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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The results:

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

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

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

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

Source: Vippng

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

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

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

Happy 2020 everyone!


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

(Anonymous, used with permission.)

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

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

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

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

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

The Future is Now: Shin Min-a’s Dystopian Dust Mask Commercial Is Straight Out of Robocop 2

Estimated reading (+viewing) time: 3 (+4) minutes. Source: YouTube.

It’s become routine these days, trite even, to point out the many ways we are now living in the dystopias of once only imagined futures. So, when Shin Min-a’s endorsement of ETIQA dust masks came out back in February, reminding consumers there was no reason you couldn’t also look fashionable while trying to survive the climate apocalypse, I bit my tongue at the obvious resemblance to a spoof commercial from the Robocop 2 (1990) movie. Ten months later though? Again there’s much talk of fashionable ETIQA dust masks in the wake of the blinding, choking, toxic dust storms raging across the peninsula, yet a certain cyborg remains notable only for his absence. It seems this aging Generation X-er may in fact have been the only one to have made the connection.

Specifically, it was the Sunblock 5000 commercial that instantly came to mind. Because no need for the loss of the ozone layer to spoil getting that perfect tan, right?

And, with a nostalgic wink to fellow Gen X-ers, here it is in a compilation of some other spoof commercials from the first and second movie to give it some context:

In reality, without the ozone layer we’d all soon be dead; like much about the original movies (e.g., did you know the first was accidentally set in 2043?), with slightly more thought put into the commercial—as in having the voice-over claiming there was still slightly more than none of the ozone layer remaining—it would have been much more plausible. But at least, way back when I was 14, it did instill in me the first inklings of the sense that we were fiddling while Rome burned. And indeed, 30 years later, now we have a very real commercial that is in much in the same spirit.

What impact will this one have?

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

Is This “False Equivalence”?

When men are objectified, it’s often as a male-power fantasy, whereas women are usually objectified as passive objects of a cishet male gaze. Where do you think these ads for a Korean gym fit in?

I stopped outside this Jeju City gym for the terribly photoshopped, giraffe-like figure of the man alone.

Then I noticed the banner of the woman behind me, presumably aimed at encouraging female customers to join. The contrast between his cockiness and her languid pose, seductively pulling down her leggings, immediately reminded me of this classic Shortpacked comic by David Willis:

What do you think? Are these gym ads an example of false equivalence?

Technically, the guy is pulling his pants down too—which took me a long time to notice, because it feels less integral to the concept as added after the fact, unlike the woman who was instructed to pose seductively from the get-go.

Or am I just saying that because I’m a cishet guy, instinctively feeling competitive and so immediately drawn to his pecs? Whereas cishet women reading first noticed his open crotch?

Please let me know in the comments below, or on Facebook or Twitter!

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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)

“Lingerie Advertisements Deflect the Danger of Homoeroticism by Using Models with Averted Eyes.” Huh?

Estimated Reading Time: 6 minutes. Source, left (edited): Emm’s Vintage Lingerie (CC BY 2.0). Source, right (edited): Moose Photos from Pexels.

I’m a big fan of Jill Fields’ 2007 book, An Intimate Affair: Women, Lingerie, and Sexuality. It’s where I first learned of the corset industry’s creation of new body types for women to conform to in the 1910s to 1930s, presaging the Korean media, beauty, and fashion industries’ creation of “S-lines,” “V-lines,” and so on in the 2000s. But I’ve always been skeptical of this common feature of lingerie advertisements she alleges, and especially her explanation for it (page 16):

And in that Chapter 5 (p. 211):

What models do with their eyes is important. When they return your gaze, they seem to own the room. Whereas if they don’t seem to be paying attention to anything in particular, or if they’re depicted without their faces at all, the temptation to dismiss them as people and focus only on their bodies is all the greater.

It can also be a mechanism by which advertisers perpetuate stereotypes of different sexes and races. Take what Kyoungtae Nam, Guiohk Lee, and Jang-Sun Hwang discovered from their survey of Korean girls’ magazines in 2011 for instance (p. 234):

“Gender Stereotypes Depicted by Western and Korean Advertising Models in Korean Adolescent Girls’ Magazines”, Sex Roles (2011), 64: 223.

No-one’s saying models staring into space is bad in itself. Nor can advertisers of fashion and beauty-related products really be faulted for wanting to focus attention on the products, or on their alleged effects on the consumer. But if you know anything at all about advertising and gender, you’ll know that regardless of what’s being advertised, women tend to be depicted much more passively than men. And herein lies the first of two fatal flaws in Fields’ argument. For she bases her conclusions on no more than (fn. 70) an unspecified “survey of ads” in various magazines and catalogues from the 1900s to 1960s, although she also asserts that “[c]urrent issues of the Los Angeles Times provide almost daily evidence of the continuing importance of these evasive postures in ads.” Or in other words, she provides no evidence whatsoever that the tactics she describes “to dispel the homoerotic impulse” are any more prevalent in lingerie ads than in other kinds of ads, whatever period she’s talking about. And sure enough, those same tactics can quickly be found in other ads just through, say, a simple walk down the average city street. Here’s some with “women alone, turned away from the viewer” and/or averted eyes in Korean soju ads for instance:

I’ve often wondered what on Earth is Jang Yun-jeong looking at exactly…

In 2010, I discussed those and many others using Erving Goffman’s Gender Advertisements framework. Specifically, those particular ads are illustrations of one aspect of the “Licensed Withdrawal” category, as described by Images of Women in Advertising:

[One] way in which women are disempowered is by displaying them as withdrawn from active participation in the social scene and therefore dependent on others. This involvement with some inner emotional processing, whether anxiety, ecstasy or introspection, can be symbolized by turning the face away, looking dreamy and introverted, or by covering the face, particularly the mouth, with the hands….

….Rather than being portrayed as active, powerful and in charge, females are commonly shown in this licensed withdrawal mode, removed into internal involvements, overcome with emotions, or symbolically silenced with hand over the mouth….

….In another variation, females are frequently shown withdrawn inwards into some dreamy introverted state; they pose, become things for others to gaze at and desire. Males will stereotypically be shown active, engaged, and in charge of the situation. They are not so much objects for others’ to gaze at, as actors with occupations and professions….

The point being, although no motivation for these depictions is explicitly mentioned here, advertisers wanting to avoid provoking homoeroticism seems a rather unlikely one—the second flaw of Fields’ argument. Because are lingerie advertisements really so salacious, and really so sexually transgressive, that homophobia needs to be invoked to explain the depictions commonly found therein? Are they really so different to all other kinds of ads, that explanations for the depictions of women in those ads wouldn’t also apply?

I know—boobs. Maybe there is something to them that prevents (male-dominated) advertising teams and advertising standards authorities from thinking rationally. I’m not dismissing any special considerations they have for lingerie ads out of hand, and indeed Fields provides a wealth of examples of precisely those, albeit with expressions of their worries about evoking homoeroticism notable only for their absence. But she hardly persuades in addressing those alternative explanations for lingerie ads’ typical features by deliberately ignoring them. And I do mean deliberately, for in fact she does mention Goffman earlier (p. 210):

And by all means, these are things, well covered in Gender Advertisements (see my earlier post for examples from soju advertisements). But to have read the book and demonstrated that she’s taken note of those various categories of its framework, only to fail to mention that one of its largest categories—Licensed Withdrawal—already well accounts for her claims about lingerie advertisements? She doesn’t have to agree with it, but she does have to acknowledge and respond to it. Otherwise, her shoehorning of an alternative explanation evoking homophobia seems very disingenuous.

Sources: Emm’s Vintage Lingerie, left, right (CC BY 2.0).

In fact, the foundations of the whole chapter may be equally tenuous. Its title, “The Invisible Woman: Intimate Apparel Advertising” refers to the tendency of early-20th Century lingerie advertisers to show only parts of women or not at all. But reviewer Jane Ferrell-Beck argues there was actually a very practical reason for this:

And reviewer Kristina Haugland goes further, arguing that “the author’s interpretation of the material is a serious concern” of the book as a whole. She cites no examples from Chapter 5 though, so let me just leave you with her conclusion:

Words to live by as a colleague, our student assistants, and I wearily plod through our own survey of Korean women’s magazines advertisements this summer, of which this post is admittedly but an extended version of one of its footnotes. Thanks for reading 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)

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 who 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 right ahead and 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)

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)