The Scent of a Man: What deodorant commercials tell us about Korean metrosexuality

(Source: I am Goding)

As the message boards of numerous expat forums will attest, Koreans simply don’t wear deodorant, except for a few young urban sophisticates in the summer. What’s more, it’s likely almost all of those young urban sophisticates are women, as there have been no deodorant commercials aimed at Korean men yet (although Nivea did start using men alongside women for in-store promotions from 2007).

But why on Earth not? While I disagree with most prevailing explanations for the origins of Korea’s own, distinct brand of metrosexuality, that doesn’t mean that in the last decade or so there hasn’t been an explosive growth in sales of men’s skincare, cosmetic and grooming products to accompany that. It seems strange that Korean men prepared to spend the money and time on, say, wearing “masculine” sunblock for ten months of the year, wouldn’t also be concerned about how they smelled.

In Japan, even the middle-aged ajosshis are:

Explanations of why both sexes don’t wear deodorant usually focus on their (allegedly) sweating less than the average Westerner and the different kinds of foods that they eat. But personally, I give much more credence to the notion that — to the extent that most Koreans had even heard of the stuff until very recently — it was considered a luxury that few could afford, Korean consumerism in general still being trapped in the mentality of four decades ago. Back then, basic items were scarce, food barely adequate and lacking in quality or variety, and domestic monopolies and the restrictions on the imports of consumer meant that the customer was expected to be grateful for whatever he or she was given, as evidenced today by, for example: the gifting of soap, spam, cooking oil and/or shampoo (examples) on the two biggest holidays of Chuseok (추석) and Seollal (설날); a cuisine culture that — frankly — seems to consist of little more than throwing everything available together and then smothering the combination with salt, sugar or spicy pepper paste; and the often appalling customer service that still prevails in 2008 respectively.

Only slightly tongue-in-cheek, one could also argue that with virtually no-one wearing it and everyone used to the bad smell of each other to the extent that they don’t notice it, then the very minimal benefits of an individual wearing it mirror, say, the economics of my recently purchasing a videocall-capable phone: initially very expensive to myself, completely useless if others don’t have one also, but with increasing benefits to me as others do buy and use them (i.e. I can both talk to more and more people and services will probably become cheaper). Similarly, in the case of expensive Korean deodorant, as the number of users increased then Korean noses would become more and more sensitive to distinguishing between those who did and didn’t use it, and then later to lower prices and people having positive associations with and assumptions about the former group (source, left: cjswoxodwk).

Seemingly regardless of that background however, while it is true that early deodorant commercials featured – in a quintessentially Korean fashion – having a motherly figure explaining the benefits to respectfully attentive and nodding young Korean women (but which unfortunately predate the YouTube era), and that the first commercial below from just two years ago seemed to emphasize friendship more than anything else, commercials aimed at women are increasing in quantity and sophistication every summer, most like these two here and here (I can’t seem to embed them unfortunately) emphasizing deodorant’s supposed benefits in attracting the opposite sex just like their Western counterparts. Moreover, while for various reasons I personally hate any dubbed commercials, you don’t have to speak Korean to understand that the woman in the the second video opens with “What part of my body do you like the best? My legs? My ass? Or my hands?”, which, to put it mildly, you don’t otherwise hear all too often on Korean daytime television. Any wonder that it’s still the most popular deodorant commercial in Korea a year later?

But still, why aren’t deodorants marketed to men here? Actually there is a very detailed report on the Korean deodorant market available on the internet which may have the answer, and I’m quite happy to receive donations towards the US$753(!) required to purchase it and to pass on its conclusions when I do. But in the meantime, via this article on perfume science from the Economist magazine I’ve found, if perhaps not a perfect solution to the conundrum, then at least pointers towards further investigation. Here’s the gist of it, with my emphases throughout:

(Source: OHLALAMag)

THE very word “perfume” has feminine overtones to many male ears. Men can be sold “deodorant” and possibly “aftershave”, but the idea of all those dinky little bottles with their fussy paraphernalia is too much for the sensitive male ego. Yet no industry can afford to neglect half its potential market, and perfume-makers are ever keen to crack the shell of male reticence. Now they may know how to do so.

Craig Roberts of the University of Liverpool and his colleagues-working with a team from Unilever’s research laboratory at nearby Port Sunlight-have been investigating the problem. They already knew that appropriate scents can improve the mood of those who wear them. What they discovered, though, as they will describe in a forthcoming edition of the International Journal of Cosmetic Science, is that when a man changes his natural body odor it can alter his self-confidence to such an extent that it also changes how attractive women find him.

Half of Dr Roberts’s volunteers were given an aerosol spray containing a commercial formulation of fragrance and antimicrobial agents. The other half were given a spray identical in appearance but lacking active ingredients. The study was arranged so that the researchers did not know who had received the scent and who the dummy. Each participant obviously knew what he was spraying on himself, since he could smell it. But since no one was told the true purpose of the experiment, those who got the dummy did not realize they were being matched against people with a properly smelly aerosol.

Over the course of several days, Dr Roberts’s team conducted a battery of psychological tests on both groups of volunteers. They found that those who had been given the commercial fragrance showed an increase in self-confidence. Not that surprising, perhaps. What was surprising was that their self-confidence improved to such an extent that women who could watch them but not smell them noticed. The women in question were shown short, silent videos of the volunteers. They deemed the men wearing the deodorant more attractive. They were, however, unable to distinguish between the groups when shown only still photographs of the men, suggesting it was the men’s movement and bearing, rather than their physical appearance, that was making the difference.

For Unilever and other manufacturers of men’s scent, this is an important discovery. The firm’s marketing of its main product in this area, a deodorant called Lynx, plays up the so-called “Lynx Effect” – which is supposed to make men irresistibly attractive to women. Dr Roberts’s experiment, however, suggests that the advertised “Born chicka wah wah” of the product may have nothing to do with a woman’s appreciation of the smell, and everything to do with its psychological effect on the man wearing it.

The rest of the article focuses on the scientific theories of smell and attractiveness, not uninteresting in themselves, and I highly recommend you read the full article, especially the comments. Finally, a quick excerpt from the conclusion:

There are many useful inferences that might be drawn from this research. One would be that a woman’s choice of perfume will resist the vagaries of fashion. This may explain why most innovation in the industry involves changes in packaging and marketing, producing all that fussy paraphernalia, rather than changing what is in the bottle.

In hindsight of course, all quite obvious: I’m sure that we can all appreciate how, say, going through the process of our “date preparation routine” — showering listening to your favorite music, wearing more expensive clothes than usual, and finally putting on your expensive perfume/cologne/deodorant strictly reserved for special occasions, and so on – was a very important factor in getting into the mood for it, even though in hindsight showering immediately beforehand would have washed off natural pheromones crucial for the date’s success.

Hence my dismal record.

Also, while the reasons were unknown until know, manufacturers have undoubtedly long been aware of the effects of the phenomenon, but if not then the basic mechanics of capitalism alone — the inevitable saturation of markets and the rates of profit to fall — would constantly compel them to rebrand and repackage their products, the latest manifestations of which seem to be a decidely “Arctic” theme of absolutely any cosmetic marketed towards Western men.

But what does this tell us about the absence of such commercials in Korea?

(Source: Somang Cosmetics)

For a time, I was planning to look at the origins of Korean metrosexuality for my MA thesis (summary here), put wisely rejected that topic after necessarily watching hundreds of Korean cosmetics commercials aimed at men. Only now though, can I see that a surprising common theme of them is the almost complete absence of women in them. Or to be more precise, with exceptions such as the notorious, multi-layered one with Ahn Jung-hwan (안정환) from 2003 above (video, alas, unavailable), of the relatively few times women are featured in them most of the time they are not at all there to demonstrate the product’s alleged effects on women. Rather, generally they are effectively mere props in narratives very much focused on the men themselves.

Some examples, with and without women, starting with…yes, that one with Ahn and Kim Jae-won (김재원) that unfortunately utterly defined Korean masculinity to a generation of expats in 2002, (update: while I’m at it, I’ve added a parody by some Seoul students also) then with Ahn again and Hyun-bin (현빈) in 2006, unfortunately cutting prematurely his distinctive gesture and facial expression at the end:

Now two more commercials, both with Hyun-bin and from 2006, and the second with Kim Hye-su (김혜수). While they appear at first glance to feature women lusting after Hyun, in fact both commercials are actually for women’s cosmetics:

And finally, a exception from late 2007 with Jung Il-woo (정일우) that proves the rule: that wearing cosmetics=more hot sex with lots of women was not a theme of Korean commercials until — to the extent that there are international standards — very late in the development of metrosexuality compared to other countries:

Why is this significant? Well, because when I wondered in a previous post about why so few commercials for women’s cosmetics featured men — naively thinking attracting them was the sole reason women ever used them — I was very surprised and much impressed by Gomushin Girl’s answer (my emphasis):

…I think the main reason for male absence is the convention of putting the product itself in the ad. While some advertisements focus primarily on the made-up faces, most want to show the packaging and look of the product itself, be it lipstick, mascara, or what have you. This means that a lot of advertisements focus on the process of application, or the period just after the makeup has been put on. This process of being made up is strongly associated with the private sphere, and thus excludes men. Men are present when the results (fully made up and dressed) are there, and so can be part and parcel of clothing and other advertisements, but a make up advertisement needs to feature a woman in a private space, preparing herself for going into the public sphere. If the man were there, it would be subverting the purposes of her putting the makeup on in the first place.

And from which I now take away the conclusion that, very generally speaking, Korean cosmetic commercials for men are much closer to those of Korean (and Western) women’s cosmetics than they are of those of the “wear this and women will want to rape you” style that overwhelmingly dominate the equivalent ones Western men.

Why? We can speculate on any number of reasons. But whatever is ultimately responsible, I would argue that the difference shows that:

  1. Korean cosmetic companies were never in the driving seat behind the rise of metrosexuality in Korea over the last decade or so (which is not to say that they ever were in Western metrosexuality either)
  2. And that the development of Korean metrosexuality at least was always driven by and for women, and thus the manifestations of it in consumer culture have been heavily influenced by preexisting narratives in previously exclusively women-focused industries. Or in other words, it’s like cosmetic companies didn’t realize that they were actually supposed to be advertising to men now.

Both of which buttress(ed) my hypothesis in my thesis proposal

Lest that sound a little abstract though, let me conclude by stressing that, just like you’d expect, Korean men always have and always will strive for appearances and modes of behavior that are most likely to get them laid. My thesis proposal was really just about some of the possible reasons why thee, well, requirements of Korean women for them to have a greater chance to do so changed in Korea in the late-1990s.

As for why those didn’t include wearing deodorant? Well, given that women didn’t themselves, then there was hardly the demand by them that men did. And I strongly suspect that it will be at least 10 years before a tipping point of deodorant-wearing Korean women is reached and it is seen as standard, after which men will increasingly be expected to wear it too,.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to have my parents send batches of cheap roll-ons from home every few months. But if you’re a single male in Korea? Then it sounds like it can’t harm to pamper yourself!

29 thoughts on “The Scent of a Man: What deodorant commercials tell us about Korean metrosexuality

  1. Anecdotes:

    1. Over the Xmas holiday, my wife and I were walking through the Somyeon subway station, and my wife remarked: “I don’t think Koreans take a bath in the winter!” Seriously, taking a shower in a house where the bathroom is unheated and located on the outside corner is a healthy ordeal. But, so many Koreans talk of saunas especially in the winter. I can only assume people just aren’t putting their money where there culture is.

    2. It’s hard to smell when your workplace, in this case, a well-endowed university, does not have central heating, and no heat unless someone turns on an electric heater for a sustained period of time. And, those kerosene space heaters would overwhelm any BO.

    3. Judging from how few men there are in movie theaters at Lotte and other major franchises – and almost none with other men – and on the restaurant level on Fridays, Ive often wondered out loud to my wife if men want to date women. I wonder, if like Japan, the sexes in ROK are becoming sexless, or at least, sex-alternative. The old ways of blind dates and arranged marriages are still strong, and BO hardly leaves the impression a good job and family does.

    Western men I think wear antiperspirant and cologne because western women, because of birth control and anti-discrimination laws have the power to choose. With more men than women, Korean women should be similarly empowered, but economics is not on their side.

    4. I love the smell of kimchi in the morning. It smells like….garlic!


  2. Love the blog, read all your posts…

    This was another interesting one, but it’s quite well-known Asians lack apocrine sweat glands that contribute to sweat. Of course, that doesnt mean they can not shower for a week. But i’m Korean-American and I’ve never used deodorant…ever. I don’t need it either. While all my white friends “pit out” their shirts, asians never do. I can not shower for a couple days..under desperate circumstances, and not smell at all..but if a white guy or god forbid, an Indian/Arab, goes one day, good lord he stinks haha.

    Trust me on this, after being..hmm..”intimately involved” with many asians and other races, I can tell you asians dont stink. No asian or korean i’ve ever known uses deodorant, but I grew up in a white family and had white friends growing up too. Also, I’m a Phd in molecular biology, so i’ve investigated it before…more than just a cursory google search


  3. My anecdotal evidence concurs with Andrew’s remarks.

    In midsummer when humidity is through the roof and I’m in my typically rather vigorous yoga class, I’ve occasionally almost wiped out in my own sweat (actual this did happen to a caucasian brethren once in hapkido class). The other (Korean) women barely break a sweat. After one particularly grueling session, one woman showed off her tiny dime-sized sweat mark in her armpit to her friend indicating just how hard the class had been! My T-shirt, on the other hand, was completely soaked through.

    In any of the intimate situations I’ve found myself in with Korean males, out of curiosity I’ve often stuck my nose right up to their pit and taken a deep quaff. Even after hearty, ahem, physical activity never once have a smelled anything other than skin.

    The smells that do tend to emanate from people are usually alcohol, garlic, and cigarettes, or Eau de ajossi if you will.

    In the West, deodorant a necessary element of basic personal hygiene as caucasians are a smelly, swetay bunch, but I’d wager deodorant in this country is basically a marketing/cosmetics thing.


    1. Baltimoron,
      I’m not sure what you mean by “healthy” exactly, but I’d definitely agree that entering a Korean bathroom can be quite a bracing experience at this time of year. Old-timers like you and I are probably used to it, but it’s just bizarre really: how come the rest of Korean houses and apartments generally have more than adequate central heating, but bathrooms none at all? It’s not like extremely cold winters here are a recent phenomenon or anything. And given how, for example: water is turned off for a day 4 times a year to clean the tanks in my 23 year-old apartment building; that we had to buy a pump to get any hot water at all on the 14 floor sometimes; that the hot water is turned off for 2 weeks every summer (albeit not as much of a hassle as it sounds), and for six weeks at my friend’s only slightly older apartment down the road, complaints about any of which invariably bring the response “If you don’t like it then you can live somewhere else” even from your Korean friends, then you can’t help but a) conclude that, if they don’t care about it, most Koreans still don’t bathe all that often and b) not blame my friend for soon leaving Korea for a more developed country…like Thailand.

      In Korea’s defense, new apartments generally do have their own individual gas boilers, and housing in my (sort-of) hometown of Auckland, New Zealand often features similar bizarre refusals to admit reality, in that case that airy, sunny, and wide-open wooden homes are lovely in the summer but simply impossible to heat in what are often really quite miserable winters. And what Koreans are prepared to tolerate is of course all heavily tied in to the customer service culture (or lack of) that I mentioned in the post, difficult to disentangle from which is a general lack of awareness of international norms. If parents are prepared to pay money to deprive their kids of sleep and cram them into the Dickensian, filthy, windowless classrooms at my hagwon in the first place for instance, then it takes no great leap of the imagination to realize that they’d also accept the owners not turning on the heating until literally this week either, forcing the children to study in their outdoor clothes. No wonder they never wanted to study.

      Just one quick thing on your observations about dating culture and so on: while blind dates and prearranged marriages are definitely strong features of the mating game here, both are definitely slowly but surely declining over time, and although they are a lot of aspects of the “gender apartheid” of Korea, as I argue here the case of the proclivity for blind dates is largely a reflection of the importance of their university entrance exams combined with the simple fact that young Koreans don’t get all that much opportunity or time to interact with the opposite sex until after those (until recently most schools were single-sex), which renders them generally inexperienced with and/or often literally terrified of simply going up to and talking with each other. But friends that work in high schools say that the sexes are mixing more and more over time.

      (edit: links I forgot to include last night added)

      I certainly can’t argue with that, and thanks for passing the information on. In my defense, while I did insinuate that Koreans who wore deodorant would smell better than those who don’t, I never said that the latter literally stank(!), although I’ve definitely heard many Western expats (from non-Asian backgrounds) doing so over the years. Personally I’d always attributed never noticing that myself to my underdeveloped smelling ability, in all seriousness some food and other allergies blocking my nose continuously when I was a teenager, but now I see that the smells might be more in their imaginations. Which, alas, can’t be said for the pervasive kimchi/soju/ramyeon breath during the Korean rush hour unfortunately, and it’s easy to imagine the worst about a nation’s hygiene after experiencing that!

      Come to think of it, actually my (Korean) wife doesn’t wear it either and I’ve always liked how she smells, but if I don’t shower or wear it one day personally then I literally repulse myself by about 4 or 5pm, even if I’ve been doing nothing more strenuous than sitting in front of the computer, and showering just by itself only delays that for a couple of hours at most. I really can’t imagine ever not wearing it except for when I’m on a camping trip or something, and as I type this it’s difficult to keep my coffee down thinking about what life must have been like in Western countries before using it became universal.

      I was looking forward to reading up on its history to see how that came about after I cut and pasted this once I got home, but unfortunately it’s not very informative. When I have the time though I will look further, and will especially try to find comparisons of its usage rates in various countries and especially how early Western advertisements compare to those from Korea and other East Asian countries today.

      sorry, wrote the above mostly at work (sans internet) and cut and pasted it once I got home, and I have a big day tomorrow so I have to go to bed very soon. I’ll make sure to reply probably this time tomorrow though.

      Edit, next day: make that the day after tomorrow sorry, consequence of a very important meeting I have with someone late tonight and then a 9-6:30 in and out the apartment door schedule for the next four weeks. While I do have these 5 mins at this work computer though, just a quick apology for all the comments that have gone into moderation recently: in hindsight the word “James” triggering that was perhaps a bit draconian and so I’ve removed it, but then it did stop most of the 710 comments (really) my first troll sent me from getting through!


  4. Um,

    Baltimoron: Woah! We have central heating where I work. (They just doin’t turn it all all the time. Like, until 9:30 on Monday mornings? Or, in some rooms in certain buildings, like, ever?)

    Andrew & Anne,

    Yeah, uh, well, some Koreans do indeed get stinky. A tightly-packed and badly-ventilated subway ride on a late spring day (say, just days before aircon gets switched on) is enough to disabuse anyone of any notion to the contrary. Granted, more Asians are less likely to stink as much due to genetics, biochemistry, diet, fitness (fat people overheat more and sweat more, this I know from experience!) and so on. And I will totally agree that most Asians I’ve known sweat less than *I* do, and when they do sweat they stink less than I do when I sweat. (Then again, they grew up with insanely hot and humid summers that lots of Westerners haven’t: acclimation counts for something too.) But there are certainly some men (and women, I’d guess) who could use a deodorant around here.

    But anyway, I suspect the real reason that the male cosmetics industry is making a dent more slowly than the women’s cosmetics industry is… da da da daaaaaa! — the military experience. Men go through a couple of years of doing without just about everything, after which they supposedly “come back as a man.” My female students sometimes groan and add, when no men are around, “Come back as an ajeoshi.” Ajeoshization of young men (as has been discussed here before) almost certainly has a braking function on how diversified their consumption patterns, and forms of rebellion in the process of staking a claim on their identity, become in adult (post-military) life.

    Where, in this, it seems to me “metrosexuality” is, as I think you’ve suggested before, James, is a form of rebellion against that very same ajeoshization, or maybe a kind of attempt to divert that process. I suspect it’s not a very successful one, according to what some young women have said to me about the men they know who’ve “come back.” I was talking about rebellion with a student today, about to what degree it constitutes doing the opposite of what one’s parents insist on, versus doing what you (maybe stupidly) want in your youth. She insisted that the rough crowd she grew up among (drinking, smoking, getting pregnant in high school or middle school, getting into violent street fights, etc.) were doing it as a way of disobeying their parents and to climb the cool-kid hierarchy. Maybe lots of North American kids are like that too, but I sensed a kind of difference in that, for the tough kids, the smokers and drinkers and knocked-up teenagers I knew in high school, there was less a sense of rebelling against parents as much as a sense of doing what the hell they wanted, right or wrong.

    (And that got me thinking back to how in North America, the models for rebellious youth culture have always been found close at hand: Kerouac and Ginsberg doing their best to emulate what they thought Mexican-Americans and African-Americans lived like. Ten years later, you get the hippie movement, which is the same thing: (predominantly) white kids acting out a big, romanticized caricature of the way white America seemed to think that those minorities and others lived.)

    What’s the model for Korean rebellion? There’s not really a native ethic minority culture to draw upon so you’re going to find it in imports — especially from Japan and North America. The difference seeming to be that female consumerism is translating to enough changes in self-conception, and in relationships, for a repudiatory word like “Dwenjang nyeo” to be coined, where among young men, it doesn’t seem to be changing (or responding) as rapidly, or perhaps as deeply. Whether a man is 25 or 45, if he’s been ajeoshized, he can still put on a pink sweater and remain essentially ajeoshized, if you get my drift.


  5. . . . I can testify, having taught at an all-boy’s high school here, that *fewer* scent glands does not mean none! My boys, God bless ’em, could reek right honorably if I got them at the end of a hot day or right after P.E.

    We should note, too, that the way we perceive smells during . . .echem, intimate encounters is NOT the way we normally interpret them. Most people, when aroused, will find the body odor of their partners enticing rather than off-putting. And also, there are individual and gendered differences in odor perception – and sorry boys, you’re on the losing end of this one. Women may be more inclined to want to use some of these products because generally women can smell themselves and others better than men can, and thus are more receptive to arguments that they should disguise odors. Also helping may have been the advent of short and no sleeves as socially acceptable for women in Korea . . . I would bet money that there’s at least some relation to the popularity of sleeveless clothes for women.

    But we’re also overlooking that deodorants and antiperspirants do not just cover, eliminate, or disguise body odor, but also work to reduce the amount of sweat. And while there’s the perception that westerners sweat more, the fact is that the number of sweat glands is pretty much the same across the board, and I’m wondering if the ads may become more ambiguous about odor vs. wetness, or if they’ll just go for the wetness angle.

    Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go take a bath.


  6. James:

    I think of the bathrooms in my house as “exterior outhouses”, from my experiences spending weekends with older relatives. In my house, one bathroom is only accessible by an external door. That’s the room for the lowest renter on my family’s roster.

    Speaking of infernal workplaces, my office on Monday after a long break was 9 degrees Celsius. My bathroom felt by comparison balmy even 5:30 in the morning.

    On “healthy” Benjamin Franklin is famous among the American founding generation for subjecting his fellow revolutionaries to open windows on their frequent winter trips to Congress and the field. He argued that circulating air reduced the spread of disease, and that heat made one lazy. I find I’m cold before a shower, but afterward the room warms up with need of wasting oil.

    I agree with what you say about gender segregation. I think there’s more reason to explore whether segregation in school leads to discrimination later, say in the workplace.

    Andrew and Anne:

    OK, Anne, I’ll concede armpit-smelling data-gathering to you. Remember to devise an olfactory scale. But, aside from garlic, there are days in both winter and summer when I enter a classroom only to be greeted with an invisible wall of smelly hair and clothes. Maybe we should extend the BO matter to hair washing and laundering. Perhaps if one is naked and hairless, there’s no stink. But, clothing atop unwashed flesh for any period of time will cause a smell. OK, I’m picky – I bathe twice a day, once in the morning and once in the afternoons after a mountain walk. I also never eat without bathing. But, like that day in the subway, it’s hard not to imagine a brown-green wall in the air.


  7. I’m not sure I’m buying the “rebellion” argument, because I think the North American teenage rebellion is something that has been produced by our culture – the typical teen in the US has far less in the way of directed time compared to their Korean counterpart, who is generally busy from the minute they wake up until they go to bed early the next morning, and often so exhausted from that schedule that they have little energy to do much in the way of rebelling. Add to this the prolonged amount of time living with family for most young people, and there’s not as much opportunity –
    and more importantly, no real expectation. None of the Korean families I know expend much time expecting or worrying about rebellious behavior from their children of any age. It is not an expected part of growing up as near as I can tell. The modern western idea of adolescence is historically speaking, a social abnormality.
    Returning to the idea of stink, odor is not only a result of the secretions of odor glands but also chemical processes that take place on the epidermis, including bacteria growth.


  8. I’m not sure about the rebellion argument either, Gord.

    I have two brothers-in-law who both finished up their military service before I met them. One served with all ROK supply troops in Gangwon province; the other served near American combat units on the DMZ. The latter, the younger, I thought was more modern, maybe because he is the youngest of three. He had longer hair, speaks better English, and hates the North Koreans. The former, the middle child wore his hair short, wore conservative clothing, but cheered the North Koreans firing missiles. But, now, the middle brother got married to a Korean woman who spent time in the States. He wears trendier clothing and he sports a pigtail now. His younger brother is in a long-term relationship, probably with his Korean future wife from the way she courts favor with my wife and me, and he acts more conservatively. Both parents are old-line conservative. My father-in-law famously walked out on a movie his kids paid for him and their mother to enjoy in five minutes because he couldn’t suspend his disbelief.

    Especially from Sodom- Seoul- it’s hard to realize how few crossroads western culture has really made in Korea. it takes a woman or a foreigner to entice a Korean man to reconsider the old ways.


    1. Sigh. Breaking my deadline for a third time. Sorry everyone, but it’s time to face reality: my blog has suddenly become much more popular this week – yes, even before I wrote about *cough* naked 14 year-old girls – and with 1700 rather than 800 daily visitors then it’s taking up much more of my time. So naturally, when I need more time…then work becomes crazy, I’m looking for a new job before my current one finishes at the end of March, I’m writing abstracts for more conferences, and I’m trying hard to see my daughters occasionally when they’re not asleep too! So in a nutshell, sorry, but I can’t reply to comments withing 24 hours or so like I have (mostly) been, and will have to reply to the bulk of them on the weekends from now on. Or at least until I settle into a new job and routine.

      But they are all read and appreciated though, and will be replied to, so please do keep them coming!

      Hmmm…might make this a post tomorrow.

      (Update: Make that a page instead)


      1. Apologies again for the long delay, and as all of you are long time commentators then I really hope that none of you feel taken for granted. Sorry!

        Anne: I’d have to concur about the heat of the moment being important, although personally I’ve never noticed my wife ever smelling badly, regardless of what she’s (or we’ve) been doing or how long she’s been without a shower. And that’s despite her being a poor country girl, and then living as a high-school and university student in one rooms in which the “bathroom” was a hose from the kitchen sink, meaning that that can sometimes be very long indeed…

        Gord: Man, I really will have to hurry up with my Gender and Militarization series, because hearing and reading about exactly the same ajosshification process is precisely what got me writing it in the first place.

        When I wrote that wearing pink and so on could be a man’s means of rebellion against particularly his father’s lifestyle and values (I think I got started on that whole thing here, although I’ve mentioned it in other posts since then), I was specifically thinking of university students when I(?) came up with it, but I suppose that little acts of rebellion and/or highlighting your difference from the previous generation is still possible after military service by your choice of clothes at work and wearing deodorant and so on. Certainly that “rebellion” can be somewhat meaningless, and Herbert Marcuse’s notion of “repressive tolerance” – a situation in which individuals can do almost whatever they want because their “freedom” has been stripped of any meaning – is something that instantly came to mind when I read your comment, but then there is a variety of different types, experience, and…hmmm…degree(?) of military service here, and I’ve met more than a few who weren’t ajosshis in the slightest. So while I definitely agree that that female consumerism is translating to qualitative changes in self-conception, and in their relationships and so on, I do also think that there’s enough of a base now that male consumerism might reach a similar tipping point soon.

        I’d agree about the foreign role models for rebellion as well; I’ll have to look more into that.

        Baltimoron: Just one thing about the sex segregation at school quickly: as far as I know, most schools in Korea were single-sex when I came in 2000 but since then most have become mixed. Is this also your (or any other readers’) own impression(s)?

        Gomushin Girl: Come to think of it, actually it may have been your comment that triggered that repressive tolerance memory really! Regardless though, I’d agree that a rebellious adolescence is very much a recent, largely Western construct, but on the other hand for those – granted – relatively few restless teenagers out there, then Korean role models are somewhat lacking.

        Baltimoron again: Good last point. I’m a bit confused about your father-in-law though: why did he leave the movie theater exactly?


  9. I know I’m coming in on the discussion a little late and I’ve nothing very educated to add except that it’s true that some Korean men do not smell. And when I say do not smell, I mean not at all, in the tiniest bit. My husband is Korean and we can hike for 7 hours and come down off the mountain both covered in sweat and he will smell like… nothing. He always smells the same. He’s never worn deodorant. He sweats A LOT, but it never smells like anything. And my sense of smell is keen.
    And I’d just like to say, it’s not fair. I don’t wear any cosmetics at all, (really I should start moisturizing) except for deodorant and it is out of necessity. I would love to be able to go without!


    1. Thanks for your comment Danielle, and please never feel inhibited from coming in on a discussion late: unfortunately for the sake of the amount of time I spend on the blog, most commenters naturally direct their attention to me and my post rather than each other’s points, so even if you make a comment on a year-old post I’ll know about it the next time I’m on a computer and will be happy to reply.

      After writing this post and then reading the your and other commenters’ opinions, I’d have to say that the jury is probably still out on whether Koreans “need’ to wear deodorant or not, but while some certainly could spend more attention to personal hygiene, as a whole I’d have to say that the majority of Koreans will never, ever need to wear deodorant itself: it’s not just me that doesn’t usually notice any smell! It’ll be interesting to see whether advertising here is succesful enough create a perceived need regardless though.

      I hear you about the fairness issue, but for me it’s mostly about shaving: I’m tired of my daily bloodletting, but without it I look like a tramp pretty quickly, whereas my Korean colleagues can go for several days without it!


    2. yes you should start a daily skin care routine… not just moisturizer. caucasian skin tends to age quickly. hurry before its too late.


  10. I immensely enjoy reading your entries. They’re quite atypical of what you can find from most blogs.

    I remember my “deodorant hunting’ experience when I was in Korea. It was in Spring of 2007…

    Me: Hyun-il, do you know where I can buy a deo?
    Hyun: What’s that?
    Me: *making funny movements as if I’m applying a roll on*
    Hyun: Ah, that. Are you going “downtown”? Let’s just go together.

    Hyun: Ms. Do you sell deodorants?
    Salesperson: Yes. But why would you need it? It’s still Spring.
    Hyun: My friend here sweats a lot.


    I wanna smack my friend right then and there..ooh! If only he hasn’t been such a nice guy.


  11. this is a mountain made of a molehill.
    im 34, korean american, born in portland, oregon. ive had as close to a typical american diet as anyone i know, and i can say with authority that koreans/asians, simply dont stink as much as other races. its not diet, and its not that we sweat less, its that we physically do not have as many of the glands that produce the stink in sweat than other races. i dont use deodorant. i have in the past, but ive used it more like a cologne than an antiperspirant/deodorizer. pretty simple really.


    1. Well, considering all the evidence and anecdotes people have given above then naturally I think it’s anything but “simple really.” And what makes you able to say what you do “with authority” for that matter, considering that it sounds like you’re extrapolating merely from your own body? Having said that, I actually agree that Northeast Asians generally sweat and/or smell less than Northern Europeans, but I’d disagree that diet can’t often have a big effect on the latter (albeit not everyone: like you said a Western diet has had no impact on you), and one ethnic group sweating less than another overall certainly doesn’t mean that many individuals within that group don’t sweat and/or stink enough to still require deodorant.


      1. wrong again my ignorant friend, we sweat tons!. we just dont stink. look up apocrine gland and you’ll find out why you and other whites stink w/o deodorant. its an evolutionary left over from the animal days when pre humans relied on scent for identification. totally unnecessary in the modern world.


        1. Thank you, but actually I’m well aware of what apocrine glands are and their purpose. But although not knowing about that later post is fine of course, just plain ignoring what I and others have previously written isn’t (why on Earth would Danielle need a skin care routine? What’s that got to do with anything?”), let alone calling “us whites” and our “western influenced conclusions” ignorant and wrong in your inane replies. I’ve got no hesitation banning someone who communicates like that.

          Anybody thinks I’m being harsh, just ask yourself if you would rather waste any more time with someone who dispenses such pearls of wisdom as this.


  12. Hey! Great blog! I’ve read through a bit and think it’s a better site than I’m used to seeing. I’ve been in Busan for a little over a year and it’s nice to get into discussions further than mere observations of differences. Kudos.


  13. Great discussion. The title heading caught me offguard, so I got curious enough to read it. So Koreans rarely (or seldom,,,or never!) wear deos? Shocking, really! There’s an argument in here talking about Asians (boldface on the word Asian) rarely stinking their bodies. Well, I am Asian but not Korean (Filipino to be exact), and I must say I stink before reaching lunch break when I don’t use a deodorant. I have had this long standing notion that everybody wears deo and takes a bath except Indians/Arabs (no discrimination intended here). I could really attest that for myself since I’ve stood next to an Indian parent in my school more than a couple of times and his BO never really changes. Can you all tell me that there’s also a difference in the stink levels of different Asian races, because there’s that argument generalizing Asians as almost a non-stinking people. It’s confusing really, because here in the Philippines, people who don’t shower and wear deodorant smell a lot. Can you enlighten me on this one? Thanks…(“,)


    1. Thanks, and yes, it’s all true about Koreans and deodorants. Sorry though, because I haven’t been in enough countries and next to enough non-deodorant smelling Asians to personally comment on their smelliness. Unfortunately(?) all my Taiwanese friends in New Zealand wore it just as much as everyone else!


  14. Maybe we should just send this one over to our fellow Korean men (it would make them use up a bottle(?!) a day for sure).. not hq but the only full version i could find!


  15. My mom is Korean, never wore stuff, she sweats but doesn’t smell. Never has to shave her legs either and doesn’t have ear wax! I’m only half so yeah I’m hairy lol but not smelly really.Now my Daughter is 25% Korean but yet she takes after my mom. No hair ear wax, etc. Amazing really.


  16. Like Elliot, I had some difficulty finding deodorant in Winter ’07 when I forgot to bring some on my *first* trip to meet my (Korean) girlfriend’s parents. Needless to say, I was embarrassed to bring up the issue; but eventually I decided to swallow my pride rather than spending a whole week in a state of funk. And of course we had to go to the cosmetics store as a group because my Korean was pathetically weak at the time. I got the Nivea liquid roll-on for something like $6 USD (it didn’t really get the job done), and the story provided many laughs for the extended family.

    Any quick advice for a Western man in a long-term relationship with a lovely Korean? (I know there are many other posts I should read)


  17. you’re blog is extremely interesting. but most of your western influenced conclusions are just ignorant or plain wrong. the reason koreans don’t wear deodorant is because they have so few if any apocrine glands. whites have tons and blacks have the most. that is why deodorant is hard to find in korea. this is truly a case where the companies are trying to sell an unnecessary product through the power of marketing.


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