Reading The Lolita Effect in Korea, Part 4: A Wave of Middle School Girls Wearing Make-up…Is it all Girl Groups’ Fault?

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It’s such a struggle being a feminist parent.

I have two daughters: Alice, born in June 2006, and Elizabeth, born in August 2008. Fortunately, Elizabeth at least is just fine in the girl-power department, and is “second-sex” to no-one. Rather, it’s sex that comes a far-distant second to catering to her demands 24/7, but let’s not go there.

Alice however, will regularly stroll down the toy aisle at the supermarket, and loudly proclaim that she doesn’t like the black and blue cars and trucks on one side because “they’re for boys”, to which I’ll have to gently remind her – yet again – that she actually has many she regularly plays with at home. She’s also started constantly posing and asking if she’s pretty, and it’s honestly starting to feel tiresome, almost pedantic to always reply “Yes, and strong and smart too!”.

This literally came to a head yesterday morning when she used those smarts to look for the clip-on earrings that her well-meaning but misguided kindergarten had given her for Children’s Day, eventually devising an elaborate system of stools and chairs to climb to the top of the chest of drawers and see if we’d hidden them there. Very proud of herself for finding them, she jumped on my face at 6:00am to wake me up and show them off (source, right).

I didn’t scold her though (at least not for the earrings), as nothing could faze me after seeing what had been done to the poor girls that grace Sonyunara.com (소녀나라; “Maiden Country”), which I’d found the night before while researching this post. Seriously, just take a look for yourself.

But in just a few years, will Alice and then Elizabeth also be among the alleged wave of middle and even elementary school students spending 30 minutes a day applying makeup? Hell no. But will they want to? Probably. Is that a bad thing? That depends. And why are so many students doing it now in particular?

All questions to bear in mind as you read the following story from The Chosunilbo below.^^ Found via Asian Correspondent, it was the second most read “society story” on Naver last week:

[오늘의 세상] 초등생까지 화장 열풍… 학교, 두 손 들었다

[Today's World] Even Elementary Schools Raise Hands in Surrender at Wave of Students Using Make-up…

지나친 ‘얼짱 신드롬’… ‘걸그룹’들이 큰 영향 줘… 등교시간에도 30분씩 화장 / Excessive “Best-Face Syndrome”…Girl groups’ big influence…Even at school, spending 30 minutes at a time applying cosmetics

학칙 있으나마나… 화장하는 아이들 워낙 많아… 쉬는 시간 화장실은 파우더룸 / Whether or not there’s school regulations…Children are putting far too much on…In break times, the toilets become powder rooms

식약청의 경고… “어린이들은 피부 약해 트러블 생길 위험 크다”/ The Korean FDA warns…”Children’s skin is weak, and there is a big danger of problems developing”

“그 틴트(입술에 색을 내는 화장품의 일종) 나도 발라 볼래” / “Let me put on that tint too (tint: a kind of cosmetic that gives color to lips)”
“와~오렌지색 되게 예쁘다” / “Wow~the orange is really pretty”

( Source. Discussed here)

경 남지역 여자 중학교에 근무하는 국어교사 김모(34)씨는 며칠 전 교실에 들어서자마자 한숨이 나왔다. 학생들이 각자 화장품 파우치(작은 가방)를 꺼내놓고 ‘신제품 품평회’를 벌이고 있었다. 한 학생의 파우치 속엔 파우더, BB크림, 틴트, 아이라이너, 마스카라, 매니큐어 등이 가득 들어 있었다.

A few days ago, Kim Mo, a 34 year-old Korean teacher at a middle school in Gyeongsang Nam-do, walked into a classroom and saw something that took her breath away. In the classroom, there were children with a makeup pouch each (a small bag) and had taken everything out of them to have a “new makeup show”. In one student’s case, her pouch had been full of such things as powder, BB Cream, tint, eyeliner, mascara, and a manicure set.

화장한 학생들 얼굴도 제각각이었다. 어떤 학생은 파우더를 발라 얼굴이 뽀얗고, 어떤 학생은 액(液)을 발라 쌍꺼풀을 만들고 아이라인까지 그렸다. 틴트를 발라 입술이 빨간 학생들도 여러 명이었다.

Of the students who had put the makeup on, their faces were all different. Some had used powder to make their faces milky-white, while some had used a liquid to give themselves double-eyelids, even going so far as to use eyeliner. Several had also applied tint to their mouths and now had red lips.

쉬는 시간이면 이 학교 화장실은 ‘파우더룸’으로 변한다. 10여명의 학생들이 거울 앞에서 머리를 만지거나 화장을 한다. 서로 눈썹이나 아이라인을 그려주는 것도 흔한 모습이다.

If it’s break time, the toilets change into powder-rooms. Around 10 students will gather in front of the mirror and fix their hair or apply cosmetics. Drawing eyebrows on each other with eyeliner is a common scene.

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김 교사도 처음엔 화장이 학칙에 위배되기 때문에 화장한 학생들이 눈에 띌 때마다 “화장을 하지 마라”고 했다. 클렌징폼을 건네주며 “당장 세수하고 오라”고 하기도 했다. 소지품을 검사해 화장품을 압수하기도 여러 번. 그래도 나아질 기미가 보이지 않자 요즘엔 “어린 나이에 화장하면 피부에 안 좋다”며 달래고 설득한다.

At first, Kim would tell students using cosmetics that they were against school rules, that they shouldn’t use them, and would immediately give them cleansing foam to clean the cosmetics off. She also checked to see if students had any cosmetics and would confiscate them if they did. As there was no sign of improvement however, then these days instead she tries to persuade them that “if you put on cosmetics when you’re young, then your skin won’t be good”.

김 교사는 “화장하는 애들이 워낙 많아 쫓아다니면서 일일이 지적하기도 힘들 정도”라며 “전쟁도 이런 전쟁이 없다”고 말했다.

Kim says “Chasing after students that use too much cosmetics while pointing out everything [that's bad about using cosmetics?] to them is so exhausting”, and that “it’s such a battle”.

학생들은 백화점 화장품 코너에서도 주요 고객으로 떠올랐고, 화장품 회사들은 인기 캐릭터를 그린 상품을 쏟아내고 있다.

Students have risen to become the main customers at cosmetics corners at department stores, and cosmetics companies are having popular [manhwa?] characters on their products.

화장 붐에 교사들 / Teachers Raise Their Hands in Despair at Cosmetics Boom

교사들은 “화장하는 학생이 한 반에 몇 명이라고 세기 힘들 정도”라고 말한다.

Teachers say “there’s so many students using makeup in each class, it’s difficult to count them all”.

서울의 한 중학교 1학년 담임교사는 “학생들끼리 마스카라나 아이라이너를 생일 선물로 주고받을 정도로 화장에 대한 관심이 많다”며 “초등학생 때부터 화장을 시작해 피부가 어른처럼 엉망인 애들이 갈수록 많아진다”고 말했다.

One homeroom teacher for a first-grade middle-school class [for students roughly 13-14 years old] said “Students are interested enough in mascara and eyeliner to give them to each other for birthday presents”, and that “There are many students that, starting to wear makeup in elementary school, are ruining their skin like adults”.

학 부모들은 걱정이다. 중학교 2학년 자녀를 둔 김순옥씨는 작년부터 딸아이가 각종 화장품을 사 모으는 것을 보고 깜짝 놀랐다. 김씨의 딸은 바쁜 등교시간에도 30분씩 스킨·로션 등 기초 화장품부터 BB크림, 파우더까지 정성껏 바른다. 김씨가 야단을 치며 화장을 못하게 했더니 딸은 “화장을 안 하면 부끄러워서 학교에 못 가겠다”고 반항했다. 김씨는 “딸아이가 사춘기여서 그러려니 했지만 공부에 대한 집중력이 떨어지는 것 같아서 걱정”이라고 말했다.

Parents of students are worried. Kim Soon-ok, a mother of a 2nd grade middle school student [14 or 15 years old], has been very surprised at how her daughter has been buying and collecting all kinds of makeup since last year. Despite being busy, every school day she spends 30 minutes at a time applying everything from toner, lotion, and other basic cosmetics to BB cream and powder. Kim says that she scolded her daughter to make her stop using it, but her daughter resisted and replied that “If I don’t wear makeup, I’ll be embarrassed and won’t be able to go to school”. She added that “although this sort of thing is natural for a girl entering puberty, I worry that her ability to concentrate on her studies is decreasing”.

(Source)

이처럼 학생들의 화장 문제가 심각해지자 얼마 전 식약청은 교육청과 학교에 색조 화장품 등의 사용을 자제하게 해달라는 요청문을 보내기도 했다. 식약청 화장품정책과 양준호 사무관은 “어린이들은 어른보다 피부가 약해 립스틱이나 매니큐어 등 색조 화장품을 사용하면 피부 트러블이 생길 수 있어 조심해야 한다”고 말했다.

Accordingly, the FDA sent schools and the Ministry of Education a letter requesting that they restrict student’s use of color make-up, and so on. Yang Jun-ho, and official within in the FDA’s Cosmetics Policy Department, said “Children’s skin is weaker than that of adults, and so if they use lipstick, manicures, or color makeup they have a [greater?] chance of skin problems developing, and should be careful”.

과도한 ‘얼짱 신드롬’ / Excessive “Best-Face Syndrome”

성적이 상위권이거나 모범적인 아이들이 화장하는 경우도 늘고 있다. 이처럼 학생들 사이에 화장이 널리 유행하는 현상에 대해 전문가들은 ‘얼짱 신드롬’과 10대 멤버들이 많은 ‘걸그룹’이 큰 영향을 미치고 있다고 분석한다. 건국대 이동혁 사범대 교수는 “요즘 10대들은 과거 세대보다 자신을 잘 포장해서 당당하게 드러내려고 하는 성향이 강하다”며 “그런 학생들의 특성이 외모를 중시하는 사회적 분위기와 어우러져 나타나는 현상 같다”고 말했다. 한국청소년활동진흥원 김용대 부장은 “예뻐지고 싶어하는 것은 사춘기 여학생들의 자연스러운 특징이지만 화장을 통해 자기만족을 추구하려는 청소년의 집단적 현상은 심각한 문제가 아닐 수 없다”고 말했다.

Even model students with high grades and rankings are increasingly using makeup. An expert on this phenomenon attributes this “beauty-face syndrome” to the influence of girl groups with members in their teens. Professor Lee Dong-hyuk of the Education Department of Konkuk University says “compared to past generations, these days social trends mean that teenagers attach a lot of importance to their appearance and want to show them off.” And Kim Young-dae, head of the Korea Youth Work Agency, says “it is a natural trait of female students entering adolescence to want to look pretty, but this mass of girls trying to find satisfaction and fulfillment through make up is a serious problem”.

Writer: 김연주 / Kim Yeon-ju – carol@chosun.com

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While the headline clearly exaggerates a little by mentioning elementary school students, only then to talk about middle school ones, that’s probably one of the better articles I’ve read in the notoriously tabloid Korean media (update: apparently that same tabloid media has considerably lowered my standards!^^). Is the popularity of makeup among students as recent as the article suggests though? Let’s discuss that in a moment. First, let’s see what Meenakshi Durham has to say about cosmetics in The Lolita Effect itself, the book that inspired this ongoing series (p. 126):

Studies have suggested that little girls enjoy emulating fashion trends, using makeup, and attracting boy’s attention by wearing skimpy clothes. In social settings where girls are not going to be penalized or targeted for these behaviors, it’s easy to see how these things could be completely harmless, fun, or even empowering. Clothing and makeup aren’t problematic.

While I wasn’t joking earlier about what I saw on Sonyunara, reading that the night before was the real reason I didn’t (visibly) react negatively to seeing my daughter wearing earrings: children are always going to emulate what they see adults and/or other role models doing. Rather, it’s how we adults react to that that is the problem:

It’s the corollary assumption – that youth is sexy, that little girls are sexy, and that because of that they can be seen as having the same sexual awareness as adults – that’s of real concern. The problem is not with children, but with adults: with marketers who knowingly sell products and images with powerful sexual overtones to young girls, and with adults who then interpret girls’ bodies as sexually available. And there’s a larger, social problem, too, in that because of the increased sexualization of girlhood, children are engaging in sexual activity at younger and younger ages. This has fallout that is expensive both to the kids and to society as a whole.

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At first, that probably sounds much more relevant to the US and other Western countries than it does to “sexually conservative” Korea. But you may be surprised. Not so much that Korean children too are engaging in sexual activity at younger and younger ages of course, albeit not quite at the rates of their US counterparts, but rather that the Korean age of consent is 13 (see here then here), and that Korea has a huge teenage-prostitution problem, known as wonjo gyoje (원조 교제).

Moreover, not only is this exacerbated by the extremely low age of consent ensuring that many clients are not prosecuted, let alone teachers that have sexual relationships with their students, but until very recently, the Korean public – with important exceptions such as music columnist Kim Bong-hyeon and Professor Sooh-ah Kim at Seoul National University (see abstract below) –  was generally reluctant to acknowledge the increasing sexualization of particularly girl groups’ clothing and choreography in recent years, what effects that might have on teenagers, and, however indirectly and/or or marginally, on sustaining demand for the teenage-prostitution industry.

And if they were reluctant to discuss the music videos, then naturally there was a similar reluctance to discuss the same in ads featuring teenage members of girl groups:

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As discussed elsewhere, Korean entertainment companies have strong incentives to sexualize both girl and boy’s groups clothing and choreography in order to help them stand out from other groups, and they also have financial incentives for groups to endorse as many products as possible; in a symbiotic relationship, this naturally combines well and perpetuates the Korean advertising industry’s heavy reliance on the use of celebrities.  Consequently, not only does the number of ads featuring girl group members likely show a direct relationship to the proliferation of girl groups in recent years, but also they too are increasingly sexualized, and – crucially – naturally have messages that resonate with teenage girls. After all, this is the heart of the Lolita Effect: that especially cosmetic and fashion companies want younger and younger girls to embrace the notion that hypersexual body display and obtaining a narrowly defined physical ideal are at the core of – nay, the only things required for – social and romantic success, and that these can best be achieved through purchasing those companies’ products.

This logic, of course, is nothing new. But, if you can forgive my naivety, I’ll never cease to be amazed at the audacity at some of the ensuing advertisements. On the far left in the school uniform advertisement above for example (discussed in more detail here), Victoria of the group f(x) is praised for her height, thinness, and, well, large breasts and buttocks (all of which is contained in “쭉쭉빵빵”, the old term for “S-line“). Meanwhile, in another one further up the page (this one) fellow group member Sulli (17) says “Romance will start in a semester without pimples”, and in the video below that she proclaims the efficacy of using skincare products to get your man over other methods such as: getting cosmetic surgery to get double eyelids; working on getting shiny, billowing hair; or even getting an S-line.

Granted, correlation doesn’t mean causation, and one additional factor may be the considerable relaxing of many rules about school uniforms over the past decade (skirt lengths are 10-15cm shorter than in 2000 for example, which – sigh – the Korean Federation of Teachers Association says “can make students more vulnerable to crimes”). But…naah. Provided the report is accurate, then of course middle school girls are suddenly wearing make-up because all these girl groups are suddenly endorsing them. It would simply be a bizarre coincidence otherwise.

(Source: unknown)

What to do about it? Beyond educating children on the hows and whys of advertising and/or forcibly taking their cosmetics off them, I’m open to suggestions. One think I certainly don’t think will work though, is complaining to the companies themselves, which have a strong vested interest in making their products appeal to young girls as explained. Indeed, this was recently indirectly demonstrated by Iconix Entertainment, the producer of the very popular Korean cartoon Pororo the Little Penguin (뽀롱뽀롱 뽀로로) above, which, despite the pleas of Korean parents, besieged by their children demanding breads and cakes like those in the show, politely declined to depict the characters eating healthier meals (I believe the characters are also on all manner of junk foods). And God knows how they would have reacted to my own suggestion that pink Loopy above, the only female character in the first season, do something other than constantly make said breads and cakes for the boys.

For more on the trails and tribulations of being a feminist parent, then I recommend following Baby Gender Diary on Twitter here, in their own words “A Mother and Father. Tweeting about our 3 year old girl and 6 month old boy and how people treat them differently”, and/or purchasing Cinderalla Ate My Daughter by Peggy Orenstein, next in my own wishlist. Or, for more posts in the “Reading The Lolita Effect in Korea” series, please see below.

The “Reading the Lolita Effect in Korea” series: