Single Korean Women Already Have to Pay Extra to Stay Safe in Their Homes. They Don’t Need to be Infantilized in the Process.

Estimated reading time: 9 minutes. Source: Remark Vill.

If I was advertising literally anything to university students, “Don’t Worry Mom!” would probably be the very last headline I’d use. But until recently, this ad for Remark Vill serviced apartments really did tower over the Pukyong and Kyungsung University district, a small but popular nightlife district in Busan.

Its paternalism rankled immediately. In particular, it had the exact opposite message to this campaign by the accomodation-finding app Zigbang, which trumpeted the independence and sexual freedom for women which comes with leaving home. And it just feels odd for any real estate service to target potential customers’ parents, rather than the customers themselves.

Upon further reflection however…it still rankled. Because as can be better seen in the full version, she’s also in one of the numerous, surprisingly awkward and uncomfortable poses almost only ever seen on women in ads. For sure, that’s hardly something to break the pitchforks out for in itself. Yet, as sociologist Erving Goffman pointed out in Gender Advertisements (1979), such nuances do subtly diminish the women involved. As whereas men’s usually more natural poses render them literally much more ready for action, and are thereby more authoritative looking, actor Im Se-mi above would have to uncross her legs in order to be able to do, well, anything. Or in Goffman’s own words about the similar ‘bashful knee bend,’ her pose “can be read as a foregoing of full effort to be prepared and on the ready in the current social situation, [as] the position adds a moment to any effort to flight or flee. Once again one finds a posture that seems to presuppose the goodwill of anyone in the surround who could offer harm.”

Pose like Lee Min-jung on the left, and it’s difficult even just to keep your balance. Stand more naturally like Gong Yoo instead, and you’re much quicker to spring into action.

But one should pause after somehow arriving at phrases like “flight or flee” after pondering a sweet, innocuous-looking ad. Also, Korean mothers (and fathers) have good reason to be concerned about their daughters’ safety when living alone. The 2016 Gangnam murder case, in which a 23 year-old woman was stabbed to death in a public toilet for simply being a woman, is still very fresh in people’s minds. Korea’s spycam epidemic continues unabated, which is a big concern for women when using motels and public toilets. In May 2019, a security video shows a woman literally only just avoiding a stalker forcing himself into her apartment as she closed the door behind her. Moreover, before the video went viral, he was originally only going to be charged with trespassing, characteristic of a justice system widely considered to be very dismissive of women’s sexual harassment and violence claims.

Naturally, daughters themselves are worried about the safety of their accommodation too. According to a recent study by the Seoul Metropolitan Government that surveyed 3,000 single-person households, 11.2 percent of female respondents cited safety as the number one difficulty living alone, against 0.8 percent of men. Also, according to a research paper by Kang Ji-hyun, a professor of criminology at the University of Ulsan, young women living alone are more than 11 times more likely to suffer from home invasion than men. Consequently, according to D. M. Park at The Korea Bizwire, they “have to pay relatively high housing costs [compared to men] as they prefer houses in safe locations and with security facilities, as well as additional money for anti-crime goods.” This difference is ignored in Korean social welfare and housing policies, as is the reality that women also make less money than men to pay those extra costs. One woman interviewed for the article described it as yet another ‘pink tax’ for women, being an example of the extra money women sometimes have to pay for a swathe of services and consumer items that men don’t, including what they have to put into grooming for their jobs.

The Daeyeon Remark Vill apartments advertised are symbolic of this: while the buildings won a special prize for their security features upon completion in 2017, nowhere on the Remark Vill website are the rental prices of any of their apartments in Korea listed—suggesting that they’re very expensive indeed (and, despite the area, unlikely to be actually aimed at university students). Moreover, given the dire job circumstances of Koreans in the late-20s and early-30s at the moment, even 32 year-olds like Im Se-mi might require parental assistance to live there. Who could possibly gripe about an ad then, that appeals to both potential female tenants and their parents?

A couple of subway stops from the Daeyeon Remark Vill apartment buildings, an alleyway for “women to go home safely” that is “specially patrolled by police.” It’s the first I’ve ever encountered in Korea, but likely only because I have the male privilege of never needing to look for them. How common are they?

But I was reluctant to let this one go. I would have loved to have deferred to what Korean women thought of the ad, if only I could have found any opinions they’d offered. In their absence, I had to rely on my gut. And that told me that if something instantly rankles, there’s usually a good reason for it.

After all, recall how odd “Don’t Worry Mom!” sounded?

Just because daughters would share parents’ concerns about their safety, doesn’t necessarily mean the ad should be targeted towards the latter. Someone—a single copywriter perhaps, or maybe a whole creative team—made a conscious decision to do so. And, sure enough, even if this particular ad is relatively harmless, just a cursory investigation shows the campaign as a whole is rife with traditional gender stereotypes.

The smoking gun comes from the Remark Vill homepage itself. On it, there are four themed commercials available to watch. Two of them—about the gym facilities and various safety measures, conveniences, and business services available to tenants respectively—you don’t need my translations for. The “Mom’s Relief” one below however, is simultaneously sweet and cringey, for you sense that you would never have a 32 year-old man portrayed in the same manner. And under that, the “Teasing” one, which—spoilers!—suggests that the formerly virginal daughter is now free to invite male guests for casual sex.

Yes, really.

Unless you’re targeting parents like myself, who is very cool with that, it’s probably wise not to run a campaign tugging at parents’ heartstrings, only to present those parents who do visit your website with a reminder of how much wild sex your daughter will soon be having in your absence. Indeed, at your expense too.

Maybe, just maybe, the “Don’t Worry Mom!” campaign was ill-conceived in more ways than one.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Here’s the “Mom’s Relief” commercial:

And my translation of the captions:

Mom, you’re bringing that up again?

I’m taking care of things myself now!

I can get lightbulbs changed if I need to, and the toilet unblocked too.

I don’t need to call Dad!

In fairness, of course there are many young people in any country who have to rely on others for simple household tasks; even back in 2009, when the single-household rate was much lower, there was already a plethora of such services available in Korea. My experience of the reporting on the trend, however, is that it tends to stress the alleged lack of adulting by female customers. And as for advertising, if the fact that a 32 year-old not knowing how to change a lightbulb or unblock a toilet doesn’t strike you as embarrassing enough—and who still doesn’t know after leaving home, the Remark Vill staff replacing the role of her long-suffering father—I invite you to consider how unlikely and unnatural-seeming it would be to have a male actor in Im Se-mi’s place.

The next screenshots reveal she gets her laundry and cleaning done by others too. Nothing wrong with that, and great if you can afford it, but—if she can’t even change a lightbulb, could she do those herself either? You really have to wonder.

(Ironically, earlier posts from the Remark Vill Facebook page actually include tips for such things as unblocking toilets by yourself—which just goes to show how much of a step backward this particular campaign is.)

There are copying and fax services available on the first floor.

I don’t need to go out at night.

If I want, there’s even cleaning or laundry services.

I can even borrow an umbrella when it’s raining.

Don’t worry!

But still, please come over often.

They don’t make kimchi for me here…

[You’ll come] Right?

I’ve got to admit, that’s pretty damn cute. Then I remember…

SHE’S THIRTY-TWO.

And on that note, on with the “Teasing” commercial:

And the captions:

It’s so good to be home!

What do you think? It’s good, right?

This is the first time I’ve had a man come over.

There is a state of the art security system in this building…

[…So] No unwanted visitors can come in [the building].

The building staff receive everything for me, like mail and deliveries.

If something dangerous happens…

A quick response from the security office is just a phone call away.

From the Remark Vill Facebook page, a highlight of that safe pick-up and delivery system (which can also be seen in the “Features and Services” video, as can real-time monitoring of one’s parking space):

Wireless delivery system. A smart delivery system makes this a very safe place to live alone.

Continuing:

There’s CCTV, and a tight security system overseeing everyone that enters the building.

[So] I don’t need a boyfriend!

Why are you looking like that?

You like me??

Wake up! I’ve never thought of you as more than a friend.

(No caption) Do you want to Netflix and Chill?

Technically, that the male viewer is the first to come to her apartment may only mean precisely that. But the hint of previous inexperience, combined with the desire suddenly awakened by his presence, sounds very familiar:

From Stephen Epstein’s and my chapter “Girls’ Generation? Gender, (Dis)Empowerment, and K-pop” in the Korean Popular Culture Reader (2014), alas, K-pop ages very quickly. Most of the 100 songs we analyzed for it, the young women of 2020 would only have vague memories of hearing as girls.

Perhaps it’s time Remark Vill realized they’ve grown up now too?

Related Posts:

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

Headless Images Dehumanize Obese People. It’s Now a Fact.

Nearly 6 in 10 news articles about obesity are accompanied by headless images of obese people. In the first of its kind, a recent study demonstrates a direct, dehumanizing effect.

Estimated reading time: 9 minutes. Image by cocoparisienne from Pixabay

For most people, focusing on body parts is the very definition of objectification. Remove subjects’ faces in particular, and you remove the individuality and implied consent communicated. But context is everything. You could critique the “real women have curves” philosophy behind this women-only gym’s name for instance, or the slut-shaming that used to compel Korean lingerie models to hide their faces, but it’s difficult to take issue with the ensuing, headless ads themselves. In music videos and art too, viewers are generally reluctant to judge objectification in isolation. And rightly so: anyone (i.e. everyone) who’s ever discretely admired someone’s magnificent legs, breasts, muscular arms, broad shoulders, or six-pack from afar knows it is possible to like whatever body parts do it for you, while still completely respecting their owners.

Such imagery is pervasive however, nor is every viewer of it as woke as you. You sense there are real consequences for the objectified. But evidence is mixed, as a direct causal link is difficult to prove.

A recent study of the effects of common visual depictions of obese people in the news, however, may provide one. But may also be very specific to obesity.

Among major news outlets in the US, as many as nearly 6 out of 10 articles about obesity issues are accompanied by headless images of obese people. To non-obese people especially, this figure may sound high, but not necessarily a problem. To be sure, we’re all aware of fatty jokes and stereotypes in pop-culture, but news stories about obesity would seem to have that objective, factual context that obviated any potential negative effects. Namely, just like a bra ad featuring only a women’s chest in said bra is acceptable and expected, whereas the same shot of a non-consenting spycam victim would be a crime, that news articles about obesity would tend to be accompanied by pictures of obese people seems logical. That their editors, whether for reasons of civility, consideration, and/or privacy laws would choose to hide or cut out their faces, we can assume would almost always be well-intended. Yet the study shows that the ensuing headless images are precisely the ones that are most damaging. Indeed, obese people themselves, frustrated with almost only ever seeing bulging stomach and butt-shots of themselves in articles specifically about them, might be somewhat less surprised to learn that such images now have a proven dehumanizing effect.

Surrealist Composition by Friedrich Schroder-Sonnenstern, 1965. Source: WikiArt.

But those effects may be very specific to obesity due to the premise of the study, outlined in the opening paragraph (my emphasis, in the first of what I promise will only be two long copy and pastes):

Why would a human feel uncomfortable shaking hands with another human being? The answer from evolutionary psychology would be that the human brain is predisposed to ‘infer’ that a person carries a contagious disease if the person has a bodily cue that is grossly different in form or size from norms (Park, Schaller, & Crandall, 2007). This cognitive bias induces disease-avoidance responses including disgust or avoidance of physical contact with the possessor of unusual bodily cues (Park et al., 2007). An obese human body is one of the visual cues or ‘marks’ triggering such aversive responses (Park et al., 2007; Smith, 2012). Evidence from social neuroscience indicates that disease-avoidance responses inhibit or block cognitive processing of humanly unique traits such as high rationality of a person with the disease-relevant signs (Harris & Fiske, 2007). In this way, the possessor of the disease-relevant signs such as an obese body is perceptually dehumanized. In turn, the heightened dehumanizing perception could lead to exclusionary attitudes toward obese individuals (Buckels & Trapnell, 2013).

In other words, obesity mimics the symptoms of many communicable diseases, and the consequences of assuming a diseased person is healthy and safe to physically interact with are usually greater than shunning an apparently diseased person who is in fact healthy. Therefore, exposure to obesity, prompted and exaggerated by imagery in news articles that highlights obese people’s bodies over all else, provokes an instinctual aversion and disgust to obese people, which viewers rationalize by dehumanizing them:

When the false-negative bias is prompted, people will unfavorably react to individuals who display any of the disease-like signs as if they carry infectious diseases, even when they are completely healthy (Park et al., 2007). Lieberman, Tybur, and Latner (2012) similarly suggested that certain infectious diseases (e.g. elephantiasis) accompany bodily changes such as swelling or fluid buildup that may be visually similar to obesity. Following this disease avoidance account, Park et al. (2007) maintain that the obese body type may be a visual cue that triggers the activation of disease-relevant behavioral reactions (e.g. avoiding physical contact) and emotions (e.g. disgust). And this is in line with Smith’s model (2007). Yet, this account has actually long been supported by a large volume of past research (Kurzban & Leary, 2001; Park et al., 2007; Park et al., 2013; Ryan, Oaten, Stevenson, & Case, 2012). Of those studies, Park et al. (2013) provided more directly relevant evidence for the current study that showed that the photo of an obese man heightened participants’ discomfort level for having physical contact with an obese individual (Park et al., 2013). Likewise, Ryan et al. (2012) found that participants exhibited the same emotional and behavioural responses to confederates with ‘real’ disease signs such as influenza symptoms as with confederates displaying non-disease signs or ‘false alarms’ such as a facial birthmark.

The authors of the study—Yongwoog Andrew Jeon, of University of South Florida; Hyeseung Elizabeth Koh, of the University of Texas at Austin; Jisoo Ahn, of Hallym University, South Korea; and Renita Coleman, of the University of Texas at Austin—then set out to test the following hypotheses:

H1: People who see a news photo of a headless obese person will exhibit a greater level of discomfort with physical contact with an obese person than those who see the whole being of the obese person.

H2: When the head of the obese model in the photo is absent (present), readers’ identification with obese individuals will decrease (increase) in the identity match condition (i.e. BMI or gender matches) compared to when they do not match.

H3a: When the genders of the person in the photo and the reader match, the effect of the absence (presence) of head of the obese model in the photo on disease avoidance responses (indexed by levels of physical avoidance and disgust) will be significantly stronger (weaker) than when their genders do not match.

H3b: When the BMI levels of the person in the photo and the reader match, the effect of the absence (presence) of head of the obese model in the photo on disease avoidance responses (indexed by levels of physical avoidance and disgust) will be significantly stronger (weaker) than when their BMIs do not match.

In the first of what were actually two studies, 332 people (80 percent white, 40 percent male, 40 percent in regular BMI 18.5-24.9 range, and with a mean age of 40.13) read two very typical news articles related to links between obesity and disease, with the accompanying randomly-selected images being of headless (not) models, male (female) models, and obese (overweight) models (crucially, men only saw men, and women women). They were then asked about how comfortable they would be shaking hands with obese people, on a scale of one to ten.

In the second study, 312 people (79 percent white, 45 percent male, 44 percent in a regular BMI range, and with a mean age of 35.2) likewise read two very typical news articles related to links between obesity and disease, with the accompanying images being of either a male or female obese twin, controlled for similar, neutral facial expressions and equal levels of attractiveness and obesity (crucially, participants saw a model of either sex this time.) In addition to being asked about how comfortable they would be shaking hands with obese people, they were also asked about hugging or being in the same elevator as them.

The results:

H1: Supported—Headless, dehumanizing imagery of obese people increases feelings of discomfort towards obese people more than full pictures do.

H2: Supported for gender—When people are the same gender as the model, they will identify less with the model if their head is not visible. Headless images, however, do not decrease the likelihood of obese viewers identifying with the obese model.

H3a: Supported—When the genders of the person in the photo and the reader match, feelings of discomfort and disgust are stronger when models are headless

H3b: Not supported—Sharing the BMI of an obese model has no impact on the effect of seeing them headless or not

Source: Vippng

The authors acknowledge that far more testing is required, especially with models and participants of different ages and races, and that overcoming stigmas towards obesity is far more complicated than simply eliminating headless photos in the media. But it’s clear that at present, “the prevalent visual framing of obesity in the news media is [indeed] dehumanizing not just metaphorically.”

In turn, I acknowledge simply sharing the hypotheses and barest outlines of the results doesn’t at all do justice to their article, which would require a far longer post. But I am happy to email the article for those of you that lack access (*cough* Science Direct *ahem*), and I look forward to all your comments and queries.

In particular, do these results have anything to say about sexual objectification? Or are they just too specific to obesity, because of the authors’ premise as discussed?

Happy 2020 everyone!

Update

Thank you for the excellent responses made on Twitter and Facebook:

(Anonymous, used with permission.)

Many other commenters echo the points about legal reasons for the cropping, and possible alternative solutions. So for your interest, let me pass on what the authors have to say about both:

In general, almost half of obesity-related news articles from major news outlets including CNN, ABC, Fox, The New York Times, and The Washington Post, visually depict an obese person in only one of following ways: eating junk food, sedentary, showing a bare abdomen, dressed in inappropriately fitting clothing, and, most commonly, headless (Puhl, Peterson, et al., 2013). [Note, the 6 in 10 is from news articles in general; see Heuer, McClure, & Puhl, 2011—James] A negative visual depiction of obese individuals (e.g. eating unhealthy foods) can increase social distance and anti-fat attitudes toward obese individuals more than positive depictions (e.g. exercising) (Puhl, Luedicke, & Heuer, 2013). Even though this finding provided empirical evidence for visual framing’s role in prompting anti-fat attitudes, the most prevalent feature of the visual depiction of obese individuals, as ‘headless,’ has not yet been fully examined. Headless is a product of cropping – a technique of digitally removing a part of an image. Through cropping, journalists may attempt to convey the implicit message that ‘this is important!’ Likewise, by cropping out the head of the obese person in the photo, the obese person’s stomach is visually emphasized. News media may use cropping for anonymization and privacy (Puhl, Peterson, et al., 2013). However, regardless of journalists’ actual intentions, these photos can effectively capture people’s attention because the humans’ visual system assigns attentional priority to the human body (Peelen & Downing, 2007). Further, the stomach is one of the body regions that is of highest concern among both regular and overweight individuals when judging one’s physical attractiveness and health (Warschburger, Calvano, Richter, & Engbert, 2015)

And one of the practical implications of the findings of the study:

Of course, ‘putting the head back’ in the photo should not be the only way of depicting obese individuals. Researchers and journalists may need to work more on how to improve media portrayal of vulnerable or stigmatized groups of people. Already, the research institute has produced a guideline based on their research on how to use photos of obese individuals (RCFPO, n.d.). For example, all the photos provided by the guidelines show the whole being of obese individuals engaged in healthy activities or others that are counter-stereotypical. In addition, it may be better to develop a strategy that does not necessarily involve the use of the photos of people, but instead has other relevant visual information such as infographics that visualize data on, for example, the relationship between stress level and eating habits. Also, to solve the issue of privacy, instead of using photos, illustrations of obese individuals that are created by artists can be used. Photos that show the whole body of obese people from the back is another solution. All these alternatives await further empirical validations in future research.

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)