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 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 It’s been ten years, so I would just love to learn that it’s actually a very outdated stereotype, and that Hyundai is just being lazy by relying on it.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)

“Girl-groups in Hot Pants” Isn’t a Concept That Always Sells a Product. Except When it Does. Damn.

Compared to men, women are almost 60 times more likely to be wearing revealing clothing in Korean advertisements.

Estimated Reading Time: 5 minutes. Source: @Sulllllimmmm

“I’ve seen many pictures of Seol-hyun, but I think these are the first ones I’ve ever seen that haven’t sexualized her or shown off her body.”

Me too.* Which is not to say I’m against either, of any consenting adult. Sometimes, a famous figure in tight-clothes is just what is needed to grab your attention, whatever your sex or sexuality. Especially in a commercial’s all too brief 15-second window:

But that one by Hani for Yanolja, a motel-finding app, was only successful—10 million downloads, in a population of 51 million—because it combined its celebrity face and sexual frisson with such a catchy jingle and distinctive dance. Imitated and parodied by Korean fans all summer (especially my daughters), who demanded Hani perform it on the street, in hindsight it was an obvious winner.

Or was it? Compare this 2013 commercial by Sistar for Ottogi set rice meals, which I used in a recent lecture I gave to The 11th Korea-America Student Conference. Mostly, because the incongruity of all the flesh with the actual, rather mundane product is just so jarring: were all those legs really needed, and those belonging to an expensive girl-group in particular? Also, because I couldn’t find a single news article about it from 5 years ago, in contrast to all the attention Hani’s commercial is getting today:

Sources: *cough* Ilbe

But after the presentation, thinking again about the commercial got me hot and bothered, and not in a good way. I realized my making the point with the screenshots had overshadowed the commercial itself, which I hadn’t actually seen in many years. Once I did, I realized it did have its own jingle and dance, and a sort-of chorus-girl concept which the hot pants weren’t necessarily out of place in:

Sure, neither the jingle nor dance are quite as distinctive as Hani’s, but they’re there. So, without that hindsight, who’s to say that this commercial would flop, whereas Hani’s would be a guaranteed success?

Especially as it didn’t flop, damnit. As a renewed search revealed:

또 주요 소비자층인 20~30대 남성이 선호하는 걸 그룹 ‘씨스타’를 활용한 프로모션을 전개하면서 지난해 세트밥 매출을 2012년 대비 95% 늘렸다.

“Compared to 2012, Otoggi’s promotion with the girl-group ‘Sistar’ in 2013 led to an increase of 95% in sales among the major consumer group of men in their 20s and 30s.”

The Korea Economic Daily, 5 March 2014

Well duh, although I like to think more men need more than just legs to be sold on a meal (thinking we would be is still kinda patronizing, TBH). And my next reaction was that what worked for young men in this case didn’t necessarily speak for other demographics, Korea’s brutal M-curve meaning it’s housewives that do the food shopping for most households. But with Korea’s rapidly-rising single household rate, that’s probably not the case for these convenience meals in particular. Hence:

오뚜기는 편의점 유통 물량을 늘리는 한편 자사 페이스북에서 다양한 이벤트를 진행해 소비자와의 소통을 강화했다. 이런 노력에 힘입어 오뚜기밥 전체 매출은 전년 대비 50% 이상 증가했다.

“Ottogi’s strategy of increasing sales volumes at convenience stores and strengthening its communication with consumers, such as by hosting events on Facebook, has led to its rice sales increasing over 50% compared to the previous year.”

So, my path for future lectures was now clear: to seek out new commercials and new girl-groups in hot pants, to boldly question if they really do work, where no one has questioned before. And to seek out successful Korean femvertising, or just simply those successful commercials by women wearing actual clothes. Because in the revised version of my lecture, the final slide will continue to feature the following troubling fact about Korean life, which has my daughters increasingly running for the scales rather than happily dancing being kids. I wish I was joking:

Source: News Tomato

“Females were 5.9 times more likely than males to not be fully dressed (vs. fully dressed) in Hong Kong advertisements, whereas females were 22.89 times more likely than males to not be fully dressed in Japanese ads and 56.83 times more likely than males to not be fully dressed in South Korean ads.”

Prieler, M., Ivanov, A. & Hagiwara, S. (2015). Gender representations in East Asian advertising: Hong Kong, Japan and South Korea. Communication & Society 28(1), 27-41, p. 34.

Please let me know of any examples in the comments, of either the good or the bad, and your thoughts of any of the above :)

*On the theme of shattering convenient narratives, I noticed an ad featuring a fully-clothed Seol-hyun on the same day I noticed the tweet:

Fortunately for my paranoia about conspiracies to undermine my lectures though, Seol-hyun’s ads for Dashing Diva nails do follow a predictable pattern. Er…Yay?

(0:14)

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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)

Being Able to Wear Glasses Was a Crucial Step for Korea’s Anchorwomen. Now, Let’s Give Them a Chance to SPEAK as Much as Anchormen Too.

Korean entertainment programs are notorious for perpetuating traditional gender roles, let alone for normalizing body-shaming and sexual violence. But news programs can be just as big offenders.

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes. Image source: YouTube.

Back in April, MBC anchorwoman Lim Hyeon-ju caused a sensation by being the first Korean female news anchor to wear glasses on the job, sparking a national conversation about double standards in dress codes. Shortly thereafter, the results of two studies on gender biases in the Korean media were released.

That you clicked on this post means you’re probably already aware of the Korean media’s widespread sexism. The romanticized depictions of dating violence in dramas for instance. The pervasive body-shaming. Subtitles for other languages usually depicting women talking to men in deferential speech, regardless of what was actually used by the speakers. And so on.

Yet the raw figures can still make for some alarming reading.

The first study, conducted in March by the Korean Institute for Gender Equality Promotion and Education (KIGEPE), focused on entertainment programs, the results of which can be read in The Korea Bizwire and The Korea Herald. The second, conducted in 2015 and 2017 by the National Human Rights Commission of Korea (NHRCK), covered both entertainment and news programs. About the former, it found similar results to the KIGEPE’s study. As for news programs, men and women’s roles on them were revealed to be dramatically different. I haven’t been able to find any news about the study in English however, so here’s a quick breakdown from an article at Youth Daily (청년일보):

…국가인권위원회는 한국방송학회에 의뢰해 지난해 지상파와 종합편성채널에서 방영된 드라마·뉴스·생활교양·시사토크·오락 프로그램을 대상으로 미디어 성차별 실태를 모니터링한 결과를 1일 발표했다.

…The NHRCK has released the results of its study of gender discrimination in dramas, news programs, lifestyle programs, current affairs shows, and other entertainment programs shown on public broadcast channels and cable channels last year. The study was commissioned by the Korea Broadcasting Commission.

먼저 뉴스 프로그램 앵커의 경우 오프닝 멘트와 그 날 가장 중요한 기사인 첫 다섯 꼭지를 남성 앵커가 소화하는 비율은 2015년과 2017년 모두 60%를 넘었다.

First, in the case of news program anchors, the rate in the number of occasions in which the male anchor made the opening remarks and announced all of the first five news segments exceeded 60% in 2015 and 2017 [see chart, right].

주요 아이템 소개는 남성 앵커가 맡고, 중반 이후의 아이템 소개는 여성 앵커가 맡는 경우가 많았다.

Indeed, most of the biggest, major news items of each program were introduced by male anchors, while female anchors predominated with lesser news items introduced after half-way into the programs.

앵커가 소개하는 기사의 내용도 성별에 따라 달랐다. 정치·국방·북한 관련 등 딱딱한 ‘경성’ 뉴스는 남성 앵커가 소개하고, 경제·사회·생활정보·해외뉴스·날씨 관련 등 부드러운 ‘연성’ 뉴스는 여성 앵커가 소개하는 비율이 높았다.

The contents of anchors’ articles also tended to be differentiated by sex. While male anchors would introduce news items in “hard” areas such as politics, defense, and North Korea, female anchors tended to introduce those in “soft” areas such the economy, society-related topics, day-to-day information, overseas news, and the weather.

취재기자의 경우 전체 뉴스 아이템의 64%를 남성이 보도하고, 여성은 31%만 보도한 것으로 나타났다. 기자도 앵커처럼 남성 기자가 경성 뉴스를, 여성 기자는 연성 뉴스를 보도하는 경향이 강했다.

There was a discrepancy in the sexes of news reporters also, 64 percent of all news items being reported by men, and only 31 percent by women [I don’t know why these don’t add up to 100—James]. Hard news stories introduced by male anchors were also more likely to feature male reporters, and vice-versa with soft news stories and female anchors and reporters.

인터뷰 대상자 역시 남성이 73%였고 여성은 26%에 그쳤다. 전체 대상자 중에서 남성 전문직은 20.8%였던 반면 여성 전문직은 5.8%에 불과했다.

There were big differences in the sexes of interviewees also, 73 percent being men and 26 percent being women [again, no explanation for why they don’t add up to 100 sorry—James]. In addition, 20.8 percent of the male interviewees were considered experts in their various fields, but only 5.8 percent of the female ones were.

The lack of any mention of methodology is frustrating, so please hit me up in me up in the comments section if you’d like me to dig deeper, or about anything else raised. Personally, my first impression was that however sexist the contents, fortunately the impact of traditional news is increasingly limited. Even in the US for instance, where people still watch an astonishing 7 hours and 50 minutes of TV a day, only 50% of adults regularly get news from television, most of them in older demographics. Surely in wired Korea, that figure would be far lower?

But that would be missing the point. Just because a news video is more likely watched on Facebook on a smartphone than on the 6 o’clock news on TV, doesn’t mean a traditional news organization wasn’t the most likely producer. Ergo, the differences revealed by this study still have real impacts and still need fixing, as evidenced by the scale and enthusiasm of the reaction to Lim Hyeon-ju donning her glasses.

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

In the News: Korean Celebrity, Ethnic Nationalism, and Beauty Ideals

Kim Yuna may well be the “Ad Queen” in South Korea, but the reality is that precious few female athletes have the face and body-type necessary to get noticed by Korean advertisers. Whereas for male athletes, they just have to be good at their sports.

Estimated reading time: 12 minutes. Image source: YouTube via Humoruniv.

My writing is pretty erratic these days, because reasons. Sorry about that. One of those reasons is worth mentioning though: I’ve been fielding lots of inquiries from journalists instead. Here are some of the results:

First up, from “In Pyeongchang, a surprise visit from Queen Yuna” by Nathan VanderKlippe in The Globe and Mail:

For “Korean advertisers, all their Christmases came at once when Kim Yuna became popular,” said James Turnbull, a South Korea-based author who writes about Korean feminism, sexuality and pop-culture.

By at least one measure, celebrity matters more in South Korea than elsewhere. Roughly 60 per cent of the country’s advertisements feature endorsements, some six times higher as those in the United States. Former South Korean advertising executive Bruce Haines once called the country’s advertising “beautiful people holding a bottle.”

Mr. Turnbull is critical of the unfair standards this imposes. South Korean Ahn Sun-ju was among the best golfers in the world, but South Korean advertisers said she needed plastic surgery if she wanted to appear in commercials.

Ms. Kim, however, “was tailor-made for Korean advertisements,” Mr. Turnbull said. She is “young, attractive, photogenic, a figure skater – thin, tall – whose body is the type they want.”

“The question isn’t so much why she retired so early as why she retired so late,” he added. “Because really, did she enjoy what she was doing?”

There’s lots to unpack in that short segment. Starting with giving credit to Roboseyo for the point about advertisers’ love of Kim Yu-na, who wrote that in 2009:

Kim Yu-na…is a teen-aged figure skating phenomenon out of Seoul. She’s only eighteen years old now, and she’s been kicking the crap out of the ladies’ singles category for a few years already. She’s telegenic and cute: she appears in TV commercials here in Korea and sells, better than most of Korea’s other “Best in the world/Korea at X” stars, for example Park Ji-sung (family name Park), the Soccer (that’s Football to the rest of the world) star who is holding his own impressively on Manchester United, but who’s so ugly, and un-charismatic in front of the camera, that they can only make commercials like this [long since deleted example—sorry]: keep the camera at a distance, and show him kicking stuff, because that’s the only time he looks impressive. (Notice at the end of the ad, when the close-up is as short as they can make it and still have him be recognizable, as if the camera’s afraid to get close to his face).

Catch me on a bad hair day, and I’m hardly charismatic in front of a camera myself. I’m all about widening the media’s narrow range of beauty ideals too. But it’s objectively true: even at his physical peak, Park Ji-sung’s face would never have launched a thousand ships. As a male celebrity however, his phenomenal popularity for his sporting prowess meant that advertisers still flocked to him nonetheless, especially after it became apparent he was responsible for one million new Manchester United-branded Shinhan Mastercard accounts. Add various other factors responsible for that world-high celebrity endorsement rate of 60 percent of TV commercials (see my journal article), plus—in this case—Koreans’ (in)famous toleration of blatant photoshopping, then you can hardly blame Gillette for joining his bandwagon in 2009:

Sources: Hidomin (2006), Betanews (2009).

Like Park Ji-sung, golfer Ahn Sun-ju was one of the best at her sport in Korea. Unlike Park Ji-sung, she was cursed with being a woman, which meant advertisers were very concerned about her appearance—and her body type didn’t fit their narrow requirements. Frustrated with her ensuing lack of corporate sponsorship, she ultimately chose to compete in Japan instead, where—to my shock and pleasant surprise—advertisers were more interested in her sporting achievements. As The Korea Times explains:

…[Ahn] said that when she competed in Korea, her ability as a golfer was never enough.

“Some (potential Korean) sponsors even demanded I get a plastic surgery,” she said. “Companies did not consider me as a golf athlete, only that I was a woman. It mattered most to them was whether my appearance was marketable. I was deeply hurt by that.”

Ahn her made pro debut with the KLPGA in 2006 and won six tournaments before jumping to the JPLGA. But despite her stellar play, she struggled to find a corporate sponsor in Korea.

“As you can see, I do not have a pretty face, I am not thin, I am not what you would call sexy,” Ahn said. “But does that mean I shouldn’t be playing golf?

“Japanese companies, on the other hand, focused on my ability as a golfer. They are more concerned about my performance and how I treat my fans. I am being sponsored by six Japanese companies, including a clothing brand.”

Writing in Kore in response to that article, Ethel Navales speculates that we can’t “say for certain that Ahn’s decision to move to JLPGA was due to Korea’s inability to accept her physical appearance”, and that she may have just been reacting to one negative experience, so “we certainly shouldn’t assume that the KLPGA puts those expectations on [all] their players.” But personally, I see no reason to challenge Ahn’s stated motivations for leaving. As for the KLGPA, I turned to Transnational Sport: Gender, Media, and Global Korea (2012) by Rachel Miyung Joo to learn more about its attitudes towards its female players, but unfortunately she doesn’t mention Ahn at all, focusing largely on Korean women in the (US)LGPA instead. So, while her descriptions of their Orientalist and sexualized depictions therein are fascinating, and her description of its 2002-2007 “Five Points of Celebrity” marketing drive (a.k.a. “Anti-butch Campaign”), “understood to place a large emphasis and personalities of the players rather than on their performance as athletes” (p. 153), sounds particularly relevant here, indeed we still can’t automatically assume the same of the KLPGA. But she does note that “[i]n the current media climate in South Korea, female golfers are often sexualized through sports tabloids, fansites, and advertisements” (p. 156; see Le Coq Sportif example below). Also, her description of what happened to the Korean image of predecessor Pak Se-ri, “probably the most popular athlete in South Korea at the end of the twentieth century”, is quite telling. Because after Pak left for the LGPA in 1998:

Sources: Kaikaihanno (Pak Se-ri, 1998), Yonhap (Ahn Sun-ju, 2014)

…there [was] a considerable shift in ideas of public sexuality in [South Korea]. This shift can be read in the changes to the public appearance of Pak Se-ri. She was transformed from a dowdy twenty-something golfer at her debut to the tidy player of today through a national makeover. The masculinity of Pak—her broad shoulders, strong legs, dark tan, baggy shorts, and flat short hair covered with ill-fitting baseball caps—did not detract from her initial national fame….[But] [o]ver the years, her public image has been transformed through a wardrobe redo and the use of heavy makeup. She is often featured in women’s magazines in tailored designer sportswear with highly stylized hair and makeup. In the photos, she strikes poses that emphasize her “feminine side”—taking a stroll in the wood, relaxing on a couch, playing with her dogs, or cooking in her kitchen. The transformation of a tomboyish national icon to the womanly figure of today demonstrates that, although femininity was not a requisite for her national importance, she was normalized into public femininity through the transnational circuit of images of professional golf.

“In the current media climate in South Korea, female golfers are often sexualized through sports tabloids, fansites, and advertisements.” One of many long, lingering shots of conventionally-attractive, (now) JLPGA player Lee Bo-mee in a 2016 Le Coq Sportif commercial. Source: YouTube.

In contrast, Kim Yuna shares the body type and looks of K-pop girl-group members, who are specifically chosen for their ensuing, very narrowly-defined suitability for advertising. So it comes as no surprise that, like them, the vast majority of her numerous endorsements appear to be for beauty and dieting-related products.

To note that isn’t to diminish her considerable achievements and hard work. But it’s entirely possible she would never have become such a national icon if her body didn’t fit the part. As was the case with Yi So-yeon, Korea’s first astronaut, whose treatment by netizens and the media was really quite shocking in comparison.

Finally, just for the record, the point about her retirement was actually made by Nathan, but I agreed. Also, it’ll be interesting to see to what extent the Garlic Girls’ endorsements will challenge all these body-standards for female athletes. But it’s time to move onto the (much shorter) second article.

Update, July 2018: While preparing for my interview with Nathan, I remembered that a Korean journalist had made similar comments about a female golfer in 2016, and was consciously echoing him TBH, but I couldn’t find his article at the time. Now that I’ve just relocated it though, I was surprised to learn that he was actually talking about Park In-bee, who by coincidence very closely resembles Ahn. Unlike with Ahn however, one additional factor behind advertisers’ disinterest in her may be that her family moved to the US when she was 12 (she’s now 29), and that she only competed in Korea for the first time in May this year.

Next, again for Nathan, a few days later I was quoted in “Behind Olympic death threats, a South Korean fan culture that takes speed skating seriously“,

It doesn’t help that the South Korean sense of nationalism also “stresses Koreanness through having Korean ‘blood,'” said James Turnbull, a writer and speaker on Korean culture. “This means many Koreans react the way they do because they feel like a member of their ‘family’ has been cheated.”

Admittedly, that last possibly sounds a little patronizing coming from a foreign observer. So I would have preferred Nathan had noted that it was actually my Korean friend Ji-eun that said that, attempting to explain things after I expressed my mystification at the Korean (over)reaction to the Apolo Ohno controversy in the 2002 Winter Olympic Games—which included passers-by harassing my coworkers on the streets of (normally very pleasant and friendly) Jinju. But no matter: whoever points it out, bloodlines-based nationalism is very much a thing in Korea (and Japan), and has led to such oddities as numerous apologies for and a national sense of guilt and shame over the actions of Virginia Tech shooter Seung-hui Cho in 2007, despite his having left South Korea at the age of 8 and absolutely no-one in the US considering him “Korean.”

Left: highly-recommended further reading (source: Stanford University Press). Right: “A BBC poll from 2016 of various countries, asking what the most important factor in self identity was. South Korea has the highest proportion given for ‘race or culture – 25%” (source: BBC via Wikipedia).

Next up, a week later, I was quoted by Diane Jean in “En Corée du Sud, les femmes n’ont pas d’autre choix que d’être belles” (“In South Korea, women have no choice but to be beautiful”) for ChEEK Magazine. As you can see it’s all in French, so here’s a bad translation of my contribution:

“Of course these pressures are not unique to Korea, they are found elsewhere,” says James Turnbull, a specialist in feminism and pop culture in Korea. But without having lived here, where, on a daily basis, your beautician, your teachers, your parents, your colleagues, your bosses constantly repeat to you that you have to go on a diet […], we can not realize how these pressures are particularly harsh for Korean women. “

That Korean women face body image issues will come as a surprise to nobody. But it can be difficult to convey their intensity, especially to overseas observers who are constantly bombarded with negative body image messages themselves. Probably most effective then, is to hear from the victims in person, especially overseas Koreans who frequently express their shock at the level of body-shaming they experience here compared to in their home countries. Listen to Korean-American Ji Eun-gyeong for instance, writing for Ilda South Korean Feminist Journal:

In contrast to the casual attire and revealing clothing of some of the Korean American women in the student program, Korean female students were uniformly slim, wore formal clothing to school, and always had perfectly groomed hair and makeup. I remember gawking at the female students wearing formal suits and heels at nearby Ewha University, something that was unheard of at schools in the US, where it was perfectly acceptable to go to school wearing pyjamas and looking like you rolled out of bed.

In comparison to these women, I was fatter, did not know how to put on makeup “properly,” and was relatively not well-groomed. The physical standards for Korean women were a palpable social pressure on me and the Korean American women, and despite our best efforts to “fit in,” we always fell short. We did not have the skills, energy, or time to put on full makeup, to dress formally for school everyday, nor did we have the slim body types that almost everyone around us seemed to have. Most importantly, we were not “well-behaved” women.

As Korean American women, we were unused to having so many restrictions on our movement and our bodies. One student in my exchange program was slapped for smoking in public, and another was yelled out for having lightly dyed hair. Others were reprimanded for wearing revealing or messy clothing, such as shorts with “holes” in them (shredded shorts). We talked too loudly and laughed too hard. Because of these and the daily judgments about our physical appearance that left us lacking, most of the women in our program felt a demoralized and degraded while we were in Korea. The policing of our bodies was limited to Korean Americans, because we were being compared to Korean women, while the foreign women were help up to different standards.

In contrast, the Korean American men in our program had less restrictions on their dress or their physical appearance. While they were subject to some pressures – ie, having clean-cut haircuts and not being able to wearing shorts – they were subject to less judgment about their bodies than the foreign women.

Admittedly she was writing about 1994, but you don’t need me to tell you that very, very little has changed for the next generation. That is also indicated by the following damning statistics, collected in these slides for my lecture on body image for my “Gender in South Korea” course at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies last summer:

Statistic from “Explaining Underweight BMI and Body Dissatisfaction among Young Korean Women” by Tess Hellgren (2012). Screenshot: “Street Interview – Are you fat? (Asking Korean girls)당신은 뚱뚱한가요? Nicki Minaj VS Yoona” by Joo Won.Statistic from: “18% of Young Women Found to Be Underweight“, anonymous, The Chosun Ilbo (2014).
(Link to Georgia Hanias’s 2012 Marie Claire article in the slide, plus another one to an interesting critique.)

Finally, there was one more interview after that, but I was completely edited out of the article when it was finally published last week. I’ll wisely spare you my rant though, only mentioning it as a final excuse for the delay in posting. So too, that I also did a long podcast interview in March, which will hopefully be coming out in the next couple of months.

Any thoughts? About any of the articles? :)

Related Posts:

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

The Surprising Reason Koreans Don’t Buy Red Underwear for Valentine’s Day

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes. Image sources, edited: Summer Yolo Shop, KoBiz.

Go clothes shopping in East Asia at the moment, and it seems impossible to avoid all the red underwear. But it’s not because of Valentine’s Day. It’s because red is considered a lucky color by the Chinese, and the Lunar New Year’s celebration is just around the corner.

Unlike loud red clothes, red underwear will suit any wardrobe. Those whose Chinese Zodiac falls in the coming year for instance, when ironically they’ll need extra luck, can don it without revealing their age. So too Mahjong Players in Macau, who hope to leave their opponents seeing a different kind of red.

All these associations explain why “Triumph, the biggest underwear-maker in Asia, says its sales of red items are usually ten times higher than usual in Singapore and Malaysia around the Lunar New Year,” according to the following 2015 BBC report (0:35):

But it’s not just those countries with large Chinese populations that fall for red—Japanese stores also have big promotions. And Valentine’s Day can still be a very big deal: as the then Director of Triumph, Doy Teo above brightly noted, Lunar New Year’s fell very close to Valentine’s Day that year, making red underwear not just a good romantic gift. They will be even closer together this year.

Buying red on such an occasion seems a natural fit for young Korean consumers especially. Consider how Valentine’s Day has already been expanded into 11 other monthly holidays on various romantic themes, each with their own colors. Other non-native holidays, most notably Christmas, are not so much family occasions as rare opportunities to escape parents and spend time with partners or friends. “Couple clothes” are popular, and worn all year-round. Red is the color of the “Red Devils” soccer supporters, who the Korean media already portrays as young women in red, skimpy clothing. And in particular, red has many of the same lucky connotations in Korean culture too. As explained by Jang Jang-sik, Research Institute Director at the National Folklore Museum of Korea, it’s traditionally been worn by soldiers or those doing something dangerous, gifted to students doing exams, and there is a folk belief that it helps women who are finding it difficult to conceive a son:

국립민속박물관 장장식 학예연구관은 “전쟁이나 위험지역으로 떠날 때나 도박판에 갈 때도 붉은 속옷을 입는다”며 ” ‘수험생이 붉은 속옷을 입거나 지니고 있으면 합격한다’ ‘아들을 못 낳는 여자가 아들을 낳은 여자 속옷을 입으면 아들을 낳을 수 있다’는 속설도 있다”고 했다.

Chosun Ilbo, 7 March 2009.

There’s also a tradition of buying it for good luck from newly-opened stores. It rapidly sold out at the opening of Shinsegae’s Centum City branch in Busan in 2009 for instance, as well as at the opening of the Hyundai Department Store in Pangyo, Seongnam in 2015 (below), and at the re-opening of a Lotte Mall in Busan last July (video below):

Source: Korean Fashion + Tex News

Where then, is all the red underwear for lovers this Valentine’s Day?

To everyone’s relief, I have not done extensive field research in Korean lingerie stores to confirm its absence. The stores’ websites however, display no more red underwear than usual, nor do they have any red-themed promotions. Also, unlike couple outerwear, couple underwear has always been relatively expensive and limited in options in Korea, as I discovered before one frustrating anniversary recently. As friends later pointed out, if something’s only for each other to see, then what on Earth is the point?

But if lingerie stores are not even bothering to offer much in way of red at all, on a combined Lunar New Year’s and Valentine’s when it should sell more than ever, there must be some alternative, non-romantic connotations that the color has in Korea.

A tradition of buying red lingerie for one’s mother would certainly fit the bill.

I first learned about this via an inquiry made to the Korea Studies Mailing List by Ron Lieber, a journalist for the New York Times:

…I write the Your Money column for the New York Times — all about anything and everything that hits you in the wallet. I write often about families and money — how not just dollars but also wisdom and values are taught and passed between generations.

On that note, over the years Korean-American friends of mine have told me about a tradition where new college graduates (or teenagers or college students or even some older adults getting their first paychecks at a new, prestigious workplace) buy a gift for their parents after they start their first full-time jobs. I’ve heard about everything from handing the entire paycheck over in cash to buying red thermal underwear for both parents or lingerie for their mothers.

And I was further intrigued by the answer provided by Dr. Barbara Wall, then Research Assistant in Korean Studies at the Asien-Afrika-Institut in Hamburg:

…if you search for first salary 첫월금+ present 선물 many of the results you get mention red underwear 빨간 내복. I am no underwear expert, but what people say is that the custom of wearing “modern” underwear in Korea started only in the 1960s at which time underwear was a luxury item. Dyeing nylon at that time was not easy and worked best with red. That is said to be the reason for the red underwear as symbol of filial piety. Red is also said to have the ability of blocking everything “evil”…

Stephen Redeker at Gwangju News adds:

There is an old saying that one should buy red “long johns” for one’s parents after receiving the first paycheck from your first job. People tend to give other gifts to show appreciation to their parents, but the red long johns have an explanation. Back in the day, when floor heating was not as prevalent as it is now, people wore long underwear at night. Red-colored underwear was more expensive than the other drab colors offered at the time and therefore more desirable. Anyone who still observes this belief will probably buy red boxers, briefs, bras or panties for their parents.

Numerous Korean sources confirm. In addition to the information provided in the video below (apologies to region-blocked Korean viewers), it’s interesting to note that in 2009, over a quarter of respondents would buy red underwear for their parents upon receiving their first paycheck.

But is this still the case in 2018? Another source argues that it’s outdated, as parents’ memories of freezing winters and 24/7 thermal underwear-wearing in the 1960s and ’70s fade. This association with the middle-aged and elderly is evident in Japan too.

We must address the red elephants in the room too. “Underwear” is a wide-ranging term. Buying red thermal underwear for your parents, or long johns, is a far cry from buying sexy lingerie for them; as the Korean sources suggest, I’d wager children’s gifts are almost entirely the former. Also, even in Hong Kong, where the latter is supposedly all the rage, less than 1% of Chinese female undergraduates actually preferred that bra color:

Source: Sujoung Cha and Kristina Shin, “Hong Kong Chinese Breast Cathexis and Brassiere Design Preferences”, The Research Journal of the Costume Culture. 2011. Aug, 19(4): 780-793.

I also couldn’t help but notice that 60% preferred black. Because in An Intimate Affair: Women, Lingerie, and Sexuality (2007), although author Jill Fields frustratingly doesn’t mention red at all, she does have a groundbreaking (albeit controversial) chapter on the connotations of black lingerie in the US, which she tied to stereotypes of African-Amercian hypersexuality. Not only do those obviously not apply to Hong Kong however, but Chinese lingerie-makers themselves boggle at the differences in consumer preferences between borders. Which suggests it’s misguided to assume Pan-Asian similarities in tastes:

Guanyun workshops operate their own online stores in addition to producing wholesale stock for other brands. They are increasingly looking to sell overseas, which now only accounts for about a tenth of the county’s yearly output. But understanding the preferences of foreign customers remains an obstacle, according to [lingerie manufacturer] Lei. “There’s a huge gap in the aesthetics of different countries,” he explains. Sexy cop costumes are popular in Brazil, which Lei says is because Brazilians don’t like the police; French maid costumes don’t sell well in Poland because, he theorizes, the two countries don’t have a good relationship; and Japanese customers love any and all seductive outfits. The lingerie tastes of most European countries — except France and Italy — are still riddles to him. “Every collection that we deliberately designed has failed in their markets,” Lei says. “Germany borders France, right? But their taste is the most difficult thing for me to figure out.”

“Unzipping China’s Lingerie Capital,” Sixth Tone.

What do you think then, does explain Koreans’ distaste for red underwear this Valentine’s? Lingering unsexy associations with parents? Associations of red with the psuedo-communist North? Or some other reasons? Please let me know in the comments!

Related Posts:

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