Brains & Beauty: With Korean women achieving higher education, why do so many rely on the scalpel?

Hanbok Fashion Show(Source: Republic of Korea; CC BY-SA 2.0)

“I believe in equality and love the Free the Nipple movement. After four years in Korea, I am still intrigued by its thirst for modernity mixed with its fear of losing its cultural past, sometimes to the point of schizophrenia.”

And with that self-introduction, how could I not accept Manouchka Elefant’s proposed guest post?

As well as being a long-time reader, she’s also a Swiss recipient of the NIIED scholarship, and has just completed her Master’s in finance at Yonsei University (see here for her LinkedIn bio). She adds:

“Anyways, a few friends read my paper [for my Modern Korean Society & Culture class] and found it very interesting and suggested I publish it. Since your blog is my reference on the subject I thought I’d send it to you.”

Flattery will get readers everywhere. So, without any further ado, let me present her post:

Introduction

Women in Korea have come a long way since the beginning of the century. They have more freedom, greater access to education, and higher spending power thanks to their increasing participation in the workforce. This emancipation of women has been accompanied by a seemingly paradoxical phenomenon: the explosion of the beauty industry and in particular the normalization of plastic surgery procedures. Per capita, South Korea is the number one country for non-invasive and invasive plastic surgery performed and counts the highest number of plastic surgeons (Raitt 2014). The peninsula’s history and Confucian heritage has a tremendous impact on women’s growth in society as well as on contemporary beauty ideals. Today cosmetic surgery can be seen as the two sides of a same coin, it is both an appropriation of one’s body and conformation to society’s expectations of women in Korea.

Historical heritage

Analyzing womanhood in Korea requires us to understand the country’s Confucian heritage and its revolutions. Typically, the contemporary obsession for beauty in Korea is seen as “conformity to patriarchal version of femininity in order to maximize women’s chances of success in marriage and the economy” (Ruth Holliday 2012). However, in a relatively short period, the Confucian ideal has gone through a lot of transformations, notably in the 1930’s and after the Japanese occupation.

Confucian Ideal

Confucian scholars would be quite surprised to see that Korean people no longer appreciate women with beautiful moon faces. In their time, “virtuous femininity” meant that upper class women conformed to an exacting Confucian decorum (Ruth Holliday 2012). Whether a wife, mother, or daughter, a woman’s self was fully dependent on that of men. They were restricted to the domestic sphere, and their success was in their “ability to mimic a concealed and deferential ideal, defined by virginity or maternity” (Ruth Holliday 2012).  Chastity and modesty were highly valued and expected of women from a young age (Lee 2014). To some extent, Korean women are still expected to portray an image of innocence and modesty no matter their age.

Also inherited from the Choson dynasty is the concept of embodying one’s social class through one’s appearance, with the “practice of displaying social status through class-appropriate clothing and decorum, and the ways in which they are interpolated in neoliberal discourses of self-improvement and class mobility are evident in the ways in which cosmopolitan subjectivity is embodied through cosmetic surgery as a sign of a desired class, social or gendered identity” (Elfving-Hwang 2013), leading to one of the theories behind cosmetic surgery as a way to achieve social class identity, which seems to be only part of the phenomenon.

Modern Girl

The 1920-1930’s with its fun flapper girls in the West, dancing to jazz and smoking were in stark contrasts to the Confucian doctrine, yet this new “modern girl” had a strong impact on Korean women and their an seok-ju modern womanaspiration to emancipate themselves from constraining paternalism (appendix 1, source: Gusts of Popular Feeling; rather than in the original separate appendix, I’ve posted images and tables as they came up—James). The modern girl’s short hair was in direct clash with Confucian values and was seen by many as a sexual revolution (Chung 2012). However, the modern girl was associated to decadence, bourgeoisie, and conspicuous consumption.  “A woman drawing attention to her own sexuality – body and desire- was frowned upon in traditional Korea” and the modern girl came to symbolize more than women’s freedom, but also the “fracturing of class [poor versus bourgeois] and citizenship [Korean versus Japanese]” (Chung 2012).

Furthermore, the modern girl was not a mere imitation of Japanese or American influences, it went deeper than hair and clothes, “it mirrored the changing social consciousness, the collective identity of traditional womanhood as an aspect of modernity and modern conditions in colonial Korea” (Chung 2012).

Additionally, the modern girl “challenged the traditional gender roles and centuries of Confucian morality by accumulating products that enhanced female beauty and sexuality” (Chung 2012), which also meant that one was able to alter their appearance and other’s perception of them through consumption. We can wonder if it was a precursor to contemporary Korea’s constant availability of cosmetics and clothing shops.

However, in the context of occupied Korea, the modern girl was highly criticized for being influenced by the Japanese media and to some extent for supporting the colonial agenda. It was seen as another way in which Japan attempted to impose itself as a modernizer over Korea and that “the modern girl phenomenon evolved in the framework of this cultural and economic subordination of the era, which led to its conflicting popular reception” (Chung 2012). Paradoxically, people were attracted to this new image of femininity, spurring their “voyeuristic participation in mass culture, titillating the public while inviting condemnation at the same time” (Chung 2012). It can be similarly observed with today’s pop-culture idols, with the public simultaneously attracted by these sophisticated girl bands while criticizing their over-sexualized image.

Wise Mother Good Wife

At the other end of the spectrum is the ideal of wise mother good wife and although it also served to empower women, its motivations were quite distinct from the modern girl. This concept was at the complicated “intersections of patriarchy, colonialism, nationalism, and western modernity” under which women followed, fought back, or appropriated the predominant male dominated world (Choi 2009).

The wise mother good wife ideology was used by different groups, each with its agenda. Korean nationalists reinforced the role of mothers as educators of Korean children and as supporters for their husbands. Japan’s gender program used it both at home and in colonial Korea “with the aim of producing obedient imperial subjects and an efficient, submissive workforce” (Choi 2009), while protestant missionaries saw it as a way to spread their faith with a “pious mother and wife as a moral guide in the Christian family” (Choi 2009). All of this contributed to the education of women in Korea.

This ideology was deeply rooted in a patrilineal social structure, promoting chastity, marriage and motherhood. It was in direct clash with the modern girl, which was highly criticized for her vanity, her consumption, and her relatively open sexuality. Nevertheless, wise mother good wife also served as a platform to empower women, even if within a restricted domain. The women who “benefited from this education centered in domesticity paved the way to new domains for career women” (Choi 2009). Women were however, not educated for their own benefit and advancement as individual beings, but rather for what they brought to men and society, therefore not for their emancipation. Nonetheless, it set the path towards higher education and more freedom for Korean women.

Women’s Growth in Korean Society

Women’s Education

As we saw, there were several different movements promoting women’s education in Korea, from the protestant missionaries to the Japanese regime. However, some Confucian scholars, influenced by the West, also associated the advancement of women as a sign of a modernized society. They thought that “woman is the foundation of human society and the girder of the house and thus if she is weak or ignorant, she would not be able to fulfill her central role” (Choi 2009).

With Korea’s independence and its efforts towards development, education became widely available to both genders. Educating women therefore was modernizing Korean society, as well as increasing the Higher Education trend for men and women in Koreaworkforces’ overall education level to achieve economic development. In 1966, only 33% of girls went from elementary school to middle school. Similarly, 20% continued to high school and 4% to university. However, by 1998, 61.6% went from middle school to high school and 61.6% to university (Korean Overseas Information Service n.d.). By 2006, the number of women reaching higher education was as high as that of men, with 81.1% and 82.9% respectively entering college and university (table 1)  (Ou-Byung Chae 2008).

This remarkable progress in the number of women achieving higher education also came with its own challenges. Although women achieve higher education there is still a strong gender bias both in the educational curriculum, in the family sphere, and in the workplace.

Women’s Employment

Today, Korea is known for its high educational standards but also for the high inequalities between men and women in the workplace. Last years’ World Economic Forum ranked Korea 111th out of 136 nations in its Global Gender Gap report. While in 2012, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) pay gap report placed Korea in the top of the list with a 39% differences between men and women’s pay (McKay 2014).

Although women have made a lot of progress in Korea’s work environment, according to Statistics Korea’s latest figures, they still only participate for about 50% in the workforce, whereas men reach over 73% participation. Furthermore, the market research firm CEOScore found that in 2013 about 1 out of 1,430 employed women reached a corporate management job against 1 out of every 90 men (McKay 2014). On top of it, Korea also shows the poorest level of female graduate employment among the OECD countries (McKay 2014).

Granting the Korean government has made it part of its objectives to change the situation, a number of factors create this tense work environment for women. It is commonly perceived that women in Korea suffer from higher job discrimination, starting from the hiring process all the way to corporate advancement. The Korean work culture and social expectations of gender roles both have an important effect. High unemployment further reduces women’s chances of finding good jobs, with the economy feeling global pressures and a staggering number of overqualified job hunters, women are often passed over for men in an environment where youth unemployment has been around 8% since 2010 (Park 2014). Both women and men, see being good looking as the next level to compete in the job market and “employment cosmetic surgery” is growing in popularity with both genders (Korean Overseas Information Service n.d.).

Furthermore, preconception of women’s gender roles as mothers and wives results in discrimination in the workplace. The government’s policies to increase women’s participation in the workforce are not “working well because companies still view men and women’s societal duties as different” (McKay 2014). Additionally, the prevalent perception that women are supposed to quit working after getting married to focus on raising children means that “women are being forced to choose between having a career or having a family” (McKay 2014). Very few women go back to work after having had children in Korea, not necessarily by choice. During recruiting, a lot of companies prefer male recruits over young women, apprehensive at the prospect of them getting pregnant (maternity leave cost). As a result, a lot of women choose to delay having a family (Lee 2014).

Breaking the glass ceiling is particularly difficult, with a male dominated work culture. After-work bonding, involving copious amount of alcohol, can improve work relationships and even impact promotions. However, these are not widely considered as appropriate for women, especially if they have children, and whom often don’t want to drink as much as their male colleagues. With numerous reports of male colleagues using alcoholic intoxication as an excuse for sexual harassment, it also puts women in a vulnerable position. Of reported workplace sexual harassment 44.5% of them happened at a hoesik (McKay 2014).

Additionally, there is a strong form of blatant sexism in the workplace. Taking the form of pressure against women not to take roles with responsibilities, to their abilities being questioned on the basis of their gender. Today’s sexism “arises from […] subordination for male authority, especially in the current capitalist environment where women are gradually gaining influence” to the point that some men feel threatened by women taking jobs they consider as being theirs (Lee 2014). Even more, “powerful women are facing negative sentiment among people in general” (Lee 2014).

On top of it all, women are expected to be feminine and complacent, to conform to social expectations (Lee 2014). In Korea, this usually means conforming to the rigid code of beauty.

The Female Ideal of Beauty

In all cultures and societies, beauty norms and representations are not frozen in time, but are constantly changing. The place of women in society has a very strong impact on what is deemed appropriate for their appearance. “Historically, Korea is a nation founded on Confucianism that places women at the bottom of the hierarchy and that treats women as inferior to men” (Lee 2014). Furthermore, Korea seems to be special in the way that the traditional model of beauty from the Choseon era lasted a long time without drastic changes until the country opened up to external influences (voluntarily and involuntarily) and at which point it was completely transformed. During the colonial period new beauty ideals started to emerge, but it is from the 1960’s on that a beauty revolution took place and accelerated with the country’s development.

Korean Beauty Standards

With the rapid transformation of Korea from a rural economy to a developed one, the role of women in society tremendously changed and with it the norms and customs of beauty. Looking back at pictures from the first part of the 20th century (appendix 2, below), we can see women with round faces, often with a center part in their hair. For many centuries, thick glossy hair, fair skin, thin eyebrows and small lips were the symbols of beauty. Make-up was often home-made from spices and plants and used minimally to enhance features. It was only acceptable for entertainment ladies to wear white powder or colorful products. In the 1930’s the Korean garb still was the norm and only very wealthy women would occasionally wear western clothing. Since the Choseon period (1392-1919) a simple yet elegant appearance, associated with a dignified behavior and humble manners, were considered the quintessence of beauty and elegance following Confucian standards. However, as the country suffered from poverty, most women did not have the means to spend on their appearance, only wealthy women could. Western fashions were for the wealthy and city folks while the average person still wore traditional clothes. “Korea was not a strong country, and people’s efforts to protect and preserve their identity served to strengthen their conservative values” (Lee 2014), which also translated in the way they portrayed themselves. This shifted slowly until the 1980s when Korean clothes started being reserved for special occasions and western fashion became the norm.

Examples of Korean women in the 1900’s(Appendix 2, L-R: Portrait of four women, Peng Yang, Korea, 1924; Bride, Gishu, Korea, 1926; A young ‘kisaeng’ in full Korean traditional dress, ca. 1904. Source: University of Southern California Library)

After the war, Korea opened up further to western culture, which became synonymous with development and modernity. Until the 1987 Democracy Movement “Confucian tradition was largely responsible for dictating the roles of women” (Lee 2014) and with it the way they should present themselves in society, but The 'S' Shapethis new era transformed both the role of women, bringing them from the home to the workplace, and the perception of beauty. “Under consumer capitalism Korean women’s bodies have entered the public sphere, no longer hidden away but now available for scrutiny and consumption” (Ruth Holliday 2012).

In Korea, there is tremendous pressure on women to conform, and most women are conscious of the “harsh criticism that comes when [they] deviate from the norm” (Lee 2014), leading to a strictly defined beauty ideal. The contemporary beauty ideal is quite far from the prevalent model of only 20 years ago. Nowadays, the Korean ideal of beauty looks nothing like the moon-shaped beauties of the past. Fair skin is still admired, but beautiful features are singularly different than in the past. Eyes should be big and open, the bridge of the nose should be high and its tip slender, the face should be small with a narrow jaw, the body should be very slight yet show an “S” shaped curves (appendix 3, source: The Grand Narrative). To some extent, this new ideal looks more like a comic book character than a realistic image of women, and can rarely be achieved without constraining one’s body or altering it drastically through cosmetic procedures. Yet it is omnipresent in the media, advertising, and in the messages directed to children from an early age (appendix 4).

Bean paste S-line V-line(Appendix 4: Messages directed to young children carry messages of beauty, physiognomy and conformity, here in an advertisement for bean paste. Source: The Grand Narrative)

This standardization of beauty is especially strong among young women who want to emulate celebrities and are constantly being reminded by the media and society that showing good care for one’s appearance is essential for achieving a good marriage and a successful life. The popularity of cosmetic surgery is such that it is considered normal for celebrities to be redone and still represent role models. It is hence no wonder that Korea is the countries with the highest number of children having plastic surgery and double eyelid surgery is a common gift for graduation from parents.

The paradox goes even further, asking women to embody simultaneously images of innocence and purity, while being glamourous and exciting to the male gaze. However, “expressions of sexual subjectivity remain a big taboo in Korea” where we “can have a 25 year-old’s S-line quite literally highlighted for a heterosexual male gaze, but heaven forbid she admit to having sexual feelings and experience herself” (Turnbull 2012).

Standardization of beauty is also spread through the assignment of different letters to exemplify the ideal shape, “while this practice is seemingly frivolous on the surface, it actually belies much more pernicious trends in society at large, when you have celebrities vocally espousing their alphabet-lines and therefore actually objectifying themselves as a conglomeration of “perfect” body parts rather than as whole, genuine people” (Turnbull 2013).

Fueling the Korean cosmetic industry’s steady growth of more than 10% per year for the last few years, the beauty obsession is constant, from adds for plastic surgery and dieting in public transportation to the “mushrooming cosmetic shops, which have increased 37% a year on average” (Raitt 2014). In a patriarchal society where women are not yet treated as equals, these all reinforce the belief that “pretty girls are more valuable” (Lee 2014) and push for conformity. It is a new way to impose the demure Confucian-influenced image that is wanted and anticipated of women.

Conforming to the Ideal

Some researchers assign plastic surgery in the “Neo-Confucian ‘culture of conformity’, where the unity of the whole is more important than the individuality of the one, producing beauty as a new requirement of decorum’ for women” leading to an environment where women are “obsessed with their appearance” (Ruth Holliday 2012).

Furthermore, the backlash in Korea can be very strong and according to scholar Lee Sang-Wha three factors have “helped uphold Korean society and eventually led to the demure girl image of today: gender segregation, division of gender-assigned labor and the subordination of women” (Lee 2014). It left no place for feminism in Korea’s Confucian heritage where the old values still push them to “appear subordinate and innocent” (Lee 2014).

However, important changes in Korean society can offer another reason behind contemporary beauty trends. The political and economic transformations of the past 30 years, accompanied by an incredible speed of democratization and industrialization, offered new social opportunities for women. As we have seen earlier, university attendance is extremely high, and Korea actually has one of the highest rate for women’s enrollment in college globally according to the OECD.  Some sociologists argue that this “recent upsurge in female societal empowerment may be associated with an oppressive backlash in media portrayals of gender ideals” (Turnbull 2013). This unrealistic expectation on women has also been observed in other regions and “historical data suggest that societal shifts toward gender equality are often accompanied by increased media portrayal of unrealistic gender norms as a reactive “tool of oppression” by mainstream society” (Turnbull 2013) further pressuring women to conform to the beauty ideal.

All of these negative forces appear in the private and the public spheres. The “care of self and cosmetic surgery increasingly link notions of ‘correct’ or ‘appropriate’ appearance with performing adequately in society as a social subject” (Elfving-Hwang 2013).

Plastic Surgery’s Normalization

The numbers speak for themselves, the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons’ global ranking places Korea number one in procedures per capita in 2010 (table 2, below), ahead of the United States and Brazil, and also tops the list with the biggest number of registered cosmetic surgeons per capita (Elfving-Hwang 2013). According to the Korean Association for Plastic Surgery, “1 in every 77 people in South Korea has had [at least one] plastic surgery (Raitt 2014). The Fair Trade Commission also stated that one quarter of the world’s plastic surgeries take place in Korea, representing a 500 billion won industry (Raitt 2014).

Plastic Surgery Procedures per 1000 population, 2010There are two categories of cosmetic procedures. For the non-surgical procedures, the most popular ones are in order of importance: Botox, hyaluronic acid injectables, laser hair removal, autologous fat injectables, and IPL laser treatments (Raitt 2014). These petite surgeries are highly popular as they are non-invasive, cheaper, and require no down-time, exemplified by Botox which counted 145,688 procedures in 2012. On the other hand, the surgical procedures in order of popularity are: lipoplasty, breast augmentation, rhinoplasty, blepharoplasty (double eyelid), and abdominalplasty (table 3, source: source: the Korean Consumer Agency).

Top plastic surgery procedures in 2010As shown by these statistics, plastic surgery in Korea is increasingly normal, with more and more women, and men too, opting to go under the knife. However it is important to point out that women are not passive consumers of beauty, on the contrary they are “highly informed, active agents in their engagements with cosmetic surgeons” (Ruth Holliday 2012). Cosmetic surgery is seen as something positive, that enables access to a desired social status and becomes a symbol of middle class and gendered identity (Elfving-Hwang 2013). Furthermore, the liberalization of cosmetic surgery is also seen as “democratizing practice” and the high growth rate of complex surgeries with high risks, such as the chin and mandibular reduction operation, reflect the trivialization of the practice (Elfving-Hwang 2013).

Confirming earlier arguments about the culture of appearance, plastic surgery has become a marker of consumer middle class identity, of wealth and social status. In turn it “emerges as a highly effective force encouraging individuals to perceive aesthetic surgical intervention as a practical and normative option for self-improvement” (Elfving-Hwang 2013). However, it carries an important weight as well, creating an internalization of patriarchal beauty standards, where “women constantly examine their bodies in a negative and pathological light” (Ruth Holliday 2012) in their insatiable quest to an unrealistic body image.

Conclusion

Women’s place in Korean society, their assigned gender role and idealized representation, is the fruit of the country’s Confucian heritage as well as external influences from the West and Japan. Korean women have not yet reached emancipation as shown by the fact that they still do not own they own body and image and that they are subjected to the paternalistic ideal of beauty. Women’s higher education level is met by tough sexism in the workplace, and although they have more freedom and spending power they still suffer from the constant pressure to conform to beauty standards and expected behavioral traits. The strong backlash against those who do not conform also serves as a way to keep women in check and limit their emancipation.

However, all is not negative. With the new generation coming of age, more and more women are fighting against the system to gain recognition and equal rights in the workforce and it ripples to the private sphere through their increased independence. Korean gender roles are still changing and women will find a way to reconcile their need belonging to the group and their want for self-determination.

References

Choi, Hyaeweol. 2009. “”Wise Mother, Good Wife”: A Transcultural Discursive Construct in Modern Korea.” Journal of Korean Studies, Vol.14(1) , pp.1-33.

Chung, Yeon Shim. 2012. “The Modern Girl (Modeon Geol) as a Contested Symbol in Colonial Korea.” In Visualizing Beauty: Gender and Ideology in Modern East Asia, by Aida Yuen Wong. Hong Kong University Press.

Elfving-Hwang, Joanna. 2013. “Cosmetic Surgery and Embodying the Moral Self in South Korean Popular Makeover Culture.” The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 11, Issue 24, No. 2.

Kim, Taeyon. 2003. “Neo-Confucian Body Techniques: Women’s Bodies in Korea’s Consumer Society.” Body & Society 9(3): 97–113.

Korean Overseas Information Service. n.d. “Women’s Role in Contemporary Korea.”

Lee, Annie Narae. 2014. “The Fight for Equality: Women’s Struggle to Defy Prejudice, Stereotypes and Tradition.” Groove, Issue 91, pp.58-65.

McKay, Anita. 2014. “The Working Woman: Is Korea Ready for Women in the Workplace?” Groove, Issue 91.

Ou-Byung Chae, Jung-Hae Choi. 2008. “Korean Society in Change: Statistics and Sources (I, II, III, IV).” Korean Journal of Sociology 42.

Park, Hyejin. 2014. “Qualified, trained and nowhere to go.” Groove, Issue n.91.

Raitt, Remy. 2014. “The Big Bucks in Beauty: From cosmetics to eyelid surgery, vanity spurs Korea’s economy.” Groove, Issue n. 91.

Ruth Holliday, Joanna Elfving-hwang,. 2012. “Gender, Globalization and Aesthetic Surgery in South Korea.” Body & Society, Vol.18(2), pp.58-81.

Turnbull, James. 2012. “Bikinis, Breasts, and Backlash: Revealing the Korean Body Politic in 2012.” The Grand Narrative, Korean Feminism, Sexuality, and Popular Culture.

—. 2013. “Revealing the Korean Body Politic, Part 3: Historical precedents for Korea’s modern beauty myth.” The Grand Narrative, Korean Feminism, Sexuality, and Popular Culture.

“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!

Korean Sociological Image #88: Unhappy Korean children

Korean Child Unhappy Pencil Case(Source: Kevin Thai; CC BY-ND 2.0)

Via a friend of mine last year, came this OECD survey that found Korean children to be the least happy of all those in developed countries. Much more interesting than that finding though, which I’m sure came as no surprise to most readers, was the sense of perspective he provided, which looked towards the long-term:

Korean children OECD happiness indexPerhaps one of the more disturbing findings of Korean kids being the unhappiest as measured by the OECD is that on some level one could argue this is an extreme form of “delayed gratification” being imposed upon them; and therefore there is some justification for it. However, an important “release” is that delayed gratification is compensated for later in life. That’s quite important. But even here, South Koreans simply don’t get a break. Here’s your later in life measure (PDF; source, right).

Unfortunately, the doom and gloom continues in 2015, with this appearing in my feed as I began to type this post:

The Ministry of Gender Equality and Family released a report claiming that happiness levels in the teen population have risen 5% in three years. Finding the reports unbelievable (according to a survey taken last year, Korean teens ranked last out of OECD countries in happiness levels), journalists investigated into the issue and found that the MOGEF manipulated the surveys to make the results seem positive.

Sigh. If anyone has any good news about Korean children, or prospects for 20-somethings for that matter, please pass it on!

Update: To offer something myself, see Korea Realtime to read about recent government initiatives to help (adult) students to study humanities and social sciences. Primarily, because the government is taking the rare, enlightened view that studying those subjects is an intrinsic public good that is in the county’s best long-term interests:

“In recent years, there has been a growing importance in policy for sustainable national development through improving quality of life and solving social problems,” said Oh Mi-hee, an official at the Ministry of Education, said in an emailed statement.

“The government is expanding support for humanities and social sciences in order to recognize this,” she said.

If you’ve ever taught (young) adults here, you’ll know that all too many of them feel trapped into studying subjects they don’t like for the sake of a job (which they also probably won’t like), so it’s great that they’re being given more opportunity to pursue something they enjoy instead. Also, one institution mentioned is using a ‘sharing-economy model’ tuition, so these initiatives are by no means only open to those with the financial luxury to put off job-hunting.

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

Sunday Fun: Bottoms!

Hidamari Sketch EscherGirlMy 8 year-old daughter Alice is really into comics these days, often hiding our home phone under her pillow to keep reading when she’s supposed to be asleep. To my chagrin, she couldn’t care less if the female characters have huge eyes though, and/or no noses. But yesterday, I noticed the above while she was watching the opening to the anime adaptation of Hidamari Sketch. It was a great opportunity to start teaching her about female characters’ typical poses too.

Cue 20 minutes of giggling at the bottoms in the Escher Girls blog, which ultimately had the whole family trying—and failing—to imitate some of the pictures (although I was pretty good myself actually). Naturally, we quickly skipped past some of the more inappropriate ones, and Alice still has no idea why female characters are so often drawn in a “boobs and butt” style. But at least she’s aware of the phenomenon now, and, with gentle prodding from me, will hopefully think more about it herself as she gets older.

For now though, she’s still very much a 8 year-old girl, and I can hardly fault her for that. Much of those 20 minutes were also spent by her and her 6 year-old sister Elizabeth saying “와! 예쁘다…” (Wow! They’re so pretty…), and today this post took a long time to write because she kept on stopping me to tell me all about the characters in Hidamari Sketch. Including Yoshinoya above, who’s supposedly a high school teacher (sigh)…

Policing the Student Body: Sookmyung Women’s University students told to cover up

Sookmyung Women's University Festival Dress Code(Source: TVChosun)

Watching a news report about the controversial new dress code for last week’s festival at Sookmyung Women’s University, I was surprised to hear that it was the student union that was responsible, and aghast to learn that it was under the assumption that wearing revealing clothes leads to more sex crimes against women.

Fortunately though, at least the report itself ended with a commentator from the Korean Institute for Gender Equality Promotion and Education, who pointed out the potential for victim-blaming from such misguided beliefs. As so few other reports mentioned that (I’ve only found one other), I thought it was worth highlighting here.

Alas, there were technical issues with the sound in the online video, and rather than fixing those MBN just decided to delete it. But the transcript is still available:

Anchor:

숙명여대 총학생회가 축제 기간에 입을 수 있는 복장 규정을 마련했는데, 치마 길이와 심한 노출 등을 규제하고 있습니다. 성 상품화에 젖은 대학문화를 자정하겠다는 취지인데 논란이 일고 있습니다.
주진희 기자입니다.

For the university festival period, the Sookmyung Women’s University student union has set rules for students’ dress, regulating the length of skirts and the amount of exposure. This attempt to regulate university culture, which is steeped in sexual objectification, has raised a lot of controversy.

Reporter, Ju Jin-hee:

친구 얼굴에 물풍선을 던지거나 인간 두더지 게임을 하며 학업 스트레스를 날립니다. 해가 지면 캠퍼스에 주점이 설치되고 축제 분위기는 무르익습니다. 주점마다 자극적인 문구와 공연으로 치열한 호객 행위가 벌어집니다. 여성 속옷인 가터벨트를 찬 가정부 그림을 이용한 홍보지부터 성적인 은유를 함축한 메뉴판까지. 노골적으로 성을 상품화한 축제로 변질될 우려가 일자, 축제 시작 전 숙명여대 학생회는 혹시 모를 불상사를 막자며 복장 규정을 강화했습니다. 허벅지의 절반을 드러내는 치마는 금지. 만일 입으려면 속바지를 착용하도록 했습니다. 가슴골이 보이거나 속살이 비치는 의상은 물론이고, 옆트임이 있는 치마도 금지했습니다. 만일 어겼다가 적발되면 벌금을 내도록 했습니다. 이해가 간다는 반응의 학생들도 많지만…

During the day, doing things like throwing water balloons at students’ faces and playing whack-a-mole with them is a way of relieving stress at festivals.

But once the sun goes down, the festival atmosphere takes a more adult turn, with students promoting their departments with eye-catching posters and performances and making money for them by selling alcohol [James: With flow-on benefits for their MTs and so on].

In this vein, [the Department of Art and Crafts] made a provocative poster with a maid wearing a garter belt, and a menu with suggestively-named foods.

Sookmyung Women's University Maid and Menu(Sources: Kookje; Goodbuyselly)

Because of worries about such increasing sexual objectification in festivals, the student union set rules about clothing in order to avert any incidents.* These include: only being allowed to show 50% of the thigh; having to wear shorts under a mini-skirt; and mesh tops, dresses showing cleavage, and those with side-slits [James: Is that the right term?] all banned, with offenders being fined.

Many students responded that they understood these rules, but…

(James: It’s this line — “노골적으로 성을 상품화한 축제로 변질될 우려가 일자, 축제 시작 전 숙명여대 학생회는 혹시 모를 불상사를 막자며 복장 규정을 강화했습니다” — that sounds like victim-blaming. If better Korean speakers than I feel that’s a little extreme though, or a misinterpretation, I’d be very happy to be proven wrong!)

Interview: Sookmyung Women’s University Student:

“여대로써 많은 불상사가 생기지 않도록 엄격한 규제를 한 것에 대해서 찬성을 하고요. 그렇게 다 가리고 있는 건 아니잖아요.”

“Because this is a women’s university, I agree that regulations had to be made before an incident occurred. Students have been pretty blatant [about wearing revealing clothing and so on].

반면 비판 여론도 만만치 않습니다.

On the other hand, there were a lot of criticisms.

Interview, Kim Han-min, University Student:

“저는 솔직히 문란하다고 생각 안 하거든요. 그런 거 하나하나도 패션에 대한 자유가 될 수 있는데, 규제가 조금 심했다고 생각하고 있어요.”

“To be honest, I don’t think it’s lewd at all. This is about fashion and personal freedom, so I think the regulations are too harsh.”

전문가들은 여성의 짧은 치마가 문제될 수 있다는 사고방식 자체가 더 문제라는 지적입니다.

Experts pointed out that it’s the notion that women’s short skirts are problematic that is more of an issue:

Interview: Seong In-ja, Korean Institute for Gender Equality Promotion and Education

“고육지책으로 마련된 걸로 보이긴 하지만 또 한편에서의 우려는 성범죄 안에서 피해자에게 원인이 있다는 ‘피해자 유발론’으로….”

“These rules appear to be a desperate measure, and there is a genuine worry that they shift the blame of sexual crimes onto the victims…”

축제 문화를 자정하려는 취지에서 만들었지만, 좀 더 현실성있고 고민이 담긴 규정이 마련돼야한다는 목소리도 나오고 있습니다.

These rules appear aimed at regulating [excessively sexual] festival culture, but some voices are saying a much more realistic and nuanced approach is needed (end).

sookmyung-womens-university-festival(Source: Extreme Movie; edited for brightness)

Of course, that only skims the surface of the issues raised by the dress code (see here, here, here, here, here, here, and here for the ensuing debate), and it would be good if it turned to be motivated less by supposed crime prevention than avoiding pictures of students later appearing on Ilbe and so on (although again, should that dictate what students are allowed to wear?). If anyone likes, I’d be happy do some more investigating and translating to learn more.

In the meantime, I wisely invested my time in interviewing Peter Daley instead, a professor at Sookmyung (and expert on Korean cults), to gauge the atmosphere and his students’ reactions. To his surprise, they felt it was a non-issue that had been blown all out of proportion:

“I only found out about the dress-code through the article in the Korea Times….[a female coworker of mine] felt it was a bit draconian. The students are adults, but weren’t being treated as such…she also mentioned that some students do have larger breasts…are they going to be penalized just because they can’t hide that part of their anatomy?

…Contrast that with what my students said, and that was a different reaction entirely…I expected that [raising it in class] would lead to some kind of debate and that students would be passionate about it, but they just kind of laughed it off…they said only guys were worried about the rules [because they’d see less]!

He hasn’t taught at Sookmyung long enough to attend previous festivals, but, whether because of the new dress-code or not, he didn’t see students wearing anything particularly risqué last Friday (“Certainly nothing too different from what young Korean women normally wear in the summer, or at other university festivals.”). Nor did the security guards seem to be tasked with measuring skirts with rulers, as if they were teachers at a high school.

But if someone had seen too much thigh? Sookymung isn’t a school, and the students are no longer children. The last time grown women were penalized for what they wore, it was by the fashion police of the 1970s, during the military dictatorship.

So yes, perhaps the students really should have been angrier.

busty girl problems korean fashion police(Sources: Busty Girl Comics, 추억의 편린들)

But I’m not one of them, and can’t presume to know their needs and feelings better than they do. Also, Daley concedes that without this year’s dress code, fashions at previous festivals may well have been more extreme, and indeed fashion photographer and blogger Michael Hurt said on Facebook that things at his own school’s festival are “getting insane,” although again that banning isn’t the solution (reprinted with permission):

But I think [the message it sends, that girls’ worth is all in their looks] is precisely the point that this culture is struggling with right now. One of the reasons they dress this way, and this is even hinted at in the quotes lifted from the students for the [Korea Times] article, is that they have really come to commodify value themselves in terms of their sexuality, the expressions of which are primarily guided by over sexualized images in the media. I think something needs to be done to counteract this tendency, but this culture is lacking in terms of concrete strategies to do so besides banning or making rules. I think the same is true in the US to a lesser extent, but both cultures seem to have a problem dealing with where the line should be without having to litigate it.

I’d be grateful if readers could supply any more details about events at Sookmyung; for instance, although the student union came up with it, I’m sure that the dress code was actually at the behest of the university administration. Also, I’ve never attended any Korean university festival myself (I always have two young kids to look after, and teach at a very Christian university far from home), so I’d be very interested to hear what they’re like. What are your experiences and impressions? Have you heard of dress codes elsewhere? Do you think, even if you don’t agree with the ban, that something like it was inevitable?

Update) Among many other relevant and interesting posts by Michael, make sure to check out “The Cultural Politics of Short Skirts in Korea.”

Update 2) I realize the irony of only quoting two middle-aged men for this article, but, well, you get what you pay for sorry(!) that can’t be helped with my family and day job down here in Busan unfortunately. Most of the links do include input from the students though, and if readers would like me to investigate further then I’m happy to focus on finding a student’s perspective to translate (here’s a good candidate).

Update 3) Some interesting related reading: “Dress Codes for Girls: Are Teachers the New Objectifiers?” at Ms. blog, and “Say Goodbye, Skimpy. Film Fest on the Alert for ‘Overexposed’ Actresses” at Busan Haps.

Update 4) Here, here, here, and here are some more Korean articles that look interesting.

Korean Sex Ed Takes to the Road

(Source)

Korean sex education gets a bad rep on my blog, and deservedly so. But there are many professional and committed sex educators out there (I’ve met some!), and the quality and quantity of programs can vary quite dramatically between different schools and regions.

This latest initiative, to bring sex education to isolated communities, sounds like one of the better ones.

Unfortunately, this poorly-written report doesn’t really do it justice, with many frustratingly vague terms. Please take this into account when you read things like how the education provided teaches “the dignity of life” for instance, which I hope doesn’t mean that Korean children are learning that abortion is evil (although it was made illegal 4 years ago, so I have some genuine concerns). Also, the report claims that the bus is aimed at “island” communities, but the literal center of the country doesn’t seem a very good place to start visiting those, so I’m guessing that “isolated” communities was meant instead.

(Thanks in advance for any corrections or better translations from readers)

Wriggle: Korea’s First Sex Education Bus

10 April 2014, by 신국진/Shin Gook-jin, JB News

“성은 숨기는 것이 아니라 책임이 필요한 것으로 아동•청소년 연령에 맞게 맞춤 교육을 하겠습니다.”

“Sex is not something that should be hidden, but it does require responsibility. So, we will provide an age-appropriate sex education to children and teenagers.”

충북도내 도서 지역 아동•청소년의 건전한 성 가치관을 심어주기 위해 지난 8일 개소한 이동형 성문화센터 체험관 ‘꿈틀’이 10일 첫 운행을 시작했다.

성교육이 가능하도록 버스를 개조한 ‘꿈틀’은 이날 청원군 남일초등학교를 찾아 4~6학년을 대상으로 11일까지 맞춤형 성교육을 실시한다.

김향자 충북도 이동형 청소년성문화센터 팀장은 “지난 8일 개소하고 처음으로 이동형 센터 운행을 시작했다”며 “남일초를 시작으로 올해 도내 전 지역을 돌며 400회 교육을 할 계획”이라고 말했다.

Taking to the road on the 10th in North Chungcheong Province, the “Wriggle” sex education bus will instill a healthy set of sexual values in children and teenagers living in isolated island communities.

Remodeled as a sex education bus, the Wriggle’s first stop is Namil Elementary School, where it will teach 4th-6th graders (11-13 year-olds) age-appropriate sex education until the 11th.

Kim Hyang-ja, team leader of the North Chungcheong Province teenage sex education center, said “This is Korea’s first moving sex-education center. After Nam-il Elementary School, we plan to make 400 trips this year.”

그동안 충북에서는 청주와 충주에 각각 1개소씩 마련된 고정형 청소년성문화센터가 운영됐다. 이렇다보니 지역적 접근성이 떨어지는 도서 지역 아동•청소년은 제대로 된 성교육을 받기가 힘들었다.

충북도는 이를 해소하기 위해 지난해부터 3억여원의 예산을 들여 ‘꿈틀’을 마련하고 운영에 나선 것이다. 꿈틀 체험관에는 다양한 성 콘텐츠가 교육 연령대에 맞춰 교육할 수 있도록 구성된다.

In North Chungcheong Province, there are two teenage sex education centers, in Cheongju and Choongju. But these are difficult for students in islands communities to get to, depriving them of a sex education.

In order to solve this problem, last year 300 million won was budgeted for the Wriggle sex education bus. In it, children can receive information about various sex-related issues and receive age-appropriate sex education.

좁은 공간에는 ‘삐뽀삐뽀’, ‘미디어와 성’, ‘성 상품화’, ‘요람’, 사춘기 용품’, 사랑방정식’, ‘다양한 가족’, ‘우주속의 나’ 등의 프로그램으로 성을 알기 쉽게 표현했다.

심장 소리를 들으며 입장하는 체험관은 난자를 찾아가는 정자의 모습을 보며 교육이 시작된다.

한미화 강사는 “6억분의 1의 경쟁을 뚫고 내가 태어난 것이란 의미를 알려주는 의미”라며 “체험관에는 태아가 형성되는 과정은 물론 산모 배속에 위치한 태아의 태동까지 느낄 수 있는 체험도 가능하다”고 말했다.

Korean Sex Education Bus Inside(Source)

In the narrow space, children can easily learn through watching programs like ‘Ambulance Siren’, ‘The Media and Sex’, ‘Sexual Objectification’, ‘Cradle’, ‘Puberty Products’, ‘Love Equation’, ‘Various Family Types’, and “The Universe and Me’.

While listening to the sound of a heartbeat, they can see how sperm find the egg [James: A bit outdated—eggs are quite active in seeking out sperm too!].

Instructor Han Mi-hwa said, “Children can see from how 1 out of 600 million sperm finds the egg, to fetal development, and even feeling what it’s like to have the baby kick.”

아이들은 체험관 안에서 성교육 외에도 다문화 가정, 한부모 가정, 조손가정 등 현재 사회에서 발생할 수 있는 가족 구성단위도 교육 받는다.

또한 학교를 중심으로 형성된 사회 시설에서 아이들에게 안전한 곳과 위험 곳을 보기 쉽게 마련했다.

체험관 속에서 40여분 간 진행되는 교육 외에도 유아에게는 인형극을 통한 재미있는 성교육을 하고 초등학생에게는 성장과정에 따른 몸 변화의 이해와 생명 존엄성에 대한 교육이 진행된다.

In addition to sex education, children can also learn about various family types, such as multicultural families, single-parent families, children living with their grandparents, and so on, all of which are occurring as our society develops.

Children can also learn about places around their schools and neighborhoods which may be unsafe.

In roughly 40 minutes on the bus, preschool children can learn sex education through playing with dolls, and elementary school students can learn about development, the changes to their body, and the dignity of life.

중•고등학생에게는 앞으로 성적 자기결정권, 청소년 성매매 등 현실을 인식하고 성 평등에 대한 교육이 진행된다.

게다가 부모와 교사에 대한 교육도 마련해 아동•청소년 성폭력 예방 및 지도법, 성의식 개선 등의 프로그램을 운영할 계획이다.

김향자 팀장은 “연령에 따라 알아야 되는 성은 모두 다르다”며 “교육 대상이 누구냐에 따라 맞춤 교육이 가능하도록 모든 시설이 완성돼 있다”고 말했다.

From now on, middle and high-school students can learn about their sexual rights, prostitution, and sexual equality. Moreover, there are also plans to provide sexual violence prevention programs, and education to parents and teachers.

Kim Hyong-ja explained, “As what you need to know about sex is different at different ages, so too the education varies”, and that “it is possible to provide appropriate education for all ages.”

한편 꿈틀은 (사)청주여성의전화에서 수탁 운영하며 교육신청은 충북도 이동형 청소년성문화센터(043-223-7953)로 하면 된다.

김향자 팀장은 “꿈틀은 앞으로 학교를 비롯해 지역아동센터, 시설 등 교육이 필요한 장소에는 모두 갈 것”이라며 “최고의 교육 효과를 얻기 위해 모든 강사들이 노력 할 것이다. 교육을 받는 시설에서 적극적인 협조로 아이들에게 성이 무엇인지 제대로 교육이 됐으면 좋겠다”고 당부했다. / 신국진

Wriggle is managed by the Cheongju Women’s Hotline. For inquiries about coming to your area in North Chungcheong Province, please call the teenage sex education center at 043-223-7953.

“In addition to schools, Wriggle is available to come to community children’s facilities and so on where needed. We will strive to provide the best education.” Kim Hyang-ja said, and that “If we positively cooperate to provide education at facilities, we can properly teach children what sex is.”

Following School Crackdown, More Kids Punished for Acts of Affection

Wonder Woman Thwarted(Source; edited)

From Korea Realtime:

As Min-gun and Sae-young left their Seoul high school one fall afternoon, they strolled down a tree-lined street more than an arm’s length apart from each other. As they got further away from school, they gradually moved closer together until after a few hundred meters, Min-gun reached over to hold hands with Sae-young, his girlfriend of nearly a year.

If they had linked hands earlier in the day at school, they could have been punished under their school’s code on the Degradation of Public Morals, which prohibits such shows of affection.

Over the past few years, there has been a jump in the number of South Korean high school students punished for hand holding, hugging, kissing or other amorous acts…

Read the rest at the link. Confusedly, it follows a Korea Herald report last month that that the Education Ministry “would prohibit schools from taking disciplinary measures against students for being pregnant or in a relationship.” But Korea Realtime claims that this was only a request, as the Ministry neither sets nor enforces school rules.

Korean Room Cafe HallwayI’d appreciate it if anyone can offer a third opinion, and will try to find a Korean source to translate myself. If it turns out Korea Realtime is correct however, it would greatly surprise and unnerve me that even the Ministry can not prevent the expulsion of pregnant students. Surely that is an obvious violation of their human rights?

Either way, see here for my September post on ‘Room Cafes,’ which seem just about the only place some unfortunate teens can do that “hand holding, hugging, kissing or other amorous acts.” As such, let me reiterate that I’m very glad they exist, because:

…if some teenagers are going to [do those amorous acts] — and some are going to do [them] — then, all other options being barred…, it’s surely best that they do [them] in the safety and relative privacy of a new room cafe. Especially when the alternatives would be dark alleys behind their schools, or in the older, seedier variety of ‘DVD rooms‘ still out there…

Any teachers among you noticed your own schools becoming stricter in recent years? (Source, above)