Perfect Upper Bodies, But “Healthy” Legs: Update


Do you think Arirang should have removed its Twist in Figures video from YouTube?

Shocked and outraged at something that castigated healthy, attractive women for not having legs like the manhwa figure above, then my initial reaction was to insist on it. Preferably, the original film burned and the ashes buried too.

However, reading the reaction from the Korea Studies community at the Korea Studies Discussion List later, now I think that actually it may have been more useful had it remained up. Certainly, the issues raised by the video are far more complex than they may at first appear.

Here’s some selected comments from the discussion thread that make that clear. First, from Stephen Epstein:

I don’t usually send out links to the list, but the below piece from Arirang is one of the most absolutely reprehensible items of journalism that I ever seen and deserves wide circulation, as it offers an opportunity to combat the attitudes it reflects. The piece takes examples of female pop stars in Korea with “healthy” legs (yes, “healthy” is their word) but tries to suggest that “healthy” (i.e. anything but very nalsshinhada) is, in fact, bad. The promotion of extremely unhealthy body images and eating disorders is the logical outcome here.

The piece is getting hammered on YouTube (it’s only been up a day so far and running 15 to 1 dislike to like, maybe more, a ratio I’ve never seen, and the comments have all been appropriately scathing.). In any case, for those of you who ever have to teach anything about body image or plastic surgery in Korea, this will be eye-opening for students; you may want to download it as I suspect it will be taken down soon. Hopefully this piece will get wide attention (my own aim in sending this out) and Arirang will be forced into issuing a high-profile apology.


A surprising and disappointing reaction from Don Kirk:

Thank you for posting this piece back on you-tube. It’s quite an amusing commentary, actually, on Korean fashion, “girl groups,” models and society. There’s no reason to carry on a crusade about it. Arirang has a right to run such a feature. It seems extremely odd that academics, the first to defend freedom of speech and democratic rights, should attempt, in the name of political correctness, to want to suppress a simple feature piece that has colorful, fun, appealing images, pleasant and interesting commentary and actually something to say about current fashions and thinking.

There are views other than those of like-minded academics, who are not necessarily correct in all their political correctness. Shame on you, in the name of PC, for this disgraceful effort at suppression of free speech, free idea and free reporting.

A reply from Stephen:

I am willing to accept that suppressing the video is perhaps not the right tactic, and may infringe on expression of free speech.  In fact, in retrospect, it probably would be better for the original to be up on the Arirang channel to allow it to take the scathing criticism it deserves and to encourage debate and draw attention to a serious problem in Korean society. I hardly wish to be part of a PC censorship brigade.

I also accept that the piece says something about current fashion and thinking. But it clearly crosses the line into promoting and not just reflecting that thinking. If you or anyone else really believes that this is a ” simple feature piece that has colorful, fun, appealing images, pleasant and interesting commentary”, without real world consequences, then I merely ask that you read some of the comments from YouTube users, hardly “politically correct academics”, on the original post from Arirang (I made sure to save them before the video might be taken down) and reconsider (source, below):

• Since when was being “healthy” a flaw? Healthy legs are not a good thing to have? tons of women would kill to have the women on that list’s legs!! This is disgusting: the girls you mentioned have fantastic figures. Note also that Suzy and Sulli are not even 18 yet! :|

Again, I am highly disappointed in the way Arirang is encouraging UNHEALTHY body images. These girls have nice legs, with well-developed muscles. Why is that so wrong? Are girls supposed to project a helpless, useless image so that men will like them, is that it?

Shame on you, Arirang, for all of these stories. Help promote healthy, positive images for women in Korea and the rest of the world and stop telling them that “healthy” or “sturdy” or “muscular” is a bad thing.

This is dumb. You’re promoting a ridiculous body image that will only make millions of girls insecure. These female celebs are perfect as they are. They don’t need a stick thin legs to support their upper bodies. As a broadcast station that goes international to promote South Korea and its culture, this only shows how ridiculous the standard of beauty and body image in Korea. Please re-evaluate the content of your programs and scripts before airing it. Avoid offensive contents like this.

This is an awful message. Arirang you are promoting body shaming and purporting that healthy body images (actually all of the ladies in this video are probably TOO skinny) are wrong or unfashionable.

As someone who has had to deal with body issues and faced extreme pain over it, I hope you know that this video harms those in it and those watching it. Suzy is only turning 17 this year. As a teenage girl, Arirang, you have disgusted me with your lack of respect to the celebrities and ignorance.

Do you realize how disgusting and twisted and WRONG it is for you to describe what you call imperfections in their lower bodies as “healthy.” If they are healthy, that means that don’t need to improve because they’re already perfect the way they are! The fact that you describe their supposedly imperfect legs as “healthy” implies that if they were to make the improvements you suggest, they would then become unhealthy. It’s this logic that pushes already beautiful women into eating disorders.

(Source: @ornamentity)

Later, another point from Lauren Deutsch:

Thanks, guys, for taking the conversation public. Is it being debated likewise in Korea? Therein lies the clue to why the video and its free-wheeling commodification of women’s bodies are considered enough of a norm to be created and aired at all. It’s easier to study the culture (and others like it) from afar, but to willfully live in country gives this feminist pause for concern about a quality of life.

Then from Michelle Cho:

I agree that it’s important to think about the cultural norms that this video reflects, rather than isolating Arirang as the source of the problem (though I agree that the media should be held responsible for their integral role in circulating these sorts of images and “reports”). Many of the commenters on the Arirang youtube channel reserved their ire for Arirang and its tone-deafness, without mentioning the public’s appetite for the manufacture of celebrity bodies whose “perfection” is precisely not “healthy” because, in many ways, it’s not supposed to be human.

And this seems a good point to mention that, in fact, Arirang gave a very good report on excessively high rates of cosmetic surgery in Korea back in April 2010, as I wrote about (but forgot) here. Stressing how some women wanted cosmetic surgery for a slimmer figure, despite already being slimmer than average, it’s both a pity and genuinely strange that Arirang would post a report with such a radically different message less than a year later:

Continuing with Michelle Cho’s comment:

As a bilingual researcher, I found [the original video] especially illuminating for the sense of estrangement it elicited in me, precisely because the report was delivered *in English*. This makes me wonder whether Arirang international simply translated and rerecorded the narration for an entertainment story that ran in Korean. (I don’t know much about the English language Arirang channel and whether it produces its own content). Stories like this are not uncommon on Korean language television; it’s likely that “healthy” was a poor translation (I can think of a couple words that can connote both “stocky” and “healthy” in Korean). But the main point I’m trying to make here is that the politics of language are certainly at play here and shouldn’t be minimized.

Update: With thanks to commenter dogdeyedblack for finding it, it was indeed originally from a Korean entertainment program, which can be seen (with a Korean transcript) here.

Finally, another aspect of the report that I found quite interesting had to do with the latent discourse of proportionality and phenotype, which came through in one of the “expert commentators” analysis of one of the celebrities’ decision to wear ankle boots with a mini-dress. The commentator explains that it is difficult for East Asian women to pull off this fashion, because of their proportions, so the stakes of the standardization of correct proportions could also be read as an expression of anxiety regarding Western beauty ideals, at the same time that it signifies a desire to erase “East Asian” characteristics. (I hope I won’t be misunderstood here–I’m not suggesting that any of these putatively ethnic characteristics be given any legitimacy, I’m just pointing out the way the discourse seems to be operating).

Echoing Lauren, my thanks for bringing this discussion to the list. I believe it’s far more complex than it may seem at first glance, and I hope we can take this beyond criticisms of Arirang (though I think that was a good place to start.)

(Source: @ornamentity)

From Henny Savenij:

I posted the video on Facebook and the Koreans liked it while the foreigners abhorred it, I guess that says enough.

Finally, from  Tommy Vorst:

Obviously, the piece is offensive to many.  But that’s not a crime.  And it’s certainly not out of step with the entire fashion-celebrity industry, in any country.  I can’t think of one that *doesn’t* consistently send out misogynist, unhealthy messages.  The idea that any of these women were “in need of improvement” is ludicrous, of course. But they have chosen a profession in which such scrutiny is understood, expected and even appreciated.  As a feminist, I cannot suggest that they are unwilling victims of such media criticism: they play the game voluntarily.

Arirang is no different from any other media outlet in its reporting: one need only look at any supermarket magazine rack or entertainment reporting programme to see that.  What is surprising is the (IMO disingenuous) shock some are expressing.  There is nothing shocking about such reports.  Arirang may be the self-appointed face of Korea outside Korea (though I dispute this), but looking at popular Hollywood websites suggests Arirang is more in-step with their western counterparts than it is likely to be ‘an embarrassment:’

This discussion is a valuable one.  One of our duties as academics is to shine the light on the cockroaches.  But let’s not pretend this is anything out of the ordinary: this is an example of endemic sexism, not a shocking outlier.  It’s appalling because of its normalcy.


What do you think? Was it indeed disingenuous to be shocked by the report, as Vorst suggests? Or, does the video clearly cross a line into promoting and not just reflecting on a current fashion trend, and a pernicious one at that?

Meanwhile, in the event that YouTube does remove the video again (but with thanks to Roald Maliangkay for reuploading it), please note that it can be downloaded here.


21 thoughts on “Perfect Upper Bodies, But “Healthy” Legs: Update

  1. James,

    Don Kirk’s response is the dull one of someone who only understands free speech to a small extent but loves to pull the PC card when free speech he disagrees with is in evidence.

    Of course Arirang is free to put up stupid content, as it did. That is free speech. Of course other people are free to respond as they did. That is also free speech. Kirk is just not capable of seeing past the first step so he reflexively defends the free speech of the corporation while loudly attacking the free speech of individuals. I’d be surprised if there wasn’t a George Bush (extremely) Jr. bio or a book by Ayn Rand under his pillow.

    Tommy Vorst claims participants are “voluntary” and that critics are “disingenuous,” both claims which cross into farce. Culture imposes will (circumcision, foot binding, female circumcision, sh*tty 70’s white afros, etc) both with norms and money. And his “disingenuous” claim is the most dangerous kind of logic of all. Because people know this kind of poor coverage goes on, they should not react to particularly egregious examples of it? Yeah, that was a defense of slavery in its day.

    Kirk and Vorst fail the simplest tests of logic.


    1. Oh…almost forgot to ask something. (I’ve only been reading here for about a glad I discovered the blog – it’s wonderful James, Thank You!)

      question is: How would the males who read and comment here feel about having a similar show aired on …say…pot-bellies or thin calves? Similar to this show, it would have young, attractive males with 4-pack abs, instead of 6….and slender, yet not muscular legs. The males would be rebuked for not having done proper exercise and diet to obtain the favorable glance of females. Would guys be as offended as women are? Or would they just laugh it off?

      My presumption (and it is only that) is males are not raised from the cradle with the idea that physical beauty is their best (or only) asset of worth in the world. So perhaps being objectified in this manner seems more comical than damaging.

      An example is this: I am caucasian…if someone were to call me a ‘cracker’ with intent to racially insult, to be honest I would find it laughable. It simply has ‘no power’. So I’m wondering if this type of body-defamation is really only applicably offensive to women.
      Thanks in advance for any answers. :)


      1. Sally,

        You pose a very interesting question. I think it’d depend on really finding a potentially analogous trait, and may differ in a Korean or Western context. The Korean version of the Arirang show, which gives more context, is a program that is a top 5 countdown of something or other for each show. So if it were top 5 cute guy celebrities from neck up who have paunchy stomachs or weak arms ot whatever, I think it would completely roll off me and most men, probably because, as you suggest looks aren’t regarded as a male’s primary asset for the most part and also the traits you mention are relatively perfectable. Body discipline has a different meaning for men, and it’d be hard to envision (as withh the feature that enraged people most in the Arirang video) that there could be any way for a male to make himself less healthy but also look better, except perhaps for suggesting plastic surgery as they age–or hair transplants, maybe? Don’t assume there’s much risk involved except to one’s wallet.

        What would hit home much more, thoough, is if it were a trait that is not something that can be changed, and in fact, I can think of a particular recent case in Korean society where outrage was caused on this score: In November 2009, a student from Hongik University who’d been invited as a guest on KBS’ Minyeodeurui Suda was asked what men she’d choose as dating partners and answered that she saw height as a measure of competitiveness and wouldn’t date anybody under 180 cm tall and went so far as to call short men ‘losers.’ Immediately after her remark was aired, KBS’ homepage was bombarded with criticism and she was targeted for cybervigilantism and given the nickname lujeonyeo (lit. ‘loser girl’). In other words, the similar offense would be targeting stars’ masculinity. I also think that if it were something more sensitive, e.g. gathering ex-girl friends of male celebs to say who were the top 5 most lacking in, ahem, either sexual equipment or skill, it’d be treated by society at large as something to laugh at or to regard with Schadenfreude, rather than upping male insecurity.


        1. Hello dogdyedblack,

          Thanks so much for responding. I almost missed this – glad I stopped back by. I very much appreciate your perspective.

          You wrote: Body discipline has a different meaning for men…
          Hooo-boy, now that’s the truth. lol. Cant’ tell you the number of times I’ve been out for drinks/dancing with a mixed gender group of friends – just friends – where the the girls are grousing about there not being any HOT guys to choose from, so the males start pointing out their idea of perfectly attractive candidates around us. Oh NO..uh uh. hahaha. The divide between what men find ‘acceptable’ and what women find ‘hot’ is a great chasm.
          (please forgive the shallowness of the above ^ – I’m talking about club-scene comments, not lifetime-mate-seeking)

          The point is, I think most women would definitely like to see males embrace not just good grooming, clean clothes and body, but to go that extra mile by actually putting down the plate of hot-wings and picking up some free-weights. The thing is, so many women are willing to settle for ‘good provider’ alone…that the broader message of “hey, you think you might try to look nice for us too” never makes much impact.

          BTW, I specifically chose traits that could be altered by routine, because height and ummm..prowess are such hot-button issues *between* men. And as the current holders of top-of-the-gender charts…I consider that an internal war/conflict.

          Thanks again for your comments…cheers!


  2. Thanks for posting an informative update, James. I agree with the views expressed by others that it is better to leave the clip in the public space and comment on it, rather than pulling it. I assumed that the video was a translation or English version of a story that had appeared on Korean TV. Arirang is in no way an influence on Korean culture. It is a window to Korean culture for people with limited or no proficiency in Korean, which is precisely why the video should stay on Youtube. It is a cultural artifact.


    1. Thanks for finding that . . . I suspected that it had been produced elsewhere and translated, like a lot of Arirang’s programming.
      Arirang is government-affiliated, but like many of the agencies who are supposed to promote Korea overseas, many of their staff, particularly at higher levels, have very little international experience or understanding needed to recognize that this particular segment would provoke adversarial reactions from people.


  3. Great update – interesting to see the different reactions. I definitely think that it goes so far as to promote the norm of skinny legs, though avoids too much controversy by suggesting exercises to get skinnier legs as opposed to cosmetic surgery. That whole “fatal flaw” thing, as well as the language (as translated), gave the idea that they were criticizing the women themselves as opposed to simply stating what the Korean public thinks of them. and this isn’t even the public’s opinion – it’s the opinion of the fashion-cosmetics industry which is being imposed on the public because if that doesn’t happen, they don’t make any money. someone in the first post suggested that some cosmetic surgery company paid for the spot via advertising or something – and that honestly doesn’t seem too far off.


  4. The thing that angered me the most was their targetting at barely legal/not legal KIDS. I am not going to claim I have seen every Western tabloid and gossip article about the body but the only time I saw Miley Cyrus being called-out on her body was when she was parading in lingerie! West media still has some sick issues with body image too but we also have more people willing to call it out at the moment.

    The big battle we had with the anorexic model usage is one example. The next step is air-brushing and extentions used in eyelash/hair ect commercials. It’s taken with less stride than the anorexic model issue but people are going slowly but surely. One example would be the ridiculous Cheryl Cole advert which was called out by many viewers on her obvious extentions.

    I am just really annoyed that they were critising childrens bodies. Gives me the creeps.


  5. Who is that Don Kirk anyway?
    Tommy Vorst ought not compare a TV piece about female actors and singers to a supermarket magazine which often depicts models. Yes magazines shows thin women but they don’t scrutinize a slew of actresses and singers like they are models.
    In Korea a female must know how to sing, dance, and act. Now, I guess they must start strutting down the cat walk.


  6. The arirang TV video was so disgustingly offensive I could hardly even handle watching it. I had to keep pausing it to give myself a minute to simmer down before starting it up again. So many of my asian gal-pals complain about their thighs and I can totally see why now. My feelings can be summed up using 3 letters and a question mark. WTF?

    All of those girls have nice SEXY legs. What the heck was all of that about the mini skirt and the ankle boots? “Thick ankles…blah blah blah”. PLEASE. Those women weren’t sporting thick ANYTHING. This type of crap assists in warping women’s views of their own bodies and what’s healthy and normal, it should be considered a form of harassment.


  7. Thanks, ddb.

    I guess it’s worth pointing out (if no one yet has) that the English commentator does usually stress “healthy” as if it were in scare quotes. He’s been told to read the script, in his typical celeb-commentary voice of course, but he knows that it sounds more fucked up in English than in the original Korean.

    부종, though — jeez. Although it does seem to be in wider use than English “edema”, namely for those lesser cases where most Americans would probably say “swelling” (alongside 부기), it’s surely a medical term, and thus pretty fucked-up to use it for well-defined muscles.


    1. J. Goard,

      Good point about the “scare quotes.” I think you’re right–that did register with me at a subconscious level. I don’t know the process of production for Arirang, but I suppose somebody was given the piece to translate and just wasn’t experienced enough to avoid going too literal with things like 건강해 보이는 다리 and then it went to a native speaker for the narrative voiceover who probably was having problems of his own as he read it….


  8. Does that Don Kirk have something to do with Arirang? Let’s remember that one of the things that was so surprising about that video is that Arirang is rarely if ever critical of any S. Korean thing. Okay so there was that video last year, what else? But I’d like to thank Arirang for one thing b/c of this video, I’ve learned a new Korean girl pick-up line…It goes like this “너무 말라ㅆ어요 / neu mu malas ayo.”


  9. Pingback: Big hips!
  10. LOL at those wondering who Don Kirk is. He is a veteran reporter experienced in covering the Korean peninsula. He became a news item himself when he and Evan Ramstad asked Korean government officials about the role of room salons in business-government relations.


    1. By coincidence, I have one of his books too. Comments like the one mentioned in the post and especially this latest one though, have certainly made me lose a lot of respect for him, and now I doubt I’ll be getting around to reading that book any time soon, let alone buying any others of his.


  11. thank you so much for your blog. i’m a korean who comes from a marketing and entertainment background so it’s great to see that there’s information like this on the internet that dissects Korea’s hypnotizing messages.


  12. thank you so much for your blog. i’m a korean who comes from a marketing and entertainment background so it’s great to see that there’s information like this on the internet that dissects Korea’s hypnotizing messages.


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