Why We Need to Stop Talking about “Asian” and “Western” Women’s Bodies

Setting arbitrary standards for what makes an “Asian” or “Western” body type punishes the vast majority of women whose bodies don’t fully measure up to either.

Estimated reading time: 14 minutes. Photo by Gabrielle Henderson on Unsplash. Post has one NSFW image.

What is it with people ever talking about “Asian” and “Western” women’s bodies?

If the conversation is in Korean, usually only Korean and white women will actually be meant; the latter, as women of color that don’t present as Korean tend to be referred to by their race or nationality instead. But even reduced to just those two groups of women, how could the idealized figures described in those conversations possibly embody the mélange of real, flesh and bone Korean and white women’s body types and features? Let alone actually have something useful to say about them?

I get that the habit mostly boils down to the natural, human tendency to overgeneralize groups in everyday speech. We’re all guilty of that sometimes. But on this topic specifically, the usual common-sense and restraint seem to get thrown out of the window. For one, because women of color are usually not considered “Western” as mentioned, a subject we’ll return to in future posts. Then take the alacrity with which various bodily features are pigeonholed as Korean or white by Korean journalists from all levels of the Korean media, who regularly come up with such pearls of wisdom as: “the most notable trait of Kim Yuna’s “golden ratio body” is her long limbs, just like those of a Westerner’s“; that “Lee Hyo-ri has an Asian bottom [and a Western chest]“; and that “female idols with ‘Western type bodies’…get praised by foreign fans.” Or how there’s items of women’s clothing that Korean women’s bodies are widely considered simply unsuitable for, which can present somewhat of a challenge to Korean companies trying to sell them:

Left picture: I’ve watched Western women wearing leggings, and I’ve had heated discussions about leggings with Western friends. After a month of that, I’ve come to realize why it’s so difficult for Asian women to wear them.

Right picture: When Asian women don’t have wide pelvises, flaps of skin in their “Y-zones” get bunched together and exposed. (James—Yes, there’s a slang word for that in Korean too; understandably, the company chose to avoid it.) “Embarrassing!” / Instead of your skin looking soft, it looks thin and lacking in firmness; the underside of your bottom looks flabby. “I’m ashamed!” / Compared to Westerners’ long and slender legs, Asian women’s legs are short and many Asian women have stout lower bodies. “It’s upsetting!”

Shopping in New York’s Chinatown can sometimes be a minefield too:

There is resistance to this line of thinking. In response to Temple Leggings’ sponsored tweets for instance, Twitter user “데데” (@merrydede) argues above that Korean women’s reluctance to wear leggings actually has nothing to do with their perceived body shapes or too short legs vis-a-vis Western women, but is more because of a culture of constant evaluation of their bodies and “gaze rape,” with commentators in the ensuing long thread often echoing sentiments about leggings raised in both sides of recent controversies over them in the US. And probably she’s got a better handle than I do on why she doesn’t wear leggings, and has spoken to far more women about them too.

But Temple Leggings wouldn’t have mentioned Korean and Western bodies if they didn’t think it would resonate with their target market. And I have spoken to some Korean women on the subject of Asian and Western bodies specifically, and they’ve all been quite blasé about making such distinctions. I regularly hear women loudly doing so in coffee shops too, and my students aren’t shy about it either. Also, it may well just be confirmation bias, but it feels very telling that the very first result from my YouTube search for “동양몸매,” the “다이어트천재 동양몸매 vs 미친골반 서양몸매 구경하고 가세요” video (“Genius Asian body diet vs. crazy [wide?] pelvis Western body challenge”) that I couldn’t resist inserting the thumbnail from below, was titled and captioned thus without either woman ever actually mentioning Asian or Western bodies in it. Add journalists’ enthusiasm for raising the subject too, then I’m going to go ahead say this way of thinking is totally a thing.

Source: 파쿠아-PAQUA.

But that gives absolutely no-one permission to engage in Orientalist eye-rolling at the habit. For the Western, English-language pop culture, media, cosmetic, and medical industries are equally guilty of perpetuating such cringeworthy distinctions. More so even, as they’re frequently underscored by racist assumptions that Asian women aren’t just fundamentally different, but actually yearn to look white too.

If that’s news, I recommend reading Professor Ruth Holliday’s (Leeds University) and Professor Joanna Elfving-Hwang’s (University of Western Australia) 2012 Body & Society article “Gender, Globalization and Aesthetic Surgery in South Korea” on the subject, in which they present numerous examples—and which read like a withering manifest of the intellectual baggage Western observers can’t help but bring to the subject. But read it even if it’s not news too, both for their critiques of other journal articles and especially for the stark clarity with which two strong themes of English-language discourses on the subject emerge from their discussion.

First, is the hypocrisy and absurdity of raising the subject of race and a supposed desire for “westernization” at all when discussing the motivations of say, Korean-American breast-augmentation patients in the US, but never doing so for their white counterparts, who are ascribed completely different reasons—again, perpetuating the notion that each group is fundamentally different, both physiologically and psychologically. And second, the fact that Korean-Americans in the US, they point out (let alone Koreans in Korea), are hardly immune to specifically Korean beauty ideals, whether they retain them when they come to the US, they are exposed to them through relatives and the wider Korean-American community, and/or they are encouraged to adopt them by following the examples of increasingly visible Korean celebrities. In fact, they may be motivated more by those ideals than whatever Western reporters, cosmetic surgeons, and academics insist they are instead (who’d have thought?), with “V-line” surgery, for instance, being very popular in Korea, but which cannot possibly be described as making Koreans look more white.

Put like that, it seems astounding that the narrative that Koreans just want to look white persists.

But it’s not that simple. Spend any amount of time in Korea, and actually you’ll quickly encounter overwhelming evidence that seems to support it, which few people have the inclination and time necessary to debunk. This is why the stereotype is so strong.

Allure Korea took ten years to feature its first Korean cover model. Source: unknown.

For starters, consider how many ostensible Western beauty ideals such as pale skin are indeed heavily valued in Korea, Holliday and Elfving-Hwang explain, albeit largely only because they “entered Korea fitting pre-existing notions of class and status.” Also, among many, many other potential sources of confirmation bias:

  • Instead, it’s because they’re somewhat less likely to sue than Korean models, as once hilariously revealed by a nightclub owner that refused entrance to non-Koreans, despite featuring foreign women in the club’s posters. Indeed, as if to stress that it’s not always about white people, back in 2011 I thought the model in this poster for another club was Korean, and there was no reverse image-search available then; only now can she be revealed as the very white supermodel Miranda Kerr, photographed a few weeks previously by Seth Sebal. To the best of my knowledge, neither of their lawyers have gotten in touch with the nightclub yet.
Source: MS-Photograph.

Believing that Koreans want to look white then, does make a lot of sense. Right up the moment you read, or are personally informed through the clenched teeth of Koreans and colleagues, of how sick and tired they are of such assertions—and you suddenly realize that all this time you’ve been talking about Koreans rather than with Koreans, and can no longer rely on the convenient narratives you’ve being telling yourself to help understand the place.

By no means does this only apply to body image either: realizing how important it is to just STFU and listen is a very important process that every expat, observer, and commentator on every group or culture they are not native to must go through. And, if you didn’t personally need reminding of that, and feel I’ve actually been completely projecting all this time? With all the points mentioned so far reading like signposts in my own much too long journey through that process? Then you’re absolutely right.

Source: Mei Mei Rado, “The Qipao and the Female Body in 1930s China“, p. 193.

You’ll appreciate then, my uncomfortable surprise when I recently read Professor Mei Mei Rado’s chapter “The Qipao and the Female Body in 1930s China” in Elegance in the Age of Crisis: Fashions of the 1930s (2014). In that, Professor Rado (Parsons School of Design, NY) explains that in China in the 1920s and 1930s, Kuomintang government officials and male intellectuals did explicitly view white women’s bodies as ideals for Chinese women to aspire to. Which not to say Chinese women necessarily did themselves, or even at all, but Professor Rado’s argument that it dominated discourses about women’s bodies at the time is very convincing.

This post was originally intended to be a discussion of the numerous questions that raises: what other scholars can confirm her arguments? What influence, if any did those discourses have not just in China, but also in Taiwan, Japan, and Korea? What did people in those countries think of foreign bodies and beauty ideals then?

Those questions proved to be far too much for one post, so now my answers will be spread over several in a series. Always hanging over covering this topic at all though, was the fact that I’m still basically a middle-aged, cishet, white guy explaining that (he was shocked to read that some) Asian women (once) want(ed) to look white (maybe). To avoid being lumped in with every other pig-ignorant Orientalist commentator that genuinely believes that then, all my own baggage as a Western commentator needed to be laid on the table first. And there was a lot to unpack.

With that out of the way, Part 2 next month will be a discussion of Professor Rado’s chapter and other sources on discourses about women’s bodies in 1920s-1930s China, while Part 3 will be on those in Taiwan, Japan, and Korea at the same time, extending to a Part 4 if necessary. Until then, is there anything else that I’ve missed or been misguided about, or you think needs an alternative perspective? Please let me know in the comments!

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

Event Announcement: #FEMALEPLEASURE Screening, Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, 1pm Saturday June 1

Sorry for the long break everyone, which was because of reasons. But I’m happy to say I do have an epic post in the works. And, while you’re waiting for that, I’m delighted to help a former student publicize this event in Seoul this weekend (하단으 보세요):

#FEMALEPLEASURE

– 5 cultures, 5 women, 1 story

A documentary about female sexuality and autonomy in the 21st century – film screening and discussion

An event organized through: Lecturing Program of the Robert Bosch Foundation in Asia (German Foundation)

(Sign up here)

#FEMALEPLEASURE portrays five courageous and smart women, breaking the silence imposed by their archaic-patriarch societies and religious communities. With incredible strength and positive energy, Deborah Feldman, Leyla Hussein, Rokudenashiko, Doris Wagner, and Vithika Yadav are fighting for sexual liberation and autonomy for women, beyond religious rules and cultural barriers.

#FEMALEPLEASURE shows the universal mechanisms at work that determine the position of women until today, spanning cultures, religions and continents: from Japan and India and the Somali muslim diaspora to the Hasidic community in New York and the Catholic clergy in Europe.

What can we learn from them? What do we have to talk about in Korea? How can men and women establish fruitful understanding and mutual respect?

On this day we will gather to see the movie and share a safe space to talk about important questions and feelings related to the topic in Korea. Everyone interested is welcome! 😊

When? Saturday, 1st June, 1pm – 4.30pm

Where? Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, Main Building, Room 329

Language: Korean & English

Contribution: 3000WON – we organize Pizza & Drinks 😊

UPDATE: A Facebook event page has just been created!

본 이벤트는 Robert Bosch Foundation in Asia(독일 재단)의 교육프로그램을 기반으로 제작되었습니다.

21세기 여성의 성적 자기결정권에 관한 다큐멘터리 영화를 감상한 후 토의의 시간이 마련되어 있습니다. (5개의 각기 다른 문화에서 자란 여성들이 하나의 이야기를 하는 내용입니다.)

(여기서 등록하세요)

#FEMALEPLEASURE는 구시대적인 가부장 사회와 종교 커뮤니티들에 의해 강요되는 침묵을 깨뜨린 용감하고 똑똑한 다섯 명의 여성을 보여줍니다: Deborah Feldman, Leyla Hussein, Rokudenashiko, Doris Wagner, and Vithika Yadav. 이들은 놀라울 만큼 강인한 모습과 긍정적인 에너지를 통해 종교 율법이나 문화 장벽을 뛰어넘어 여성의 성적 자율성을 위해 싸우는 중입니다.

#FEMALEPLEASURE는 또한 일본, 인도, 소말리아 이슬람 디아스포라 에서 뉴욕의 하시디즘 커뮤니티와 유럽의 카톨릭 성직자들에 이르기까지 문화, 종교, 대륙 전반에 걸쳐 여성의 지위를 결정해 온 보편적인 메커니즘이 무엇인지 보여줍니다.

우리는 이들에게서 무엇을 배울 수 있을까요? 한국과 관련해서는 어떤 이야기들을 해야 할까요? 또 남성과 여성은 어떻게 해야 유익한 이해관계를 확립하고 서로를 존중할 수 있을까요?

함께 모여 영화를 감상한 후에 이 주제와 관련된 한국의 중요한 이슈, 궁금증 혹은 감정을 편하게 공유하는 시간을 가질 예정입니다. 관심 있는 사람은 모두 환영입니다! 😊

언제? 6월 1일 토요일, 1:00 – 4:30 (오후)

어디서? 한국외국어대학교 본관 329호

language: 한국어 & 영어

참가비: 3000원 – 피자와 음료 제공에 사용됩니다 😊

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

Today I Read About an Awesome Feminist Japanese Painter and Was Reminded Of My Favorite Soju Poster

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes. Sources: Reiodori, LotteLiquor.

In the spirit of today’s title, let me direct you straight towards the moment I learned why Uemura Shōen was so amazing:

Shōen successfully turned her passion to creating a life worth living through her paintings. The themes and main subjects in all her paintings are women. Moreover, the women depicted in her paintings of this period are decisively different from those that appear in paintings done by men in the tradition of the Kyoto school of Bijinga, whose tradition dates back several hundred years. The major characteristic of women in the paintings before Shōen was that they were treated as the object of men’s sexual interest. Shōen painted working women for the first time in the history of Japanese painting. One of the masterpieces along that line is Yugure (Dusk). Here a middle-aged woman opens the paper-covered sliding door of her room to get enough light to thread a needle. Her plain kimono, the needlework, and the weak sunlight of the dusk impressively create an atmosphere of daily life. Japanese painting portrayed the reality of working women for the first time through Shōen’s works. They are as significant as the works of Millet, who painted working women instead of bourgeois women. In the late 1930s Uemura painted another middle-aged woman shown repapering a door to prepare for the coming winter in Banshu (Late Autumn). In another painting in a series titled Yuki no naka (In the Snow), she described women walking in the severe cold with heavy snow on their umbrellas. The clean, sharp, uncompromising lines of her drawing supported by her accurate drawing ability and the use of just a few colors clearly show the painter’s integrity of mind. It took Shōen a long time to reach this heightened state. Shōen received a great many awards for her noble and innovative art.

Page 71, “Three Women Artists of the Meiji Period (1868-1912): Reconsidering Their Significance from a Feminist Perspective” by Midori Wakakuwa (trans. by Naoko Aoki) in Japanese Women: New Feminist Perspectives on the Past, Present and Future ed. by Kumiko Fujimura-Fanselow and Atsuko Kameda (1995); my emphases.

Which really did immediately remind me of modern rock singer Kim Yoon-ah‘s 2006 unique poster for Cheoeum-Cheoreom soju above. Like I wrote in 2010, and sadly still remains the case today, it’s “the only one I’ve seen in which the woman depicted is actually doing something of her own accord and enjoying herself, rather than waiting to be seduced by a man.” Which is not to say that sultry and seductive is bad in itself, but just a small sampling of soju posters over the years reveals how monotonous that theme can be, and how truly exceptional this soju poster is. Made more even more so, by the text in white at the bottom that I missed nine years ago (apologies for the poor quality):

It reads: “김윤아씨의 모델료는 가정폭력 피해자들에게 기부됩니다. 여성으로서 락음악의 새로운 가능성을 연 가수, 김윤아”/ “Kim Yun-Ah’s model fee is donated to domestic violence victims. Singer Kim Yoon-ah, who paved the way for new possibilities of rock music as a woman.”

Turning back to Uemura Shōen’s own depictions of women actually doing something, here are the paintings (and one from the In the Snow series) mentioned above by Wakakuwa:

At Dusk. Source: Japanese Painting Gallery
Late Autumn. Source: Fine Art America.
Feathered Snow. Source: Japonica.

I include the difficult to find full images, rather than the much more numerous, higher-quality close-ups of the women’s faces available, because of what I read about the importance of the paintings’ empty spaces at Japan Objects:

One of the most distinctive characteristics of Japanese painting when contrasted with its European counterpart is the use of empty space. And of course, this distinction was carried into the twentieth century….In Shōen Uemura’s Feathered Snow, the great blankness of the paper successful conveys the sensation of inclement weather, where the horizon reduces to edge of your umbrella as you try to shelter from the cold.

Inspiration aside though, I do wonder if the distinction between Shōen and her predecessors was as sharp as Wakakuwa suggests? In hindsight, her passage sounds a little hyperbolic. And my frustration with locating the full images among all those close-ups was a foreshadowing of what I’d read about Shōen online later, which tended to place her work very much on a continuum with other Bijinga (literally, “paintings of beautiful women”). That said, Jeff Hammond in The Japan Times notes her subjects weren’t the courtesans from the pleasure districts usually found in the genre. Also, in a must-read account in Japanonica of a 2017 exhibition of her work, historian and curator Roisin Inglesby finds subtle but important differences to works by her male contemporaries, despite her indeed very much sharing their emphasis on beauty:

 …[Shōen’s] “outsider” status as a woman enabled her to acquire a deeper understanding of her female models and employ different approaches from male artists—a quality which, the curators argue, elevates her paintings by portraying women not just as objects created through the lens of the male gaze, but as thinking, feeling subjects who invite us to admire their inner beauty as well as their outward attractiveness.

In her efforts to show female beauty in what she believed to be its purest form, Shōen’s paintings are characterized by both a lightness of touch and a depth of feeling. [The tour guide] invited us to take time to look closely at the works and consider the emotional complexity beneath the peaceful expressions of Shōen’s subjects.

I wince at the crude characterization of the male gaze—admiration of outward attraction is not mutually exclusive with that of inner beauty—but that’s a subject for another post. Continuing later:

One of the most interesting aspects of [the] tour was [the] explanation of how Shōen gives agency to her subjects through a variety of techniques. In many paintings, she used a splash of red pigment on the women’s earlobes and fingertips to animate their otherwise placid demeanor. This small, yet visually enlivening, detail signals activity: these women hear; they touch. Often beautiful women are painted as objects of desire and admiration, yet through the composition of her work it seemed to me that Shōen invites her viewers to question their interior thoughts as well as appreciate their external beauty. The sparse background of Feathered Snow (1944) not only gives the impression of a punishing winter wind which beats its subjects back to one side of the painting, but encouraged my eyes to follow the movement of the composition and rest on their faces. What are they thinking as they trudge through the snow?

I recommend reading the article in full, and to watch this slideshow for many more examples of her work. Please feel free to add to (or correct) anything above also—including on Bijinga’s influence on Korean art, which I’m now about to look for more information about in my modest library, rather than preparing crucial PowerPoints for tomorrow’s classes. Damn you, Uemura! ;)

Related Posts:

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

Why Does Korea Have so Many of Those Damn Smutty Ads?

Government inaction on Korea’s ubiquitous, sexually-explicit internet advertising undermines claims that its citizens need protecting from pornography, and has helped shape the Korean #Metoo movement.

Estimated reading time: 17 minutes. Photo by rawpixel.com from Pexels. One NSFW image later.

When even the ad industry itself is calling for greater government regulation of sexual imagery in ads, you know Korea’s got a problem.

The main issue is that there’s just no escaping them. In the most recent survey of 155 major web portals, social media services, and online news sites conducted by the Korea Internet Advertising Foundation (KIAF) in 2016, 94.5 percent of the middle and high school students surveyed were found to have been exposed to sexualized ads. Frustratingly, the 69-page report (PDF, Korean) doesn’t also mention what proportion those ads were of the total ads examined. But, maybe the authors simply felt that was unnecessary, as everyone already knows that their numbers are just insane:

See the thread for many more examples. Or like Raphael says, almost any Korean news website. Even alongside the cutesy, assumed safe webtoons my preteen daughters read too, I recently learned, sometimes there’s invitations to meet horny divorcees in our area.

But Korea’s smutty ads problem goes much deeper than just their scale, or their astonishing inappropriateness. For the KIAF surveyors also found that one in four of the offending ads promoted sex work, and/or even showed sex acts. Which is heinous not because either are unethical, but because such ads exist so openly in a society where sex work and pornography are both illegal, and which would never see the light of day if they were placed in traditional media.

Which begs the question: just how did Korea’s internet ad problem get so bad?

In the first instance, it’s simply down to advertisers’ algorithms, combined with the inattention and unconcern of site owners. This was ironically and hilariously revealed by the reporting of a similar survey by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family (MOGEF) in June 2012, when many news sites displaying precisely the kinds of ads the Ministry was railing against alongside the articles about the survey. Even more spectacularly, a few weeks previously many news site editors curiously chose to pixelate the bikini tops and bras of women who had written political messages across their breasts (as in only their clothing, not the messages or exposed skin), while those in the accompanying ads were left untouched:Fast forward to April 2018, when representatives from major Korean shopping portal sites were queried by The PR News reporter An Seon-hye as to why their Facebook ads for products such as headphones and men’s shoes tended to show women with exposed cleavage and/or in their underwear first. They simply blamed the algorithms, implying that somehow those absolved their companies of any responsibility:

페이스북에서 남성 이용자들에게 노출된 쿠팡 광고 이미지 “Coupang advertisement aimed at male users of Facebook.” Image source: The PR News.
티몬(왼쪽) 및 gs샵이 sns에서 남성들에게 집행한 광고 이미지. “Images of Timon(L) and GS Shop advertisements aimed at men.” The woman on the right is Ai Shinozaki, a Japanese gravure model. Image source: The PR News.

…하지만 해당 업체들은 결코 고의성이 없다는 점을 강조했다. 티몬 관계자는 “저희 같은 경우 19금 용품 광고는 아예 노출이 안 되도록 막는 등 선정성 측면에서 신경을 쓰고 있다”며 “자동 로직으로 광고 집행이 이뤄지기에 임의로 자극적 이미지를 사용한 게 아니다”고 해명했다.

“…However, industry representatives stressed that, in the end, there is never any deliberate intention to use sexualized imagery. A representative from Timon said, ‘In our case, from the outset we do work to ensure that no adults-only products are selected to be advertised [on Facebook],’ and that ‘the provocative images that do appear are not random, but are chosen automatically by the algorithm.'”

기본적으로 특정 시간대에 특정 연령 타깃군이 어떤 상품을 많이 봤다는 데이터가 쌓이면 이를 해당 타깃에게 동일하게 추천하는 방식으로 로직이 짜여 있다는 설명이다. 이번 노출도 이같은 설정 때문에 벌어진 현상일 수는 있지만, 의도한 건 아니라는 설명이다.

“Basically, when collected data on a site suggests that a certain time is the most heavily frequented by a targeted demographic, the algorithm automatically recommends products that demographic is likely to be interested in. The same logic applies to the revealing images accompanying them, but has never been the deliberate intention [of our company.]”

쿠팡 관계자 역시 “쿠팡이 고의적으로 선정적인 광고를 남성에게 보이도록 조작하지는 않았다”며 “활용되는 이미지 역시 판매자가 올린 것을 활용한 것”이라고 밝혔다.

“A representative from Coupang also claimed that their company ‘did not deliberately manipulate ads to target men with sexualized imagery,’ explaining that ‘the images of products [available from our site] are simply taken from available sellers.’ (end)

By all means, gratuitous T&A does sometimes work, especially when those objects belong to popular K-pop girl-group members. Yet it infuriates me when some, more radical feminists—especially anti-pornography activists—start from the position that such narrow portrayals of women are an accurate reflection of most—or even a significant minority of—cishet men’s tastes; examples like these demonstrate just how disingenuous and utterly unfair that assumption is. It’s also very patronizing for companies to advertise this way, says Sejong University Professor Kim Ji-heon elsewhere in the above article, and has the potential to put men off offending brands. Accordingly, evidence of sexualization’s effectiveness on Korean consumers is mixed, one 2017 study by Yonsei University researchers (PDF, Korean) for example, discovering that young Korean men actually preferred cute to sexy female models in game advertisements (which may be problematic for other reasons, but that’s a story for another post). Also, lest we forget, not all consumers are young men, with another study from 2012 (PDF, Korean) by Sungkyunkwan University researchers demonstrating that despite soju companies specifically targeting female consumers at the time, somehow women just weren’t responding to the ensuing “sexy” advertisements.

I can’t imagine why:

Screenshots from this summer 2009 commercial for ‘Cool Soju 168’; the logic was that “168” referred to a low 16.8% alcohol content, which supposedly helped women maintain their figure vis-a-vis stronger brands. One NSFW image follows shortly.

Nevertheless, Coupang’s algorithms at least, have hardly been tweaked since The PR News report came out, as any male Facebook user in Korea can confirm. Take this advertisement I was blessed with on the subway a few weeks ago for instance:

Facebook has given me 24 hour bans for far less.

Of course, in reality, no algorithms are value-neutral, so can’t be used as an excuse. Yet, to reluctantly play Devil’s Advocate for a moment, perhaps one reason Korea’s algorithms have the settings they do is that advertisers generally lean more heavily on sex-sells tropes during recessions, and one indication of how bad Korea’s is at the moment would be its highest youth unemployment rate in two decades. Another explanation of why they tend to be sooo eye-catching is that Hangul, the writing system, lacks capitals. This, which has factored into Korean webdesign from the get-go, is why Korean websites tend to be so GIF-heavy and cluttered to Western eyes, but is familiar to and preferred by Koreans. (Japanese websites are very similar, due to similar issues with kanji and kana.) Ingrained media culture and consumer habits go some way toward explaining why Japanese and Korean advertisers over-rely on celebrities to get your attention too.

But all of these contributing factors are decades old. I first noted the alleged link to the economy ten years ago, and the numbers of smutty ads have only increased since. Korean websites have overwhelmed me with GIFs since I first started having to navigate them in internet cafes here nineteen years ago. And the over-reliance on celebrities dates back to the early-1980s, when fifteen seconds became the standard length for TV commercials.

If so many features of Korean advertising are products of ingrained culture and long-term habit then, surely this over-reliance on sexualization could be as well? So too, that it just so happens to be a very stereotypically male-gazey version of it at that?

Noteworthy in this regard is men’s domination of multiple sectors of the Korean media:

However, the Korean advertising industry is absent from that Twitter thread, and I’m personally unaware of its male-female make-up as I type this (sorry). So, let me defer to someone with inside experience: Seoul National University Associate Professor Olga Fedorenko, who conducted fieldwork in winter 2009-2010 at the agency responsible for the delightful Cool Soju 168 commercial from summer 2009 above. And in fact, in that agency at least, women made up roughly half of the employees. But it was indeed male-dominated, as no women there were above level five of the eight ranks within its internal hierarchy, “with truly managerial responsibilities [only] beginning at level six.” Also, the ensuing work-culture there could certainly be described as male-dominated too:

To assert that “sex sells”—the axiom that no one doubts in advertising and perhaps few do in society at large—was the usual way to deflect my criticisms of sexualized portrayals of women in much of Korean advertising, and women repeated that adage as eagerly as men.

Still, despite their professional embrace of the “sex code,” women showed a certain distance towards its centrality to advertising. They occasionally mocked male managers who favored sex-appeal strategies by default, “just because they like to look at pretty women,” as Chin’a put it, as she vented about wasting an afternoon the day before because her team’s Creative Director asked her to accompany him to help pick a female model for a commercial. “He said he wanted a woman’s opinion but in reality he just picked the model who he personally liked and who was flirty with him,” she said rolling her eyes in front of me and four other women as we were having lunch. Chin’a thought that the selected model was not the best choice, but the Creative Director never asked Chin’a’s opinion and even went as far as to re-schedule the shoot around the model, without consulting the convenience of other team members. Chin’a wished she had spent that afternoon working on their team’s other accounts.

Technically however, Fedorenko does not state if the same agency was responsible for the Cool soju commercial I criticized; I should have only said it “probably” was, because it was responsible for a new campaign for same product during Fedorenko’s time there a few months later. Ironically, a largely women-created and targeted, sexually-progressive, feminist, and therefore controversial one:

Which would seem to contradict the points made about work culture above. So too, that they’re from a snapshot of just one agency, and a decade old.

However, it’s also telling that there’s been almost nothing quite like that campaign in Korean advertising since, by any agency. Despite my fetish for Korean ads showing actual grown women with sexual desire and experience, I’m only aware of less than a handful produced in the last decade. Meanwhile, compared to men, women are almost 60 times more likely to be wearing revealing clothing in Korean TV commercials, a figure that is over twice as high and nearly ten times as high as their Japanese and Hong Kong counterparts respectively.

And yet, despite everything, I’m reluctant to attribute all that simply to the likely dominance of men in the industry.

Yes, we can all bet good money that the coders behind offensive internet algorithms are indeed sexist pricks. Or their bosses. Or at best, that they’re unoriginal and conservative.

But to claim that Korean ads are the way they are because men dominate the industry, is to make the assumption that most of the men within are also sexist pricks.

Hey, I’m not dismissing the possibility. In fact, I’d bet good money on that too. Given what we know about Korean ads, and that Korea has the biggest gender gap in the OECD, and comes 121st out of 193 countries in the ratio of female legislators to males, then there’s absolutely no reason to suppose that Korea’s toxic, patriarchal work culture hasn’t also infected the Korean ad industry.

But where does that accusation get us? If we want to persuade industry insiders to embrace change, what good would simply calling them sexist pricks actually achieve?

And cishet men’s sexuality, I can’t stress often enough, is so much richer and broader than its blokey, infantile stereotypes suggest. There are men of other sexualities in the ad industry too, not to mention (probably) equal numbers of women. I refuse to believe that all the admen, by definition among the most creative and artistic men in Korean society, all chose their careers based on no more than a shared dream of putting more boobs on phone screens, and that every man and woman who doesn’t share that grand vision is simply forced to acquiesce.

The issues raised in this post may even be well-recognized problems within the industry already too, but are intractable due to the influence of Korea’s patriarchal work culture as alluded to earlier, one big influence being the rigid hierarchy and visions of women and male-female relations learned before entering the industry from that vast socialization experience known as universal male conscription.

Or not: my apologies again, for lacking the money and time to translate dense Korean advertising tomes to find out. But either way, suggesting practical, actionable steps that the industry may already be receptive to does sound much more helpful than simply rolling our eyes at THE MENZ.

I think this is where we came in.

Recall that we started with the industry itself calling for more regulation. Specifically, the KIAF, responsible for the 2016 survey:

“Although there are guidelines for the level of sexuality permitted in online advertising, they lack effectiveness since they tend to be too generic and ambiguous,” said the KIAF official. “Regulations that manage such advertisements are scattered across government departments, and they need to be revamped.

A state of affairs which sounds suspiciously similar to the messy censorship of K-pop in the early-2010s:

The recent guidelines by the Fair Trade Commission are demonstrably inadequate, and laws are required instead. But considering that any limits on such a vague concept as sexualization are by definition arbitrary, then it is crucial that 1) the ensuing legislation process is transparent; 2) that implementation of the laws is consistent; and 3) that only one, preferably independent, organization has the power of censorship. Currently, that last is divided between a plethora of competing media and government organizations, and the ensuing unpredictable and often bizarre decisions ― including banning a music video for the singers driving without wearing seat belts, or allowing exposed navels on men but not on women ― have thoroughly undermined the credibility of attempts to curb the sexualization of teens in K-pop. A fresh start is urgently needed.

“Restrictions Imposed on 18+ Controversial ‘Wide Leg Spread Dance’”, April 2011. Source.

This segue into K-pop is no mere confirmation bias from a trusted source: for the body with the most responsibility for censoring K-pop then was MOGEF, which it did with a relish. As Lee Yoo-eun at Global Voices explained in 2014 (links added by me):

The censors of the ministry are notorious for accusing several thousand songs of being “hazardous” whenever they notice references to liquor, cigarettes or sex in the lyrics. Once a song is labeled as “inappropriate for youth under the age 19″ it can only be broadcast after 10:00 PM, and children are forbidden from buying it as well as from listening on the internet. Many young people get around this by using the IDs of their parents to login to Korean portal websites or watch on YouTube.

Music industry people…say it is troubling that the censorship is applied only to some randomly selected albums after they have hit the market, and not universally to every album. Many people see this as part of a new reality where the South Korean government is tightening control over citizens and free speech.

And this zealousness was in stark contrast to the complete inaction by MOGEF over smutty advertisements, despite raising the alarm in 2012 about their surging numbers as discussed. Indeed, it wanted the industry to do its own work for it instead:

여성가족부는 작년과 비교해 유해 광고는 늘었지만 법 위반 언론사들이 대폭 감소한 것을 감안해, 언론사에는 우선 자율 규제를 촉구하겠다는 입장이다. 청소년매체환경과 관계자는 “작년에 34개 언론사가 법을 위반했는데 올해에는 다 시정됐다”며 “언론사들을 직접 규제하기 보다는 인터넷신문협회 등에 자율규제기구인 인터넷신문광고심의위원회의 설치를 촉구하겠다”고 밝혔다.

“Although MOGEF points out that the numbers of harmful advertisements have increased since last year, the fact that there are actually less media companies breaking the law also needs to be taken into consideration, so first MOGEF is going ask media companies to regulate themselves. The official in the Division of Youth Media Environment continued: ‘The 34 media companies that broke the the Information and Communications Network Law last year have all since rectified their mistakes,’ and so ‘a self-regulatory system is preferable to direct regulation, and we demand that the Korean Internet Newspaper Association and so on establish an internet newspaper advertisement consideration committee.'” (end)

Further inaction still is evident from how, in the 2010-2016 period, MOGEF’s Korean Institute for Gender Equality Promotion and Education (KIGEPE) was given the task of monitoring mass media for cases of sexual discrimination, sexual prejudice, and sexual insults, but was given extremely limited resources to do so, and didn’t even cover the internet; ultimately only four cases were ever acted upon in those entire seven years. A subsequent study in 2016 found an undisclosed number of issues, of which the KIGEPE said “the results from their monitoring [had] resulted in 19 cases of corrective action [as of March 2017], insisting more education and appropriate measures need to be provided for TV show makers to achieve gender equality in the TV industry.” (More recently, this January the Korea Communications Standards Commission {KOSC} noted problems remained in variety shows specifically, without suggesting any measures to combat them.)

Yet that’s just MOGEF, which—without absolving it for its inaction—admittedly had very low resources and was in a precarious political position under previous conservative governments. If we look at the Korean media and its various overseers as a whole however, inaction over misogyny and problematic content is endemic, Korean dramas in particular being notorious for depicting dating violence as romance, but which the KOSC has washed their hands of. And don’t get me started on the media’s constant framing of the sexualization of minors in K-pop as good, clean, harmless family fun.

Source: Netizenbuzz.

In that wider context, inaction on smutty ads emerges as less the exception than the rule in the Korean media, and underpins a pervasive culture of indifference and desensitization towards degrading images and videos of (overwhemingly) women. That culture is evident in the decade-long foot-dragging in the shutting-down of Soranet, a hugely popular pornography site notorious for the sharing of hidden camera videos, as well as in the Korean #MeToo movement’s unique emphasis on punishing the purveyors of such videos, a central component in the current Burning Sun scandal. I can’t help but ultimately see links to the culture of indifference and desensitization towards sexual abuse by teachers in Korean schools too, with over 40 percent of perpetrators in the January 2013 to September 2018 period still teaching, and again only, finally, being aggressively challenged due to the Korean #MeToo movement.

Nextshark: “The School of Performing Arts Seoul, the alma mater of numerous well-known K-drama and K-pop stars, is facing co‌ntrov‌ers‌y after its former students a‌‌c‌‌cu‌‌s‌e‌‌‌d the school of c‌o‌rrup‌tio‌n and se‌x‌u‌al ‌ex‌‌pl‌oita‌‌tion of minors [through a music video].”

But perhaps it’s a too much of leap from boobs on my smartphone to tolerating “asking students for ‘sexiness’ and ‘inappropriate touches’ during school performances”?

Or not. Either way, if the government started to enforce the same standards for internet ads as it does for all other forms of pop culture, that would surely be the perfect way to find out.

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

Hyundai Fit-Shaming Korean Girls

“In the 18th century, it was often assumed…that women were incapable of rational or abstract thought. Women, it was believed, were too susceptible to sensibility and too fragile to be able to think clearly.”

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

These days, I’m generally loathe to lead with quotes. Especially when I’m forced to admit I haven’t read A Vindication of the Rights of Woman since university, and had to rely for that line on its Wikipedia article instead.

But the video below deserves the hyperbole. Because ten years ago, I wrote a post about the widespread practice of calf-reduction surgery in Korea. It really got to me, learning about the literal slicing away of muscle and nerves to make legs slimmer and more “feminine” and “attractive.”

Afterwards, the women literally have to learn how to walk again. Why, oh why, is this still a thing?

For sure, technically Hyundai isn’t promoting operations. But it is contributing to their normalization by reminding everyone that muscular calves are “ugly,” thereby discouraging schoolgirls from exercising.

Like my 12 year-old daughter, who starts middle-school in two weeks. Thanks, Hyundai.

Part of a series (#1, #2, #3, #4) for cars fitted with Hyundai’s “SmartSense” system, the voiceover for the segment with the schoolgirl says:

우리 산중턱여고 나왔잖아

3년내내 아침마다 등산한 것 기억나?

이제 다왔다 올려다보면 고지가 저~기야.

그러다 문든 내 종아리를 봤는데,

헉 다리가 이게 뭐냐?!!

Our girls’ high school was on a mountainside.

Do you remember climbing it every morning for three years?

I’ve arrived, but if I look up I’m still not at the top.

Then at the gates I happened to look at my leg…

OMG, what’s this on it?!!

Are Korean girls and women still shamed for muscular legs though? Please let me know your own thoughts and experiences in the comments. It’s been ten years, so I would just love to learn that it’s actually a very outdated stereotype, and that Hyundai is just being lazy by relying on it.

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

South Korean men lead the world’s male beauty market. Will the West ever follow suit?

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes. Photo by mentatdgt from Pexels

My email contribution to Jessica Rapp’s piece for CNN. Who told her that if you ask me about one of my pet topics, I’ll happily type away for hours, even if only a few lines will make it into the final article? Confess!

  1. What has South Korean beauty done in terms of redefining masculinity and how has that space changed?

I would argue that the South Korean beauty industry has generally been much more reactive than a driver of trends and redefinitions. In particular, while the kkotminam (lit. “flower beautiful man”) phenomenon of the mid-2000s has now become so mainstreamed as a male beauty ideal that the term has fallen into disuse, it only appears to have been an invention of the beauty industry. In fact, it was overwhelmingly the result of changing women’s tastes, who were already very much changing the public conversation about sexual norms and beauty ideals from the mid-1990s, and who were heavily influenced themselves by the influx of (surprisingly popular) homoerotic yaoi manga from Japan after a ban on their import was lifted in 1998. Also, many of the first male celebrities to be branded with the kkotminam label in fact generally rejected it, and even those that did take advantage of it still made sure to buff up and show off their bodies regularly, lest the label raise questions about their masculinity and heterosexuality.

In that vein, it is actually Korea’s prolonged economic slump, especially its jobless-driven recovery from the 2008 financial crisis, that is primarily driving male beauty trends today. Specifically, Korea now has the highest youth unemployment rate since the catastrophic Asian Financial Crisis of the late-1990s, and has always had too many graduates (Korea has one of the highest numbers of university entrance rates in the world) chasing after ever-diminishing numbers of jobs at conglomerates like Samsung and LG. In this cut-throat environment, 20 and 30-somethings are all about improving their “specs” with extra degrees, courses, internships, English-language qualifications, and so on, and the beauty industry has been quick to address the need to get a step up on the competition through improving one’s looks too. Lest this sound like exaggeration, bear in mind that Korea and Japan are the only countries in the OECD where it is routine to require photographs on resumes, and accordingly the Korean internet is full of forums where people can upload their pictures and receive constructive criticism on their appearance and photoshopping suggestions before they submit their job applications.

A selection of resume forms, seen in an Osaka Daiso last August.
  1. What role does K Pop play into the male beauty culture?

Given all the overseas media attention focused on the Korean Wave, and especially recently on the phenomenal success of the boy-band BTS, it is very easy to overlook the fact that K-pop isn’t actually all that popular in Korea itself, by any metric. Also, there are huge generational and regional differences in male beauty culture, with generally only young Seoulites embracing the new beauty trends that get all the media attention. (Overseas K-pop fans that visit Korea are often surprised and disappointed that most Korean men look nothing like their idols!).

Much more influential then, are the aforementioned job-hunting pressures, as well as men’s almost universally-shared experience of military conscription. Facing two years in the harsh wind and sun along the DMZ, these days conscripts quickly learn to become avid users of sunscreen especially. A gateway drug, if you will, to more involved and varied skin routines once they leave the military.

That said, K-pop has been a thing for over a decade now, so all Korean 20-somethings have grown-up under its influence. It is also true that Korea has a uniquely celebrity-obsessed media culture, to an extent that is difficult to appreciate without living in the country. Over 60% of television commercials feature celebrities for instance (compared to 10-20% in countries like the US and UK), and they appear on TV shows far more often than their Western counterparts. Moreover, most of the men you see when you flick the channels are indeed young K-pop stars, as their entertainment agencies have strong incentives to accept offers of endorsement deals for them, which are far more lucrative than music sales. Naturally, many of these deals are for selling male beauty products. But they are no less influential if they are in ads aimed at women instead (they have increasingly appeared even in lingerie ads for instance), as if Korean women increasingly come to demand the beauty standards and routines of male idols in their romantic partners, then ordinary Korean men will only be too eager to attempt to provide.

Given K-pop stars’ pervasive, ubiquitous presence in Korean daily life then, it is very difficult to imagine the beauty ideals they represent and advocate don’t have some influence on the Korean public, regardless of their personal music tastes!

  1. When we think of male “beauty” in Korea, are we thinking of it in the traditional way that women wear a full face of makeup? Or is the mainstream more about skin care?

The emphasis is overwhelmingly on skincare, based on their previously-mentioned, formative experiences in the military. Unfortunately though, unrepresentative Korean men that do spend lots of money and time on cosmetics are often featured in clickbaity foreign media reports about male beauty in Korea, thereby perpetuating “crazy Asian” Orientalist stereotypes.

Please note that I said spending money on “cosmetics” however. Spending significant amounts of one’s income on minor cosmetic surgery like a double-eyelid operation is very normal and mainstream for Korean men now, and is arguably considered no more or less unusual of an necessary investment in a valuable spec than in, say, the English lessons required for a high TOEFL score.

This was not always the case for Korean men though, so it’s by no means impossible that male cosmetics use will likewise become increasingly mainstreamed in the future too. My personal feeling is that most Korean men will balk at the huge amount of time, effort, and money that Korean women routinely have to spend on cosmetics, but who knows? Korea is a rapidly changing place, and Koreans love to defy foreigners’ convenient stereotypes of them.

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

Hey Women! There’s Cheese Here!

Estimated reading time: 2 minutes.

Seen in a samgyeopsal restaurant one day. It reads:

Hey women! There’s cheese here!

Hey men! There’s lots of women here!

Come in right away!

Is gendered cheese a thing in Korea though? For dieting purposes certainly, but in main meals? With rice even?

I don’t like the combination myself. So, if I see students chomping away at cheesy versions of bibimbap, kimbap, and ramyeon as I enter the university cafeterias, that tells me I’m going to have to cajole the staff into making mine without. And, after many quick head counts over the years, I’ve seen little difference in the numbers of men and women eating them.

What do you think? Was the copywriter onto something? Or would their talents and ingenuity be better served elsewhere? ;)

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