Announcement

Source: Sebastian Voortman@Pexels; CC0 license

Just a very quick update to let everyone know that, tragically, my father-in-law died in an accident earlier today. Which means I’m very busy and stressed right now sorry, so I’ll just quickly say that my planned comeback on Monday will have to be delayed a few more weeks unfortunately.

Until then, thank you very much for your condolences and for your patience, and I promise to be overanalyzing pop-culture with you all again soon (*hugs*). Take care!

Thanks for Reading for 10 Years Everybody! Please Help Me Keep Writing for Another 10!

Source: Pakutaso

It’s the blog’s 10 year anniversary this month. But I’m just too busy to celebrate!

Classes only finished at my university a few days ago. My Gender in South Korea course starts at HUFS in less than 3 weeks. Then I’ll be in Seoul teaching that for 4 weeks, then I’m going on a quick holiday to the UK for 2 weeks (our family’s first overseas trip in 9 years!), then it will be the next semester already, and then my mother will be staying with me for 2 weeks.

So, if there was ever a good time to take a break from blogging, now would be it. And I deserve one after 10 years too!

Don’t worry though, I’ll still be very much around, posting links on Twitter and on the blog’s Facebook page as per usual, and responding to comments. But the next post won’t be up until mid-September.

Until then, thanks very much for reading and for all of your comments over the years, and I hope you all have a great summer. Also, please consider helping me keep the blog going for another 10 years, by clicking on the button below and making a small donation. I do hate to ask, but then keeping the blog going at all costs me $78 a year, and—well, I only received $5 in donations last year, and in the year before that too. So not asking doesn’t seem to be working much! :D

Thanks again!

Free The Nipple in Korea? Why Not? Uncovering the history of a taboo

Earlier this month, the Korean media ignored a Free the Nipple event held by Womenlink. This lack of coverage is just one reason why the campaign may struggle to take-off in Korea. But stranger things have happened. Once, men too were forbidden from exposing their chests in public. As Korean summers get hotter and drier, soon these double-standards may seem as absurd as no-pants laws and the skirt-length police.
(Source: @womenlink)

Boobs don’t get much love in Korea.

If they’re larger than average, their owners are often criticized for flaunting their femininity, and stereotyped as sexually voracious. Those same women also struggle to find comfortable, attractive bras that will fit them.

This, despite Korean women’s breasts getting larger for decades as Koreans’ diets have changed.

Of course, women the world over struggle with these issues. But it’s not just size, it’s exposure in general, and standards in Korea are that much stricter. As I’m no Picasso explains:

“Base line standard in Korea: If you are showing even the tiniest centimeter of a crack of cleavage, you are not dressed appropriately for work. Shoulders are also largely taboo, although we have noticed this changing a bit this past summer. Even too much exposed skin on the chest above the cleavage mark can be considered risque.

It’s a pain in the ass for girls with larger chests, because it’s really difficult to find garments that won’t show any cleavage, no matter what position you are in. I’ve also had to take to having an army of undershirts on hand, in order to be sure that not even the shadow of a bra can be seen…”

That probably explains why, per capita, more Korean women plump for breast reductions than enlargement or lifting operations. Also, why bust-reducing bras are so popular, despite Northeast-Asian women’s genetic tendency to have much smaller breasts than—for want of a better catch-all term—Western women. I suspect why braletteswhich can only be really worn by women with small breasts—haven’t been available in Korea either, as Korean women may not have considered them concealing enough. (Although this recent campaign to start producing them has been very successful, and this Japanese-sourced one is also making waves.)

In the midst of this, the Korean media and K-pop industries occupy ambivalent positions. On the one hand, the latter stumbled onto a strategy of emphasizing female performers’ legs instead, considered a “safer” body part in Korea and its Asian markets (well illustrated by this classic cartoon, and the surprising modesty of these “sexy dances“), which simultaneously sexualized the girls and women while deflecting criticism. On the other, the entire industry is centered around securing endorsement contracts with the advertising and beauty industries, which have vested interests in creating new markets through encouraging bustier, more revealing beauty standards.

Image Source: Rok Kim. Anonymous source (quoted with permission): “What are you, ladies? Personally I am 가슴 B컵 for Boobs Are Great In All Sizes and 얼굴 F급 for Fucks Given About Your Opinion Are Zero.” (Advertisement Caption: Breasts, D-cup; Face, A-grade.

But these are all necessary generalizations. The reality is messy, undercut by age, class, marital status, motherhood, occupation, and region. Every morning while working on this post, the range of women’s fashions and levels of exposure I witnessed even just on the subway would defy any of the neat conclusions I’d arrived at the night before.

So, two weeks of pondering nipples and breasts later, as one does, the only generalization I’m still confident of making is that all women suffer from the inconveniences—and, ultimately, the dangers—of the double standards of men’s and women’s fashion.

Most of the negative effects I’m aware of have been covered in those earlier links. But I also happen to be a guy, so I would appreciate female readers’ input. One I didn’t know about for instance, because I don’t shop for women’s clothes, one anonymous woman told me:

“When I came back here 5 years ago, I was shocked because…dresses and/or skirts were way too short in general even when they were meant for the ‘office look’. When you buy clothes online, often the pictures are very misleading because companies often use very petite models so dresses/skirts look something of a normal length. I’ve learned it hard way and started to double-check the length. Nowadays I tend to stick with only a few sites when I shop my work clothes. I should probably start exploring offline stores again.

I don’t mind sporting short skirts/dresses every now and then when time & place is right—I just don’t wanna be surprised when I expect to receive something in a normal length for my work.”

Continuing, I’ve just been wearing short-sleeved shirts to work for the last month, and just long-sleeved shirts before that. In contrast, as a Womenlink activist wrote on her placard at the event (see below), women always have to wear unventilated padding to hide their nipples; to wear bras to hide their breasts; to wear vests to hide their bras; and to wear t-shirts to hide their vests.

No wonder my very well-developed, very active 11 year-old daughter is so reluctant to make the transition from her flimsy training bras. Fortunately though, her school has no uniform, whereas many schools that do have one end up slutshame their female students and forcing them to wear such uncomfortable clothing.

Even more alarmingly, in one 2013 survey of Korean police officers, over half considered revealing clothing to be a cause of sexual assault (indicating little had changed from back in 1996). To those who would make fun of and dismiss Free the Nipple and Slutwalk campaigns in response to such attitudes, and continue to police women’s bodies so unfairly, I’m genuinely curious as to where they would draw the lines. Especially if they claim to still support women’s rights. For to whom else but misogynists, could so much shame and blame hinge on an exposed bra strap or visible nipple?

“I dropped a lot of money on a nice bra…one with frills and made of lace, not like all my other ones that I bought from Uniqlo.” / “Minju! You can see your entire bra! Don’t wear a white t-shirt!” Source, above and below: @bambooblock)
“But what about her? That’s the fashion!!” / Fashion you say… / Jeez… [put this on].” Ironic coincidence: this picture of Korean duo Love X Stereo appeared in my Facebook feed as I was translating!

But where did these attitudes come from? Again, the question is more difficult than it appears, and there’s no handy introduction akin to Laura Miller’s “Mammary Mania” chapter in her excellent book on Japanese body aesthetics.

So, I spent most of those last two weeks laying the framework for what may be my own equivalent chapter on Korea someday. Allow me to present the fruits of that research, in the form of themes and trends I’ve identified that any answer must cover, as well as some highlights from new sources I’ve discovered (please let me know if you have any difficulty obtaining copies of the journal articles). As you’ll soon see, there’s a lot of things to consider, and it can be very difficult—even naive and counterproductive—to separate nipple and breast exposure from taboos surrounding other body parts:

For a discussion of late Joseon Dynasty art, notions of eroticism, and dress codes, as well as a great introduction to a painter who turned out to be quite a maverick and social commentator for his time, see Saehyang P. Chung’s “Sin Yunbok’s Women on Tano Day and the Iconography of Common women Washing Clothes by a Stream,” Oriental Art, vol. 47, no. 5 (2001), pp. 55-69. For instance, consider Chung’s description of Women on Tano Day, painted at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries (p. 56; my emphasis):

“[Most striking of all] is the provocative portrayal of semi-nude bathers in the lower left-hand corner, where a woman stands sensually, her face turned in the direction of the beholder. Equally daring is the inclusion of two young monks, who observe the bathers with unequivocally frank poses and facial expressions…Considering that even in the West, the female nude in a contemporary setting—devoid of classical or biblical context (e.g. Diana or Susanna in Her Bath)—did not appear until the 19th century, the representation of bathing women in Sin Yunbok’s painting is all the more remarkable.

(Source: Wikipedia)

You may have noticed that the working woman carrying a load on her head is fully-clothed, but has her breasts exposed. This is because, as explained by Hyung Gu Lynn in “Fashioning Modernity: Changing Meanings of Clothing in Colonial Korea” in the Journal of International and Area Studies (2004; pp. 77-78):

“…during the Chosôn period, clothing was not a unifying medium for all Koreans, but rather a means of social differentiation. Considerable scholarly energy has been directed to the study of the regulations that governed what clothes and colors could be worn by [whom]. The results show, for example, that it was only women of the upper class who wore long coats and head covers called chang-ot when venturing outside. In contrast, commoner women who worked outdoors often wore short chôgori [blouses], which left their breasts exposed for ease in nursing their babies.”

In light of the symbolic and unifying role the hanbok plays for most Koreans today, unfortunately there has been considerable opposition to acknowledging that “uncivilized” aspect of Korean fashion history. For more on the controversy, see “The Bare Facts” by Robert Neff and “Time to sex up Hanbok” by Andrew Salmon at the Korea Times, this AskHistorians thread at Reddit, the comments to this well-known photograph from 1945 (update: also, the comments to this 1920s breastfeeding postcard), “Joseon girls gone wild” at ZenKatsuo, and From Fukuoka for more photos.

For a bare-breasted photography series inspired by—and in some cases directly replicating—Sin Yun-bok’s painting, see The Hanbok Project by photographer Kim Jung-nam and hanbok designer Lee Young-hee.

• In the chapter “Female Images in 1930s Korea: Virtuous Women and Good Mothers” in Visualizing Beauty: Gender and Ideology in Modern East Asia, ed. by Aida Yuen Wong (2012), Yisoon Kim notes that women were infrequently depicted in Korean art, even compared to other Confucian societies, but the new “Paintings of Colonial Women” genre exemplified by Sin Yun-bok briefly changed all that. What she writes about the anonymous picture on the left below however, contradicts the notion that breasts were not at all eroticized, a notion further corroborated by “firm breasts” being included in contemporary lists of beauty ideals (p. 93.):

(Sources: Naver, Daum, Vosub. On the right is a poster for the fanciful 2008 movie Portrait of a Beauty, which re-imagines Sin Yun-bok as a woman in disguise.)

“…[this left] picture recalls Sin Yun-bok’s style except for the absence of ornate hair accessories. Donning a short skirt, which tantalizingly reveals the breasts, the woman lifts one hand to adjust her hairdo. Although the hanbok is designed to fully cover the body, these paintings expose the flesh in strategic places. Sin’s picture [in the center] includes a silver knife, a traditional symbol of chastity, hanging from the shirt as a reminder of the sexual potential of the image. [Paintings of this genre] facilitated carnal fantasy. They could be made to hang on walls like Western pin-ups or portable scrolls for the convenience of private viewing, presumably at men’s leisure.”

Perhaps it was the elite status of the women depicted that made all the difference? Or, if the women depicted were actually low-status gisaeng, because of the novelty of seeing them bare-breasted, as opposed to commoners?

As Hyung Gu Lynn goes on to explain in her article, the adoption of Western clothing during the colonial period also had important class components, as well as becoming tied to anti-colonialism and nationalism. It’s difficult to understand the rise of—and misogyny against—the “New Woman” and “Modern Girl” ideals without those, so it’s worth quoting her at some length (p. 87, my emphases):

“[In addition to modernization bringing] increasing numbers of women out the house and into public spaces…the diffusion of technologies of visual reproduction and the development of the culture of tourism allowed for more men to consume more images of women, further multiplying the number of meanings embedded in a given piece of clothing.

Although increasing numbers of urban men wore Western-style suits, the changes in women’s clothing occurred at a far slower pace. The transition for women from Chosôn period ch’ima [skirt] to the “improved ch’ima” with the shorter skirt hem and the longer tops meant that the visual distinction between upper class women who had hidden under the chang-ot and the common women with exposed faces and breasts was eliminated. However, in the place of the exposed breast as a marker of commoner status, the degree of calf exposure became one of the indicators of female proximity to capitalism and modernity—more leg, more modern.

Students and workers were encouraged to wear shortened skirts and longer tops for their purported practicality in the more mobile world, but the exposed calf sparked heated debate over its sexual implications…The increased visual presence of women in public and the diffusion of romantic love imbued clothing with heightened sexual meaning.”

And (p.88):

“New styles of clothing which exposed more skin, legs in particular, influenced ideas of beauty that extended and encompassed to the shape of the female body. By the mid-1930s, articles on beautifying calisthenics for women that would not appear so out of place in twenty-first century magazines were appearing in the mass publications…Other articles introduced the proper way to put on makeup, what to wear for which occasions, and how to behave in the “modern life,” further supplementing the new definitions and ideals of beauty and grace. The changes in clothing clearly helped shape the sexual meanings imbued in various body parts, providing further evidence that the eroticized body parts and ‘proper’ areas of skin exposure changes with culture and time.

Developments in visual technology and tourism added to the intensified sexuality of clothing. Magazines, movie posters, and postcards distributed consumable images of women in various styles of dress…The complete covering of the female breast in the colonial period gradually eroticized what had previously been merely regarded a body part. The tourist and travel literature usually contained images of kisaeng in P’yôngyang, but in the late colonial period, the women sea divers in Cheju Island became increasingly popular subjects for postcards and photographs, usually pictured with their breasts exposed.

The ‘traditional’ ch’ima chôgori, which may have been the only clothes a Korean woman owned, or consciously wore as a symbol of resistance to colonial rule or as a reflection of class and status, could be perceived merely as an exotic costume by the unknowing male gaze. The multivalency of each piece of clothing allowed the ‘traditional’ female dress to symbolize Korean identity, and at the same time distend the exotic allure of travel in Korea by promising different vistas and enticing females to the male (predominantly Japanese) tourist.”

(Sources: Sturmgeschutz, OhmyNews. Left image is actually of Busan divers.)

Many years ago, I read that older Korean men (and women?) fondly remember those photos of semi-nude Haenyeo (Jeju divers) from when they were children, taken before the divers began wearing wetsuits in the 1950s and 1960s. Unfortunately, I’ve long since lost the source, so it was good to find indirect confirmation in Hyung Gu Lynn’s article. Actual examples of those photographs however, remain surprisingly difficult to find online, the vast majority actually being of Ama divers in Japan. But they’re out there. The one on the left below for instance, is part of a romanticized series from the 1950s according to the source, although the costumes are authentic; that later one on the right, very likely taken for a Jeju postcard, is much more modest, but remains a good example of glamorization and sexualization.

(Sources: 유자향내를 따라서, hansoo7007)

Yisoon Kim provides a good summary of why a new trend of portraying “virtuous” women then arose, with depictions of breastfeeding in particular becoming the main subjects of paintings for the first time (p. 91):

“…[the 1930s were] the height of colonialism, when conservatism and progressiveness coexisted…Fine artists tended to depict the opposites [of the much-criticized Modern Girls], that is, virtuous women who demonstrated chastity and sexual restraint. Modernization was underway…but unfavorable economic conditions inside and outside the country made Koreans wary of change. [Under the conditions of the Great Depression and coming war], the colonized and impoverished Korean nation took comfort in the idea of women carrying out their motherly duties and grooming the next generation for a more prosperous future.”

In a previous chapter, “The Modern Girl as a Contested Symbol in Colonial Korea”, Yeon Shim Chung notes that other reasons for the adoption of the virtuous mother as a nationalist symbol include the facts that most of the new beauty products for the Modern Girls and New Women—as well as the original ideals themselves—came from Japan. Indeed (p. 82):

“Commerce and feminism intersected with colonialism in controversial ways. Korea’s access to Western goods was one vehicle for Japan to prove its utility as a civilizer and modernizer. As voracious consumers of these goods, Modern Girls inadvertently participated in Korea’s colonial subordination to Japan, which entailed [heavily] promoting [to both Koreans and to the West] progressive images of Japan while denigrating Korea as a remote, pre-industrial land…”

Which may have included bare-breasted women in hanbok, as the comment threads linked to earlier suggest, and why many Koreans’ understandable first reaction to seeing them is to dismiss them as Japanese propaganda.

• Most ordinary women entering the newly-created jobs open to them, of course, had no time for men’s criticisms of their newfound professional and sexual freedoms, or the shoehorning of their consumer purchases into narratives of nationalist betrayal. Indeed, as Young Na Kim describes in “Being Modern: Representing the ‘New Woman’ and ‘Modern Girl’ in Korean Art“, Western clothes became the norm by the 1930s (p. 222) “…not because they signified modernity, but because they were practical and comfortable.” Also, and in particular, further examples she gives caution against tendencies in previously mentioned sources that neatly categorize trends and depictions into the decadent 1920s vs. the virtuous 1930s (p. 238):

“One of the characteristics of the Modern Girl was her consciousness of her body. There were now attempts to freely express the physical strength or beauty of woman’s body. Nude paintings, which once were banned from being shown in public, now could be displayed at an exhibition with no restrictions, but they were still depicted in the setting of the artist’s studio. However, there is a photograph of famous dancer Choi Seong-hee [left, below] in 1931 which reveals that she exposed her body half naked in a public performance, as if to declare the freedom of the body. Kang Dae-sok’s photograph of a female nude [the first nude photograph in Korea; right, below] should be also noted in this context, in her stretched posture facing toward the sky as if to embrace the whole world, breaking away from the passive reclining or standing nude form.”

(Sources: knnews, 술취한★북극성)

• Moving rapidly to the postwar era, two easy guides I recommend on the transition to the full adoption of Western-style clothing are: Sunae Park et. al., “The Process of Westernization: Adoption of Western-Style Dress by Korean Women, 1945-1962” in Clothing and Textiles Research Journal, Vol. 11, Issue 3, 1993, which has more on the practical considerations behind the shift, and Karlyne A. Anspach and Yoon Hee Kwon, “Western Dress Styles Adopted by Korean Women” in Home Economics Research Journal, Vol. 4, No.4, June 1976.

Next, there is the oft-mentioned mini-skirt fever prompted by singer Yoon Bok-hee, hemlines reaching a peak of 30cm above the knee in 1968. But in my opinion, the liberalization of Korean clothing and attitudes then is exaggerated. While more revealing imagery from the period tends to stick out, it may not be representative, not unlike the aforementioned wide gap between the busty ideals promoted by the Korean media and ordinary Korean women’s attitudes today. Also, not only was Yoon branded a “public enemy” for her bravado, and had eggs thrown at her the very same day she revealed her mini-skirt, but this was hardly the swinging ’60s in Korea. In fact, the country was desperately poor at the time (less than 1 in 10 Koreans had washing machines, refrigerators, phones, or televisions), with most of the public unable to spend much on fashion, and possibly deeply resentful of those that could.

Fears of the ensuing social conflict are one big reason for the implementation of the highly authoritarian “Yushin System” of 1972-1981, which included forced haircuts for men, minimum skirt-lengths for women, and strict censorship of sexual media content.

(Sources: Joongang Ilbo, 나르샤)

This censorship would not just end in the early-1980s however, but in fact sexual content would ultimately be encouraged by the government, as part of its “3S” policy of “sex, screen, and sport” to distract people from politics. Accordingly, Madame Aema, “the most explicit of Korean movies ever made,” would hit the theaters in early-1982.

• In the late-1980s, the government began to lift restrictions on the use of foreign models in advertisements. First, they were allowed to appear in advertisements for foreign products, then in 1994, for domestic products also. Their use exploded after that, particularly after the liberalization of the magazine market in 1999.

This is relevant for understanding exposure taboos, because both Korean and overseas-sourced advertisements with foreign, overwhelmingly Caucasian, models tended to—and still tend to—portray them in more revealing clothing and/or sexually-themed advertisements than their Korean counterparts, perpetuating long-held stereotypes of Western lasciviousness and Korean modesty. In particular, various developments in the fashion industry meant that for roughly 10 years from 2000-2010, it was extremely rare to see a Korean lingerie model, until the entertainment industry began to see the attention-seeking possibilities and financial gains from having its girl-group members and female actors become endorsers.

That said, I remain unaware of any Korean female nipples that have ever graced any advertisements here.

(Sources: Metro, July 8 2010, p. 7., ckmania)

In the summer of 2002, record numbers of Korean women would take advantage of the soccer World Cup to go out and have a good time, and weren’t modest about what they would like to do with the soccer players; in the process, they directly challenged conservative standards of dress, as well as taboos against assertive representations of female sexuality in the media. Although both developments had in fact already begun in the mid to late-1990s, and were accelerated by the sexual politics of the aftermath of the Asian Financial Crisis, unfortunately the “movement” was then largely co-opted and channeled into narratives of support for the national soccer team by the media and government.

This set a modern precedent for the very literal use of women’s—and also men’s—bodies for Korean military, nationalist, economic, and soft power purposes, roles which would come to fit the K-pop industry like a glove.

Finally, in addition to the K-pop industry and government censorship regimes perpetuating the notion that breasts are bad, but women’s legs and men’s abs are good clean harmless fun, there is the dramatic rise of the cosmetic surgery industry over the last few decades to consider. Fueled, I’d go so far as to say primarily by, Korea being one of only two countries in the OECD where photographs are required on resumes, despite multiple attempts to stop the practice. And this is the same industry that, as previously noted, is heavily encouraging bustier body ideals.

Exhausted after reading that? You’re not the only one(!). Yet that potted history of the taboo is still just the bare-bones, and needs considerable fleshing-out. Not least, from all the Korean-language sources I’ve also discovered and barely scratched the surface of, as well as the voices of Korean women and men themselves. I also acknowledge the almost complete lack of mention of men, and eagerly await your suggestions for further scholarly sources on Korean men’s nipples in particular ;)

Despite all the generalizations and gaps however, a clear theme of fluidity and rapid change in Korea’s exposure taboos emerges from all the above, and there’s no reason to suppose those won’t continue. Indeed, to those that feel that women walking around with exposed breasts is too much of an extreme to ever return to, it was once considered just as outlandish for men to expose their chests too, as pointed out by activists in the Free the Nipple campaign:

(Via: Astronomy in Reverse)

Moreover, to those that feel that such a campaign has chances for success in Western countries, but that a Korean equivalent will inevitably lag far behind, I’d point out how recent the call for change is in Western countries too.* And nobody who was in a crowd of Red Devils in Korea in 2002—or, indeed, in a candlelight democracy vigil in 2017—can fail to appreciate what ordinary Koreans are capable of when decide they can no longer tolerate other people’s bullshit.

Kudos then, to the activists from Womenlink earlier this month. You can read more about their event (and see many more comments) in two posts on Womenlink’s Facebook Page, or on their homepage, and here’s my translations of their posters and placards to round off this post:

*As friends have rightly pointed out, the puritan standards of the US referenced in those links do not represent those of all Western countries. In particular, nude beaches have been popular in much of continental Europe for decades, and standards for the workplace and presenters on television are much more relaxed. Also, nudity is common on French daytime and primetime TV. 

(Source: @womenlink)

(Speech Bubbles): Your nipples are showing! / Arrgh! (Women’s) Nipples! / Your nipples are too dark!

(Source, this image and following 3: @womenlink)

Those aren’t eyes there.

(lit.) Nipples have a wide language.

(Source, this image and following two: @womenlink)

We wear padding (which isn’t ventilated) to hide our nipples, we wear bras to hide our breasts, to hide our bras we wear vests, and to hide our vests we wear t-shirts…this prickly heat is so frustrating! We can’t live like this! Free the Nipple!

Q) If you have a lot of sexual experience, do your nipples get darker? A) No way!

Free the nipple / Why is looking at only women’s nipples restricted to over-18s?!?! Let’s stop the sexual objectification of women now!!

Update: Korea Observer reported on a very similar event in 2014, although I’m unsure if it was connected with Womenlink in any way. Here’s a video from that:

The Revealing the Korean Body Politic series:

Quick Hit: Feminist Artist Artemisia Gentileschi

(Source: 묵음‏ @dlklee)

Have I told you how awesome Korean Twitter is?

Trick question: I’ve raved about it many times. Who wouldn’t, when after years spent looking for quality, accessible Korean-language commentary on feminism and sexuality, now they’re inundated with it?

It feels so energizing to discover all the fresh perspectives, events, trends, and activists that I’ve been overlooking these past 17 years in Korea. And to think about where learning about them will take me (and this blog) in the future.

It also explains why I haven’t been writing much recently sorry: when you have so much material to work with, it’s difficult to settle on just one thing at a time. Other reasons include preparing my upcoming Gender in South Korea course this summer, my wife starting an exciting and glamorous new job which keeps taking her on long business trips overseas, and my angst over my blog’s 10 year anniversary coming up in a couple of weeks.

But more on that in an upcoming anniversary post. Until then, let me pass on how I stumbled upon feminist icon Artemisia Gentileschi, who’s inspired me to revisit the—for want of a better phrase—subjectivity vs. objectivity debate in K-pop, to seek out more examples of sassy Korean pin-up grrrls, and to learn more about Western art history.

Which, in my book, makes for one pretty damn awesome tweet:

Sleeping Venus (a.k.a. Venus and Cupid), by Artemisia Gentileschi.

This female artist painted a masterpiece of female nudity.

In particular, the model has no interest whatsoever in the viewer’s gaze—indeed, she seems to be ignoring it almost entirely. Instead, she has an unaffected air about her, her eyes closed and sporting an ever so slight smile with her lips turned up. Rather than simply being the object of the gaze, she’s revealed to be the master of her own body.

(Source: 묵음‏ @dlklee)

I know, right?

Any more old or newfound fans of Gentileschi out there, please say hi in the comments. Also, does anyone know of any paintings with similar motifs by different artists, especially Korean ones? Thanks!

Open Thread: What Got YOU Interested in Gender and Sexuality?

(Source: YouTube)

I’ll start.

Do you remember the rave scene from The Matrix Reloaded? What did you think of it?

Most people I ask express their disdain. To them, it represents everything that went wrong with the sequels.

I hear them about the sequels I tell them. In general. But this particular scene? They don’t have to like it, and there’s much to complain about the execution. Yet for all its flaws, it is integral to the story, as “Signal Chaser 76” makes clear at arts technica:

The scene represents humanity, a beleaguered and nearly extinct humanity. It’s humanity at its most reckless and youthful stage, humans engaged in wild, primitive, and raw sexual dancing, humans dirty with mud from the caves gyrating to primitive but hypnotic beats, vulnerable to the ambiance of the party and their situation under ground.

It’s humans inspired by a great speech to celebrate what makes humans human. This may be the last time they can dance like this, this may be the last time they can celebrate what makes them so peculiar and odd in a world of robots and virtual reality…

…It is offset by the relentless precision of the machines, their singular drive to destroy Zion, their unemotional quest to destroy any semblance of humanity in the heretofore tolerated Zion. Cold, steal, mechanical- the machines are precisely the opposite of the dancing humans in Zion.

I can’t pretend to have been aware of all that back in the theater in 2003. But I did get an inkling. Because, sitting in my favorite spot in the front row, the sudden eruption of gargantuan raw flesh in my face, with all the glistening breasts, the nipples, the muscles, the biceps, the grinding in rhythm to deep, pounding, hypnotic beats…made me realize right then and there just how fundamental sexuality was to being human, and how anybody that pretended otherwise was just fucked up.

Yeah, those really were my exact words to myself in the movie theater. You can see why they provided such a big step on the path that led to this blog.

I mention them fourteen years later, because I was actually writing a post about two feminist artists, and wanted to explain why I’m so drawn to those brave enough to call out all the bullshit surrounding sexuality. Much better though, to actually focus on the artists themselves in the introduction to that post, and to use this one as an opportunity to get a conversation with you going instead.

Your turn now! :D

Yes, Dove’s Real Beauty Bottles Commercial is Flawed. But Let’s Consider Where It’s Coming From.

Simple functionality can’t explain the incredible range of hourglass-shaped products aimed at women.
Screenshot: YouTube

Have you seen Dove’s “Real Beauty Bottles” commercial? The one which offers Dove body wash in bottles designed to mimic women’s body shapes?

You can understand the reasoning. Dove’s long-running “Real Beauty” campaign has always been about celebrating body diversity. So, why not offer alternatives to the typical hourglass design?

Ironically though, the execution completely contradicts that message, as the internet has gleefully pointed out:

  • It encourages paying attention to one’s body-shape, when that’s not supposed to be important.
  • It only offers six bottle designs, despite the huge diversity of women’s body shapes in reality. (And all of the bottles are white too.)
  • It’s really just a gimmick, offering only a very limited run of 6,800 bottles, spread among social media influencers in 15 countries. Meaning that even if ordinary women were somehow inspired to seek out the design that best matched their body shape, they wouldn’t actually be able to get one.
  • And, in being so short-lived, and only providing the same one, classic bottle design in practice, ultimately it implies that there may just be one best body type after all.

Writing in the Atlantic, Ian Bogost thinks that last is inadvertent; given how “hilariously stupid” this campaign has been (Jezebel), I’m inclined to agree. Regardless of any marketing campaign centered on bottles’ shapes, hourglass designs will always be much more stable and easier to grip than most of the alternatives, let alone those monstrosities provided by Dove.

That said, they’re not the only option. Which got me thinking: where had I seen so many hourglass bottles before? Why, with slimming drinks of course. What is up with that?

You know the answer, and it’s not ergonomics. Indeed, many marketers and advertisers are not shy about the connections they’re making between their products’ designs and the body ideals—and insecurities—they’re promoting, instead elevating them as a unique selling point. Most notoriously perhaps, in 2009, when Son Dam-bi endorsed “Today’s Tea” drink for Lotte Chilsung. Which:

(Source)

Not only sets up Son Dam-bi’s body as the one, singular standard for all the other women featured to define themselves against:

(Source, all screenshots: Paranzui)

But also makes sure to do so for teenage girls too:

And makes only the scene with the man humorous, to remind us how absurd it would be for men to ever do this sort of thing:

It’s really quite a feast of problematic messages. And, sadly, almost karmic in how Son Dam-bi herself has grappled with severe body-image issues in recent years, reports about her “still ‘frantically’ trying to lose more weight” emerging just as this post was published.

Usually, advertisers are less brazen, but they do still create and highlight a connection. See here for more examples and discussion from 2011 for instance, when there seemed to be a real trend:

(Source)

With that however, I don’t mean to imply they were the majority of slimming drinks. Nor are they in 2017, as a perusal of any convenience store fridge can attest.

But connections between bottle shapes and women’s bodies are definitely still being made, whether in the classic hourglass form or otherwise:

(Source: YouTube)
(Source: YouTube)

What’s more, if my search had extended to the packaging and marketing of slimming products in general, then I would have been simply overwhelmed with material. Wisely, I’ll confine myself to just one recent, representative example, that of Son Na-eun’s (Apink) commercials for Calobye:

(Source: Ezday)

Likewise, it’s never difficult to find an example of women’s bodies being used to represent a product or service. Again to give a recent for instance, below an obese woman magically loses weight and turns into model and actor Ray Yang, to represent a reduction in LG’s monthly installment rates (and, in a rare case of equal-opportunity objectification, has an obese man turn into model Choi Yong-ho too):

But it can seem like we’ve taken a long detour from a critique of Dove body wash bottles. So, let’s reflect on what we’ve learned on the way.

First, again, that hourglass bottles can’t be explained away by ergonomics, or claimed to be incidental. Who would even try, in the face of such overwhelming evidence?

Yet I’m often frustrated by the lack of mention in articles about their marketing campaigns, especially when writers otherwise wax lyrical over every other little detail. Why this blind spot exists, I’ll suggest a reason for in a moment.

(A rare exception: Apparently “the curve of the [sure] bottle beautifully captures both the swell of sea waves and women’s S-lines.” Source.)

Next, this is by definition gendered marketing, which is usually predicated on and helps perpetuate a whole host of problematic gender roles:

Also, no-one is saying that slimming drink companies can’t distinguish their products from competitors’ by packaging them in this way. In addition, perhaps there are practical limitations to quickly conveying slimming on packaging, on a box, or on a bottle, or through their shapes, without using an hourglass motif. We do, after all, make exaggerated cola-bottle shapes to convey we mean a woman for instance (or we did: now it just feels distasteful). It may explain why articles don’t bother to mention that, because by default an hourglass design is chosen to convey slimming. And, being so common, that choice is unremarkable.

Which begs the questions: does it really make a product stand out, if so many other companies are doing the same thing? Are scenes of Son Na-eun dancing, hourglass hips highlighted with CGI (just in case we didn’t notice), really the best Calobye could come up with to make their product stand out? Or is their campaign just yet another case of using a celebrity to quickly grab viewer’s attentions (*cough* as per my opening image *cough*), which may then linger on the actual product in the 15 second time-slot, and somehow persuade the viewer that the product is responsible for those hips? Wouldn’t, ultimately, ditching the celebrity with the unobtainable body be cheaper, and using models with a range of body types have much wider appeal?

Perhaps I’m being naive. But surely marketers and advertisers have good financial reasons to ask these questions themselves, not just pesky sociologists and feminazis with axes to grind. And, given photoshoppers’ skills in crafting an hourglass waist (or S-line, or wasp waist, or whatever) for almost every woman that appears in an advertisement or photoshoot? Then no, I’m no longer convinced that it’s all that difficult to convey slimming through a representing a range of body types. Or that some patriarchal conspiracy is afoot either, so much as sheer laziness on the part of marketers and advertisers.

(Source: instiz. The image on left is from a photoshoot for a 2014 commercial for Oceanworld)

What I am convinced of is how incredibly tiring this must be for women, constantly being reminded that your body doesn’t measure up to this one, monotonous standard, even though less than 1 in 10 women can ever achieve it.

I’d read about this pressure many times before of course. It can be difficult to relate to for a guy, no matter how sympathetic. But now, it feels just a little less abstract.

Which, all in all, is not a bad lesson to take away from some silly bottles.

Related Posts:

Critical Korea Studies Meetup This Saturday!

Source: YouTube

Just between you and me, I’m having some great hair days at the moment. So, to take advantage, I’m coming up to Seoul out of my own pocket this weekend, to meet as many readers as possible. I’m just that good-looking.

Technically though, I’m going to be a moderator at the first Critical Korea Studies Meetup/Mini-conference, to be held from 3-6pm at Yonsei University on Saturday the 29th. And it’s important that I’ll just be a moderator, because I absolutely wouldn’t pay to go somewhere if I thought *I* was going to be the most interesting person in the room.

To be certain though, I need you to come, and your friends too. So, please check out and share this link or the Facebook Event Page for the details and more information, and feel free to join us for the dinner afterwards if you’re unavailable in the afternoon.

See you there!

(BTW, I’ll also be giving a presentation at Seoul National University on Monday the 1st. That’s private unfortunately, but it does explain the slow blogging sorry!)