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!

Help a Korean Wave Researcher!

Korean Drama Relationships(“And you thought *you* had relationship issues”. Source: Sanctu; CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

This request comes from a friend of mine. So, you already know she’s awesome, and very deserving of your help!

Hi, my name is Marilyn, and I’m a graduate student researching the Korean Wave in the U.S. Specifically, I’m hoping to interview K-drama fans about why they like dramas, how they started watching them, etc. If you are a K-drama fan (even a casual one!), have lived all or most of your life in the U.S., are not of Korean descent, and have never lived in Korea, then I would really like to talk to you about K-dramas. Please email me at kdrama.research@gmail.com if you can help me out.

What are you waiting for? ;)

Korea and the World: My Podcast Interview

Brown Eyed Girls Japan(Source: Danny Choo; CC BY-SA 2.0)

“Korea’s entertainment industry has become extremely popular abroad and conveys the image of a modern and attractive country. Watch any K-Pop video and you see plenty of skin and sexiness; but look into Korean culture as a whole, and you witness the dominance of traditional values. Does the way women are depicted in Korean popular culture tell us something about gender politics in Korean society? How persistent are traditional gender roles? Does the entertainment industry empower women or does it merely represent the reality of gender patterns in Korea’s conservative society? To answer these questions and more, we sat down with media specialist James Turnbull in Busan.”

A big thank you to the good folks of Korea and the World, for being such pleasant podcast hosts back in November. Unfortunately though, frankly I had a terrible cold at the time, so apologies in advance if I sometimes sound a little incoherent during the interview!

Either way, make sure to also check out the interviews of Robert Kelly, Daniel Tudor, and Andrei Lankov, with many more to be added in coming weeks.

Update: If you’re interested in hearing more about K-pop specifically, also check out the first episode of Anonymous Said, a new podcast series in which the host aims to “talk to anonymous guests each week, and together…comment on recent events in Korea, and the experiences the guests have from behind-the-scenes of entertainment and life here.” This blog gets a brief mention at 21:50 (squee!).

Presentation, Yonsei University, Friday 12th: “Give it to Me? The Impact of K-Pop’s Sexualization on Korean Advertising”

Sistar Rice Ad(Source: *cough* Ilbe)

The reason I’ve been so busy in recent weeks, and unable to properly reply to all your comments and tweets sorry. But, I’m happy to finally announce I’ll be presenting in the 2014 Situations International Conference, “Culture and Commerce in the Traditional, Modern and Contemporary Asian Music Industries” this Friday at 3pm, and I’d be delighted if any readers could make it.

If you can’t make Friday though, never fear, for there’s a host of much more interesting presentations than mine on Saturday, and I’m happy to meet up after the conference on Sunday too. Please just say hi there, or give me a buzz here or on Facebook or Twitter.

As for my topic, consider it a direct extension of this post. I look forward to your questions and comments!

Announcements

From Explorers and Missionaries to Vagabonds and Potential Criminals
(Source: Facebook Event Page)

Hello everyone. Just to quickly let you know about an upcoming presentation not to be missed, some worthy causes, and some Youtubers that deserve more promoting.

First up, next Saturday (the 25th), Matt VanVolkenburg will be giving a presentation in Seoul for the 10 Magazine Book Club titled “From Explorers and Missionaries to Vagabonds and Potential Criminals: Two Hundred Years of Teaching English in Korea.”

If you’re unfamiliar with the name, let me add that he’s the author of the Gusts of Popular Feeling blog…which I’m sure will have you scrambling to check out the Facebook Event Page before you even finish this sentence!

Next, via The Kimchi Queen:

99 Film‘s new queer movie “Butterfly” is being crowdfounded on GoodFunding aiming for 2 million won in donations (about 2 thousand dollars). 99 Film has used this method for other films (such as “20”) and they have been in general successful in getting their target funding goals.

About working in a (gay) host bar, see The Kimchi Queen for more (English) information, or go directly to GoodFunding for more information in Korean.

Next, via Hollaback Korea 할라백 코리아 comes Rainbow Teen Safe Spacesfourth letter to donors. It begins and ends:

Rainbow Teen Safe Space will soon be launched. The project has been focusing on fund-raising activities so far. Now it is time for a new round of dealing with organizational issues. On July 13, we had a meeting to talk about a new organizational structure for this project to be a common cause of the LGBT human rights movement. We decided to set up the secretariat and hire a full-time staff to set out the street counseling program in September. The secretariat will share the office with Solidarity for LGBT Human Rights of Korea. We are also in preparation to form an advisory committee of experts in various areas such as law, medical care, counseling and human rights…

…We haven’t reached our fundraising goal yet. For the street counseling activities to start on a solid foundation, please join our fundraising effort for Rainbow Teen Safe Space project. If you, donors’ help come together, it would be such a great strength to all of us.

See the link for much more information about its activities, the video above for a quick introduction (it’s in English), or here for its fundraising website.

Finally, I’ve been asked to promote a couple of video producers. First, a small, Daegu-based organization called Stompy Ruffers Cultural Fusion, which “takes Korean culture and blends it with American culture to create some fun and exciting products/events.” See here for more information about them, or here for a selection of their videos—including the “How to Order Food at a Korean Restaurant” one above, which I think would be better titled “But we’re speaking Korean!” after the Japanese version, and which I’m I sure all too many expats in both countries can relate to (Update: Actually, the Korean video came first sorry!).

Last but not least, from Stephanie Rosier (whom I have to thank for this post), also based in Daegu, who has been making video blogs about Korean culture:

I talk about everything you can imagine really. The blogs are an average of 20 minutes long and usually include various photographs and short videos of my adventures here. I can speak Korean at a conversational level (or Topik level 4 to be exact) so I have been able to talk to, and make friends with a wide range of Korean people, from hair dressers to grandmothers, and learn about Korea from an insider’s perspective.

See here for the blogs, or the above video for her “Spring Video Project: Asking Korean People 한국 사람한테 물어보자: 봄 동영상 계획”.

If any readers also have any event, worthy cause, video, or just about anything else they’d like to promote, please just shoot me an email (but please add as many pictures and details as possible!) and I’ll add it here or in a later post.

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)…

Quick Hit: Harassment Framed as Affection

Dummy Harassment(Dummy Harassment by gaelx; CC BY-SA 2.0)

Via The Korea Herald:

Former National Assembly Speaker Park Hee-tae is to be questioned over allegations of molesting a golf caddie, police said Saturday…

…Park admitted that there had been some physical contact, but maintained that he did not “cross a line.” He told a local daily that he poked the woman’s breasts with a finger once, adding that it was an act of adoration because she “felt like his granddaughter.” (My emphasis)

Read the link for more details, or The Korea Times. I mention it because a friend pointed out that they’ve heard that excuse on more than a few occasions in Korea, which rang a definite bell. Sure enough, a few years ago I translated an article by Ilda Women’s Journal writer Park Hee-jeong, who said exactly that in relation to the following commercial back in 2005:

“I touched her because she’s like my daughter”

여성들이 이 광고를 보면서 느끼는 불편함의 한 켠은 ‘몸을 만지는’ 행위에 있다. 우리 사회에서는 가족이라든가 친하다는 이유로 타인의 몸에 손을 대는 행위가 쉽게 용납이 되는 경향이 있다. 나이 지긋한 분이 성희롱 가해자로 지목되면 “딸 같아서 만진 건데 잘못이냐?”는 변명(?)이 나오는 것도 그런 이유다…

One reason women feel uncomfortable watching this ad is because of the act of the daughter’s body being touched. That is because our society approves of and/or grants permission to men touching them in a friendly manner, like they would their own family members. Indeed, when an older male is accused of sexual harassment, often he fastens on to the excuse that “Can’t I affectionately touch someone like my own daughter?”…

…“딸 같아서 만진다”는 말이 통용되는 사회에서 삼성생명의 광고는 많은 여성들에게 불편한 기억을 환기시킨다. 광고 속에서는 의도된 스킨십이 아니었지만, 불편해하는 딸의 모습을 아름답게 바라보는 시점 자체가 이미 여성들을 불편하게 만들고 있는 것이다.

…“I just touched her like I would my daughter” is an excuse used so much in Korean society, that this Samsung Life Insurance commercial evokes many uncomfortable memories in women. In particular, having something that would in reality be so uncomfortable for the daughter, to be just cutely dismissed instead, already makes women feel uncomfortable. Even though the father’s intention was not skinship. (My emphasis)

See my 2011 post for the full article and translation. Like I argued there, the prevalence of such attitudes in 2005 still goes a long way towards explaining the rise of “ajosshi-” or “uncle-fandom” just a few years later. Or, more specifically, why the media so quickly framed and celebrated middle-aged men’s interest in (then) underage female-performers as purely paternal or avuncular, despite the girls’ increasingly sexualized performances.

But that’s a very familiar topic with readers, so I’ll wisely stop there, and later this month I’ll make sure to write a follow-up post on the important challenges to those media narratives that have arisen since (suggestions as to what to add would be welcome). Also, boys’ performances have likewise become problematic, so it’ll be interesting to explore similar permissive media narratives about “ajumma-fandom“—or curious lack thereof.

Until then, what do you think? Do you feel older Korean men still have a palpable sense of entitlement to women’s bodies, however much it is rationalized as affection? Or is Park Hee-tae’s case an unfortunate exception?

Update: By coincidence, this issue has just been raised in a posting at Reddit’s TwoXChromosomes. An excerpt:

But [my Korean father] would act strangely at times. He commented in public and in private how large my breasts were, and how I could have grown up without him there, how the last time he’d seen me I was so small. He would often say teasingly that he wanted to feel my boobs and he would constantly try but I would be very self conscious and embarrassed and turn away.

I asked him to please stop and get angry. I even cried once because he was making me feel bad and humiliated. He also kept trying to sneak in when I was bathing and kept implying that he wanted to bathe me like when I was young. He would often try to see me when I was changing. I felt very conflicted and always refused. I felt revolted by the whole thing.

Anyway, I admitted to my grandmother that I had felt strange, and kind of traumatized by this behavior. She immediately responded with, “You’re wrong about this. This is normal behavior in South Korea, and you’re just seeing this in the wrong light because you’re American. Your father has a temper problem, but he’s a pure person. I’m one hundred percent sure that he just was being a loving father.”

Read the rest there, as well as the numerous comments. Again, there’s quite a debate as to how common such excuses and rationalizations are in Korea (or not).

Update 2: Clearing out my archives, I came across the following case from October 2007:

An appellate court gave the “not guilty” verdict to a father who had touched his 11-year-old stepdaughter’s breasts, saying it was a “sign of affection.”

Kim, 43, was married in 1996. He became the stepfather of his wife’s daughter, whom he treated as his own child. He had often showed her affection through touching, which the girl did not used to consider as unpleasant…

…However, the Seoul High Court only acknowledged the domestic abuse [of his wife]. He was given a two-year suspended jail term and 160 hours of community service. It ruled: “Kim’s act was a rather excessive sign of affection spurred by alcohol.”

The court made this decision based on the fact that the girl had not reached puberty yet and previously had not felt uncomfortable about such acts as sleeping next to her and touching her hips.

Read the full article at the Korea Times or Waygook.