Open Thread #5: So What?

( Source: RaySoda )

To get you started, a provocative comment I just received on an old post, which would be wasted in obscurity there. With apologies to the author if this sounds impolite, but I ultimately find much of his argument superficial, although it’s always good to have one’s views tested:

…Hi, just stumbled on to your blog last night in between reviewing flashcards for my Chinese class, and I have to say I’m thrilled to find someone as interested (at least in this and recent posts) in the topic of standards of beauty, particularly in Korea. I do however have to argue a point. And this isn’t necessarily aimed at you personally or the views you hold, but you seem to be a willing enough participant in the discussions that occur because of your blog posts that I though I’d give it a shot.

Looking back over said “beauty” posts, I continually find myself asking, “so what”? So what if Koreans openly put an exceptionally high standard on external appearance? So what if women in Korea try to become most easily divisible by which letter they most look like? So what if even kids are targeted by the media in what amounts to little more than marketers seeking the widest possible audience?

Is all this something that doesn’t happen in western countries? You yourself have said that it is not.

Granted, I come from something of a biased perspective in a number of ways. First of all, I don’t think of women in ad campaigns, subconsciously or otherwise, as sex objects because I’m gay. Secondly, from my “objective” perspective on feminine beauty, I tend to lean more towards the thinner, petite side of women that are shown so ubiquitously in magazines from Vogue downwards. Thirdly, as someone who has been very tall (6′5″, so ~195cm)and called thin all his life almost in place of standard introductions, I can see where all of the body-consciousness in our society comes from; it’s only natural to judge someone first and foremost on appearance.

( Source: unknown )

Anyway, back to the gist, I have to say, is it a bad thing that Korean ad firms target womens’ physical appearance so blatantly? After all, at least it seems as though a Korean woman knows what’s expected of her in terms of appearance. In the West, on the contrary, we constantly say that size doesn’t matter, which we know perfectly well to be false. Heterosexual males may not be as turned on by a 100lb, 170cm woman as they are by one maybe 20lbs heavier, but the upper limit to what most males find attractive, by my subjective observations, is significantly lower than what the average woman in the U.S. (my country of residence) now weighs. Because we’ve told women (and men) that size doesn’t matter, things have, to be polite, gotten out of hand. According to the U.S. gov’t, which calculates these things based on body-mass index (admittedly a very poor way of doing so, basically just weight divided by height), more than two-thirds of women in America are overweight.

Although of course there are exceptions, in most East Asian countries overweight and obese people, particularly women, are fairly rare. I think in part it’s because the culture in that part of the world (yay generalizations!) says outright that size does matter, whereas we say it doesn’t, but really it still does.

In short, long-winded post aside, I’d rather be in a country where people say to my face that I’m fat instead of whispering it to each other as I walk by. At least that way, the social pressure to be thin is so much greater and clearer that it can’t be overlooked or downplayed to save face for those applying that pressure. And in terms of health, I think more would rather be underweight than overweight. After all, eating disorders affect, what, about 10% of women in the U.S., while obesity-related diseases kill millions each year. Just from the perspective of someone living in the U.S., I think maybe being a bit more upfront about the natural inclination towards “thinner” (when compared to the national average) women may not be such a bad thing after all.

Then again, having never been to Korea, you’re more able to say whether this is quite so helpful there as it would be here. Of course, culture aside, that brings us to the question of whether certain ethnic groups are naturally thinner or not, which is another issue entirely of questionable validity and fairness…(end).

( Source: Cocofun )

Actually I don’t disagree with all of that, and by coincidence its “so what?” tone struck a chord with me because of some similar advice about writing I’ve been putting into practice in recent months. Unfortunately, I feel too guilty about my daughters being glued to the television for hours to provide a proper critique this weekend sorry, and will have to rely on my choice of accompanying images to speak for themselves. Besides which, I’m much more interested in what you think!


Sex and the Red Blooded Woman

Remember these?

I first came across them back in 2008, the first time I really tried to understand Korean women’s penchant for skin-whitening. While it turns out that I originally misinterpreted what exactly the images above were though, from a 2005 study of the relationship between female attractiveness and hormones, one of its conclusions remains the same: the redder a women’s cheeks, the sexier.

In brief, the images are 2 composites made from 2 separate groups of 10 women each from the study (out of 59), all taken on the days they were ovulating, i.e. when they were most likely to get pregnant. On the left is that of the 10 women with the highest oestrogen levels on that day in their menstrual cycles, and on the right of the 10 women with the lowest.

It sounds mean to the latter, but I’m sure there’d be little argument as to which women are the more attractive.

While I’ve touched in passing on the role of hormones in human sexual attractiveness many times before however, most notably the fact that women with (arguably) universally-attractive hourglass figures have much more oestrogen than those with other body shapes, making them up to 3 times more likely to get pregnant, I don’t mean to imply that one’s preferences in the opposite sex are nothing but a reflection of their hormone levels.

For example, all things being equal then men with high testosterone are better mates for women, as that is a good indicator of physical health. But while a great many women might find men with “masculine” jaws like Harrison Ford irresistible however, that is not the same as saying that they would automatically choose to have children with them over more “feminine” men, as those same high hormone levels tend (and I stress, only tend) to make them poorer fathers.

But ideally, women would get pregnant by the hunks, and trick other men who were better fathers into raising them, thinking they were their own. And one way in which men try to prevent this is by spending much more time with their female partners when they are ovulating, thereby ensuring that they don’t get a chance to have flings with those dashing Harrison Ford types just when they’re most tempted to (women in heterosexual relationships, take note of the extra attention right about the same time you feel like a night out with the girls!).

On the women’s side, one way to ensure that he doesn’t have flings when you’re having your period, thereby potentially having children with other women who will take some of his time and resources away from your own, is to trick him into thinking that you’re actually ovulating instead. And how best to do that?

Well, remember those red cheeks in the opening image?

I confess, I haven’t actually had many conversations with women about why they wear blusher, and invariably they’ve just said they do so out of habit, and/or that it makes them look prettier. And indeed it might, in the sense that if one associates red and pink with femininity (for whatever cultural and/or biological reasons), then wearing it would certainly make one appear more feminine. But in a new study by Ian Stephen and colleagues at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, one more very good reason to wear it has been revealed. In short, as Jina Pincott at Love, Sex, Attraction…and Science explains, they:

…recruited volunteers of various races and asked them to digitally adjust the color tone on more than 50 faces [of both sexes] to make them look as healthy and attractive as possible. Volunteers consistently added more red coloring to the cheeks — whether the face was Caucasian, Asian, or Black. The redder the face, the more suggestive it is of oxygen-rich blood reaching the skin. The more oxygen-rich blood, the more suggestive it is of the person’s general health and youth. An old person, a sick person, a person with hypertension or bad circulation…will not get rosy-cheeked.

And crucially, the researchers also found that volunteers preferred women over men with rosy cheeks. Why?

One reason may be the sex hormones, which show up more obviously in flushed female faces. But it may also be due to the fact that men already have ruddier faces than women do — they have higher levels of hemoglobin and arterial oxygen content in their blood. As a result, the male blush is not as obvious a cue of good health and high sex hormones.

Corroborated by this study that I discussed back in May, which showed that people tend to judge the same androgynous face on left as female because it is much lighter than that on the right:

In my view then, and regardless of my opinions on its origins, skin-whitening is an enduring but fundamentally anti-instinctive cultural practice. Or is it?

Despite all the above, please bear in mind that interpretations and explanations of otherwise objective studies of human attractiveness can in practice be very culturally determined…not least my own. For example, as an impressionable 19 year-old I became a huge fan of evolutionary psychology after reading this article in Time magazine in 1995, and in turn the sociobiological explanations of human attractiveness that are its bread and butter. But just 4 years later, I was suitably chagrined by a second article in the same magazine that exposed the fact that, for one, evolutionary psychologists’ depictions of the work division in hunter-gatherer societies was remarkably like that of 1950s suburban nuclear families. More recently, Bad Science provides a scathing critique in much the same vein, including of some of the specific points I’ve mentioned in this post, and while I share many commenters’ concerns that author Ben Goldacre doesn’t seem to appreciate the differences between media reports on evolutionary psychology and the discipline itself, he does make some valid points.

So please feel free to question anything here yourself also! And I have a request: while writing this post, I realized that I’ve never actually asked any Korean men themselves if they prefer women with light skin, let alone why. With apologies for my lack of field research then, can anyone that has please let me know? I have a sneaking suspicion that it might pressure to do so might primarily come from other women rather than men, just like I recently read somewhere is the case with losing weight, so I’d be very interested in finding out.

Sexually Harassing Girls’ Generation: The Manufacture of Outrage


“People in their 30s and 40s are emerging as the main cultural consumers, and Girls’ Generation specifically targets the men in that age group,” says Lee Soo-man (53), CEO and producer for SM Entertainment. (Chosun Ilbo, November 5 2008)

Words to bear in mind as you consider the storm in a teacup that preoccupied Korean entertainment news last week: Girls’ Generation were sexually harassed. Or were they?

In brief, the alleged sexual harassment comes in the form of the cartoon of them below, drawn by Yoon Seo-in (윤서인) and posted on his daily webtoon site Joyride (조이라이드) on the 2nd of January. Outraging fans and attracting a great deal of negative publicity, it was soon withdrawn, and an explanation of the cartoon posted in its place.

Threatened with (unspecified) legal action by SM Entertainment however, that was in turn replaced on the 18th with a much more detailed explanation and also apology for any misunderstandings caused (see both in Korean here). But this has not mollified SM Entertainment, who were expecting a direct apology to Girls’ Generation.

Unfortunately, this whole affair raises more questions than answers, which I’ll throw open to readers in a moment. But first, a quick look at Yoon’s background, as very few commentators on the cartoon wouldn’t have taken that into consideration. Indeed, it is difficult not to, some of the more notorious cartoons appearing on his usually sexually-themed site including: reacting to the suicide of actress Jang Ja-yeon (장자연) — to a large extent caused by having to prostitute herself to entertainment industry executives — by drawing old men in heaven grateful that a young woman with a good body has come to join them; equating fans of Japanese culture (chinilpa; 친일파) with collaborators during the Japanese colonial period; poking fun at feminists advocating children take a combination of both their father’s and mother’s surnames; implying that by being cute, wearing uniforms, and liking guns (note the innuendo), female police officers are all you need in a woman; and, last but not least, that people only care about the 3 pretty members of the 9 members of Girls’ Generation, and ignore the rest.

To play Devil’s advocate for a moment however, given that background then there is little evidence to suggest that he was deliberately courting controversy with this particular cartoon; or at least, no more so than with others. Moreover, there has been a great deal of confusion as to what its joke is exactly, caused by many websites (both English and Korean) unknowingly using a version of the cartoon which had the title and first section removed for some reason.

In that part, the title reads “Past Pictures of Girl’s Generation” [from before they were famous] and — like fans anywhere — in the first section the two characters have suddenly found them and are eager to look. Unlike the pictures of them from before they were famous as expected though, in the second part that you see all nine members doing the jangwon gupjae (장원급제), the old examinations to become a civil official in during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) instead.

This supports Yoon’s claim that the cartoon was intended to be a comment on the practice of “fishing” on popular websites, or giving links to pornography or various advertisements false titles in order to get people to click on them. And in fact, a Korean friend of mine complained of that very thing on, the day before we tried and failed to understand a version of this cartoon without the first part, so I was easily persuaded when she came back with the full cartoon and explanation the next day.

Presumably, that surprise is one element to the humor, as is that fact that the word gwageoh (과거) or “past” in the title also means jangwon gupjae, making a pun. Also, considering how members of Girl’s Generation are invariably dressed in order to appeal to their fan base, then arguably a third element is that if the group had existed 100 years ago, that is indeed how they would have dressed. Fans have been incensed by their outfits, sexual poses(?), and Im Yun-ah’s (임윤아) lewd expression though, and especially by them pounding ricecakes in the final picture, well-known slang for having sex.

Which brings me to my first question: does this qualify as songheerong (성희롱), or sexual harassment?

Actually that may be a moot point, as despite numerous claims by both Korean and English sources that SM Entertainment is threatening to sue Yoon on that basis, I’ve yet to see that specific charge mentioned by any Korean news source. Which raises the additional question of whether the concept of sexual harassment is different in Korea, but I’ve yet to see any evidence for that either, these recent cases for instance very much sexual harassment by anyone’s definition (see here also).

(Source: Unknown)

Regardless, upon first coming across the cartoon at Seoulbeats, I quickly agreed with Vixenvarla’s argument that:

…based on the entire concept and marketing of Girl’s Generation, I don’t feel that this qualifies as sexual harassment. Everything involving this idol group revolves around images of extreme innocence (with sexual innuendos) or extreme sexuality. If we had never seen Girls’ Generation in these types of barely-there outfits or sexually suggestive poses, then the accusations of sexual harassment might work. But, like many other K-pop girl groups, Girls’ Generation was created to be “ogled” over by their target audience- male fans. How can you be angry at the cartoonist for drawing the women in the way they are constantly presented to him?

And I was content to leave it at that. But then I remembered that last year, I paid little attention to the claim that the new term kkulbeokji (꿀벅지) or “honey thighs” was sexist, only to have my opinion changed by this post of Matt’s at Gusts of Popular Feeling, who hadn’t dismissed it as readily as I (mentally) had. Lest I miss something like that again, I decided to give the cartoon a second look. While I’m still intrigued as to what exactly SM Entertainment may ultimately file a lawsuit against Yoon for though, and will keep you informed of developments, I’m afraid I still can’t see the sexual harassment. Nevertheless, I am more than happy to have it pointed out by readers more knowledgeable than I.

(Source: Unknown)

But perhaps a more important question is to what extent cartoonists here have the same rights to lampoon public figures as they do in Western countries? Again, I am on unfamiliar territory, and would be interested in hearing people’s opinions. But I am aware, at least, of how different libel laws are here, as revealed by this famous case among long-term expats. And for those of you interested in something a little more academic, consider Kyu Youm’s 2009 paper “Defining Freedom of the Press and Libel Law: Korea’s Sociopolitical and Legal Experience” which I’ll be poring over this week, and more than happy to discuss!

Open Thread #4 (Updated)

Have a nice weekend everyone! I’m off to a wedding in a couple of hours myself, then buying a couple of books on the Korean media to try and begin to place the censorship of recent years – invariably quite arbitrary, hypocritical, and inconsistent – into some sort of context, most likely that of the corporate interests of the various ministries and companies involved themselves.

Note that I’m talking largely about censorship of sexually-related material though, obviously influenced by but not directly related to the general curtailing of media freedoms under the Lee Myung-bak Administration. And why yes, after thinking deeply about and rejecting several other possibilities over the last two weeks, something along those lines is indeed what I’m going to settle on for a 50,000 word MA thesis topic, finally getting the application process started by perhaps the end of next month. How did you guess?

Seriously though, I’d be very happy and very grateful to bounce ideas off readers this weekend before I present something to my supervisor, but of course I’d also be happy to chat about anything else Korea and/or sociology-related readers are interested in. And perhaps that discussion about censorship should wait until Monday really, when I’ll have finished my post about what has effectively been censorship of a recent sexually-themed webtoon of Girls’ Generation. Yes, that one, and I forbid discussion of it until then!^^

Update: That post will be slightly delayed sorry, caused by my eldest daughter having a high fever all day Sunday, with the most violent shivering from her I’ve ever seen. Fortunately it doesn’t appear to be meningitis, but to make sure my wife and I will have to keep a vigil overnight in case her temperature goes up too much.


Sex, Marriage, and Prostitution in South Korea

Korean Wedding Sidelong Glance(Source: Matt Scott; CC BY 2.0)

With my considerable gratitude to its author for passing it on, I’ll let the following email speak for itself:

…As a foreign woman married to a Korean man, myself and my husband face a unique set of cultural obstacles in our marriage. It can be trying at times, but we are usually able to work out our differences through a serious commitment to communication. However, there is one aspect of being married to a Korean man that I continually struggle with. From what I have observed throughout my time in Korea (and please correct me if I’m wrong), it seems that frequenting prostitutes is an accepted part of life for Korean married men. In fact, it is often required of businessmen if they want to be successful and accepted among their coworkers. For example, I have a friend who was offered a highly coveted position with a certain large corporation. While working there, he was required to regularly go out drinking and visiting prostitutes with his team. Given the strong hierarchical nature of Korean society, he felt unable to say no to his superiors, yet his religious beliefs compelled him to reject this lifestyle. As a result, he had no other choice but to quit and try to find another line of work.

I am told by Korean friends that going out drinking and womanizing with coworkers is an integral part of business in Korea (and, I imagine, another way that female employees are excluded and held back in business). Although this was shocking to me at first, it wasn’t hard to believe once I became more familiar with the language and more observant of my surroundings. It’s impossible to go anywhere in this country without being faced with a constant barrage of prostitution venues. Of course, they often masquerade as something else- massage parlors, karaoke rooms, barber shops, tea shops, PC rooms, bars, rest houses, etc., but they all offer at least the possibility of sex. It’s not exactly comforting to walk around in the middle of the day and see middle-aged men in business suits going into cheap motels on their lunch breaks or after work before returning home to their families. Although I know my husband is a good man and he has assured me that he’ll never engage in that type of behavior, I find it hard to trust him completely when every man in his life, including his father, his friends, and his mentors, sets this kind of example.

When I ask my female friends how Korean women put up with this from their husbands, they tell me that it’s what the men must do if they are to be successful. One said that even though the husbands stay out all night with prostitutes, drink with them, touch their bodies, etc., it is their choice whether or not they go all Korean Tomato Couplethe way. I simply can’t wrap my head around this rationalization. Where I come from, if a spouse cheats, it is expected that the couple will either get divorced or go into some serious marriage counseling. It is not simply tolerated, or at least not by those who have any self-respect. As I love my husband deeply, my greatest fear is that he will give in to his peers and join them some time, resulting in the end of our marriage. I can’t conceive of how Korean men can not only hurt and disrespect their wives like this, but also spend all their time fraternizing with coworkers and women rather than spending it with their children. This aspect of Korean culture is toxic to families, and is one of the reasons I don’t believe I could raise a family in Korea. I am truly interested to hear how other married women – both Korean and foreigners – deal with this problem. Have they experienced the same fears that I have, or have their experiences been different? Do they tolerate their husbands going out with coworkers and meeting women, and if so, why? Finally, for those like me who are greatly disturbed by this aspect of the culture, how do they overcome these anxieties and learn to trust their husbands? (end)

Korean Businessman Playing Guitar(Source: Simon Helle Nielsen; source above: Shawn Perez. Both CC BY 2.0)

As I too would soon quit any job that required regularly drinking with colleagues, let alone visiting prostitutes, then I don’t have anything to add to the email I’m afraid. But I can point you towards my discussion of the effects on married couples’ sex lives, based around my review of Goodbye Madame Butterfly: Sex, Marriage and the Modern Japanese Woman by Sumie Kawakami (2007); as I explain there, the experiences and attitudes described there are very relevant to Korean couples, largely because both countries share the same salaryman working culture, with husbands (and indeed wives) working late most evenings.

Also, by coincidence Michael Hurt at the Scribblings of the Metropolitician has just written a post on Korean society’s denial of the pervasiveness, ubiquity, and above all systematic nature of prostitution that is highly relevant to the discussion here. A snippet:

…I posit that the resistance to what every outsider observes as KOREAN SOCIAL REALITY in terms of the commodification and subjugation of women in this society, especially as embodied in the rampant institutionalized prostitution that is as observable in terms of the sheer numbers and types of such places of business (room salons, business clubs, barber shops, massage parlors, handjob rooms, juicy bars, miin-chon, 단란주점, 도우미 노래방, which goes without even mentioning the vast numbers of red-light districts in every part of Seoul and every city in Korea) NARY REQUIRES statistics, either.

What I see as the frequent resistance of people to believe something that is OBVIOUS in observed reality if one simply COUNTS the number of houses of prostitution on a single city block in any part of this city — Kangnam Station to Shinchon to City Hall to Apkujeong to Chungdam to nearly any neighborhood after midnight, when the plastic balloons, mini-trucks, and neon signs come on that aren’t on during the day — is partially a denial of obvious reality, coupled with the urge to throw out the many statistics that bolster easy observation because they make one very uncomfortable.

But I’m a human being. I understand emotions. But what makes it so easy for me to recognize that the US brutally kidnapped, displaced, and murdered MILLIONS of human beings for the sake of material gain, which has resulted in creating some negative aspects to my culture, i.e. discrimination and institutionalized racism? But when I mention institutionalized prostitution as a legacy of compressed and authoritarian development in the Korean context, people instantly start equivocating and dismissing my argument, while holding it to such an abnormally high bar of scrutiny, one would be hard-pressed to assert ANYTHING particular about Korean society….(end)

Read the rest there.

Related Posts:

Korean Women Angry at Being Promoted Less Than Men

Gender Gap Angry Woman(Source:,via studio tdes)

A snapshot of some of the different forms of sexual discrimination experienced at Korean workplaces, from the January 15 edition of Metro Busan:

Women Workers’ “Promotion Grief” is Big

71% Say “Compared to Men, Promotions Come Late and with Limits”…54% Say “We Feel Inhibited From Asking for Maternity Leave”

A survey of women workers has revealed that when it comes to promotion, they still feel that they suffer from sexual discrimination.

The results of a survey of 1623 women workers by job portal site JobKorea, released on the 14th, showed that 71.4% believed that the promotion systems at their companies placed women at a disadvantage.

Asked for more information about this discrimination, 40.4% [of the 1623 women] said that “compared to men that enter the company at the same time, women have to wait longer to get promoted,” and 38.3% added that “women are excluded from some higher positions.”

In addition, 35.9% mentioned that “if we take maternity leave or time off before and after giving birth, we get lower scores on our evaluations by the personnel department,” 29% that “even if we have the same ability and practical know-how as men, we get lower scores,” and 21.8% that women simply are excluded from certain kinds of jobs.

Also, 54.7% replied that they found it very difficult to ask their superiors or coworkers for time off for childbirth, 15.8% said that they felt pressure to quit their jobs after having a baby, and finally 8.6% were aware of cases where recent mothers were indeed forced to quit. (end)

With no information given about the methodology used, then all those results should be taken with a grain of salt unfortunately.

In particular, considering that it is still common practice to fire women upon marriage, then that last figure sounds rather low to me. Also, consider that before the current economic crisis, not only did Korea already have one of the lowest women’s workforce participation rates (and the highest wage gap) in the OECD, but that those few that did work formed a disproportionate number of irregular workers. This ensured that they would be laid-off en masse last year (see #15 here also), and they are unlikely to return to work soon given Korea’s jobless recovery.

(In stark contrast, the decline in the construction industry in the US, for instance, means that for the first time in history actually more women work than men there now.)

Meanwhile, the effects of all the above on Korea’s low birthrate have also been somewhat predictable, now the world’s lowest for the third year running. But never fear, for the Korean Broadcasting Advertising Corporation (KOBACO) is on the case:

(See here {Korean} for more on the making of the campaign)

In KOBACO’s defense, the first women featured does actually have a job. Is it churlish of me to point out that she still goes home early to cook while her husband burns the midnight oil…?

Update 1: Lest the commercial not succeed though, then the Ministry for Health, Welfare and Family Affairs (보건복지가족부), in charge of raising the country’s birthrate, is insisting that its employees go home at 7:30 pm on the third Wednesday of each month, all the better to have sex with their partners and have more babies.

No, unfortunately I’m not making that up.

Update 2: This satire of that is so good, it’s difficult not to believe that it’s the real thing!

Korean Photoshop Disaster #3: Park Tae-hwan’s Babyface

( Source: High Cut )

Granted, it’s not the most egregious case of a Korean athlete’s face being photoshopped. That dubious honor still remains firmly in the hands of Gillette Korea, whose choice of pockmarked Manchester United footballer Park Ji-sung (박지성) to endorse them last year is probably also the most glaring example of the over-reliance on celebrities in Korean advertising too.

Unlike him though, youthful Olympic medalist Park Tae-hwan (박태환) already has unblemished and unusually smooth skin, which raises the question of what the photoshopping was for exactly?

Personally, it reminds me of the airbrushing of Milla Jovovich’s face in Resident Evil: Extinction (2007), which many viewers found unnecessary, confusing and/or distracting. Indeed, while I’ll be the first to admit that Tae-hwan has a great body (more of which you can see in the last post), and with the proviso that I’m a (jealous) heterosexual male, I’d say that in the second picture in the series his now somewhat seal-like face simply draws too much attention away from his abs…

Can anyone think of similar examples, particularly Korean ones? Please pass them on!

(For all posts in the Korean Photoshop Disasters series, see here)