Women’s Bodies in Korea’s Consumer Society, Part 2: We’re not in Kansas Anymore


The ParadoxSong Hye-gyo sofa

For new readers, Part 1 was an outline and discussion of the first part of the 2003 journal article Neo-Confucian Body Techniques: Women’s Bodies in Korea’s Consumer Society by Taeyon Kim. To quickly recap it, she argues that women weren’t really thought of as individuals in Joseon Dynasty Korea, as the state ideology of Neo-Confucianism considered them incapable of the spiritual transcendence that men were. Instead, the best they could aim for in life was continuing a husband’s “ki”, or spirit, through the production and upbringing of sons and the efficient management of his household. Hence Kim describes them as “subjectless bodies,” as not only were they not really individuals but their physical bodies were not really their own either, merely being vessels for and tenders of the more precious ki instead (source, right: jingdianmeinv)

In terms of the ideals for women’s appearance, this meant that the physical attributes required for those were prized more than beauty. On top of that, adornment and/or alteration of the body was not condoned for either sex, as the physical body was one’s inheritance of ancestors’ sacred ki. And herein lies the paradox, as on the one hand Neo-Confucianism still pervades all aspects of Korean life today (I’ll take readers knowing and agreeing with this as a given), but on the other hand, modern Korea appears to be in the midst of a decidedly non-traditional celebration of youth and the female form. What gives?


Neo-Confucian Consumption Motives

The short answer is that appearances can be deceptive. It is certainly true that modern media images of Korean women are not Neo-Confucian in the 19th Century sense described above, and it’s difficult to argue just by looking at them that advertisements, for instance, are any different to their counterparts in Western countries. Of course, systematic cross-country analyses of numbers and types do reveal significant and telling differences, and if readers are interested in those then I highly recommend reading the 2006 journal article entitled “Content Analysis of Diet Advertisments: A Cross-National Comparison of Korean and U.S. Women’s Magazines” by Minjeong Kim and Sharron Lennon, downloadable here. But surveys like those do not chronicle average Korean and Western women’s reactions to them, and herein lies the essential differences between them.

Barbie Dolls ConformityAs a rule, in Western countries most (although not all) advertisements for a product have to actively suppress and disguise the notion that people may feel compelled, influenced or forced into purchasing that product, whether by the ad, by peer pressure, or some other unwritten social rule. Instead, people are encouraged to conceive their purchase in terms of personal choice, individuality, empowerment, and — especially if the target consumer is young — maybe liberation and rebellion too. And of course, these advertising norms undoubtedly operate for a good proportion of advertisements in Korea too. But in the case of advertisements for products related to one’s appearance, be they cosmetics, clothes, or plastic surgery, it turns out that a great number of Korean women make purchases for precisely the opposite reasons. Indeed, not only is there no stigma in doing so, but they positively embrace the opportunity to conform to and harmonize with social norms through their consumption choices (source, right: Kiran Foster).

Lest that assertion sound like a typical exaggeration of a Caucasian male, surveys that Kim cites indicate that most Korean women explicitly justify their choices in those Neo-Confucian terms, and definitely not the individual empowerment, entitlement, and personal assertion of one’s individual choice that Western women tend to do in similar surveys. That is not to say that Western women (or men) can’t and don’t also passively follow fashions, and it’s not necessarily a negative or dehumanizing thing either. But very few Westerners would admit to it.

I see no reason to doubt the results of those surveys (which I can provide the details of if readers wish), and while my own female Korean friends for instance, are certainly as liberal and free-willed as any Westerner in their clothing and cosmetic choices — and lifestyles; indeed, that’s why we’re friends — they can’t counter the mass of empirical evidence Kim provides, and even the anecdotal evidence from the media and on the streets of Korea. If Neo-Confucianism is pervasive in modern Korean life then, and Korean women consume cosmetics, clothes, and undergo plastic surgery operations largely for the sake of Neo-Confucianist motives, then it’s time to call a spade a spade and argue that Korean society’s new emphasis on women’s appearances is (somehow) Neo-Confucianist too. Indeed, it would be strange if only this particular aspect of Korean life was so different.

Enjoy Capitalism T-shirtHence the second part of Kim’s article is about how this modern phenomenon is a warping of and adaptation of Neo-Confucian ideals of women’s roles to new capitalist and consumerist circumstances. But while I originally wanted to outline and discuss that in this post, I’ve moved that to Part 3, because first I wanted to place those circumstances in their historical context, which I think considerably adds to and strengthens Kim’s argument (source, right: Jacob Bøtter).


The Developmental Context of East Asian Consumption

I’ve already demonstrated that although Korean women and, say, American women, can both be labelled as “consumers,” they can and do both make radically different consumption choices; or, make the same choices, but for radically different reasons. Sure, this is obvious, but I’m as guilty as anyone in generalizing and using labels here, so it’s good to remind ourselves of it. But if we shift our attention to the differences between most Westerners and most Koreans (and East Asians) as a whole, the first fact of note is the fact that most Korean university students’ parents easily recall the days when possession of some must-have items like a fridge, radio, color TV and car were essential signifier that one’s family had made it into the then swelling ranks of the middle-class. On that basis, it may be fair to say that they still imbue their consumer goods with much more status and importance than most Westerners do. (Hell, many of the university students themselves too.) This explains Koreans’ love affair with big cars and SUVs for instance, and in one of the most oil-lacking, mountainous and densely-populated countries in the world.

(Update, April 2013: Actually, the Korean preference for big cars is more due to the [inordinate] social status they provide.)


On top of that, Korean governments since 1961 have explicitly and fervently extorted Koreans to consume these items, provided that they were made in Korea. It’s easy to simply attribute this to and write off as mere nationalism, only different in degree to, say, the “Buying Kiwi-Made” campaign in New Zealand, or Democratic presidential candidates in the US criticising NAFTA in election year. But this is quite wrong. If you’ll bear with me for a moment, to properly understand women’s fashions in Korea you need to understand a little of it’s well, political history first. No, really.

When Park Chung-hee/박정희 took power through a coup in 1961, while his military regime of course relied on the use of force, it would be naive to assume that it didn’t have a great deal of popular support. And so, originally at least, his military regime’s sole claim to legitimacy was its perceived ability and capacity to produce the economic development seen as necessary for national security after the chaotic years of the Syngman Rhee/이승만 presidency. While linking the economy and security this way may sound absurd in 2008, it’s important to be aware that North Korea was actually ahead of South Korea economically until the late-1960s, and in addition to this Park was (justifiably) deeply concerned about the US possibly withdrawing its security guarantees to South Korea in the wake of its foreseeable withdrawal from Vietnam. Hence the development of POSCO and the Korean steel industry for instance, which, far from being the carefully planned and coordinated developmental success story it is often touted as today (it is the third largest steel producer in the world), was pursued despite the advice of Korean economists at the time, let alone American ones. Instead, as Mark Clifford explains in chapter five of this must-have book, Park didn’t care about the economics of it; he simply wanted the ability to produce tanks and ships should the US no longer provide them.


This is why Korea is often known as a “Developmental State,” as too are Japan, Taiwan and Singapore, which faced similarly dire circumstances in the Cold War and reacted in similar ways. Neo-liberal economists in particular are loath to admit that state-led development can be successful, and so they continue to critique the economic policies of these Developmental States decades later, but this excessive focus on economic minutiae has overshadowed the fact that they were and are primarily socio-political, not economic, phenomenons (right: Posco Center, Seoul, by Ian Muttoo).

Hence consumerism has links to national security in Developmental States, and all the choice government slogans like “Consumption is Virtuous” that I saw in old photographs of Korea from the ’70s in economic journals in the archives room of my university library. And while the corollary of Park’s developmentalism was authoritarianism, and average Koreans were expected to be content with and prolific buyers of Korean goods, imports being shut out by high tariffs in order to develop Korea’s own industries (which is why such a stigma remains on imports today), what I want you to take away from all the above is that:

  • Koreans are used to being told what to buy.
  • These choices have often been couched in terms of contributing to a higher purpose.
  • Those that didn’t subscribe to these higher purposes were given few alternatives, and the state was encouraged in stigmatizing them.

It is no great conceptual leap for Neo-Confucian women to go from being subservient to the higher purpose of ki, and their bodies to be imperfect versions of men’s, to furthering the higher purpose of improving the economy and maintaining national security by consuming Korean goods, and finding common identity in a turbulent century by following the new fashion industry’s edicts to improve their imperfect bodies by following their rules for fashion, cosmetics, and body shapes. Those will be the subject of Part 3.

(Update, April 2013: An important rejoinder to my fuzzy memories of reading in my university library is the book Measured Excess: Status, Gender, and Consumer Nationalism in South Korea by Laura Nelson (2000), which I describe here as:

…essential reading for anyone wanting to know more about the 1990s in Korea, and in particular the frequent government and media campaigns against over-consumption (in practice aimed almost exclusively at women, these were important precursors to the “beanpaste girl” stereotypes of the 2000s)

See my “Revealing the Korean Body Politic” series for more on those campaigns and stereotypes in the 2000s, especially Parts 3 and 4.

11 thoughts on “Women’s Bodies in Korea’s Consumer Society, Part 2: We’re not in Kansas Anymore

  1. I’ve thought about this a lot and tried to come up with a suitable explanation (I’m talking about this so-called neo-confusionist objectification of women) but at the end of the day, I think if you rewind the clock 50 or 60 years, and replace Korean women with Western women, you’d have just about the same idea. No?
    I think it has more to do with the progression and place of an econmomic system than any longstanding cultural beliefs. Those are there too, and thus the view that Korean women help support a man’s Ki, for example. But you can find similar alignments in Christianity.


  2. Aaron,

    I confess, when I first saw your comment last night I was a bit peeved. My gut reaction was that 2000 words in the first post and 1600 in this one surely couldn’t be dismissed so readily? But I have to admit, I didn’t instantly have the definititive reply that I expected I would, and I’ve definitely had to get through a cup of coffee to come up with this one!

    I think the first part of what you say is still only true on the surface. You can’t describe Neo-Confucian Korean women and, say, Christian American women in the 1950s and 1960s the same way. I’m sure I don’t do justice to the concept of ki here, and maybe I should have emphasized just how utterly and irrevocably it excluded women. Not just confined them to having and raising children at home while the men did the “real” work, in a parallel of Western 1950s nuclear family and suburbian domesticity, but considered them physically incapable of the intellectual and spiritual thought that men were.

    Thoughts like that sound more appropriate to the era of Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) than Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch (1970). One reason the latter was so popular was that it addressed the issue of how Western women were treated as equals in education, and legally too, but were then expected to use their degrees to sit at home for the rest of their lives.

    I’m not enitrely sure what you mean by the second part of your comment sorry, from “I think it has more….” onwards. If I can take a stab at it, then sure, the progression and place of the now Korean consumer economy has a big part to play in things, but Neo-Confucianism has endured in all other aspects of Korean life, so the point of these posts is to show how it has endured with ideal images and roles of women in modern Korea too, despite them appearing to be the completely opposite.

    I’ll discuss that more in Part 3. Of course, if I’ve misinterpreted anything of what you’ve said, please let me know!


  3. It’s the plague of having your own blog and a reader filled with a couple hundred articles a day that’s the problem here James. I knew when I wrote that comment that I was possibly doing you and your hard work a disservice. But I still wanted to get my question/point across. Sorry if that offended you a little. I’d probably feel the same. Ideally we’d all have a few hours a week to spend on blogs we like.
    That aside, my main argument here is that I think what we’re seeing in Korea today is similar to what was happening in Western countries post-Industrial Revolution. Crudely, it’s Capitalism. It’s a pattern and Korea’s boom just happened 10-20 years after Japan’s and 50 years after America’s. Eventually you’ll see the same sorts of ideas in Vietnamese advertising. It’ll be an updated, 20 years in the future manifestation, but it’ll be very similar.
    I realize you aren’t really arguing one over the other, and that you’re exploring a small part of a larger picture. But I would still say some of what you’re attributing to neo-Confucianism, might be better explained as the simple effect of a wildly different economic system.
    I realize I’m kind of railroading the discussion. It sounds like you might address more of what I’m interested in for Part 3.


  4. Oh, no need to apologise, and I wasn’t offended at all. I need to take more care with what I write too: I meant that my gut reaction was to be peeved, of course, but that thinking about what you said for more than 2 minutes made me reluctantly admit that you had a point. And railroad all you like…I do have subjects I’d like to cover on the blog regardless of their popularity of course, but I’m still more than happy to adapt those subjects and posts to and take the discussion in directions that readers are actually interested in.

    But you’re right that Part 3 will discuss what you bring up, so on this occasion I will leave things there for now. But I’ve only half-finished it, so I’ll make sure to keep what you said in mind as I complete it, hopefully early next week.


  5. I have been reading James’ posts with interest and they made sense as they stood alone. Aaron’s comment also had the immediate effect of swinging me back into a sort of “world-historical” model in which Korean history was part of some ongoing dialectic that all emerging nations go through.

    Yet both stances are likely true. No fallacy of the excluded middle here. Both things are in play.

    One MAJOR difference for me is that Aaron’s “western” women were not, by and in large, reacting to external notions of the body. That is to say that, as odd as their notions of the body might have been they were developed largely from inside the culture. It seems quite clear to me that Korean women are being pulled by extra-(original) cultural influences (vide the picture of a butt competition) and this external comparison alone (and I am not suggesting it is alone) would mean that James’ analysis is useful as you have what might be termed “community standards” (and that even more important in a Confucian-esque country) being affected by social and economic influences from the “way-outside-machine.”

    Then again, I’m quite drunk. ;-)


  6. Thanks Roger, and before I forget, I wanted to comment on your own blog but Blogger wouldn’t let me for some reason. Just to say that when you do venture out of Daejeon in a month or so, I’d be happy to show you around Busan and buy you a beer.


  7. Hi,
    I just came across this blog, so Im really not too familiar with any previous discussions, but this is quite an interesting piece. Admittedly, I was under the impression as well that one could just swap out Korean women now with American women from the post-war era. This post has convinced me to rethink that assumption, but I’m curious to see how female consumerism will pan out in the near future in Korea. In hindsight it seems that the purchasing power and other gains of women in America were part of a larger trend that lead to (arguably) a more equitable society. However, if what you say is true of Korea, this won’t be the case here. I’ve recently converted to a more optimistic attitude about the future of South Korea, so I hope to see these neo-confucian ideals fade or adapt. But should they not, It will be clear that the parallels to American social change don’t hold. Cheers


  8. Thanks Nik,

    I would like to reply with something interesting and useful, but I think that you’ve answered your own question!

    But I do recommend that you read Part three, because there I discuss a post by another blogger who is very optomistic about and increasingly seeing evidence of Koreans finally putting aside their Neo-Confucian urges to be one with the crowd and embracing creativity and difference in their fashions instead. He’s a photographer too, so I suspect that he would know better than most.


  9. Gotta say, and this is just in response to your #2 comment above, I absolutely HATED Greer’s book, mostly as it vacillated between generalizations about male bastards (based, apparently, on her experiences) and what dumb twits women all are. I got this sense of a raging, ranting misanthrope who was just as sexist as the men she was berating. It was really odd. I read it last year, btw, mostly out of curiosity and because the library had it in the stacks.

    As for the other comments, I think there’s good sense in considering that superficially, a lot of Korean modernity has been modeled on Western (and somehow, Korea’s entered the 1950s/1960s era in fashion, as well — lots of 50s conservative clothing as well as lots of miniskirts and showing-off all at once. But there’s also that other undercurrent, the indigenous culture that persists and fuses with and ultimately takes over the foreign-culture grafts.

    Korean culture really is truly more alien in some ways than suggests itself to us, because all around is clothing, music, iconography, and self-presentation that seems so familiar. Yet as James notes, the undercurrents are also quite unlike the undercurrents of our own Western culture.

    But then there’s the good old fact that, at base, we’re all the same species; this makes certain patterns generally unsurprising, and makes others somewhat more easily explicable too.


  10. Gord,

    I agree with you about the book. I mistakenly bought a copy for my wife then girlfriend as a birthday gift a few years ago (how romantic), and I don’t think she managed more than a few pages because of the dense writing style. I couldn’t manage to many more myself. I think it’ll quite happily be sitting in my bookcase for years to come, although maybe I should scuff it up a bit to make sure guests at my cocktail parties do think I’ve read it.

    But actually, I think I’ve been confusing it with Betty Frieden’s The Feminine Mystique (1963) all along. I belatedly recognise the mistake in Part 3. Have you (or anyone else) read it? I suspect that it’ll be much more readable (and relavant) to Koreans today than The Female Eunuch ever will be.


  11. I’m just gonna comment part by part apparently, if this is still being looked at, but i think it’s very true – the comment about connections to “western women” being superficial while the underlying motivations are quite different. I think Korea took a turn towards modernism, and with women representing the pretty modern face of their nation, this is what they embrace as carrying through with that project….but part of their role involves both representing modernity and a tradition that defines Korea as culturally unique simultaneously, and this is where neo-confucianism comes in, something that still exists as much in this sphere as anywhere else in Korean society. I haven’t really thought this through completely, so if it makes no sense I apologize. But then i don’t know if this is still an active discussion or not….


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