Gender Studies 101: How the media perpetuates negative body images


Alas, I’m still taking a break from blogging for another week or so(!), so let me just quickly pass on a Korea Times article on “X-lines” and women’s body images that I’m quoted in today. New readers who want to learn more about them, please see:

  • Here for a quick summary of all the various “lines” used to describe women’s bodies at the moment
  • Here for a much longer analysis and a discussion of how and why they’ve developed from being mere fads to become enduring parts of Korean media culture
  • Here for the ways in which even prepubescent girls are socialized to develop a concern for achieving such lines in the future
  • Here for the deep roots this Alphabetization craze has in various Korean philosophical and linguistic traditions, rendering it qualitatively different to similar sounding name-assigning in English.
  • And finally here, here, and here for more on the fact that Korean women are the slimmest in the OECD, but still consume the most diet drugs.

Meanwhile, I’m very grateful to author Cathy Rose A. Garcia for asking for my input, and for then including so much of what I wrote in our email exchange. It seems almost churlish of me to critique it so severely after that, but I’m afraid I must, for it seems rather naive, almost disingenuous to write an article about how popular X-lines are when the only evidence for that comes from a company that has a vested interest in making people think so:

Three out of four female college students consider X-line, a term referring to a slim waist with ample breasts and hips, to be the ideal body shape, according to a survey by Amore Pacific’s V=B Program. The survey covered 1,000 female college students from Ewha Woman’s University and Dongduk Women’s University from May 13 and 17.

Granted, Cathy does mention later:

Amore Pacific’s V=B Program, which sponsored the survey of college students, offers a line of herbal Oriental beauty supplements. It recently introduced the “S-line slim DX,” which claims to reduce body fat and abdominal fat.

But the conflict of interest should have been made more explicit, and indeed is rather ironic in light of one of my quotes:

“Companies do have a vested interest in creating new, artificial body ideals that purchasing their products can supposedly help you achieve. And given the media’s overwhelmingly uncritical reporting and active dissemination of these ideals, then it is difficult not to conclude that the media is at least passively colluding with its advertisers in this regard,” Turnbull said.

Moreover, as I explain here, the X-line is by no means a “new” obsession of Korean women, but is at least 2 years old, originally created by – you guessed it Amore Pacific, who created the monstrosity on a computer when Yoon Eun-hye’s (윤은혜) actual body failed to deliver:

(Sources: left, right)

In fairness, Amore Pacific did use more human-like realistic images of her body in some of its advertisements for the V=B Program that year, but those in no way compensate for encouraging women to obtain a literally impossible body shape in the first place. And call me picky, but any news article on X-lines is severely remiss in not mentioning that.

What do you think? Are my critiques of the article fair?

34 thoughts on “Gender Studies 101: How the media perpetuates negative body images

  1. I thought I’d never see that last image again, but we don’t always get what we wish for!

    I can’t say I’ve actually heard anyone talk about x-lines much – it certainly doesn’t have the same penetration (for want of a better word) as the s-line phenomenon, which can only be a good thing. Like you said, it’s a completely impossible ideal – and I really hate the practice of making what are essentially rules about what is or isn’t good looking that are so rigid that they can be summed up with one letter.

    I just hope this one doesn’t catch on even more. Surely people won’t fail to recognise that it’s just a made up load of crap when they see things like the first advert -what is going on with that woman’s back?! I would love to see the original of that photo, because the photoshopping is just out of this world! My point is – the people that advert is targeted at must also see that – right? And surely they too would discard it as ridiculous in the same way as me. Or is that just wishful thinking?


  2. The sad fact is . . . no, they don’t recognize the problems with the image. There just isn’t the same awareness of how advertisements are made and manipulate people. There isn’t the same level of critical thinking being taught. And even when people know, it doesn’t mean that images like this don’t have power. It doesn’t matter that the image is manipulated and unobtainable – it’s still being held up as the ideal.

    I agree though, X lines haven’t caught on. V-lines and S-lines, sadly, appear to be here to stay.


  3. I’d agree with you both Seamus and Gomushin Girl. Was it you or someone else Seamus, who said in an earlier post that Koreans do generally seem aware of the level of photoshopping required for such images, but that they didn’t really seem to care? Either way, I found a lot of blogs in which the authors discuss using this V=B program crap on Naver when I was looking for the images in the post, although of course that doesn’t say anything about their true numbers.

    I don’t think the X-line will catch on either though: one other problem with Amore Pacific’s oh-so-objective survey was that S-lines weren’t even given as an option for women’s preferred body shape, so of course they were going to tick about the only one left they knew (wonder what the other options were though).

    I hear you Barry, although at least S-line and V-line do have some actual similarity with real women’s body shapes, so I don’t mind them per se. I do mind though, how they’ve become enduring memes in Korean media culture, entirely divorced from women’s actual bodies, which is what makes all this very different from the simple name-assigning in English. Gave Cathy a couple of quotes to that effect naturally, but she didn’t print them.


  4. Yep, that was me on probably the original x-line post with that freakishly photoshopped image, where she has limbs like rope.

    I would add to that previous comment that it is common practice for people to have their passport photos photoshopped, and this doesn’t seem to bother anyone. People often seem to prefer the look of photoshopped images, despite knowing them for what they are.

    I wonder if this is also connected to the use of makeup that just makes the face look like it was made out of pale plastic. You see so many women with that sort of sheen that in no way looks real or even subtle, and when their face is five shades lighter than their neck… I don’t know, it’s a stretch to say they’re connected, so I won’t. Just two examples of people appreciating the contrived appearance of something that is obviously not real whilst ignoring the fact that it isn’t.


    1. Didn’t realize that about the photoshopped passport photos, and my first reaction was that I was surprised that it was allowed, but then I realized how virtually unrecognizable many people’s passport photos are already. And “allowed”? Hell, unlike when I was a kid and my family had the one family passport, now expensive individual ones are required, with pictures of my daughters as babies that already look nothing like them.

      I hear you about the white faces. Granted, I do tend to like very high-definition, close-up images of women’s faces like in cosmetic advertisements, but they invariably look simply ghastly out of the photo studio.


      1. Just go to get your passport photos taken once, see what they do! They just do it without asking, airbrush out any “blemishes” and whatever else it is they do. Nothing major usually, but I didn’t like the end results of mine – I looked like something out of Final Fantasy.


        1. Yeah, I can attest to the passport photos thing. I wrote about it earlier

          after first hearing about it and then havng the guy do it to my head. He photoshopped out the part of the wall you could see through my glasses between my face and the frames.

          Oh, Christ, that reminds me of another photoshop tale. My fiancee and I had a set of engagement photos taken in Gwangju in February. I wanted to blog about the experience but I hope to never allow them to see the light of internet day. Anyway, while going through the proofs afterward, the photographer said that he could photoshop out pimples and blemishes (common among any wedding photographer), and also that he could make my fiancee’s head smaller, and could lengthen our legs. I asked him if he could photoshop out the fricken ugly background they used (I wasn’t as blunt) but, unfortunately, he said no.


    1. Thanks. And I have to admit that there were a few on your site that I had never heard of, although hopefully I never will again!^^

      Cool graphic on your post BTW. Did you make it yourself?


  5. I did, and I guess that shows. If it can ever be of use to you, feel free to right click on it and copy.

    By the way, I think the Women’s University study you mentioned was a bit off on its explanation of the X-line. It’s not a “slim waist with ample breasts and hips” but rather a slim waist connecting long arms and legs. The former is more properly termed an 8-line (or S-line when viewed in profile), otherwise known as the curvy “hourglass” figure here in the U.S.

    These terms are already crazy enough without adding confusion on top of stupid. Take care.


  6. Have you ever talked about how Korean ads use models with their mouths open? Is it just me, or do Korean ads tend to have their models with their mouths open more than in the west? Just curious.


    1. Not in itself, but I’ve talked about it indirectly here, and if you’re more interested in what specific, recurring features like that can mean then you’ll have lots to think about in that post!

      Off the top of my head, no study has ever empirically tested if models in Korean ads have their mouths open more than in Western ones, but like I explain in that post above, the study Gender Role Stereotypes Depicted by Western and Korean Advertising Models in Korean Adolescent Girls’ Magazines by Nam, Kyoungtae., Lee, Guiohk. and Hwang, Jang-Sun (2007) did find that “Korean women were more likely to be portrayed in smiling, pouting and childlike or cute expressions than Western women” in them, and that “that in Korea and Japan, cuteness is an important virtue for women”, so it seems highly likely. Probably somewhere on this blog there is a study I’ve discussed which provides evidence for precisely that actually, but to be frank it’s 11:49pm and I’m a little too tired to find it as I type this sorry!^^


  7. James, a comment about your question of whether or not Koreans care about photoshopping. Recently I was invited to a young Korean couple’s home for dinner. After eating, they showed me their wedding albums. Beautiful photos, but when I looked at one particular photo the wife told me that her legs were photoshopped. I was a little surprised at how casually she mentioned it and the fact that it was not a joke.

    Of course that one person doesn’t speak for all Koreans, but considering how prominent photoshopping is here (and I think cartoon illustrations in surgical clinic ads can be added to this as well), I would guess that many people don’t seem to mind altered or imagined images.


    1. I can sort of understand with wedding photos a little, or to be more precise the EXTREMELY staged ones that Koreans tend to take before the ceremony itself, as photoshopping would just be an extension of the make-believe really.

      I wouldn’t have been able to keep a straight face if I’d wanted to have them taken of my fiancee and I myself, and fortunately she knew better than to ask me!^^


  8. Happy half-return!

    It is true with passport pic photoshopping. The person in my passport is not me! I have really bad skin, they totally photoshopped me at the post office, my double eyelids kinda vanished and my ears turned pointy then guess what. Home Office had the audacity to photoshop me further! I now look like a Blasian elf and Im fully African.

    Kinda late so I will read the article tomorrow.


      1. I have read the aticle now and i odn’t feel you were too harsh. I feel like she was just breifly touching on the subject.

        As for the passport, I’ll just have to hope I can get rid of my double eyelids and make my ears pointy when the time comes that I want/need to travel. :]


  9. Our new Aust passports have a microchip and you can get checked by a machine getting back through Aust immigration, which uses facial recognition. I have real doubts that a photoshopped photo would be acceptable there!

    You aren’t supposed to smile or anything either, they are very strict in what can be shown or such.


    1. Sorry for accidentally spamming this comment Chris. As you can see, I’ve put it back in as best as I can from my email inbox(can’t seem to get rid of my gravatar though!).


  10. Yours critiques are not just fair but also they make sense. By the way, those pictures I saw looked airbrushed and photoshopped to ‘perfection’. So not pretty at all.


  11. I know somebody who, despite having a relatively flat chest and a decidedly not flat stomach) still manages to sport this ‘x-line’ body type in real life, no surgical enhancement or healthy dieting or vb whatever.

    It’s mostly because she has this large-boned body structure, so her ribs are really wide and her hips stick out prominently. In contrast, the area immediately between these two places, her waist, has no bones, and is thus smaller in circumference, hence her instant hourglass waist.

    However, the weird bone structure thing means she also has big, bordering on male-ish bones in general.


    1. She should come to Korea and become a model!^^

      Seriously though, while I don’t doubt that your friend is how you describe, her body shape does sound really quite exceptional, which just goes to reinforce how we should question the motivations of any company that claims we a) should want to look the same and b) that we can do so simply by taking these expensive pills and drinks.


  12. Ahh media panics.

    You are giving the media way too much power, more than it actually has. Are you saying that what appears on tv has a greater effect on people than their friends and family? And plus, why is it always girls. Seriously the sexualisation of young girls and young girls getting anorexic left right and centre due to the unrealistic portrayals of women in the media. I mean are men not effected as much? Is it only women who are susceptible to the power of the media? This kind of thinking only works if you allow women to become an audience who can’t make up their own mind and can’t separate fact from fiction. This images aren’t hurting women, its the panic and the consequently impulse to “save” women from themselves.


      1. Sigh. Three strawman arguments in seven lines? I think that’s a record for a comment on my blog.

        Are you saying that what appears on tv has a greater effect on people than their friends and family?

        Nope, never did. Still, encountering 500-1000 commercial messages a day can’t help but have some effect on us, and surely the case of the popularity of the X-line is a case in point.? Unless of course you think that, rather than by the ads etc., the women aspiring to have X-lines were instead influenced by their friends and family that worked for Amore Pacific or something? Or perhaps friends and family of their friends and family etc., in a 6 degrees of separation sort of way?

        Seriously the sexualisation of young girls and young girls getting anorexic left right and centre due to the unrealistic portrayals of women in the media. I mean are men not effected as much? Is it only women who are susceptible to the power of the media?

        To discuss the influence of media images of women is absolutely not to deny that men are also affected by those that are aimed at them (and of course those aimed at women still influence men’s images of women, and vice-versa). And regardless, last time I checked ads convincing women to aspire to certain body shapes etc. outnumber those to men somewhere in the order of 10 to 1 or even 100 to 1 (care to speculate on the exact ratio?), so I think I can be forgiven for failing to mention men in this post.

        This kind of thinking only works if you allow women to become an audience who can’t make up their own mind and can’t separate fact from fiction.

        Yeah, I suppose it does. Good luck trying to find where I’ve actually said what you’re arguing against though.

        This images aren’t hurting women, its the panic and the consequently impulse to “save” women from themselves.

        There’s abundant evidence for the harm done to women by aspiring towards unrealistic – let alone downright physically impossible – body images propagated by the media (unless friends and family of affected women came up with them of their own accord that is?), and precious little that wanting controls on and/or better education about them does. Should you be able to provide such evidence though, then by all means please pass it on!


        1. Teeheehee, I’m just having fun trying to figure out how women (or men) can end up “effected” by advertising. Although, I suppose it’s possible; it just takes a wild imagination!


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