Korean Sociological Image #49: Lee Hyori has an Asian Bottom?

Well, bottom half of her body to be precise. But then she is Korean after all, so what on Earth does that make her top half?

“Western,” according to her. And while she’s quite happy with that at least, in contrast she’s dissatisfied with her “Asian” legs, claiming that she has to always wear high heels to compensate for them (source, right).

However, despite my original shock at hearing her describe herself in such terms, ironically I find myself defending her statements.

No, really.

But first, the context. From the Hankyung:

가수 이효리가 “상체는 서구적인 반면 하체는 동양적이다”라고 말해 눈길을 끌고 있다.

Singer Lee Hyori is drawing lots of attention for saying “While I have a Western top half, on the other hand the bottom half of my body is Asian.”

지난 20일 방송된 MBC ‘섹션TV 연예통신’에 출연한 이효리는 서구적인 상체를 가지고 있는데 반면 “동양적인 하체를 가지고 있다”며 “하이힐은 생명과도 같다”고 말해 주위를 웃음바다로 만들었다.

Appearing on the MBC show “Section TV Entertainment Report” on the 20th of August, she then said that “High heels are as important as life itself!”, which turned the audience into a sea of laughter.

이날 이효리는 “샵에서 효리씨가 입어주면 옷이 잘 팔린다며 옷을 공짜로 준다”며 “옷을 잘 입는 방법은 얼마나 자신의 체형을 잘 커버하느냐인 것 같다”고 설명했다.

She also explained that “When I go into a shop, the owners give me clothes for free because they will sell well if I wear them”, and that “How well you wear clothes depends on how much of your body shape you cover up.”

이효리에게 ‘숨기고 싶은 신체적 단점’에 대해 질문하자 “상체는 서구적인 반면 하체는 동양적이다”라고 말했다.

When asked what were bad points about her body she wanted to hide, she replied that “I have a Western top half, but an Asian bottom half”.

이어 동양적인 하체를 커버하기 위한 해결책으로 “절대로 하이힐을 벗지 않는 것”이라고 강조하며 “10cm 이하 하이힐은 쳐다보지도 않고 잠을 잘 때도 하이힐은 신고 잔다”고 말해 주위를 폭소케 했다.

Accordingly, she emphasized that the solution for covering(?) her Asian bottom half was “never taking high heels off”, and that “not only will I not look at high heels with a heel less than 10cm high, but I even sleep in high heels”, producing hysterics in the audience.

Lee Hyori High Heels(Source. Source below: unknown)

Apologies for the terrible quality of that “news report”, but as I type this unfortunately I’m only able to find minor variations of it on the Korean internet. But lots of them, albeit only because Korea’s top female sex-symbol is admitting to having (self-perceived) flaws, and definitely not because of her views on different races’ body shapes.

And why should they be news? Are they really as strange as they first sound?

In short, no, for three main reasons.

Firstly, as some commenters at K-pop blogs allkpop and Omona! They Didn’t have pointed out, she probably merely meant that she had larger than average breasts and short legs instead, and was not necessarily denigrating women cursed with the latter, nor Asians in general. And that’s probably true.

Still, why not just say that instead?

But would you? In English, we describe people by their races all the time; much less so, the specific features that make us characterize them as such. Moreover, I’ve certainly met many people with a blend of racial features too, let alone the two I’ve fathered myself!

So although it sounds extreme and even amusing in English, I’d be very surprised if Lee Hyori wasn’t indeed just referring to certain body features when she said she had a seogujeogin (서구적인) top half and dongyangjeogin (동양적인) bottom half. Indeed, and finally, it behooves non-native speakers like myself not to take the Korean language too literally.

I learned this lesson myself back in February, through trying to understand the 2009 buzzword cheongsoon-glaemor (청순글래머). Meaning “innocent” or “pure”, then cheongsoon at least was easy enough, but glaemor (글래머)? Naturally I assumed it meant the same as the English, but as several readers pointed out, it’s a false cognate, actually meaning “large breasts” instead. So cheongsoon-glaemor means “innocent and busty” in English.

Yes, that does indeed sound inane in any language, but the point is that it’s rather different to “innocent and pure-looking but while still having a rich and glamorous celebrity lifestyle”, which is what I originally thought. And just in light of a mistake like that alone, then surely Lee Hyori should be given the benefit of the doubt in this case, rather than instantly being accused of racism and/or – ironically – feelings of racial inferiority.

Still, after almost spitting out my coffee while reading about the story this morning, I admit I’m a little reluctant to let her entirely off the hook.

And indeed, just like the term glaemor originally came from a mistranslation by the Japanese, stemming from the well-endowed busts of glamorous Hollywood starlets in the 1950s, the notion that all Korean women should envy the large breasts and long legs of their Western counterparts seems simply absurd considering what their bodies are like 60 years later. So it is high time more Koreans challenged this stereotype, and pondered what sustains it nevertheless.

Perhaps a good place to start would be ubiquitous cosmetic-surgery advertisements, which seem to have an inordinate number of Caucasians in them? What do you think?


(For all posts in the Korean Sociological Images series, see here)

31 thoughts on “Korean Sociological Image #49: Lee Hyori has an Asian Bottom?

  1. Hyori is a genuinely funny woman, and likes to play up situations for laughs. For 1,5 year she participated in the ‘celebs live on the countryside’ series Family Outing and of course never wore high heels or even makeup at all much of the time, more often found digging through the mud for food.

    Sort of on-topic she also once brought cameramen with her to a breast checkup, and made the doctor point out on x-rays how she couldn’t have had breast implants done! Although her doing that probably says more about how nosy and intent on spreading rumours netizens are.


  2. I like LHR’s un-PC candor about her attributes. Most of us have features we like and ones we don’t and some of those liked and disliked features are shared by others of the same ethnicity. LHR appears to be a confident woman who is comfortable in her own skin. Her candid remarks laced with self-effacing humor reflect that. You go, gurl!


    1. Just in case I gave the wrong impression, actually I’m a big fan of Lee Hyori too, very much personifying Korean celebrity culture by being Korea’s top female sex-symbol on the one hand, but happily digging around in the mud like abcfsk showed on the other. That’s also why she’s so popular among Koreans.

      As for x-ray though, I do concede many netizens’ point that it could very easily have been exchanged for another woman’s one, although I don’t care if she received implants personally.


  3. the notion that all Korean women should envy the large breasts and long legs of their Western counterparts seems simply absurd considering what their bodies are like in 2010. So it is high time more Koreans challenged this stereotype, and pondered what sustains it nevertheless.”

    When examining physical preferences, we need to consider whether the preference is purely culturally derived or has some evolutionary basis. If there is an evolutionary basis, then we are fighting a losing battle trying to eradicate the preference. You yourself noted a Polish research study which found that women with hourglass figures had much higher levels of fertility hormones than either pears or apples.


    1. My fault entirely sorry, but I think you missed my point, which was that there are so many large-breasted and/or long-legged Korean women out there now (at least young ones), that it is outdated to describe either as “Western”. And a little ignorant and misguided too, as if women of other races can’t also possess either.


  4. The media photo choice might confuse some folks, who will look at those possibly elongated legs and wonder what the fuss is about. Most images of Hyori show her from mid-thigh up. In full-length images, she’s usually wearing platforms and matching long socks to give the illusion of length. On page 8 of Google image search results, I found this image that best shows her actual proportions:


    She really is small from the waist down as her hips and legs are slender. She reminds me of 5’1″ Eva Longoria, who likewise has successfully promoted herself as a sex symbol in spite of her petite frame and short legs.


    1. Good points: I just chose the most aesthetically-pleasing and attention-grabbing image I could, originally wasting over an hour cutting and pasting together various small screenshots of the relevant segment of the show available on the internet, with disastrous results.

      At the moment you have to go to the MBC website and pay to see the video of the show unfortunately, but if all of that or (preferably) just the segment with Lee Hyori become freely available later then I’ll put that up in a follow-up post.

      Regardless, your comment suddenly reminds me of something I just read about in Guyland, about some of the ultimately harmful things guys do not at the behest of women but of other men, which in turn reminded me of how it seems to be women that obsess so much about each other’s height as a barometer of sexual attractiveness to men. I was amazed to discover one day for instance, of my then fiance and her friends’ sheer hatred for Song Hye-kyo, annoyed at how so many guys could be interested in someone so short. A quick straw poll of my male friends however, revealed that like myself we actually had no idea that she was short at all. And I strongly suspect that that was not because of advertisers and TV show producers deliberately hiding her short height, although of course that probably did occur just like with Lee Hyori, but rather because we were far more interested in other parts of her body.


  5. Just a quick translation pointer before I go to bed (more substantial comments when I’ve had some sleep, sorry!).

    “주위를 웃음바다로 만들었다” – “Turned the audience (lit. people around her) into a sea of laughter.”

    When you have the construction “A를 B로 만들다” it’s always easiest when translating it into English to turn it into the form “Turn/make A into B.” As you translated it, it was the sea of laughter which was produced. The verb 만들다 does mean to make or produce, but in this context you have to look at what the object is. The object is 주위, so it can’t be that a sea of laughter was made. Instead, this construction always means the first was made into the second, which is indicated by the “로.”

    I don’t mean to sound critical though, I’m grateful for the translation, and I’ll be back for further commentage!


    1. Duly fixed. And as always, no need to ever apologize Seamus: I want the corrections. Have to admit that I’m a little embarrassed about that particular one though, as I already knew that elementary grammar point well, so it was really quite sloppy of me.

      Blame the heatwave we’re having: was literally going insane on the weekend, and don’t quite how on Earth I’m going to put clothes on and go teach a class in a few hours….!


  6. I heard that people were offended about her western/asian body parts comment. Although I didn’t really see what the big deal was. When I immediately heard it I thought “okay she doesn’t like how short her legs are” but other people took it as “WHAT? Is she ashamed to be Asian or something? very strange…


    1. I wonder how many people were genuinely offended, though, and who they actually are. I’ve heard many Koreans commenting that “East Asians have short legs.” Perhaps it only becomes offensive when it’s said so publicly, despite the fact that the same people getting “offended” might possibly even agree.

      Just before I get on to my main point, I thought I’d reinforce that when we say “Asian” in this case we mean “East Asian.”

      Also, I’m confident that the idea that all Westerners have long legs and big breasts (if women) and all East Asians have short legs and small breasts has pretty much died out in Korea. That’s not to say that a lot of Koreans don’t think that in general it’s true. Assuming that, James is almost certainly right when he says that Hyori is referring to specific characteristics, to whit short legs and large breasts, as many Koreans do perceive this to be the general rule.

      Another thing that is often commented upon whenever a Korean uses the term “western” is that they mean “white,” but I don’t think that’s the case here. A lot of Korean women, in my experience, believe that it’s generally all non-East Asian women who have long legs and large breasts, which is perhaps what leads to it being perceived as so negative that they have shorter legs and smaller breasts – because they see themselves as part of a minority.

      Now, I can’t possibly claim to know for definite if it is a fact that East Asian women have disproportionally shorter legs in comparison to other women, or if non-East Asians have large breasts. I must say that I didn’t particularly notice or care before I first went to Korea because that was when I first heard discussion on it. In my opinion it probably is true, but as a man I have to say I really couldn’t care less (Side note). Again, As James pointed out above, I tend to think it’s women who think these things are attractive/important to men.

      Personally, I have never seen anyone who has instantly made me think “what short legs” (although I have seen women who have made me think “what large breasts”). Perhaps Michael Phelps? But really, I don’t think East Asian women have legs that are too short, and I never would have said they were disproportionately shorter than any other women. I never even thought about it until I came to Korea and heard Koreans make the comment.

      Interesting, though, that while I’ve heard Korean men complain that Korean women’s legs are too short, and I’ve heard Korean women complain their own legs are too short, I’ve never heard a Korean man complain that his legs are too short, or a Korean woman complain that Korean men’s legs are too short.

      Basically, though, I just think it’s a shame that when Koreans think about female bodies, they tend to think of more inherently East Asian characteristics in a negative way, and relate apparently more desirable characteristics with ideas of “western.” I think it’s sad that Hyori would complain about her “East Asian” features because they’re East Asian, but she’s certainly not the only Korean to do so.

      It’s also interesting that there are Koreans who perceive their East Asian bodies to have more unattractive features in comaprison to “western” bodies, while at the same time they complain about the number of western men looking for Korean women.


      1. I googled her comment to see Koreans’ reactions, and only a few blogs picked it up. Koreans aren’t PC and seem blunter about assessing appearance, relative to Westerners.

        Korean women mostly talk about general height, rather than legs, but a friend of mine had a nickname “origgori,” or ducktail to describe how men with short legs and low, round butts look when they walk.


        1. Touche, I’d forgotten about that nickname, I haven’t heard it in a couple of years at least!

          Agreed that they generally just refer to height, but if you ask a Korean to describe East Asian legs, you’ll get the answer “short,” I’m fairly certain.


      2. “Now, I can’t possibly claim to know for definite if it is a fact that East Asian women have disproportionally shorter legs in comparison to other women,”

        If pant sizes are a valid and reliable means of comparing, then Korean women definitely have longer torsos, shorter legs, and more narrow hips than white women on average. I NEVER found a pair of pants to fit me in Korea, except for export market clothes outside Yongsan Gate 19 in Seoul. Every single pair of pants I tried on ordinary shops and department stores was too long in the rise, too short in the inseam, and either too small in the hips or too big in the waist. At 162 cm and 53 kg, I was on the larger end of Korean sizes for clothes designed for young women, but I was within range. The problem wasn’t general sizing but proportions, specifically rise verus inseam and waist versus hips. Back in the US, I’m at the smaller end of the size range! : ) : ) : ) Most of the pants I try on in the US fit me comfortably as my proportions are representative of women of Western European ancestry.


    2. Have to admit that the “WHAT? Is she ashamed to be Asian or something? is what I first thought too: it really is a strange way to describe oneself, at least in English.

      This post took me all day in the end, because the more I wrote, the more I realized that I’d misinterpreted her.


  7. I think you’d find this very interesting because

    1) they show a prominent idols ass cheeks out of her spandex hotpants
    2) she is full on having a make out season with a causcasian man who is being lead on BY HER, he is not leading… full on mouth eating and lip biting
    3) ???

    I don’t know what she’s meant to be because I haven’t actually read the translation of the song but she looks like a hooker to me. lol I like the song though, it’s fun.


  8. Perhaps when Koreans refer to ‘Caucasian’ it’s really a fantasy and the celebrity of the Western that they’ve appropriated for the Korean notion of beauty. Especially with the plastic surgery website screenshot up there, the Caucasian woman is this archetypal fairy nymph character, a really exotic woman just like how East Asians are seen as exotic in Western popular culture (although, I don’t really see people attempting to emulate Asian features). Going further, that representation of the beautiful woman is definitely meant to be unrealistic and seems more like a decoration than anything.

    Therefore ‘Western’ could be synonymous with ‘exotic’? And by saying that, people aren’t trying to look ‘Western’ as such, but exotic? To a certain extent only I guess, but still I personally don’t see many Korean girls trying to look ‘white’ as such and in fact I think most be insulted if it was thought they were trying to be ‘white’.

    It is quite worrying nonetheless that the implication of looking Asian is to be ordinary, although I always insult myself and my own race by exclaiming that my short legs are ‘such Asian legs’ but this is irrelevant.


  9. ‘which was that there are so many large-breasted and/or long-legged Korean women out there now (at least young ones),’

    There really are, but what I find a bit strange is how immensely unflattering most Korean clothing is to this shape. It’s summer right now and I can see large-breasted and leggier women wearing saggy men’s t shirts and baggy old-colonialist safari shorts everywhere I look, which in my country would be male clothing. The huge loose T shirts remain in use even with hotpants or miniskirts. It certainly doesn’t show off this supposedly envied figure and has the effect of making busty Korean women’s waists look large, when they are usually very small. This remains the only country where I’ve seen a woman with what must have been D cup breasts out clubbing in an Aer Tex shirt. I wonder how much this conservative clothing goes towards continuing the false stereotype that these are only western features?

    ‘Koreans aren’t PC and seem blunter about assessing appearance, relative to Westerners. ‘

    My Korean ex-boyfriend has nothing positive to say about this trait. He was involved in an accident whilst traveling in an English-speaking country, picked up a tiny scar on his forehead but he could have been killed. While he stayed there, absolutely nobody commented on it. I saw this scar, of course, and it was little. As a westerner, it is the sort of thing that I would notice yet not notice – sort of like background. If he hadn’t called attention to it, it would not really have registered. I disagree that this is ‘political correctness’ – I didn’t have to somehow remind myself that it was naughty to point out the mark. It was irrelevant to me and doubtless it was irrelevant to people who saw it when he was abroad. When he got back to Korea, the scar was pointed out by EVERYONE. In the end, he started pulling his hair forward over it, which didn’t suit him much.

    He said that in his view, to point out supposed ‘blemishes’ like this is a type of control mechanism, punishing people for looking different. I agree with this and would add that in Korea, looks have always been considered to be extremely important and avoiding any improprieties in them has been paramount. In early medieval times, it was considered more important for a woman to be well-dressed than a good cook or provider of shelter and women with any wealth would carry a sewing kit and small iron on them, known as the ‘woman’s 7 best friends’. At the same time in Northern Europe, women of the same status would carry a big decorative bunch of keys on their belts to symbolise that they ruled the house and they controlled the household budget. Is it still true? Yeah, maybe.


  10. ‘Going further, that representation of the beautiful woman is definitely meant to be unrealistic and seems more like a decoration than anything.’

    Yeah, you’re exactly right, because it’s meant to be something you can sell to people. You can’t sell people reality! On a lighter note, it’s might be natural to confuse exotic and erotic things – being sexually interested by what’s different, or w/ever. It’s good for the gene pool.


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