“Making Pretty Women” (예쁜 여자 만들기) — Consumerism, S-lines, and Learning that Healthy≠Beautiful in 1930s Korea

(Sources: left—unknown, right—KyoboBook)

As you all know, I’m very interested in women’s S-lin…let me rephrase that.

As you all know, I’m very interested in where body-labels like the S-line come from, how they’re used, why new ones appear so frequently in the Korean media, why Korean popular-culture is saturated with them, what role (if any) they have in comparative studies regularly finding that Korean women have the greatest levels of body dissatisfaction in the world (despite actually being the thinnest), and so on.

Unfortunately though, I’ve struggled for years to find Koreans that shared these interests. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re not out there. More likely, I’ve just been looking in the wrong places.

I would never have guessed, for instance, that some of the first critical commentary on Korean ads I would find online would be in the form of student essays (and in English at that!), or that the first decent Korean discussion of excessive photoshopping in ads—next week’s translation—would be on a blog rather than in expensive advertising magazines. And somehow, inexplicably, it never occurred to me to simply type in “S-line” (S라인) and “history” (역사) into Korean search engines either.

Which is not to say that much came up at all actually. But it did lead me to Lee Yeong-ah’s (이영아, right; source) Making Pretty Women (예쁜 여자 만들기), published last year, en route to me as I type this. Based on the Busan Ilbo review of it I’ve translated below, it appears that while the S-line term itself wasn’t used back in the 1920s and ’30s, those were certainly formative years for Korean consumerism, in which the practice of encouraging and/or pandering to certain looks, styles of dress, and body shapes of especially female consumers was first established.

Many of these centered on what were called “New Women” (shin-yoseong; 신여성), very similar to flappers, who not only took advantage of scandalous foreign fashions and non-traditional lifestyles to assert their sexuality and women’s rights, but would also later face a backlash that would be eerily similar to that faced by “Beanpaste girls” (dwenjangnyeo; 된장녀) in the 2000s, and in similarly strained economic circumstances. Indeed, Yewon Lee of Yonsei Graduate School wrote about precisely that in 2007 (opens a PDF; see the end of the post for a full list of sources), and Gord Sellar and Gusts of Popular Feeling have also made the same connection.

Unfortunately however, the reviewer doesn’t mention this self-agency of New Women. Rather, he depicts them only as passive victims of new trends, who had no choice but to accommodate the new demands of the male gaze, manifest in the burgeoning media industry. Also, he ends the review with the curious assertions that, in light of this long history, today’s women shouldn’t be worried about likewise being obsessed with beauty, and that it is sufficient simply to be aware of his history in order to lead a happy life.

While such platitudes are common in the Korean media, I was disappointed to see them in what is otherwise one of the better pieces of Korean writing I’ve read in a while (again, my fault for looking in the wrong places!). And I hope that Lee Yeong-ah doesn’t share them.


1930년대에도 ‘S라인열풍 The ‘S-line’ Was Popular in the 1930s too

Busan Ilbo, 5 March 2011

한국 여성들의 ‘미인 강박증’ 역사

Korean women’s history of being obsessed with beauty

‘가슴을 앞으로 그냥 내밀며, 양손을 위로 쭉 뻗었다가, 손끝이 발가락에 닿을 때, 양손을 아래로 뻗으며, 전신을 굽힌다. 이 운동을 계속하면 가슴의 모양이 곱게 발달되고 미끈한 각선미를 갖게 된다.’

“Stick your chest out, stretch both arms up high, bend over and curve your whole body, touching your toes with your fingertips. If you keep doing this exercise, your breasts will beautifully develop and you’ll get a sleek, slender bodyline.”

몸매를 가꾸기 위한 기본적인 스트레칭 동작에 대한 설명이다. 요즘 발행되는 여성잡지에 실린 내용일까. 천만에. 이 미용체조법은 1935년 10월 ‘삼천리’란 잡지에 실렸다. 여성들이 1930년대에 아름다운 몸을 가꾸기 위해 이런 동작들이 필요하다는 것을 알고, 실천했음을 보여주는 사례다. 오늘날 미인들의 필수요건 중 하나인 ‘S라인’이 이미 1930년대부터 각광받기 시작했다는 말이다.

This is an explanation of a basic stretch used for shaping your body. But it’s not from a magazine published today. Rather, it’s from the October 1935 edition of Samcheonri. Women in the 1930s all knew that they had to do this sort of thing in order to get a beautiful body, and an example of them doing it in practice too. These days, beautiful women know they need to get an ‘S-line’, but it was in the 1930s that this sort of thing started becoming popular.


무엇이 이런 변화를 불러왔을까? 당시 조선에 볼거리를 즐기는 시각 중심 문화가 태동한 것이 결정적 이유다. 당시 인쇄매체의 사진과 삽화, 연극과 영화 속 여배우들, 길거리를 활보하는 신여성들을 통해 ‘여성의 몸’은 중요한 문화적 담론으로 부상했다. 여성들이 시각 중심 문화 속 남성들의 시선에 노출되면서부터 몸에 대한 인식의 변화가 시작됐던 것이다. 1931년 삼천리는 미인경연 대회를 개최했고, 미인대회는 갈수록 여성들의 몸을 노골적으로 드러내는데 치중했다. 당시 한 일간지는 여성의 아름다운 기준이 얼굴뿐만 아니라 풍만한 가슴, 잘록한 허리, 볼륨 있는 엉덩이, 미끈한 각선미를 고루 갖춰야 한다고 전했다. 바로 S라인이었다.

What brought about this change? In the final analysis, it was the quickening of Korea’s interest in and enjoyment of visual culture. At the time, through pictures and illustrations in print media, through actresses in plays and movies, and through “new women” just walking on the streets, women’s bodies became an important topic of cultural discourse. Because [this meant] they were increasingly exposed to the male gaze, women started changing Korean body and clothing culture. In 1931, the Samcheomri began holding beauty pageants, which stressed ever more suggestive clothing as time went by. A daily newspaper of the time would proclaim that beauty standards were no longer just focused on the face, but now covered the whole body, requiring voluptuous breasts, an hourglass waistline, voluminous buttocks, and a slender figure. This was the S-line.

1920~30년대 예술지상주의, 유미주의적 경향이 문화계에 확산된 것도 원인이다. 당시 예술가, 문학가, 사회적 유명 인사들은 건강한 몸보다 예쁜 몸에 더 중점을 뒀다. 그들의 ‘미인관’을 단적으로 보여주는 사례가 소설가 현진건의 관점이다. 그는 “키가 조금 큰 듯하고 목선이 긴 여자가 좋다. 제아무리 얼굴이 예쁘장하고 몸맵시가 어울려도 키가 땅에 기는 듯하고 목덜미가 달라붙은 여자는 보기만 해도 화증이 난다”고 했다. 그는 몸매 좋은 여성을 노골적으로 선호하는 데서 그치지 않고 몸매 나쁜 여성에게 화를 내고 있다. 오늘날 여성들이 보면 ‘정말 기가 막히고 코가 막힐’ 멘트다.


One reason for this was that aesthetic trends and the notion of art for art’s sake began to influence culture too. Artists, cultural scholars, and famous society-people all stressed that a beautiful body was more important than a healthy body [James — sound familiar?]. One example is the novelist Hyeon Jin-geon, who bluntly wrote that “I like women that are tall with long necks. Even if their faces are pretty, and they have good bodies, if they are so short as to be crawling on the floor then I hate even looking at them”, something which would be considered crazy if written today.

위생을 이유로 여성들의 의복 변화가 권장됐다는 사실도 몸매 중요성 증가에 일조했다. 20세기 초 근대적 지식인들은 조선시대 여성의 옷이 위생에 해롭다며 개선해야 한다고 역설했다. 긴 저고리는 길거리의 더러운 오물을 쓸고 다녀 호흡기 질환을 낳고, 가슴을 동여맨 가슴띠는 흉부 압박을 심화시킨다고 했다. 이에 따라 여성들의 옷이 점차 몸매를 드러내는 쪽으로 바뀌었다. 미니스커트와 브래지어가 등장했다. 옷이 변하자 여성들의 몸에 대한 인식도 달라졌다.

Another reason for this new interest in bodylines was that women were encouraged to change their traditional outer garments for the sake of hygiene. In the early 20th Century, public-health advocates stressed that the Jogori, a traditional coat, was so long that it kept dragging in the dirt of the streets and caused respiratory ailments [James — by raising dust around the home?], and that binding women’s breasts put a lot of pressure on their thoraxes. Accordingly, fashions gradually changed. Miniskirts and bras appeared. And notions and practices about women’s bodies also changed.

여성들은 이런 사회적 분위기 속에서 자신들의 몸을 어떻게 바라보고 관리했을까. 요즘의 여성들이 그러하듯, 그들도 자신의 몸을 대상으로 전환해 바라봐야 했다. 자기 자신을 남성의 시선으로 응시하는 법을 배우고 그것이 정답이라고 세뇌됐던 것이다. 여성들은 지식인, 예술가, 직업부인이 되기 위해 미인이 돼야 했다. 그것은 생존의 문제였다. 그렇게 여성들은 ‘S라인’이 미인이라고 말하는 남성들의 시선에 맞추기 위해 자신의 몸을 가꿔야 했다.


What did women think about this new social atmosphere, and how did they cope? Well, just like women now, they had to objectify their own bodies. It was drilled into them that they had to look at themselves how men would look at them. And in order to be respected [James — lit. a person of knowledge], or to be an artists, or to have a job, they had to become beautiful. It was a matter of survival. They had to adapt to and dress-up themselves to fit this notion of a beautiful woman being one that had an S-line.

예쁜 여자 되기에 성공했던 여성들의 운명은 어떠했을까. 그들은 세련된 미적 감각, 유행을 선도하는 패션, 화려한 외모로 인해 뭇 남성들에게 관심과 욕망의 대상이 됐다. 동시에 그녀들의 진보적인 사유와 자유로운 행보는 멸시와 질타의 대상이기도 했다. 1920년대 대표적 신여성이었던 윤심덕, 나혜석, 김원주 등은 그 누구도 행복한 말년을 보내지 못했다.

What became of the women who were successful in making such a transformation? They became the object of men’s desires for their sophistication, their sense of aestheticism, being leaders in fashion, and for their magnificent bodies. However, they were also the object of contempt and scorn for their progressive and free thinking. Of representative new women of the 1920s, such as Yun Shim-deok, Na Hye-seok, and Kim Won-ju and so on, none were happy in their old age.

‘예쁜 여자 만들기’는 한국 여성들의 미인 강박증 형성 역사를 보여준다. 예쁜 여자가 되기를 강요하고 압박하는 힘이 근대 이후 한국사회에 생겨난 것이기에 오늘날 여성들이 자책감을 가질 필요는 없다는 것이다. 근대의 몸, 여성 등에 관한 담론을 활발하게 제기해왔던 저자는 몸에 대한 모든 관심을 끊고 외양보다 내면의 아름다움을 추구하라는 식의 도덕적 결론을 강요하진 않는다.

Making Pretty Women shows us the history of women’s obsession with being beautiful. As the pressures women face in doing so have been around since the dawn of modern Korea, today’s women should not feel guilty about it. Moreover, in actively raising these discourses about women’s bodies, the writer does not moralize and argue that the practice should be stopped, or that inner beauty is more important than outward appearances.

대신 왜 우리가 몸에 대해 그렇게 지나치게 집착하는지를 제대로 알고, 그러한 앎을 통해 한층 행복한 삶을 사는 방법을 스스로 선택하라고 말한다. 여성들이 ‘앎’을 통해 위로받는다는 것으로도 족하다고 한다. 이영아 지음/푸른역사/343쪽/1만3천900원. 김상훈 기자 neato@busan.com

Rather, the author teaches us about today’s obsession with body image. Through this knowledge,women can choose to live happily, and this is sufficient (review by Kim Sang-hoon).


– Hellgren, Tess. “Explaining Underweight BMI and Body Dissatisfaction among Young Korean Women“, Spring 2011 Conant Prize in General Education, Harvard University, May 2 2011

Lee, Yewon. How Women Are Represented within the Patriarchal Nationalism in (neo) Colonial Times, Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, TBA, New York, New York City, Aug 11 2007

– Park, Bongsoo. “Sensational Politics of Desire and Trivial Pursuits: Public Censure of New Women in Private Lives in early 1930s Korea Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Communication Association, Sheraton New York, New York City, NY,  May 25 2009

(Please email me for PDFs if any of those links don’t work)

6 thoughts on ““Making Pretty Women” (예쁜 여자 만들기) — Consumerism, S-lines, and Learning that Healthy≠Beautiful in 1930s Korea

  1. I’ll certainly agree that it’s interesting that the writer says, via your translation, that he “will not moralize and argue that the practice (of emphasizing outer beauty over inner beauty) should be stopped”. Does he mean that he won’t try to make women, or maybe more accurately greater society feel bad for this emphasis on appearance, or that he won’t try to make the issue a moral one at all? I don’t speak very much Korean, so I’m curious as to your further interpretation of that particular phrase. I’m inclined to think that it’s the latter translation considering how universal this cult of beauty is in Korea (that “Plastic Surgery in the ROK: Army of Clones” link in your last Korean Gender Reader was very interesting).


    1. Just a clarification sorry — the reviewer is saying that author Lee Yeong-ah says that. And given the general tone of the review, and especially his own platitudes in the final paragraph, then I can’t be 100% convinced that she does actually say that until I read the book for myself!

      As for the specific quotation, I’d have to say that the former translation is more accurate myself. But that doesn’t entirely rule out your alternative interpretation — maybe it’s just my own inability with Korean and/or inexperience with other languages, but I find Korean maddeningly fluid and difficult to pin down, and there’s a number of alternative ways the translation of just that one sentence could be written. In particular, that paragraph ends with “…도덕적 결론을 강요하진 않는다”, or “…[she] doesn’t demand a moralistic conclusion”, but as that sounded a bit weird in English I changed it.


  2. Speaking of S-lines, I recently saw it used in a surprising way. A Lasik centre which offices are in the GT Tower (the curvy building in Gangnam) published an ad with “You see the S-line at Gangnam station ?” printed on it. Now I wonder if the architect of the GT Tower used the S-line argument to promote his design at the time!


    1. Thanks for passing that on – I had no idea that a building like that existed in Seoul (come to think of it though, I almost never go to Gangnam when I’m in Seoul, so no wonder).

      Anyone else reading this, here’s a link to see it for yourself!


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