Quick Hit: Is there STILL a stigma against lingerie modeling in Korea?

(Source; edited)

Whenever I give lectures about Korean advertising, I always try to stress how quickly it’s changing. As both a reflection and driver of changes in Korean society itself, it’s one of the reasons why studying it is so interesting.

Who can believe, for instance, that the first kiss in a Korean ad was as recently as 2009?

So, next Monday I was going to mention that one reason you used to see so few Korean women modeling lingerie was because many pornography actors used to do it, giving it a certain stigma (and in turn sustaining stereotypes about the foreign, overwhelmingly Caucasian women used in their place). Yet these days, so many female singers and actresses are doing it as a means of sexing-up their image, and/or getting themselves noticed, that I’ve argued that surely the stigma no longer exists, at least at the celebrity level.


But this is a familiar topic to most readers, and I do apologize for the repetition. It’s just that, today, it was reported that Core Contents Media (CCM) had turned down a lucrative lingerie-modelling contract for soon to debut girl-group Gangkiz (갱키즈), as such advertisements “wouldn’t fit [their] musical color and image” (“제안은 감사하지만 갱키즈 음악적 색깔, 이미지와 맞지 않다고 판단한 결정이었다”). Ironically though, most of the reports were accompanied by pictures from a recent bedroom photoshoot of theirs, including one which has one member’s shirt nearly falling off, slightly exposing her bra; one with another member lying expectantly on a bed, her shirt only just held together by a single, strategically-chosen button;  and then of course the opening picture with Lee Hae-in (이해인) above.

One seriously had to wonder what image CCM felt needed to be protected exactly.

On the other hand, while it’s certainly possible that CCM was just seeking attention for Gangliz, that attention could easily prove counterproductive once CCM’s hypocrisy was exposed. So perhaps they they did genuinely have concerns about the effects of “official” lingerie modelling on Gangkiz’s reputation.In which case, just what is the difference between that and exposing lingerie while modelling something else, and/or as part of a random photoshoot? Do Korean models and consumers really make such artificial distinctions?

I decided to refer back to the original article about pornography actors giving lingerie modelling a stigma to get a clearer picture. Partially because it’s been a couple of years since I last read it, and partially because, frankly, I had concerns that I misunderstood it the first time back in 2008, and have been misinforming readers ever since. In particular, there was the distinct possibility that the main reason there were so few Korean lingerie models was simply because it was just too “sexy” for them, and indeed that is still potentially — nay, probably — a very big influence here (they’re not mutually exclusive).


To my relief though, I hadn’t misunderstood anything, although it did turn out to be nude models rather than pornographic actors. But — with no offense to the translator, who probably normally makes far fewer mistakes than I do — I did notice a big mistranslation of the following paragraph (from this original Korean article):

홈쇼핑 속옷 모델의 원조는 누드 모델이었다. 90년대 말 S씨 등 스타 누드모델 10여명이 속옷 모델로 나와 방송을 타면서 화제를 모았다. 하지만 그녀들은 “얼굴을 가려달라”고 요구하는 등 몸을 사리는 일이 많았다. 그래서 점점 출연 횟수가 줄었고, 2000년 이후 케이블 TV에서는 국내 속옷 모델이 거의 자취를 감췄다.

Which was translated as:

Home shopping underwear models started as nude models. At the end of the 1990s [Miss] S and over 10 other star nude models caused a stir by moving into underwear modelling on home shopping programs. But they were able to get a lot of work when their attractive faces and bodies came into demand. So more and more of them started showing up, and after 2000 almost all underwear models on cable TV were Korean.

But unfortunately the last two sentences, were, well, completely wrong. Here’s my version:

…programs. However, they [not only] demanded that their faces be covered while were on the air, [but] they were also shy and reluctant to show off their bodies. So, gradually they started appearing less and less, until by 2000 there virtually no Korean women modelling home-shopping on cable TV.

In the translator’s defense, the original Korean article was badly written and confusing (e.g., were those 10 nude models the only Korean lingerie models?), and didn’t respond to the obvious question raised of why on Earth the nude models became shy about lingerie modelling, which I speculate was because of the controversy and fame their presence on TV created. Nor does it mention the fact that there have actually been plenty of Korean women on lingerie homeshopping shows since 2000, albeit fully-clothed and holding the lingerie on coat-hangers while their foreign counterparts alongside them wore it (which is really quite surreal to watch).

But still: hiding their faces? That does explain a lot about how, over a decade later, there are online lingerie stores on which not a single Korean model shows her face, or lingerie fashion shows in which the Korean women (but not the Korean men or foreign women) hide themselves under hats and sunglasses (see #3 here). In hindsight, it’s amazing that this still occurs as late as 2012, and especially that celebrity models haven’t had more of an impact on the industry yet, despite what I recently wrote about their surprisingly strong influence in Korea. I guess that the stigma is stronger than I expected then, and hence some of these women much braver than I gave them credit for.

(Sources: left, right)

For more on related issues raised by the ensuing disproportionate number of Caucasian models in Korea, see this recent post at Seoulbeats, which also discusses their growing numbers in K-pop music videos. As for me though, it’s back to updating my Powerpoint! :)

9 thoughts on “Quick Hit: Is there STILL a stigma against lingerie modeling in Korea?

  1. You do see quite a few k-pop stars do lingerie shoots now, although they’re almost always lingerie with an extra piece of fabric or two on. (this week: http://www.soompi.com/news/brown-eyed-girls-ga-in-reveals-bagel-girl-instincts-in-latest-lingerie-photo-spread?fanclub=106191 )

    As for CCM, they’re ludicrous as always. For some reason they have a thing for announcing that they’ve turned down a CF offer, they’ve already done it once before with Gangkiz, a group that’s yet do debut – and that comes in addition to press releases on how much they were insured for during trips and how much this and that cost, etc etc. including a very sketchy one reporting the value of articles stolen during a Europe trip, which I personally believe to be largely made up. All in all I put zero value in CCM’s press releases, they’re attention seeking idiots in all the wrong way, any attention is good attention, no doubt because of their asshole CEO.


      1. Sorry to be so blunt Andrew, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say that your comments are so full of such gross generalizations about Western and Korean women that I don’t even know where to begin correcting them. In particular, this division between “delicate”, “wise”, and not “overly sexual” Korean women vs “primitive” “sexual” and “hypocritical” Western ones is definitely one that only exists in your head, and you seriously must have had some blinders on to make such comments about K-pop.


  2. Andrew’s perspective is, yeah, incredibly typical of the sort of virgin/whore dichotomy that many men, both Korean and Western, draw between Western and Korean/Asian women in Asia. The fact that some Korean stars are now pushing the boundaries with their physical self-expression must, no doubt, cause a lot of “grossing-out” among dudes who have long held them up as shining examples of how THEY want women to behave. Sadly for them, this is how the global trend seems to be working, Andrew: Women gain economic liberty and slowly emerge from a place of necessary restraint in expressing their sexuality to a place that allows them to be more graphic and honest about it, if they so choose. I would imagine that, just as in the West (or anywhere else) certain personality types will be more drawn to explicit sexual self-expression than others. Cultural differences are obviously significant between the West and East Asia, but on some pretty basic, fundamental levels, human sexuality is more similar across cultures than it is different. Some people are inherently more comfortable with displaying their bodies and communicating frankly about sex than others are. Many factors may contribute to this but ultimately, I think individual personality is a bigger influence than race or even cultural background, once cultural standards loosen up enough to allow for sexual self-expression by women. This is why I, as a white American woman, know many young Korean women whose sexual behavior and self-expression is more ‘liberated’ and brash than my own. I’m shy, they are not. We are individuals.

    Solid as always, Mr. Turnbull! Long-time lurker here. It’s fascinating how FAST things are changing in Korean gender roles and standards for sexual self-expression. I know you allude to this often; have you ever written a post on the actual sheer speed of these changes and how–like the sheer speed at which Korea developed economically–it puts Korean society into a sort of unique position in many ways? It’s an interesting question for me IMO.


    1. Thanks, and well put. As for writing specifically about the speed of changes though, I’m afraid I haven’t. But I know that Gord Sellar definitely has, and just off the top of my head can think of this post for starters. And even if it turns out that that’s it, I’m sure you’ll be a big fan of his blog after just a few minutes reading! :)


  3. i think these days they still hire non-korean models more
    not just because of stigma, but also because most korean girls are very petite and slim,
    which are NOT the body types suitable for lingerie.


  4. As someone who’s lived in Korea 10 years and is married to a Korean woman, I agree with Andrew. Not that Korea is a land of virginal purity and the west is a whorehouse. But there are differences, and some of them put Korean women in a more flattering light, unless, I suppose, you want to see more of them in skimpy lingerie, which I understand many western men probably do.


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