Korean Sociological Image #93: Korea’s Dark Circles

Very busy with work and deadlines these days (sorry), I picked up these daily planner post-its to try to make more efficient use of my time:

Daily Planner(Source: ebay)

Korean Sleep Deprivation 1I don’t recommend them: at 8cm in diameter, they’re much too small to write in, whatever language you use. Much more interesting than my frustrations with my pudgy fingers though, is that example daily plan provided. It reads:

  • 11:30pm to 6am: Sleep
  • 7-9: Prepare for Conference
  • 9-12pm: Attend Conference
  • 12-1: Lunch
  • 1-3:30: Attend Exhibition
  • 3:30-6: Attend Hagwon (Institute)
  • 6-7:30: Skip 300 times
  • 7:30-9: Memorize English Vocabulary
  • 9-11:30: Watch Online Lectures

Did the copywriters consider that a typical worker’s daily plan? Or more as one the ambitious professional should aspire to, starting with the strategic investment of 1500 won for a pack of 30?

Either way, it’s an interesting example of how Korea’s study-hard, work-hard, sleep-when-you’re-dead norm gets manifested and perpetuated in daily life, and one that would probably be little changed for consumers in other (developed) East Asian countries. In contrast, US adults, for instance, may also get less than seven hours daily sleep in practice, but the eight-hours ideal is an enduring myth. And very, very few aren’t achieving that ideal due to attending hagwons.

Korean high school students sleepAnother manifestation of Koreans’ attitudes to sleep comes from a high school teacher friend of mine, who says a common saying students there goes something like “Four hours sleep, go to a SKY university; five hours sleep, you fail.” I was recently reminded of it by the second “dark circle” on the right, which you can read more about at the Hankyroreh.

In both cases, frankly I’m surprised that the sleeping time is so high

How about you?

Update: Some statistics, via The Korea Bizwire:

Toz, a business that rents meeting rooms, conducted a survey on 1,800 high school seniors who used their study center. Results showed that 31 percent of the respondents slept five to six hours a night, and 30 percent answered that they slept four to five hours.

In other words, six out of 10 high school seniors were only getting five hours of sleep every night. Those who slept more than seven hours represented only five percent of the respondents.

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

Guest Post: So JYP Wants to Know Who My Mama Is

For those of you who watched the music video of JYP’s latest hit, Who’s Your Mama, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.

The entire song is a tribute to big booties. When I first read the song title, I immediately remembered Will.i.Am’s song, I Got It From My Mama, which—surprise, surpriseis also a worship song for killer female bods.

Although the feminist in me wants to point out the fact that JYP’s entire song revolves around sexual harassment at the gym, that’s not what I’m going to talk about today.

But first, I need to quickly introduce myself. I’m a half-Korean hapa, who mostly identifies as a Korean. Although I was born in Seoul, the majority of my childhood was spent in Hong Kong because my parents decided to move there when I was 3. But thanks to my mother’s fear of me getting out of touch with my Korean roots, I spent almost every single vacation with my grandmother in Seoul.

Having grown up with in an interracial household, and in a cultural hub like Hong Kong, I considered myself to be pretty open-minded. Literally all of my Korean friends have often told me that my personality was “so American,” and I agreed with them (never mind the fact that I’ve never even lived in the States until I was 18).

But I was still very much tied to Korean culture whether I liked it or not. For example, up until high school, I was naturally skinny. And by skinny, I mean that I was basically skin and bones. But everyone in Korea always commented how my thigh gap was so nice, and how bony my arms were. A friend once casually commented on this by saying, “You have the ideal body—it’s like you have limb anorexia.”

Limb anorexia? Really?

But because the thin ideal is so prevalent in Korean society, I embraced it. I was so glad that I never gained any weight despite eating so much junk. However this “privilege” stopped in high school, when my metabolism completely slowed to a halt. I started gaining weight from my bad eating habits. Having been only used to wearing size 2 clothing, I cried the first time I wasn’t able to fit into my skinny jeans.

The funny thing is, I was never “fat.” It was the fact that I lost my thigh gap and “limb-anorexia look” that upset me. This led me to doing what any normal Korean female would do. I looked up dieting tips on Google and religiously researched any and every diet program I came across.

But this all changed when I chose to attend university in America.

Upon my arrival in the States, I realized that the standard for a “hot body” was much different. Sure, people thought thin people had nice figures, but for the most part—it was all about the curves. Fast forward to Sophomore year, I started feeling so much more comfortable in my own skin. I started weight training at the gym, which led me to discover the amazing sport of powerlifting. Watching my strength and endurance increase with each passing week allowed me to stay religiously devoted to my workout regimen. People started commenting on how “fit” I looked. The best part about weight training was that I could eat a lot more calories without worrying about looking fat. Hello restaurant deliveries.

After committing to a year of serious weight training, I went back to Korea to spend the summer. It was hilarious to hear my family and friends gasp and exclaim at how “big” I looked. My grandma said I looked obese. I tried to explain that it was muscle not fat—but she wasn’t convinced.

I thought I’d find more peace of mind at a gym, so I joined my neighborhood gym right away. It was a rather large chain, so their trainers were all “experienced.” On my first day at the gym, a few trainers came up to me and commented that I was lifting “too heavy.” I just brushed them off.

At least twice a week, some other gym-goer would come up to me to say that I was “lifting too heavy for a girl.” I didn’t care what anyone said. Their comments fueled my workouts. I loved that I was able to deadlift and squat more than most of the men at my gym.

I’d often have ahjussis or ajummas come up to me to say that I was really strong for a girl and that I should probably stop working out too much because I’d likely “hurt myself.”

My girl friends kept commenting on my “huge bicep” and “horse-like thighs” whenever we hung out. They weren’t trying to be mean—they just couldn’t understand why a skinny person wanted to get muscular.

I was in no way large. I finally reached a healthy BMI instead of being underweight. I was finally toned and healthy, and I was getting criticized for it. It’s funny to think that Koreans praise gool-bok-ji, or honey thighs (AKA healthy and toned thighs), but they’re only interested in seeing them on celebrities instead of normal people.

The standard of a fit body for Korea and the rest of the world is vastly different. Let’s refer back to the JYP video—the YouTube comment sections were all filled with non-Koreans exclaiming that none of the girls in the M/V were fit/curvy enough.

JYP Big BootyWhat do you think about these standards? Do you agree with my experience and observations? I’d love to hear your thoughts through the comment section below!

Anum Yoon hails from Korea, where she was raised on spam and eggs (with sesame oil and gochujang of course). She spent the last 4 years in America, tackling her cultural identity crisis, one awkward moment at a time. She’s currently blogging over at Current On Currency.

Update, James: Via Omona! They Didn’t, here’s a video showing model Eom Sang-mi’s reaction to her role in Jay Park’s Mommae MV, which is similarly objectifying. Alas, it’s not about JYP, as I misread when I first saw it, and it’s pretty laddish overall, but Sang-mi’s comments—e.g., “Why are they only showing my boobs?!”—are quite amusing and telling:

Related Posts:

The Skinny on the Thigh Gap

Mannequins with jeans(Source: Lion Hirth @Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0)

My latest article for Busan Haps, on (mostly) US teenage girls’ latest body image obsession, and why, to my great dismay, they themselves prove to be largely responsible for its success. Researching it taught me a lot about how people negotiate the messages about body image perpetuated by the media — read: never assume any groups are simply passive consumers — and how crucial it is to examine the role of social media to understand body image in 2015.

Also, I mention that, in December, the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority forced Urban Outfitters to remove a photo of a model with a thigh gap; since writing, France’s Parliament has also moved to make it a crime to use models below a certain BMI. I’m still not convinced that demonizing one body type (or part) is necessarily the answer though.

What do you think? Please let me know in the comments, either here or in the article.

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!

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)

Guest Post: Challenging Korea’s Body Image Paradigm

Korea Body Image(Source)

If you are a person living in Korea, you are likely to have had your weight or appearance commented on. “You have gained/lost weight!” is a customary greeting. Dieting is the most common topic for daily conversations. Ads promote unrealistic beauty standards for both women and men. Worse, if you don’t look like them, you are likely to be discriminated against or dismissed as some who needs to get some work done. Self-love is prohibited unless you look like a Barbie doll. There are voices and messages everywhere, both internally and externally, that arouse insecurity around your looks. Body-policing is a common practice.

Prospecs W Get Slim Kim Yuna GIFOverwhelmingly obsessed with thinness, I dare to call Korea an eating-disordered society. I know this because I have been struggling with eating disorders for 9 years, now marching on the road to recovery. Living here, staying on the recovery-track is extremely difficult because all the internal eating-disordered voices and negative self-talk, which I have worked so hard to detach myself from, become real external voices to attack my vulnerable psychological wounds. On the other hand, recovering from eating disorders in this country is double-strengthening my immunity to these eating-disordered voices. I am well-aware of how self-destructive and unproductive these voices are, and how I can protect myself from them.

But, what about those who haven’t been consoled? So many Korean people, especially women of all ages, believe there is no other way to be loved or socially recognized without dieting or getting plastic surgery. Men believe women should naturally look like the ready-made Barbie dolls in fashion magazines or entertainment shows when they are in fact extremely unrealistic. I guarantee there is not a single woman in this country who hasn’t felt insecure about her looks or body parts. Under such circumstances, women and men are likely to fall victims of eating disorders. Statistical data can’t speak for the reality because people are not even aware that these voices are ‘disordered’ voices. Obsession with thinness, extreme dieting, judging others by appearance and feeling insecure about their natural looks feel too ‘normal’ for people to acknowledge them as problems. Walking on the streets, I would hear fat talk or negative self-talk 99% of the time. These voices kill me, even more so to realize that there are so many souls who are suffering from from-mild-to-severe forms of eating disorders but are not even aware of it (Source above — unknown; source, below).

Men like thin pretty womenThe need for body image activism in Korea is dire, for the consequences of continuing the eating-disordered talks in public are obviously disastrous, both for individuals and the society. So, I have brought the Operation Beautiful campaign to Korea to counter the prevailing negative self-talks. I have been posting about it on my (Korean) blog Your Stage is the World, Not the Scale, along with my personal stories of overcoming struggles with distorted body image as well as critiques on dieting ads that make one feel insecure. I am working on compiling these stories to publish a book under the title, Surviving Eating Disorders Where Barbie Dolls Reign Supreme (but I think this will take decades). Currently, I am planning workshops for improving body image, to create safe space to talk about struggles with negative body image, to promote body diversity (healthy-at-every-size approach) and media literacy. I don’t want to force people to stop dieting and start loving themselves immediately. Instead, the most ultimate goal for all these activities is to give people agency over their own bodies and self-esteem, which will allow people to see what really matters and what is there to enjoy in life regardless of how they look.

The movement is only fresh. I am aware that social change doesn’t come easily or fast. However, I have a strong faith that by transforming ourselves, we can transform the society we live in. We individuals construct the society; we are not to be constructed by it. We are active agents. I want to tell my stories to you and listen to yours. I am collecting personal stories of struggles with negative body image or external pressure to conform to the unrealistic standards of beauty. Then, I want to open up off and online discussions on how we want to redefine beauty that suits us healthily. Hopefully, we can remind each other how beautiful our bodies are just the way they are; encourage each other to love our own bodies instead of fitting ourselves to someone else’s standards to get approval.

Please share your thoughts, stories, comments, anything you want to say about this movement. Thank you!


Talking Points: From Music Downloads to Sweaty Crotches

Feminist Media Criticism Problems(Source: Alyssa Korea)

Sorry for the lack of posts everyone. I’ve been absentmindedly researching many, not realizing that I hadn’t put pen to paper for a while. To remedy that, here’s some interesting links that add new information to previous posts of mine, but which didn’t really justify separate updates by themselves:

1. Will saving Korea’s music business end up killing it?

Korean Digital Music MarketIn an endnote to my recent “Why the Japanese Don’t Illegally Download Music. Much.” post, I wrote:

Like most articles praising the rapid rise of the Korean digital music market and the supposed success of Korean anti-piracy efforts, this article completely fails to mention how absurdly cheap Korean digital tracks are, as noted by Bernie Cho in the opening quote.

The next week, Yim Seung-hee at the Korea Joongang Daily wrote one of the most comprehensive articles on the Korean digital music market yet, noting a lot of resistance to government law changes aimed at raising prices. Here are just a few of the quick factoids to take away from it (source, right):

  • Music in Korea used to cost 73 won per download before the changes. That has now risen to 110 won, which is still less than one-tenth what iTunes costs.
  • Gangnam Style only earned 3.6 million won in online royalties in Korea, coming from 2.86 million downloads and 27.32 million streams, which works out to an average of about 10.7 won per download and 0.2 won per stream.
  • However, in the US, Psy received the equivalent of 2.8 billion won for 2.9 million downloads.
  • Meanwhile, one estimate says that the average indie musician earns just two-to-three-million won a year (about the same as most expat English teachers make per month).
  • Streaming accounts for 74 percent of online music spending in Korea (probably because of Korea’s ubiquitous broadband wifi), and downloads continue to fall. In contrast, in the rest of the world downloads dominate, making up 71 percent of the online market.

2. “Gaijin”

Leah of The Lobster Dance is featured in a (heavily-commented) Tofugu article about the usage of the word “gaijin,” which she has used in the past but now rejects. It begins:

Gaijin (外人, short for 外国人), or “foreigner” in Japanese, is a complicated word that means a lot of different things to a lot of different people.

Some people take the word lightly; when the Tofugu team was in Japan and a roller coaster we were riding unexpectedly malfunctioned, we joked that it was because the ride wasn’t designed to hold the weight of our giant gaijin bodies.

But for some people in Japan, “gaijin” can be a hurtful and alienating word. It can mean refusal of service at businesses, a barrier to entry for housing, or even threats of harassment or violence.

I thought that I’d reach out to some bloggers living in Japan to see what their thoughts on the word “gaijin” were. I got a lot of great, varied, and nuanced responses.

See “Korean Sociological Image #46: The Language of Exclusion” for a similar discussion surrounding the Korean term waegookin, or “foreigner,” with links to many other posts on the subject in the Korean blogosphere (as of 2010).

3. A Tasteless Ad, or Brilliant Marketing?

Johnny Walker is capitalizing on the 40th anniversary of Bruce Lee’s death by rendering him in CQI for a Blue Label commercial:

The ad features a startlingly lifelike computer-generated rendering of the revered martial-arts star, who died four decades ago. It has sparked ire among fans, who argue that Mr. Lee was a teetotaler and abstained from drinking alcohol for most of his life.

Critics see Mr. Lee’s personal stance as incongruous with an endorsement for a brand whose blended Scotches sell for more than $200 a bottle.

Johnnie Walker has defended the ad, saying it worked closely on it with Shannon Lee, Mr. Lee’s daughter.

Ms. Lee, meanwhile, told the Journal that while her father wasn’t a drinker, he didn’t think drinking was immoral. She also thought the video would be an “innovative way to get my father’s ideas out.”

See Scene Asia for the rest, or my “Raising the Dead: The Future of Advertising?” for a much better example featuring Audrey Hepburn, and many others in the comments (readers made me realize using dead celebrities in ads was surprisingly common). As for this example, I share The Ethical Adman’s criticisms that “there’s something really disturbing about dead celebrities being recreated to sell brands,” and that “it seems like the ultimate violation of a person’s integrity, at a time when they cannot even defend themselves.”

Most of all, I think it was incredibly hackneyed to use a teetotaler to sell alcohol, no matter how famous he was. And I just can’t believe how incredibly bad the CGI is, despite the accolades.

Lee Hyori Dazed and Confused August 2013(Source: Unknown)

4. Lee Hyori for “Dazed and Confused”: Appropriation or Appreciation?

See Audrey Magazine or Omona They Didn’t! for the details. Or, for a similar example by T-Ara last year, see “Thinking through Korean Appropriation of American Indians” at Sociological Images, which I made a big contribution to.

Meanwhile, I’m going to buy a copy to see if there was any rationale to that “vulgarity,” which I find rather charming myself…

5. Nine Goddesses are Hot for the Military

While writing my “Korean Sociological Image #72: Girl-group performances for the military” last summer, it proved surprisingly difficult to find actual embeddable videos of those. So, via Omona They Didn’t!, here are 3 with Nine Muses from earlier this year, who seem to be quite popular with the troops:

Pregnant Korean Bride6. Premarital pregnancy gets trendy

My 2008 post, Why Korean Girls Don’t Say No: Contraception Commercials, Condom Use, and Double Standards in South Korea, is still my most popular and most-commented, despite being based on 2003 data, and displaying what were then big, obvious gaps in my knowledge of Korean sexual mores. Hopefully I’ve filled most of those since, not least because one commenter pointed out that Koreans have always been quite tolerant of premarital pregnancies, so long as the couple planned to marry.

What’s more, according to the Korea Times, now they’re more common than ever. Some excerpts (source, above-right):

Celebrity couples such as actor Jang Dong-gun and his wife Ko So-young, and Kim Seung-woo and Kim Nam-joo, have admitted they walked down the aisle with the brides pregnant.

Actress Kim Bu-sun goes as far as to say she approves of premarital pregnancy.

“My premarital pregnancy was the best thing that ever happened to me,” Kim says. “If my daughter becomes pregnant, I will host a party in her honor.”

She believes people should embrace single mothers, whom she considers a minority in need of attention and care.

Nice to hear, considering the Ministry of Health and Welfare defined unwed mothers as “ignorant whores” as recently as 2010 (technically, it was “low levels of education [and] impulsive sexual drives”). Continuing:

But premarital pregnancy is now humdrum, even among people who are not stars.

In a survey that consultancy Duo Wed conducted between June 1 and June 14, one-third of 374 newlyweds questioned said the bride was pregnant when they married.

Of these couples, 92.1 percent said their babies were unexpected.

Read the link for the rest. Note  that this doesn’t mean Koreans are necessarily becoming more tolerant of cohabiting couples however (and who face a lack of suitable accommodation anyway), nor of pregnancies that don’t lead to marriage.

7. This Dude’s Response To Female Crotch Sweat Shame Is Perfect

See Bust for more. Fortunately, I haven’t seem any similar products advertised here yet, and perhaps that’s because there will never be a market for them, as Korean women generally don’t sweat as much as those of other races. This was discussed in my 2010 “Hot Sweaty Korean Women” post, about a rare Korean commercial that did feature a Korean woman sweating:

Please note I also made some overgeneralizations about Korean (women’s) exercise and gym culture in that post though, and would write it very differently today. But on the plus side, readers soon corrected my mistakes, and it (hopefully) remains useful for the journal study on Korean attitudes to dieting it references.

Also, for a related 2009 post on why Koreans generally don’t wear deodorant, its marketing, and the implications for Korea’s kkotminam (“pretty flower men”), which I recently updated and does still hold up today, please see “The Scent of a Man: What deodorant commercials tell us about Korean metrosexuality.”

Thoughts? On any of stories above?