Hyundai Fit-Shaming Korean Girls

“In the 18th century, it was often assumed…that women were incapable of rational or abstract thought. Women, it was believed, were too susceptible to sensibility and too fragile to be able to think clearly.”

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

These days, I’m generally loathe to lead with quotes. Especially when I’m forced to admit I haven’t read A Vindication of the Rights of Woman since university, and had to rely on its Wikipedia article instead.

But the video below deserves the hyperbole. Because ten years ago, I wrote a post about the widespread practice of calf-reduction surgery in Korea. It really got to me, learning about the literal slicing away of muscle and nerves to make legs slimmer and more “feminine” and “attractive.”

Afterwards, the women literally have to learn how to walk again. Why, oh why, is this still a thing?

For sure, technically Hyundai isn’t promoting operations. But it is contributing to their normalization by reminding everyone that muscular calves are “ugly,” thereby discouraging schoolgirls from exercising.

Like my 12 year-old daughter, who starts middle-school in two weeks. Thanks, Hyundai.

Part of a series (#1, #2, #3, #4) for cars fitted with Hyundai’s “SmartSense” system, the voiceover for the segment with the schoolgirl says:

우리 산중턱여고 나왔잖아

3년내내 아침마다 등산한 것 기억나?

이제 다왔다 올려다보면 고지가 저~기야.

그러다 문든 내 종아리를 봤는데,

헉 다리가 이게 뭐냐?!!

Our girls’ high school was on a mountainside.

Do you remember climbing it every morning for three years?

I’ve arrived, but if I look up I’m still not at the top.

Then at the gates I happened to look at my leg…

OMG, what’s this on it?!!

Are Korean girls and women still shamed for muscular legs though? Please let me know your own thoughts and experiences in the comments. It’s been ten years, so I would just love to learn that it’s actually a very outdated stereotype, and that Hyundai is just being lazy by relying on it.

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If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

South Korean men lead the world’s male beauty market. Will the West ever follow suit?

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes. Photo by mentatdgt from Pexels

My email contribution to Jessica Rapp’s piece for CNN. Who told her that if you ask me about one of my pet topics, I’ll happily type away for hours, even if only a few lines will make it into the final article? Confess!

  1. What has South Korean beauty done in terms of redefining masculinity and how has that space changed?

I would argue that the South Korean beauty industry has generally been much more reactive than a driver of trends and redefinitions. In particular, while the kkotminam (lit. “flower beautiful man”) phenomenon of the mid-2000s has now become so mainstreamed as a male beauty ideal that the term has fallen into disuse, it only appears to have been an invention of the beauty industry. In fact, it was overwhelmingly the result of changing women’s tastes, who were already very much changing the public conversation about sexual norms and beauty ideals from the mid-1990s, and who were heavily influenced themselves by the influx of (surprisingly popular) homoerotic yaoi manga from Japan after a ban on their import was lifted in 1998. Also, many of the first male celebrities to be branded with the kkotminam label in fact generally rejected it, and even those that did take advantage of it still made sure to buff up and show off their bodies regularly, lest the label raise questions about their masculinity and heterosexuality.

In that vein, it is actually Korea’s prolonged economic slump, especially its jobless-driven recovery from the 2008 financial crisis, that is primarily driving male beauty trends today. Specifically, Korea now has the highest youth unemployment rate since the catastrophic Asian Financial Crisis of the late-1990s, and has always had too many graduates (Korea has one of the highest numbers of university entrance rates in the world) chasing after ever-diminishing numbers of jobs at conglomerates like Samsung and LG. In this cut-throat environment, 20 and 30-somethings are all about improving their “specs” with extra degrees, courses, internships, English-language qualifications, and so on, and the beauty industry has been quick to address the need to get a step up on the competition through improving one’s looks too. Lest this sound like exaggeration, bear in mind that Korea and Japan are the only countries in the OECD where it is routine to require photographs on resumes, and accordingly the Korean internet is full of forums where people can upload their pictures and receive constructive criticism on their appearance and photoshopping suggestions before they submit their job applications.

A selection of resume forms, seen in an Osaka Daiso last August.
  1. What role does K Pop play into the male beauty culture?

Given all the overseas media attention focused on the Korean Wave, and especially recently on the phenomenal success of the boy-band BTS, it is very easy to overlook the fact that K-pop isn’t actually all that popular in Korea itself, by any metric. Also, there are huge generational and regional differences in male beauty culture, with generally only young Seoulites embracing the new beauty trends that get all the media attention. (Overseas K-pop fans that visit Korea are often surprised and disappointed that most Korean men look nothing like their idols!).

Much more influential then, are the aforementioned job-hunting pressures, as well as men’s almost universally-shared experience of military conscription. Facing two years in the harsh wind and sun along the DMZ, these days conscripts quickly learn to become avid users of sunscreen especially. A gateway drug, if you will, to more involved and varied skin routines once they leave the military.

That said, K-pop has been a thing for over a decade now, so all Korean 20-somethings have grown-up under its influence. It is also true that Korea has a uniquely celebrity-obsessed media culture, to an extent that is difficult to appreciate without living in the country. Over 60% of television commercials feature celebrities for instance (compared to 10-20% in countries like the US and UK), and they appear on TV shows far more often than their Western counterparts. Moreover, most of the men you see when you flick the channels are indeed young K-pop stars, as their entertainment agencies have strong incentives to accept offers of endorsement deals for them, which are far more lucrative than music sales. Naturally, many of these deals are for selling male beauty products. But they are no less influential if they are in ads aimed at women instead (they have increasingly appeared even in lingerie ads for instance), as if Korean women increasingly come to demand the beauty standards and routines of male idols in their romantic partners, then ordinary Korean men will only be too eager to attempt to provide.

Given K-pop stars’ pervasive, ubiquitous presence in Korean daily life then, it is very difficult to imagine the beauty ideals they represent and advocate don’t have some influence on the Korean public, regardless of their personal music tastes!

  1. When we think of male “beauty” in Korea, are we thinking of it in the traditional way that women wear a full face of makeup? Or is the mainstream more about skin care?

The emphasis is overwhelmingly on skincare, based on their previously-mentioned, formative experiences in the military. Unfortunately though, unrepresentative Korean men that do spend lots of money and time on cosmetics are often featured in clickbaity foreign media reports about male beauty in Korea, thereby perpetuating “crazy Asian” Orientalist stereotypes.

Please note that I said spending money on “cosmetics” however. Spending significant amounts of one’s income on minor cosmetic surgery like a double-eyelid operation is very normal and mainstream for Korean men now, and is arguably considered no more or less unusual of an necessary investment in a valuable spec than in, say, the English lessons required for a high TOEFL score.

This was not always the case for Korean men though, so it’s by no means impossible that male cosmetics use will likewise become increasingly mainstreamed in the future too. My personal feeling is that most Korean men will balk at the huge amount of time, effort, and money that Korean women routinely have to spend on cosmetics, but who knows? Korea is a rapidly changing place, and Koreans love to defy foreigners’ convenient stereotypes of them.

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If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

Hey Women! There’s Cheese Here!

Estimated reading time: 2 minutes.

Seen in a samgyeopsal restaurant one day. It reads:

Hey women! There’s cheese here!

Hey men! There’s lots of women here!

Come in right away!

Is gendered cheese a thing in Korea though? For dieting purposes certainly, but in main meals? With rice even?

I don’t like the combination myself. So, if I see students chomping away at cheesy versions of bibimbap, kimbap, and ramyeon as I enter the university cafeterias, that tells me I’m going to have to cajole the staff into making mine without. And, after many quick head counts over the years, I’ve seen little difference in the numbers of men and women eating them.

What do you think? Was the copywriter onto something? Or would their talents and ingenuity be better served elsewhere? ;)

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If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

Korean Billiards Federation Orders Female Referees to Wear Skirts

Because nothing brings more viewers to your sport than the chance to watch women wearing clothes they hate, while struggling in them to do their actual jobs.

Estimated reading and viewing time: 4 minutes.

My translation of the transcript for this KBS news report:

학교뿐 아니라 스포츠계의 성 문제도 참 끝이 없습니다.

대한당구연맹이 여성 심판들에게 치마를 입으라고 지시했습니다.

왜 그런 지시를 했냐고 물었더니 치마를 입으면 반응이 좋았다는 황당한 답변을 했다고 합니다.

방준원 기자입니다.

It’s not just in schools, but also in the world of sports where there’s no end to problems of sexual discrimination and harassment.

The Korean Billiards Federation has ordered its female referees to wear skirts.

When asked why, the ridiculous response was that this gets a favorable reaction [from audiences].

Bang Jun-won reports.

[리포트] 국제 당구대회 여성심판, 당구공의 이물질을 닦고, 공 위치를 확인하는 등 당구대에 바짝 붙어야는 경우가 많습니다.

치마가 불편할 수밖에 없습니다.

Reporter Bang: In international billiard competitions, it is often necessary for referees to clean the balls of any foreign substances and to check their positions, requiring them to always stand close to the table. This is uncomfortable and inconvenient to do in a skirt.

[류지원/당구연맹 심판 : “공 튀어가면 가서 잡고, 닦아서 포인트 있는 부분에 재배치를 해야 해요. 그러면 치마를 입으면 엎드렸을 때 뒤가 어떻게 될까요?”]

Referee Ryu Ji-won: “When a ball comes off the table, we have to grab it [from the floor], wipe it, and put it back in the correct position on the table, [which often requires lying over it to reach]. How are we expected to do all this in a skirt?”

보통 바지를 입던 여성 심판들이 치마를 입기 시작한 건 2017년부터입니다.

당구연맹의 복장 규정은 변한 게 없는데, 이유는 심판위원장 때문이었습니다.

2017년 취임한 심판위원장 권 모 씨가 여성 심판들은 치마를 입으라고 지시한 겁니다.

Normally, female referees wore pants, but this changed from 2017. Not because of any changes in the federation’s rules regarding attire, but because of a demand by newly-appointed referee chairperson Kwon (probably a man, but this is not indicated—James).

Source: Topstarnews

권 씨가 보낸 SNS 메시지입니다.

‘여자심판은 스커트를 준비하라’ ‘녹화방송에 여자 스커트는 필수’라고 합니다.

스커트를 안 입으면 주심 대신 부심만 할 거라고 강조하기도 했습니다.

현직 심판 류지원 씨는 치마 입기를 거부했습니다.

그 뒤 주요 경기에서 배제됐고, 전국대회 15회 참가 정지 제재도 받았습니다.

The demand was announced via social networking services. “Female referees prepare skirts; they will now be required for all games that are broadcast” it said. It went on to stress that “Female referees that do not comply will be demoted to assistant referees.”

Ryu Ji-won refused. For this she was punished during the 15th National Championships.

[류지원/당구연맹 심판 : “(16강 경기부터)딱 1경기 주심으로 배치가 되고, 나머지는 다 부심이었고, 그나마 결승 준결승 경기에는 아예 포함도 안 됐어요.”]

Referee Ryu Ji-won: During the quarter finals, I was only allowed to be referee for one game, being demoted to assistant referee in the others. I was also completely excluded from the semi-finals and finals.

심판위원장에게 치마 복장을 지시한 이유를 물었습니다.

[권○○/당구연맹 심판위원장/음성변조 : “처음 (치마) 착용하고 난 이후에 주변 반응이 너무 좋았기 때문에, 착용했던 심판들이 따로 요청한 것도 있고.”]

권 위원장은 당구 심판이 치마를 입었던 사례가 있어 제의했던 것뿐이라고 추가로 해명했습니다. 류 씨는 권 위원장을 협박 혐의로 고소했습니다.

Chairperson Kwon was asked the reason for the new dress requirement. They replied: “The first time we tried this, the reaction was very positive. Because of that, the female referees themselves made the recommendation,” further explaining that “that was the only reason for this new requirement.”

Ryu is now suing Kwon for intimidation. (End)

Hat tip: 젠더 뉴스 읽기@readinggendernews

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If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

Looking For Recommendations: Potential Interviewees for Topic of “Sexualized Bullying Among Men in the Military in South Korea”

Estimated reading time: 2 minutes. Photo by Sebastiaan Stam from Pexels.

I’ve been asked to pass on the following, prompted by my post “Sex as Power in the South Korean Military” and its update. Unfortunately, I haven’t worked on the topic in many years, making me an unhelpful interviewee myself, so the least I could do for Shao Yuan was to help him in his search. Please get in touch with him if you know something about the subject, and/or pass this post on to someone else who might! Thanks!

I am Shao Yuan, an undergraduate student completing my Bachelor of Arts (Double Major in History and Psychology) currently looking into conducting my Honours research on the topic of “Male-to-Male Sexualized Bullying in Conscript Armies in East Asia”. One of the key countries that will be explored in this research will be South Korea, hence this post today.

As part of the Honours requirement, students in the History department have to complete the prerequisite course HIST492 History, Theory and Methods course that intends to train students up with the research skills required for completing an Honours project based on their planned Honours topic. Under the supervision of Dr. Jessica Stites Mor, one of the assignments we are expected to complete would be a podcast interview with an expert regarding our research topic. With that, I hope to ask for recommendations on potential experts to interview on the abovementioned research topic.

Should you agree to participate in my interview, I’d be happy to send you a list of prepared questions which I’d be asking you through the interview. These would be basic questions in relation to the trend of sexual violence taking place in South Korea’s military back then and even up until today, to some of the developments that have taken place since the suicide of the soldier, Kim, that had taken place in 2003. As the interview will be conducted through either an online call or a video conference call, it’ll also be great to hear from you on some of your available dates in the coming week, should you be willing to take on the interview.

Please do feel free to contact me at shaoyuan.chong@ubc.ca should you have any queries on my research, assignment or recommendations. Should you feel comfortable to speak about this topic, please do feel free to reach out to me.

Otherwise, thank you so much for taking the time to read through this post, and have a wonderful day ahead!

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

#MeToo to meat: no more soju calendars with nearly nude women in South Korea

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes. Photo by Tan Danh from Pexels.

No, not normal soju posters and calendars, but these ones (NSFW) and these ones by Hite-Jinro and Oriental Brewing respectively. I’m not surprised seeing them in restaurants (NSFW) made so many people uncomfortable (seriously, where would you look?), and wasn’t exaggerating when I was quoted in Crystal Tai’s article that “assuming that pictures of nude women [is] all that is required to [get people to change soju brands] is just patronising and insulting.” Perhaps that’s why my tweet about them below, a simple link to a news article, gained such traction:

Please read Crystal’s article for more information on what all the fuss is about. And, for even more information, here are some of my original email interview questions and answers:

Q) When did you first notice soju posters of women and such calendars around you? Do you remember the first time you saw one?

I noticed them immediately after I arrived in Korea in 2000, because they were ubiquitous; the level of alcohol advertising in New Zealand couldn’t begin to compare. I didn’t pay them much attention until about six years later however, because all of a sudden many soju companies started depicting women in revealing clothing and more sexualized poses in their posters, which was a big shift from the virginal depictions of the previous two decades. Soon after, this trend was further accelerated by the liberal use of K-pop stars as endorsement models, as gaining notoriety through revealing campaigns was and remains a win-win for both their entertainment companies and the soju companies.

That said, soju posters are just another means to “consume” a celebrity by fans, who generally must assume the same persona whether they’re in a talkshow, MV, or a soju commercial.* So, despite the trend, by no means are all soju models sexualized today: “innocent” IU, Son Na-eun of Apink, and especially Suzy (of the former Miss A) all tend to be depicted virginally in their own campaigns, the latter despite her having been in several high-profile relationships.

(*Hat-tip to to friend and SNU Associate Professor Olga Fedorenko, whose book chapter I was channeling just a little too directly there!)

Q) What do you think such images mean to Korean men? Why do you think they are often surrounded by such images at bars, pubs, gogijibs (meat restaurants) etc?

It’s unlikely they hold any special meaning that they wouldn’t hold for men of any other nationality. As for their being surrounded by such images however, this is likely because Korea is in many ways a very homosocial society, with many unspoken but strongly-defined separate spaces for men and women. Note that most middle and high-schools were single-sex two decades ago, that almost all Korean men do approximately two years of military service, and that Korean women still struggle to retain their jobs after childbirth, those that succeed often having to leave mandatory after-work drinking gatherings early to look after their children while their male colleagues continue drinking elsewhere. Consequently, while coffee shops are strongly associated with women, and feature in many complaints and negative stereotypes about them, the atmosphere in bars and restaurants that sell a lot of soju can sometimes feel very off-putting for anyone that isn’t a middle-aged Korean man.

(Image: This interpretation in this video analysis is maybe too much. Yet I can never pass Na-eun’s poster below without thinking about that bottleneck on the left!)

Do you think that the Me-too movement and recent feminist movements really play a big role in Hite-Jinro’s decision to discontinue such calendars?

Given the recent news that “racequeens” are going to be phased out of the racing industry,* as well as calls to do the same with cheerleaders at sporting events, then the timing can hardly be a coincidence. But it may also be a convenient excuse for decisions already made. Unless revealing soju posters are also part of a creative and memorable campaign—which these calendars definitely are not—then it’s extremely debatable whether they ever have any real influence on Korean men’s consumption choices. In my own experience, their tastes in soju tend to be very regional, and they tend to stick to the same brands throughout their lives. Assuming that pictures of nude women are all that is required to change their minds is just patronizing and insulting, so I’m both glad and not particularly surprised that alternative strategies are now being attempted.

(*My mistake: they’re being phased out in Formula 1, but I don’t know enough about the industry to judge what—if any—impact that will have on racing events in Korea. See here for an article about the impact in Japan.)

Do you think other alcohol companies will follow suit as well? And do you think this means the provocative celebrity posters and campaigns will change as well?

No. The calendars by Hite-Jinro were the only ones to feature nudity, and the “sporty” ones by Oriental Brewery were also much more revealing than average. But most soju posters aren’t particularly any more sexually-objectifying of women than Korean advertising in general, because that is already pervasive in the industry as a whole. To wit: in a 2015 study, women were 5.9 times more likely than men to not be fully dressed in Hong Kong television ads, 22.89 times more likely in Japanese ads, and 56.83 times more likely in South Korean ads. By no means, can soju ads be the only culprit in the Korean case!

And if that’s still not enough, here’s a small sample of related posts I’ve written over the years:

Meanwhile, I hope everyone had a happy new year, and sorry my posting has been so erratic. But I have big writing plans for 2019!

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

“W코리아가 여성을 화보에 담아내는 방식이 마음에 든다. 자기다운 모습으로 카메라를 응시하는 여성 모델들.”

Estimated reading time: 2 minutes. Image sources: @pompomiya

“I like the way W Korea portrays women. Look at the models here all staring back at the camera in their own ways.”

If I die tomorrow, my biggest regret will be never completing my epic series on the queer female gaze in K-pop. No, really. So, while I’m up to my eyeballs with that then, please allow me a quick break today by indulging myself in @pompomiya’s tweet about W Korea‘s July issue. Their point about controlling the viewer’s gaze really resonates with those made about Titian’s Venus of Urbino in my Boobs, Butts, and Biceps post, and is a helpful reminder of what exactly makes that painting so captivating. So too, of why these photos have 6,600 retweets so far.

Three of the models in them are instantly recognizable as K-pop star Amber Liu, volleyball player Kim Yeon-gyeong, and actor Han Ye-seul, but the woman in blue was a mystery. Her name is DJ Seesea (@uuuuman), and the most information about her online seems to be available at W Korea itself, either in their (Korean) article or video interview.

This is the longest performance of hers I was able to find:

Frankly, most of those tracks aren’t to my taste. But the MIXMIX TV channel itself has many more male and female DJs to choose from, and can be good background music to work to when you need a change from Chillhop Music, lofi hip hop radio, and 24/7 lofi hip hop radio. Also, DJ Seesea mentions in her interview that she used to belong to an all female-DJ line-up called Bichinda (Facebook, Twitter), sadly now dismantled but with interesting things to say about the changes more female DJs bring to clubs and the attitudes of audiences, so I’m glad W Korea gave DJ Seesea the chance to give that topic a little more exposure this summer.

Please hit me up if you know anything more about DJ Seesea or Bichinda, or about any other interesting female Korean DJs. Also, make sure to check out 6 Alternative Female Musicians For Fans Of K-Pop at Nylon, many of whom I do like and am eagerly looking for a track or MV to highlight here. Please let me know if you have any suggestions!

Update: Here’s DJ Seesea’s Soundcloud playlist.

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)