, it’s that those subjects pervade Korean programming content, with hosts on Korea’s disproportionately high number of variety and guest shows, for example, frequently commenting on especially female guests’ appearances, either by jokingly fat-shaming those that don’t fit the ideal, or by prompting ‘impromptu’ skits, dance performances, or testimonials about dieting and miracle fat-reduction products by those that do, to the extent that such body-policing becomes an integral component of the entertainment (Kim Bo-eun also mentions some examples in Korean comedy shows).

This is just my strong impression though, which I admit I can’t offer any content analysis to back-up, and which I doubt even exists anyway (would anyone like to do some with me?). If any readers have a different impression of Korean television then, and feel that I’m mistaken, by all means please tell me why!

Operation Beautiful: An Interview with Korean Body Image Activist Min-ji Kim

Minji Kim Busan HapsRemember this immensely popular guest post from last year? Click on the image for my interview of its hardworking and inspiring author, body-image activist Min-ji Kim. Frankly, it’s well overdue!

Quick Hit: Consent is STILL Sexy

Consent(Source: Heal Yourself, Skeletor)

I’m just sick of Bora’s boobs.

Okay…no, not really. They’re just a constant reminder of the curse of blogging about sexuality and popular culture. Thanks to them, “Consent is Sexy: SISTAR, slut-shaming, and sexual objectification in the Korean idol system” is literally my most viewed post—but also, per view, probably one of the least actually read.

You’d never think it took a month to research and write, and that I consider it one of my proudest blogging achievements.

Ironically for the frustration that causes now though, it too was born out of the frustration of two weeks of watching interviews of SISTAR members, naively hoping that they would reveal something about the extent to which they consented to—indeed, hopefully played an active role in choosing—the sexualized costumes, choreography, and so on provided by their management company. Instead, I was left with nothing more substantial than learning their favorite flavors of ice-creams, and a firm resolve never to watch any more of the crap that counts as most K-pop entertainment.

But finally, nearly a year later, I’ve just learned of two interviews where girl-group members were able to talk about their jobs like actual human beings.

The first, on the new show The Spokespeople (대변인들), where Rainbow’s Jisook, Stellar’s Gayoung, and Dal Shabet’s Subin, from roughly 8:00 to 26:00 (it’s—grr—unavailable in Korea; click here to overcome that) discussed their recent ‘sexy concepts.’ It’s a still a little frustrating in places, the MCs being “spokespeople” for the “weaker people who can’t speak out” apparently meaning that guests should shut up while the MCs speak for them instead, with poor Subin barely getting a chance to speak at all. But when they did, all three sounded quite genuine:

Next, as Asian Junkie put it:

Ex-TAHITI member Sarah Wolfgang (Hanhee) did an AMA on Reddit recently, where she answered questions on everything from a group member smelling like shit to eating disorders.

And you can read a breakdown of the interview there, including those eating disorders, her complete lack of input into her image, and the debts members are sometimes left with.

Finally, it’s not a recent interview, but The Learned Fangirl just did a review of Nine Muses of Star Empire (2012), which I also covered in last year’s post. While that documovie may sound dated by K-pop standards, it easily remains the most revealing look inside the industry, and I completely agree with the authors’ conclusion:

Interestingly, Billboard‘s Jeff Benjamin had a very different take than us on the documentary, calling it a film that would cause “k-pop haters [to] completely shift their paradigm.” We doubt that — instead it will make a manufactured music form seem manufactured. It’s a warts-and-all look behind the curtain of music industry, and is an unsentimental look at what it takes to create pop star fantasy.

Thoughts?

Related Posts:

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.)

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 :)

Korean Sociological Image #80: Fashion’s Complete Body!

Sometimes, I wonder if I exaggerate Korea’s alphabetization craze. Then I come across advertisements like this one:

Korean Body LinesThe advertisement on the left reads:

Tight chestline, Sleek braline; Slender waistline, No-cellulite bellyline; and Attractive y-line, Smooth legline. Fashion’s Complete Body! Summer Event. 10% Event Discount.

I couldn’t have put it better myself.

Please see here and here if this is the first you’ve heard of “alphabetization” though, with the latter link focusing on Western historical parallels and the Y-line specifically. Alternatively, see here for more on the physically impossible X-line!

(For more posts in the Korean Sociological Image series, see here)