Women’s Bodies in Korea’s Consumer Society, Part 3 (Final): Nation, Family, Self

busan-focus-06-03-2013-p-5(Source: Focus, Busan ed.)

Anti-Communist Fashion

As promised in Part 2, in just a moment I’ll jump straight into outlining and discussing the the second part of Taeyeon Kim’s 2003 journal article Neo-Confucian Body Techniques: Women’s Bodies in Korea’s Consumer Society.But before I do, I should mention that I’ve also started reading SeungSook Moon’s book Militarized Modernity and Gendered Citizenship in South Korea (2005), and it’s made me realize just how narrow a focus Kim’s article has.

That’s not really a criticism: in the 16 pages available to her, Kim does an excellent job of explaining how the 19th Century Joseon Dynasty’s Neo-Confucianist views of the female body were warped by, adapted to, and ultimately cam to survive and proper in the 20th Century. And that endurance does go a long way towards explaining the question I first posted in Part 1 — namely, why are Koreans so conformist in their fashion choices?

korean-anti-communist-posterBut what Moon’s book has also made me realize is that, however outlandish the connection sounds at first, today’s Korean fashion can’t be explained fully without mention of the postwar Korean state’s anti-communist ideology too.

Let me run with this for a moment. In a nutshell, Moon’s book gave me a more bottom-up perspective on life in postwar Korea than what I’m used to (decidedly top-down Troubled Tiger is one of my favorite books), and the more I read about it, the more I learned just how pervasive that ideology was in people’s everyday lives, and how almost any form of legitimate dissent or creative difference was often regarded by the state as nothing short of “leftist” subversion. I could give you examples, like Korean men with long hair being publicly shaved in the 1970s, or the police checking that women’s skirts were long enough (albeit more as an excuse to simply harass women), but you get the drift (source, right: theturninggate).

These attitudes didn’t suddenly disappear upon democratization in 1987. In hindsight, it’s incredibly naive for me (or anyone else) to account for conformity in modern Korean life without reference to it. Yes, even in something as innocuous-sounding as fashion.

(Update: I suddenly remembered this ad. But while it’s a good play on how the “rule” for miniskirts has completely reversed since the 1970s, the conformity remains the same. How else to explain wearing miniskirts in winter? An otherwise extremely wasteful use of the body’s resources to demonstrate one’s physical prowess to mates, just like a peacock’s tail?)

But that will be the subject of later posts. First, let’s finish Kim’s article, sans political ideologies (Update: after reading it, I recommend this recent post of the Metropolitician’s on Korean fashion, lest you feel that I give too pessimistic and conformist an image of Koreans; honorable mention should be made of this post of Roboseyo’s post too). The second part starts by placing the endurance of Neo-Confucian images of women’s bodies in modern times in the context of the endurance of Neo-Confucianism in Korean society as a whole:

Confucian Fundamentalism and Korean Identity

The first thing of note is that, despite how it may at first appear, the endurance of Neo-Confucianism in modern Korea is probably more because of Korea’s turbulent 20th Century rather than despite it, as 余 涵 彌fundamentalism of any stripe is usually a reaction against painful, forced transitions to modernity. As Kim says, in Korea’s case Japanese colonization and then civil war and division meant that its postwar search for national identity (source, right):

“…became essential to Korea’s postcolonial and post-war project for national reconstruction. Neo-Confucianism came to stand for essential ‘Koreanness’ and was quickly embraced as the authentic culture of Korea – so much so that challenges to Neo-Confucian principles were branded as threats to national integrity. Neo-Confucianism also maintained its gloss as part of the elite culture, and as more and more Koreans were becoming upwardly mobile, many strove to identify themselves with the former [elites], making what was originally an ideology and culture of the elite minority into the culture of all Koreans” (pp.102-103).

Some other consequences of that quest for self-identity include Korea’s bloodline-based nationalism (although the origins of that were closer to 1900 than 1953), and military regimes deliberately nurturing the idea that Korea has suffered invasions more than most, both now counter-productive (to put it mildly). Ironically though, for women it also ultimately meant a reaffirmation of the ideals of taegyo (태교), despite women’s entrance into the workforce for the first time and the nuclearization of the Korean family. There are two reasons for this, one speculative and one more concrete.

First, one increasingly under-appreciated aspect of postwar Korea was overcoming the psychological trauma of the physical dislocation and separation of Korean families due to the war, and until I started today’s post I didn’t realize that that may have affected Korean’s women’s postwar lives much more than men — remember that, under Neo-Confucianism, they weren’t really thought of as of as individuals in the Joseon Dynasty, and thus their families had been the primary source of their identity. But then, not only were they suddenly and violently brought out of the inner, private sanctum of those families and homes by the war, and then into the public sphere of schools and factories for the first time, those families also moved from the farm to the cities, and nuclearized in the process. Given those circumstances, it is natural to suppose that women might yearn for the good old days of certainty, especially former upper-class women to whom Neo-Confucian tenets had been most vigorously applied.

Rosie the Riveter We Can Do ItSecond, while for a time women’s physical labour in factories came to be regarded (rhetorically at least) as just as important and useful as their traditional domestic work in the home (as was, I might also add, their equally “needed”, expanded roles as sex workers too; I’ll save that for a later post), ultimately (source, right: Mike Beauregard; CC BY 2.0):

with the advent of a post-industrial, consumer capitalist society in the 1980s, women became more important as consumers than as factory workers, shifting the utility of their bodies from national labor production to national consumption, becoming, in effect, what Byran S. Turner (1996) calls the capitalist body. (p. 102)

Later, I feel that Kim exaggerates how “post-industrial” Korea is, but that doesn’t detract from the basic point that women, once exhorted and educated to work in the factories, were once again extorted to stay at home upon marriage, and to then focus on producing and raising children. Seeing as a good third or so of the blog is about how the Korean economy and minimalist welfare system is predicated on that fact, then I don’t feel the need to elaborate on and justify that here. Instead, of note is how they are also urged to consume as housewives and mothers, both for the sake of national development, and for the sake of obtaining the items necessary to secure and advance their family’s social status, as explained in Part 2. Ergo, it’s taegyo all over again, although I’ll admit that it sounds neither particularly Korean or even Neo-Confucian at the moment.

The Ensuing Social Malaise

But just like in Western countries after World War Two, you can’t expose most women to working life and equal education and then expect them to meekly return to the home once the economy and/or national emergency no longer requires their economic services; the contradiction leads to the appearance of various social malaises, such as the “housewives’ syndrome” that Betty Friedan so adroitly recognised in 1963. In Western countries, that recognition and the civil-rights movement led to Second-wave Feminism. But Korea has so far lacked the former, and is only just beginning to experience a form of latter, often more because of the signing and implementing of UN conventions on gender issues and so forth rather than domestic pressures. What unresolved social malaises then, have arisen in Korea?

Kim argues that uprooted Korean women naturally found solace in new, postwar media images of women, and following the new rules of fashion was certainly easier and more personally satisfying to most women then embracing new, entirely alien concepts of liberalism, individualism and feminism to which Korea’s new relationship with America exposed them to. Hence:

The Neo-Confucian values of harmonizing as one, proper behaviour and self-cultivation, [re-emerged] in the guise of conformity, propriety and self-improvement. (p. 107)

But as we’ve seen, while self-improvement for men involved training of the mind, resulting in transcendence of the individual self, women were considered incapable of this. Hence women’s primary means of self-improvement came to center on the physical body instead, and this ultimately explains the why of today’s social malaises in Korea today, notably that:

Hence taegyo is Korean and/or Neo-Confucian, because while plenty, if not most, Western women consider getting plastic surgery for the sake of bettering their chances in job interviews and marriage prospects so forth, very few do explicitly for the sake of their father’s and or husband’s families.

Finally, now for the how.

Correcting the Flawed Eastern Female

Oriental Girls(Source: Joel Ormsby)

I’ve already explained that Korean women tend to embrace conformity rather than individuality in their fashion choices, and articles about fashion in women’s magazines too are less “Western” than they may first appear. While opening paragraphs seem to promise articles “promoting liberation from the edicts of fashion, and self-expression over blind conformity,” for instance, what they actually do is set up strict guidelines for Korean women to follow, the authors often failing to recognise that their exhortations not to follow fashion magazines’ fashions, but their tastes and styles instead, actually amount to the same thing. Indeed:

What is right for [the authors] must be right for everyone else, for there is a blurry distinction between [the authors] and others, a legacy of the subjectlessness of the Korean woman. (p. 104, emphasis in original)

Sure, much the same can be said of Western women’s magazines, which Kim should have acknowledged. But remember the importance of the notion of “subjectless bodies” in Kim’s article (see Part 1), and that for Korean women the philosophical concept of the individual self, defined not by ki and the family but by the physical limitations of the corporeal body, is very new. Hence Korean authors and readers may not see the contradiction that their Western counterparts may. Moreover, articles often present:

…what [they] consider to be particular features of the Korean women – short legs, big face, yellow skin – as problem features that can be corrected by certain types of clothing and colours….[they] imply that the imperfect Korean body is disordered but can be put back in order through the tricks of fashion. The body is something to be rearranged so its apparent flaws are concealed or eliminated. These flaws themselves stand out as imperfections because they are features unique to Koreans and absent in white models (p. 104, emphasis in original)

I could go on to discuss the details of huge plastic surgery industry in Korea, but it’s been done to death elsewhere, and I think the above photo and this article sum it up better than any virtual ink spilt on the subject. Having said that, numerous sources have claimed that Korean women’s desires to look Caucasian are the result of an inferiority complex towards and cultural colonization by the West, but I think that both that desire and those influences have been grossly exaggerated. Consider this:

All three elements, the Neo-Confucian woman’s subjectlessness, the perception of Korean bodies as imperfect, and fashion’s function to re-order the disordered Korean bodies, make Korean women’s bodies particularly prone to alterations, rearrangements and re-creations of the body. (p. 104)

The biggest thing I’ve gained from these writing this series of posts (and I just so happen to think that it’s quite an original point too), is that in that statement above you can replace “Korea” with China, Japan, and/or Taiwan, and that argument would still be just as valid. Arguing that their shared plastic surgery mania is because all four countries share a history of cultural colonization and have inferiority complexes towards the West is tenuous at best, and if even if true, surely it would mean that Korean men too, say, would aim to look more Western? But no, they don’t, and not even with the huge size of the Korean male beauty industry today. But all four countries do share a history of Neo-Confucianism. On that basis, is it too much of a jump to argue that the Neo-Confucianist combination above is precisely why plastic surgery is so popular amongst women in this part of the world?

14 thoughts on “Women’s Bodies in Korea’s Consumer Society, Part 3 (Final): Nation, Family, Self

  1. Last reply, promise – just realized i shouldn’t have posted the last one before reading this part. But just to add – femininity as a performance (which it is) is an imperfect thing by nature, not linked biologically with female anatomy. Women are constantly in a state of trying to improve their performance of it, although the motivations for their performance differ – I’m not sure i agree that a sense of inadequacy in this performance is unique to confucianism. i think this is how gender is linked to identity politics for the individual as well as for the nation, and confucianism is simply a different purpose for their performance, for their role as women. I’ve heard that this is particularly the case for post colonial nations (having to assert themselves as both culturally unique, and modern – which i mentioned in previous post and you talked about here), which you touched on but attributed more so to confucianism…


  2. …(ah! breaking my promise….) as you mentioned in part one, their gender performances are essentially the same as anywhere, but the underlying motivation differs. Maybe confucianism just makes it more pervasive. Gender is more privileged as an identity than other aspects of being – specifically for a Korean/Taiwanese/chinese woman, due to their role in confucianism, but it’s not responsible for the fact that their performance will never be adequate (hence the surgeries, etc.) ….no female will ever be good enough at being the ideal. But around here (korea) it’s just more important as it’s the central source of their identity.


  3. heyy…I like reading ur blog a lot…
    I’m thinking about having this topic for my mini thesis…
    I’m little confused here… I hope u can help me…..
    u said that the reason for Korean women having plastic surgery is mainly because their neo-confucianism idology… not because their desire to have Caucasian looks…..
    but why the surgery they had make them look more and more like Caucasian women?
    what are their physically “ideal beauty” definitions or catagories? is that “ideal beauty” soo important for them (it’s shocking when I found out that more than 70% Korean women did plastic surgery)?And why????
    and who, do you think, is responsible for all of this?
    is it the west for bringing the technology there???
    is it the the women themselves for lacking of self confidence???
    or is it possibly because “the man” for making the construction of beauty? From my being influenced by some feminist thoughts…could it be, man being the source of all the problem and the one who have “power”, construct the term beauty, to control woman, their subordinates?

    welll….thx b4


  4. Star,

    thanks, and sorry I took so long to reply. I think it’s a bit late to respond to Erikaat’s comments though…but if he or she ever reads again, I do sincerely apologize. Somehow, I completely forgot about them.

    Briefly, I don’t think that the reason for Korean women having cosmetic surgery is mainly because of their Neo-confucianist ideology: the gist of the series of posts is that it engenders a philosophical concept of the body that is more amiable to transformation and alteration of the body than, say, that provided by Christianity, but by itself it doesn’t provide an explanation of why Korean women have the numbers of cosmetic surgery operations that they do. For my own attempt at providing that, please see this post.


  5. Hi James!

    I was just wondering if you could perhaps give me some of the sources that talk about the inferiority complex of Korean women due to the colonization of the West. I would just like to read what they have to say and how they frame their argument, evidence, etc..

    This blog entry has raised many questions and really helps me think critically about my current research as well!

    Thanks and I will definitely be contacting you again in the future!


    1. Hi Anna,

      thanks for the compliments, and I’m very sorry about overlooking your comment for so long.

      I”m afraid I don’t really know what you mean by “the inferiority complex of Korean women due to the colonization of the West” though, seeing as Korea was colonized by Japan rather than a Western power. You could argue that Korea’s postwar relationship with the US was colonial-like in many aspects I suppose…or are you talking about an inferiority complex towards the West in general? I really don’t know.

      Sorry then, but in order to help you find the sources you need, could you please explain a little more about what you’re after exactly?

      Look forwarding to hearing back from you, and sorry again about the delay!


  6. Your blog is interesting and has a lot of references which really bring a solid argument. Anyway, I don’t have such writing skills and English isn’t my native language but I wanted to add (or illustrate) some points . I’ve met a Korean girl (let’s say J) in the US and so I talked with her and her boyfriend. The following points are what really strickened me :
    1.1. Make-up and surgery : Korean women always wear make up (well in the big cities) and are always well-dressed-up. J was shocked that Americans were casually dressed because women have to care for their look not to lose their job in Korea! About surgery, it was pretty ironic : she met some Koreans who thought she was American (they thought she couldn’t understand what they were saying) and suggested that she may have had surgery .
    1.2. Weight : J said she had gained 22lbs in the US but she was like… normal for me?
    2. Relationships and marriage : when I asked whether she would date a non Korean guy she said she would like to but her boyfriend said he would only marry a Korean woman.
    They also said that Japanese women think that Korean men are romantic > thanks to dramas…
    Thank you for writing such interesting articles ^^


  7. In Korea, in the recent past (as is still often the case all over the world) it was considered unmanly to be overly concerned with physical appearance.
    This is why men didn’t get plastic surgery.
    The mentality being that it is the woman’s role to become aesthetically pleasing in order to attract a man; not the other way around.

    That is now changing as androgyny and homosexuality are turning up more an more in Korean entertainment.
    The younger male generation is more feminine than in past generations, they are okay with being more feminine and they are more likely to undergo plastic surgery procedures.

    It doesn’t hurt that Korean entertainers (male and female) often undergo blatant plastic surgery procedures in the middle of their career, or have have their pre-debut (pre-surgery) photos surface on the Internet, or even just flat-out admit to having had plastic surgery (sometimes even unashamedly).

    Western entertainment and Korean entertainment (which is, for the most part, a mimicry of western entertainment) now play the largest role in determining how most Koreans think, and whether or not they’ll go for plastic surgery.


  8. I’ve been reading this blog for years, and I still find this blog to be refreshing when it comes to rebuttals of the “Westernization” argument regarding SKorea, especially regarding the cosmetic surgery debate. I find it astonishing how people keep stating so matter of factly that it just “has to be THE Western influence” – like the Asian countries never had their own circling ideologies before interaction with the West (and then that’s silly if we look at ancient trade records, but this is a still developing train of thought). But seriously? I’m also really sick of seeing hysteria-related articles that “everyone just wants to look Western” and the unquestioning discourse that results from that. Thanks for your work!


    1. Thanks very much, although to be frank I too have said stuff like that in the past, especially when I first started blogging nearly 5 years ago, and although I’ve deleted most of the offending posts there’s still a few up here that I’ve haven’t gotten around to.

      Having said that, when it comes to motivations for cosmetic surgery specifically, I do still think that the West has had a huge influence, but more in the sense that suddenly having rich white people around in the 1950s easily grafted on to and reinforced preexisting Korean beauty ideals and beliefs about whiteness (Michael Hurt explains much better at The Scribblings of the Metropolitician somewhere, but I’ve been unable to find the link sorry). And it has to be said that cosmetic surgery clinics do indeed feature a disproportionate number of Caucasian models, although of course that doesn’t mean that the people that go to them “want to look Western” per se.

      But don’t get me wrong. As it happens I’m currently working on a magazine article in which I stress that things like this have much more to do with inherent tendencies and prerogatives of capitalism and consumerism than anything Western, and are very much by and for Koreans, rather than being a case of Western cultural imperialism (see here for more on the last; will finish that series eventually!). Double eyelid-surgery is a good case in point – on the surface, it’s all about wanting to look Caucasian, but the reality is that because appearance is such a crucial factor in a getting jobs in a country where employers are allowed to ask for photographs on resumes [the only other one in the OECD is Japan]), then many Korean women see it as something they simply must get done. And so in my experience, they should and invariably do(!) take great offense at being told they simply want to look White!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s