Revealing the Korean Body Politic, Part 3: Historical precedents for Korea’s modern beauty myth

Y-line Choi Yeo-jin(Source)

“Building a Body” isn’t my favorite track off Marnie Stern’s third LP, but I think it’s one of the most important.

It plays with the idea that a woman’s body is a canvas; a thing that is often viewed or regarded as a tool, an asset, a means to an end. Still. There’s the acknowledgment that we can choose how to construct our own image. However much anxiety is involved in the process.

($30 Project)

As often discussed on TGN, Korean beauty, dieting, and clothing companies are constantly promoting idealized body shapes for women to aspire to. And, although they’re just following the universal logic of creating new perceived wants and needs in the minds of consumers, their alacrity — and audacity — in doing so can still be nothing short of remarkable sometimes.

With new “lines” appearing almost as quickly as the girl-groups used to endorse the ensuing products or services though, it’s easy to lose sight of the utilitarian, utterly reductionist view of women that this alphabetization process relies on.

This post is about some recent stark reminders of both. Easy to dismiss as frivolous, or mere semantics, it’s also about what’s occurring in Korea today nevertheless has strong historical precedents in North America and Europe in the 1920s-1950s. Which, as Jill Fields explains in An Intimate Affair: Women, Lingerie, and Sexuality (2007, pp. 80-81), “not only affected women’s everyday experience of their bodies, but also transformed the construction of feminine identity,” sparking public discourses and expectations surrounding women’s bodies that endure to this day.

S-line vs. Corsets(Sources: left, right)

What’s more, not only is what’s best for women never the main concern —

There is ample feminist discussion about shifting cultural definitions of what the female form is supposed to look like in order to be the most appealing to a (predominately) male gaze….intimate apparel was often marketed as scientifically advantageous to women’s health, but the sexual function of breasts was always the bottom line. Binding them down, lifting them up, pushing them together – none of this had anything to do with encouraging the natural state of a woman’s breasts. No wonder women’s liberationists threw their bras in the trash can.

(Nursing Clio)

— but the Korean case also coincides with a rapid increase in (overwhelmingly female) objectification in popular culture; and highly visible, palpable resistance from men against (largely only perceived) increased economic competition from women. Bearing a striking resemblance to — à la The Beauty Myth (1991) — what occurred in North America and Europe in the 1980s, the combination proves as fascinating as it is alarming.

Angry Hello KittyA Woman’s Body as a Canvas

The first reminder comes from Rob Walkers’ discussion of what makes Hello Kitty so attractive to consumers, in his book Buying In: The secret dialogue between what we buy and who we are. Because however indirect, if you replace “Hello Kitty” with “women’s bodies,” and “consumers” with “advertisers,” an eerie — and disturbing — parallel emerges (2008 ed., p.18, emphases added; source, right):

A perceptive study of the Hello Kitty phenomenon by Tokyo-based cultural scholar Brian J.McVeigh suggests an interesting theory that is implied by his paper’s title: “How Hello Kitty Commodifies the Cute, Cool, and Camp.” While he notes factors like “accessibility” and consistency, the most compelling factor he isolates is “projectability.” Hello Kitty’s blank, “cryptic” simplicity, he argues, is among her great strengths; standing for nothing, she is “waiting to be interpreted,” and this is precisely how an “ambiguous”—and, let’s be frank: meaningless—symbol comes to stand for nostalgia to one person, fashionability to another, camp to a third, vague submissiveness to a fourth….Belson and Bremner return to this theme repeatedly in their book on he business of Hello Kitty. “What makes Hello Kitty so intriguing is that she projects entirely different meanings depending on the consumer,” they write. The cat is “an icon that allows viewers to assign whatever meaning to her that they want.”

If that parallel remains too indirect for some however, recall Dramabeans’ comment (#21 here) about the “Love Your W” event in 2008, “W” being one of the numerous letters used for women’s breasts. The similarities are obvious (emphases added):

…while this practice is seemingly frivolous on the surface, it actually belies much more pernicious trends in society at large, when you have celebrities vocally espousing their alphabet-lines and therefore actually objectifying themselves as a conglomeration of “perfect” body parts rather than as whole, genuine people. You wanna know why plastic surgery is such a big deal in Korea, why actresses don’t eat, why there’s an obsession with thin? It’s because we’re all just Latin letters waiting to be objectified as a beauty ideal rather than living, breathing people with flesh on our bones and brains in our heads.

Why, Oh Why, Does it Need to be Called a “Y-line”?

The next reminder (hat tip to @holterbarbour) was by learning of the simply absurd “Y-line,” via Mundipharma Korea’s ads for gynobetadine, a vaginal cleanser:

Mundipharma Korea are a little coy about what a Y-line is exactly, placing Choi Yeo-jin (최여진) in several Y-shaped poses, and with copy and advertorials speaking of bold, confident — “당당한” — Y-lines. But given the product, and that all those “Y”s center at her crotch, then it’s safe to say that, yes, the term does indeed refer to a vagina.

Choi Yeo-jin Y-lineWhich sounds like something from The Onion.

But to play Devil’s advocate, is it merely a euphemism, rather than a line per se? The ad is, after all, just for a cleanser, not — thank God! — labiaplasty (NSFW) or anything like that. And if so, is it really all that different to similar terms and usage in, say, English-speaking countries? For, as recently explained in “The Myth of the Vajazzled Orgasm”at Nursing Clio (emphasis added):

The popular emphasis on the vagina is certainly on the rise. The explosive popularity of the Vagina Monologues, now regularly performed on college campuses, made many more comfortable with the V word. Social critic Naomi Wolf has recently argued for the existence of the “mind-vagina” connection. Commercials coyly refer to the letter V for various feminine products and sitcoms and singers laud their own embrace of the vajayjay as a way of indicating equal sexual footing with men. “Designer” vaginas are also part of this new emphasis. Cosmetogynecology is one of the fastest growing types of cosmetic surgery.

On top of that, the Y-line appears not to be an invention of Mundipharma Korea at all, as this cartoon (at least) predates its August ad campaign:

Y-line Story(Source)

Yet while acknowledging those, you also have to acknowledge the context. Because whoever was ultimately responsible for the term, it’s safe to assume that they were influenced by the alphabetization trend. And it’s clearly in that commercially-driven, objectifying sense that the term is being used here.

Moreover, just like all the other lines, bear in mind that it’s just one version of the Y-line that has been co-opted by one company (and perhaps others) to sell its product, against which it must compete with other versions used by other companies to sell their own.

But which version — if any — will stick in consumers’ minds? And, like the “V-line,” will it ultimately become so normalized a part of popular culture, so accepted an expectation of women, that one day classrooms will be full of girls working on their own?

V-line Face Rollers Korean Schoolgirls(Sources:left, right)

The contenders include, first, a Y-line lift promoted by a hospital specializing in the procedure (as either a compliment or alternative to the V-line — it’s a little confusing sorry):

Y-line cosmetic surgery(Source)

Next, as breasts, from the line between them. I’d previously assumed that it was invented by the lingerie company Yes’, but it’s also used by others, as well as by cosmetic surgeons:

Y-line breasts(Sources: left; right unknown)

As the crotch:

Y-line crotch(Source)

As the back:

Y-line as the back(Sources: top-left, top-right; bottom unknown)

And finally(?) the buttocks.Now, forgive me if it sounds facetious, but I’ve examined many examples, and never once seen a “Y” in them. Again, you really have to wonder at the mindset of companies — and consumers — that do:

Y-line buttocks(Source)

And here’s part of a show episode devoted to nothing but, well, that Y-line butt:

Historical Precedents

Corset Figure Type Classification Korea(Sources: left, right)

Did I say only two stark reminders of the absurdity and audacity of the Korean alphabetization trend? A third was discovering all those other ludicrous examples of Y-lines. Yet, however natural it may be to mentally assign something so absurd and asinine in another culture as distinctive to it, by no means is this trend only Korean, or even East Asian. Rather, as numerous examples from An Intimate Affair make clear, in fact they’re almost as old — and universal — as mass-production, mass-media, and marketing themselves.

While I can’t begin to do justice to those examples here, two are particularly illustrative, and will hopefully encourage you to purchase your own copy of the book(!). First, the figure classification schemes invented by corset manufacturers in the 1920s (a scan; click to enlarge it):

Corset Figure-Classification Schemes p.66 An Intimate AffairFortunately, the next page is available at Google Books:

Corset Figure-Classification Schemes p.67 An Intimate Affair

This strongly reminded of the following video on how “pear”-shaped women should dress to look like they actually have hourglass-figures, spawning 159 comments at Sociological Images (also see here on subtle Korean encouragements through hourglass-shaped drink bottles):

In turn, that video gave me the impression that Western beauty, dieting, and clothing companies are more concerned with extorting women to conform to a narrow range of preexisting, publicly accepted body types rather than creating their own, then encouraging women to gain those instead. Can any overseas-based readers confirm? And/or recommend books and websites, so that a male reader, 13 years based in Korea, can find out?

(Update 1: Although it’s not specifically about women, or fashion, a reader suggests Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting by Sianne Ngai, released last October. Based on the two reviews I’ve read, it sounds fascinating).

(Update 2: See Glamor Daze for an illustrated guide to “dressing for your body shape” from a Spencer Corsetry catalogue).

Despite that particular, potential difference however, from the 1930s to the 1950s Hollywood, the fashion industry, and — to a lesser extent — economically-threatened men would all influence the second example of “glamour” for their own ends, with the ensuing popular notions of the concept displaying a malleability and responsiveness remarkably similar to that of modern Korean lines. Indeed, although the English definition of the term has continued to considerably evolve since, ironically it’s (the main) one of those from that era — glamour as large breasts — that would enter the Korean lexicon as “글래머,” from which the appalling, infantilizing term “Bagel Girl/베이글녀” derives.

Marilyn Monroe Ga-in Sweater Girls(Sources: left, right. Surely not a coincidence, does anybody know who chose Ga-in’s wardrobe for Bloom?)

Again only snippets which can not do the book justice, but which probably already exceed what counts as fair use for a website nevertheless, here are some selected excerpts to give a hint of all that. First, from page 105, about the context of assuaging the fears of un(der)-employed men during the Depression, and then of soldiers during World War Two:An Intimate Affair, p. 105 excerptNext, from page 109 on the quite literal embodiment of glamour in breasts (and why I mentioned Lana Turner in my recent Busan Haps article on Ga-in’s Bloom):

An Intimate Affair, p. 109 excerptNext, although frankly I don’t fully understand the final paragraph here, hopefully page 110 gives you an impression of how glamour came to shift from body parts to inanimate items of clothing (hence “Sweater Girls“) and so on, as also revealed in the illustrations below:An Intimate Affair, p. 110 excerptUpdate: Given my love for Maria Buszek’s Pin-up Grrrls (2006), it seemed a pity not to add the conclusion to the chapter on the next page (actually page 112) also:

An Intimate Affair, p. 112 excerptAn advertisement for a Sweater Girl course(!) from 1954:

You can be a sweater girl(Source)

Glamorous glasses?

(Sources: left, right)

Conclusion: The Korean Beauty Myth?

With my new copy of The Beauty Myth arriving at my door literally as just before I type this, I should wisely reacquaint myself with it before proceeding further. But, of course, others have already made the same connection(s) that I have, including  Tess Hellgren in her (oft-quoted by me) 2011 Exposé piece “Explaining Underweight BMI and Body Dissatisfaction among Young Korean Women” (pp. 7-8):

…recent gendered shifts in Korean society offer another potent explanation for the trend in female body image. In the past thirty years, Korean society has undergone significant political and economic transformations, democratizing and industrializing at an incredible pace — and offering an extreme expansion of societal opportunities for women.19 Specifically since the 1980s, Korean women have seen an important increase in university attendance; today, 72% of South Korean women attend college, the highest rate of any country. According to feminist theory, this recent upsurge in female societal empowerment may be associated with an oppressive backlash in media portrayals of gender ideals. As explained in the work of Jaehee Jung and Gordon Forbes, historical data suggest that societal shifts toward gender equality are often accompanied by increased media portrayal of unrealistic gender norms as a reactive “tool of oppression” by mainstream society. Jung and Forbes cite the examples of both Europe and the United States: In the 1870s, it was during Europe’s industrialization and nascent women’s movement that accounts of anorexia nervosa first appeared, and the thinnest women in American fashion magazines appeared at the same time as momentum built for women’s rights in the 1920s and the 1970s. According to these scholars, the case of Korea is particularly striking due to the restrictive patriarchal nature of the country’s traditional Confucian culture, in which women’s familial and societal subordination is rigidly emphasized. Linking media portrayals to South Korea’s recent expansion of overall female opportunities, this feminist argument offers another potential explanation for the rise in body dissatisfaction and low BMI among Korean women in recent years.

Is something along these lines the only way to account for the combination of both an increased alphabetization/objectification of and backlash against women in the 2000s? Or is it that simply imposing a convenient narrative where none really exists?

Design Your Body Line(Sources: left, right{NSFW})

Please let me know what you think. And, as a reward to Seoul-based readers who have read this entire post, let me give you advance notice of a presentation I’ll be giving on this topic for the 10 Magazine Book Club on Sunday March 10, the weekend following International Women’s Day. As I type this there’s only 22 more seats available, so please put your name down if you’re (fairly) certain you’ll attend, and I look forward to carrying on this conversation with some of you there! :)

The Revealing the Korean Body Politic Series:

8 thoughts on “Revealing the Korean Body Politic, Part 3: Historical precedents for Korea’s modern beauty myth

  1. I would (again) highly recommend you check out Joshua Zeitz’s FLAPPER. One thing that comes clear is the three dimensionality of social change when it comes to fashion, gender norms, and so on. Young women chose to dress and act as flappers–more sexually free, yet also objectifying themselves in different ways than their mothers had–to the anger of feminists and Christian conservatives alike. One of the reasons the thinnest models appeared in print from the 1920s on was because prior to the flapper era, thinness wasn’t idealized, as much as curvy chestiness. (See the “Gibson Girl” ideal, or think of Christina Hendricks’ character Joan Harris on Mad Men.) The skinniness of beauty ideals in the 1920s were as much–if not more–a backlash against earlier ideals of beauty as against feminism, and they were idealized in part because they represented freedom that no woman in a corset could ever enjoy.

    (Ironically, makeup has in a sense taken on a similar role–it’s an obligation in Korean society for women, and serves as a constant distraction and time-sink–though back when the flappers embraced makeup, it was seen as only for actors and whores–and actors were thought of very poorly.)

    As for anorexia, I’d be surprised if it didn’t exist before the 1870s; like the apparent rape epidemic in Korea, it’s more a case of people suddenly being willing to talk about it than it being anything new. I’d suspect that’s the case with eating disorders too… and wonder rather whether anything was written of such conditions in pre-modern texts, say, medieval or ancient ones. I’d expect somewhere it’s been discussed before, but don’t know, really.

    Also, it was reading Zeitz that I learned young Western (particularly North American) women rebelled *against* the corset and the “S-curve” (ie. S-line) in the 1920s. I get the sense this piecemeal objectification of women bodies that Korea’s wrapped up in isn’t just 90 years old… the backlash is pushing Korea more towards the 1890s-1910s era, where things like corsets–which is really both an oppressive tool for patriarchy (trying going to school and studying, or working a job, while wearing one… it can’t be done), and a form of radical and destructive body sculpting–were widely accepted.

    In other words, all this biomodification seems essentially Victorian, but with much better technology. But of course, our collective social memory goes back to about the 1950s, or the 1920s if we’re thoughtful and read a lot, so that obvious has escaped our notice. We’ve forgotten what was done to women’s bodies just a hundred years ago, and don’t recognize that we’re doing the same today, just in different forms.


    1. Sorry for the very late reply Gord — I printed out your comment a week ago to work on, but then got a bit lost in all my new books. And a belated congratulations for various events in your own life last week too.

      Now that I’m finally here though, once again I find myself unable to respond to one of your long, well thought-out comments in kind, as unfortunately(?) I’m in almost complete agreement with it, and indeed most of what you mention about Zeitz’s book is also raised in the ones I mention in the post (not that I don’t expect to still learn a lot from Zeitz of course). In particular, Fields mentions women rebelling against the new-fangled figure-classification systems by corset manufacturers, and which reminds me that I really need to somehow get more first-hand testimony on Korean women’s reactions to the modern equivalents.

      Just one thing though — I agree that as a general maxim, that with apparent (social) epidemics, they’re often (usually?) more a case of people suddenly being willing to talk about the phenomena than they’re being anything new, but I wonder if that can be said about anorexia nervosa existing much at all before the 1870s, with famine — or the threat and/or cultural memory of famine — still looming so large in people’s lives that there were surely few — if any — social pressures to be thin. (As an aside, I was recently surprised to learn via a sociology podcast {think it was this episode} that one big difference between the Depression and the recent crisis is that a significant number of Americans were literally starving in the former). But having said that, I know next to nothing about body ideals of the era, but do know that different standards applied to the upper classes, and wouldn’t be surprised to find an explicit reference to it by Wollstonecraft, considering…hell, I just bought a personal copy, so let me take a quick glance…here we go, literally the first page I looked at (the beginning of Chap. 3):

      “Bodily strength from being the distinction of heroes is now sunk into such unmerited contempt that men, as well as women, seem to think it unnecessary: the latter, as it takes from their feminine graces, and from that lovely weakness the source of their undue power; and the former, because it appears inimical to the character of a gentleman.”

      Not about thinness per se, although I expect I would find something on that in just another couple of minutes. Suffice to say, I take back everything I said in that last paragraph!


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