“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 by 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 (The Korea Economic Daily, 5 March 2014):

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.”

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 housewives likely purchase the vast majority of foods 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, which has my daughters running for 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. 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)

Teaching Public Safety Through Objectifying AND Slut-Shaming Women Was a Bizarre Low, Even for Korea

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes. Image source: YouTube

The first time I watched the TVs on the KTX, Korea’s high-speed train, I wondered if graphic footage of insects eating each other was really the best way to showcase Korea’s glorious flora and fauna to tourists.

Fourteen years later, now I’m not so much fazed by this curious peccadillo of KORAIL’s, as eagerly look forward to the latest installment in these Boschian tragedies to entertain myself with on my trips to Seoul. And, it has to be said, they make a lot more sense than this safety campaign featuring women in bikinis did that I noticed last summer:

Fortunately, people with backbones complained, resulting in its removal and likely replacement with the same old invertebrate snuff films, as I’ve just learned from the following article:

“비키니 입으면 노출증?”…한수원 공익 광고 ‘성 상품화’ 논란 “Wearing a Bikini is Exhibitionism?” Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power Public Service Commercial Causes Controversy Over Sexual Objectification

Chosun Biz, September 20 2017

한국수력원자력이 성을 상품화한다고 볼 수 있는 공익광고를 KTX와 서울 지하철 등에서 방영해 논란이 되고 있다.

A public service commercial by Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power (KHNP) that has been playing on the KTX train and Seoul subway has led to some controversy over its sexual objectification.

20일 한수원과 코레일 등에 따르면 한수원은 최근 신고리 5·6호기 공론화가 진행되는 동안 원전과 관련된 홍보를 중단하기로 결정하며 기존에 계약한 광고 시간에는 지난 2015년에 만들었던 공익광고를 내보내고 있다.

According to [a KHNP official earlier today], KHNP and KORAIL [the national railway operator], KHNP decided to halt public relations efforts related to nuclear power plants while a public consensus was being sought on the fate of reactors Shin Kori 5 and Shin Kori 6 [at Kori nuclear power plant, close to Busan.] Three preexisting public service commercials made in 2015 were put in their place.

이 광고는 “당신은 상식적인 사람인가요. 다음 영상에서 비상식적인 점을 찾아보세요”라는 말로 시작된다. 이후 해수욕장에서 여성 3명이 겉옷을 벗어 던지고 비키니를 입은 채 바다로 뛰어드는 장면이 이어진다. 이 때 여성들의 모습은 슬로우모션으로 처리되며 몸매가 부각된다. 이후 자막으로 ‘무엇이 잘못되었을까요?’라는 자막이 나온다.

In the offending example, the text begins with “Are you a sensible person? Try to find what’s out of place in the following video.” Next, three clothed women on a beach run to the water, throw their clothes off, then jump into the waves in the bikinis that they were wearing underneath. While this is happening, the women’s bodies are focused on and [later] put into slow-motion, followed by the caption “What was wrong?”.

(James—Actually, the video did linger but technically didn’t slow-mo over the women’s bodies, and ended with “Did you find it?”, as the screenshot in the article also shows.)

이어 한 여성은 “아이들이 앞에서 막 벗는 것?”이라고 답한다. 또다른 한 남성은 “흐흐흐”라고 웃으면서 고개를 좌우로 흔들기도 하고, 또다른 여성은 “노출증?”이라고 말한다. 이후 광고 자막에는 “그것도 맞지만, 더 중요한 것은 이것”이라며 수영을 하기 전에는 준비운동을 반드시 해야한다고 알린다.

After that, one woman suggests “Was it getting undressed in front of children?”. Next, a man shakes his head left and right and laughs, then another woman suggests “Is it exhibitionism?”. Then, the text reads “Those are correct, but there’s something more important,” before revealing that it was that the women should have warmed up before swimming.

(James—Yes, really. It then shows the women doing precisely that instead, with the caption “No common-sense is more important than that to do with safety.”)

한수원의 유튜브 계정에는 해당 광고 영상에 대해 “화창한 날씨. 넓게 펼쳐진 바다와 예쁜 백사장. 평화로운 시간을 보내던 가족들 사이로 갑자기 젊은 여성 무리가 나타나 다른 이들의 시선은 아랑곳하지 않고 옷을 훌렁훌렁 벗어 던집니다. 여기서 가장 비상식적인 부분은 무엇일까요?”이라고 설명되어 있다…

In the description of the advertisement on YouTube, it says: “Sunny weather, a wide open ocean, and a pretty white sand beach. A family enjoying the peace is suddenly disturbed by a throng of young women undressing without thinking of anyone else around them. What is out of place here?”

(James—And then, after giving more information about why KHNP had to start running 2015 commercials, a spokesperson explaining the organization wanted to stress public service rather than be seen to be showing favoritism to nuclear power, the article continues:)

…하지만 일각에서는 이 광고가 여성 입장에서 불편하게 느낄 수 있다는 지적이 나온다. 직장인 이지은(27)씨는 “해수욕장에서 비키니 수영복을 입은 여성들이 왜 노출증이라고 비난받아야 하는지 공감이 가지 않는다”라면서 “비키니 입은 여성들을 본 남성이 음흉한 웃음을 짓는 것도 성적 대상화를 하는 것 같아 불편하다”고 말했다.

…Yet it has been pointed out that the situation depicted is uncomfortable for women. Lee Ji-eun (27), an office worker, argued “I have little sympathy for a commercial that says women should be criticized for exhibitionism simply for wearing bikinis or swimsuits at a beach,” adding “It’s already uncomfortable enough for women wearing bikinis to be sexualized and smirked at by men.”

대중음악평론가 서정민갑씨는 자신의 페이스북 계정을 통해 “왜 공익광고에 젊은 여성의 몸매를 관음하고, 그들은 준비운동도 안하고 바다로 뛰어드는 신중하지 못한 존재 역할을 전담하는가”라고 지적하기도 했다.

A popular music critic, Seo Jeong-min, asked on his personal Facebook “Why does the ad so voyeuristically use women’s bodies this way, and why is it young women that are placed in the role of being foolish, thoughtlessly running into the sea without warming-up first?”

한수원 관계자는 “2015년 제작 당시 각 방송사 등에서 문제가 없다는 판정을 받았기 때문에 괜찮다고 판단하고 광고 영상을 상영했다”면서 “여성을 희화화한다는 지적이 있어 광고를 중단할 예정”이라고 덧붙였다.

The KHNP spokesperson explained “No problems with the advertisement were noted when it is made in 2015, which is why we decided to use it.” However, “due to the way women are depicted in it, we will discontinue it.” (End.)

As explored in great depth on this blog, the Korean media and government have a long tradition of sexualizing and/or sexually-objectifying young women for public causes, particularly of girl-groups for the military, so the complaints about this example came as a pleasant surprise. Was it because it was just so inane, and so egregious? Or was it the hypocritical slut-shaming that pushed viewers over the edge? Please let me know what you think 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)

Free The Nipple in Korea? Why Not? Uncovering the history of a taboo

Earlier this month, the Korean media ignored a Free the Nipple event held by Womenlink. This lack of coverage is just one reason why the campaign may struggle to take-off in Korea. But stranger things have happened. Once, men too were forbidden from exposing their chests in public. As Korean summers get hotter and drier, soon these double-standards may seem as absurd as no-pants laws and the skirt-length police.
(Source: @womenlink)

Boobs don’t get much love in Korea.

If they’re larger than average, their owners are often criticized for flaunting their femininity, and stereotyped as sexually voracious. Those same women also struggle to find comfortable, attractive bras that will fit them.

This, despite Korean women’s breasts getting larger for decades as Koreans’ diets have changed.

Of course, women the world over struggle with these issues. But it’s not just size, it’s exposure in general, and standards in Korea are that much stricter. As I’m no Picasso explains:

“Base line standard in Korea: If you are showing even the tiniest centimeter of a crack of cleavage, you are not dressed appropriately for work. Shoulders are also largely taboo, although we have noticed this changing a bit this past summer. Even too much exposed skin on the chest above the cleavage mark can be considered risque.

It’s a pain in the ass for girls with larger chests, because it’s really difficult to find garments that won’t show any cleavage, no matter what position you are in. I’ve also had to take to having an army of undershirts on hand, in order to be sure that not even the shadow of a bra can be seen…”

That probably explains why, per capita, more Korean women plump for breast reductions than enlargement or lifting operations. Also, why bust-reducing bras are so popular, despite Northeast-Asian women’s genetic tendency to have much smaller breasts than—for want of a better catch-all term—Western women. I suspect why braletteswhich can only be really worn by women with small breasts—haven’t been available in Korea either, as Korean women may not have considered them concealing enough. (Although this recent campaign to start producing them has been very successful, and this Japanese-sourced one is also making waves.)

In the midst of this, the Korean media and K-pop industries occupy ambivalent positions. On the one hand, the latter stumbled onto a strategy of emphasizing female performers’ legs instead, considered a “safer” body part in Korea and its Asian markets (well illustrated by this classic cartoon, and the surprising modesty of these “sexy dances“), which simultaneously sexualized the girls and women while deflecting criticism. On the other, the entire industry is centered around securing endorsement contracts with the advertising and beauty industries, which have vested interests in creating new markets through encouraging bustier, more revealing beauty standards.

Image Source: Rok Kim. Anonymous source (quoted with permission): “What are you, ladies? Personally I am 가슴 B컵 for Boobs Are Great In All Sizes and 얼굴 F급 for Fucks Given About Your Opinion Are Zero.” (Advertisement Caption: Breasts, D-cup; Face, A-grade.

But these are all necessary generalizations. The reality is messy, undercut by age, class, marital status, motherhood, occupation, and region. Every morning while working on this post, the range of women’s fashions and levels of exposure I witnessed even just on the subway would defy any of the neat conclusions I’d arrived at the night before.

So, two weeks of pondering nipples and breasts later, as one does, the only generalization I’m still confident of making is that all women suffer from the inconveniences—and, ultimately, the dangers—of the double standards of men’s and women’s fashion.

Most of the negative effects I’m aware of have been covered in those earlier links. But I also happen to be a guy, so I would appreciate female readers’ input. One I didn’t know about for instance, because I don’t shop for women’s clothes, one anonymous woman told me:

“When I came back here 5 years ago, I was shocked because…dresses and/or skirts were way too short in general even when they were meant for the ‘office look’. When you buy clothes online, often the pictures are very misleading because companies often use very petite models so dresses/skirts look something of a normal length. I’ve learned it hard way and started to double-check the length. Nowadays I tend to stick with only a few sites when I shop my work clothes. I should probably start exploring offline stores again.

I don’t mind sporting short skirts/dresses every now and then when time & place is right—I just don’t wanna be surprised when I expect to receive something in a normal length for my work.”

Continuing, I’ve just been wearing short-sleeved shirts to work for the last month, and just long-sleeved shirts before that. In contrast, as a Womenlink activist wrote on her placard at the event (see below), women always have to wear unventilated padding to hide their nipples; to wear bras to hide their breasts; to wear vests to hide their bras; and to wear t-shirts to hide their vests.

No wonder my very well-developed, very active 11 year-old daughter is so reluctant to make the transition from her flimsy training bras. Fortunately though, her school has no uniform, whereas many schools that do have one end up slutshame their female students and forcing them to wear such uncomfortable clothing.

Even more alarmingly, in one 2013 survey of Korean police officers, over half considered revealing clothing to be a cause of sexual assault (indicating little had changed from back in 1996). To those who would make fun of and dismiss Free the Nipple and Slutwalk campaigns in response to such attitudes, and continue to police women’s bodies so unfairly, I’m genuinely curious as to where they would draw the lines. Especially if they claim to still support women’s rights. For to whom else but misogynists, could so much shame and blame hinge on an exposed bra strap or visible nipple?

“I dropped a lot of money on a nice bra…one with frills and made of lace, not like all my other ones that I bought from Uniqlo.” / “Minju! You can see your entire bra! Don’t wear a white t-shirt!” Source, above and below: @bambooblock)
“But what about her? That’s the fashion!!” / Fashion you say… / Jeez… [put this on].” Ironic coincidence: this picture of Korean duo Love X Stereo appeared in my Facebook feed as I was translating!

But where did these attitudes come from? Again, the question is more difficult than it appears, and there’s no handy introduction akin to Laura Miller’s “Mammary Mania” chapter in her excellent book on Japanese body aesthetics.

So, I spent most of those last two weeks laying the framework for what may be my own equivalent chapter on Korea someday. Allow me to present the fruits of that research, in the form of themes and trends I’ve identified that any answer must cover, as well as some highlights from new sources I’ve discovered (please let me know if you have any difficulty obtaining copies of the journal articles). As you’ll soon see, there’s a lot of things to consider, and it can be very difficult—even naive and counterproductive—to separate nipple and breast exposure from taboos surrounding other body parts:

For a discussion of late Joseon Dynasty art, notions of eroticism, and dress codes, as well as a great introduction to a painter who turned out to be quite a maverick and social commentator for his time, see Saehyang P. Chung’s “Sin Yunbok’s Women on Tano Day and the Iconography of Common women Washing Clothes by a Stream,” Oriental Art, vol. 47, no. 5 (2001), pp. 55-69. For instance, consider Chung’s description of Women on Tano Day, painted at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries (p. 56; my emphasis):

“[Most striking of all] is the provocative portrayal of semi-nude bathers in the lower left-hand corner, where a woman stands sensually, her face turned in the direction of the beholder. Equally daring is the inclusion of two young monks, who observe the bathers with unequivocally frank poses and facial expressions…Considering that even in the West, the female nude in a contemporary setting—devoid of classical or biblical context (e.g. Diana or Susanna in Her Bath)—did not appear until the 19th century, the representation of bathing women in Sin Yunbok’s painting is all the more remarkable.

(Source: Wikipedia)

You may have noticed that the working woman carrying a load on her head is fully-clothed, but has her breasts exposed. This is because, as explained by Hyung Gu Lynn in “Fashioning Modernity: Changing Meanings of Clothing in Colonial Korea” in the Journal of International and Area Studies (2004; pp. 77-78):

“…during the Chosôn period, clothing was not a unifying medium for all Koreans, but rather a means of social differentiation. Considerable scholarly energy has been directed to the study of the regulations that governed what clothes and colors could be worn by [whom]. The results show, for example, that it was only women of the upper class who wore long coats and head covers called chang-ot when venturing outside. In contrast, commoner women who worked outdoors often wore short chôgori [blouses], which left their breasts exposed for ease in nursing their babies.”

In light of the symbolic and unifying role the hanbok plays for most Koreans today, unfortunately there has been considerable opposition to acknowledging that “uncivilized” aspect of Korean fashion history. For more on the controversy, see “The Bare Facts” by Robert Neff and “Time to sex up Hanbok” by Andrew Salmon at the Korea Times, this AskHistorians thread at Reddit, the comments to this well-known photograph from 1945 (update: also, the comments to this 1920s breastfeeding postcard), “Joseon girls gone wild” at ZenKatsuo, and From Fukuoka for more photos.

For a bare-breasted photography series inspired by—and in some cases directly replicating—Sin Yun-bok’s painting, see The Hanbok Project by photographer Kim Jung-nam and hanbok designer Lee Young-hee.

• In the chapter “Female Images in 1930s Korea: Virtuous Women and Good Mothers” in Visualizing Beauty: Gender and Ideology in Modern East Asia, ed. by Aida Yuen Wong (2012), Yisoon Kim notes that women were infrequently depicted in Korean art, even compared to other Confucian societies, but the new “Paintings of Colonial Women” genre exemplified by Sin Yun-bok briefly changed all that. What she writes about the anonymous picture on the left below however, contradicts the notion that breasts were not at all eroticized, a notion further corroborated by “firm breasts” being included in contemporary lists of beauty ideals (p. 93.):

(Sources: Naver, Daum, Vosub. On the right is a poster for the fanciful 2008 movie Portrait of a Beauty, which re-imagines Sin Yun-bok as a woman in disguise.)

“…[this left] picture recalls Sin Yun-bok’s style except for the absence of ornate hair accessories. Donning a short skirt, which tantalizingly reveals the breasts, the woman lifts one hand to adjust her hairdo. Although the hanbok is designed to fully cover the body, these paintings expose the flesh in strategic places. Sin’s picture [in the center] includes a silver knife, a traditional symbol of chastity, hanging from the shirt as a reminder of the sexual potential of the image. [Paintings of this genre] facilitated carnal fantasy. They could be made to hang on walls like Western pin-ups or portable scrolls for the convenience of private viewing, presumably at men’s leisure.”

Perhaps it was the elite status of the women depicted that made all the difference? Or, if the women depicted were actually low-status gisaeng, because of the novelty of seeing them bare-breasted, as opposed to commoners?

As Hyung Gu Lynn goes on to explain in her article, the adoption of Western clothing during the colonial period also had important class components, as well as becoming tied to anti-colonialism and nationalism. It’s difficult to understand the rise of—and misogyny against—the “New Woman” and “Modern Girl” ideals without those, so it’s worth quoting her at some length (p. 87, my emphases):

“[In addition to modernization bringing] increasing numbers of women out the house and into public spaces…the diffusion of technologies of visual reproduction and the development of the culture of tourism allowed for more men to consume more images of women, further multiplying the number of meanings embedded in a given piece of clothing.

Although increasing numbers of urban men wore Western-style suits, the changes in women’s clothing occurred at a far slower pace. The transition for women from Chosôn period ch’ima [skirt] to the “improved ch’ima” with the shorter skirt hem and the longer tops meant that the visual distinction between upper class women who had hidden under the chang-ot and the common women with exposed faces and breasts was eliminated. However, in the place of the exposed breast as a marker of commoner status, the degree of calf exposure became one of the indicators of female proximity to capitalism and modernity—more leg, more modern.

Students and workers were encouraged to wear shortened skirts and longer tops for their purported practicality in the more mobile world, but the exposed calf sparked heated debate over its sexual implications…The increased visual presence of women in public and the diffusion of romantic love imbued clothing with heightened sexual meaning.”

And (p.88):

“New styles of clothing which exposed more skin, legs in particular, influenced ideas of beauty that extended and encompassed to the shape of the female body. By the mid-1930s, articles on beautifying calisthenics for women that would not appear so out of place in twenty-first century magazines were appearing in the mass publications…Other articles introduced the proper way to put on makeup, what to wear for which occasions, and how to behave in the “modern life,” further supplementing the new definitions and ideals of beauty and grace. The changes in clothing clearly helped shape the sexual meanings imbued in various body parts, providing further evidence that the eroticized body parts and ‘proper’ areas of skin exposure changes with culture and time.

Developments in visual technology and tourism added to the intensified sexuality of clothing. Magazines, movie posters, and postcards distributed consumable images of women in various styles of dress…The complete covering of the female breast in the colonial period gradually eroticized what had previously been merely regarded a body part. The tourist and travel literature usually contained images of kisaeng in P’yôngyang, but in the late colonial period, the women sea divers in Cheju Island became increasingly popular subjects for postcards and photographs, usually pictured with their breasts exposed.

The ‘traditional’ ch’ima chôgori, which may have been the only clothes a Korean woman owned, or consciously wore as a symbol of resistance to colonial rule or as a reflection of class and status, could be perceived merely as an exotic costume by the unknowing male gaze. The multivalency of each piece of clothing allowed the ‘traditional’ female dress to symbolize Korean identity, and at the same time distend the exotic allure of travel in Korea by promising different vistas and enticing females to the male (predominantly Japanese) tourist.”

(Sources: Sturmgeschutz, OhmyNews. Left image is actually of Busan divers.)

Many years ago, I read that older Korean men (and women?) fondly remember those photos of semi-nude Haenyeo (Jeju divers) from when they were children, taken before the divers began wearing wetsuits in the 1950s and 1960s. Unfortunately, I’ve long since lost the source, so it was good to find indirect confirmation in Hyung Gu Lynn’s article. Actual examples of those photographs however, remain surprisingly difficult to find online, the vast majority actually being of Ama divers in Japan. But they’re out there. The one on the left below for instance, is part of a romanticized series from the 1950s according to the source, although the costumes are authentic; that later one on the right, very likely taken for a Jeju postcard, is much more modest, but remains a good example of glamorization and sexualization.

(Sources: 유자향내를 따라서, hansoo7007)

Yisoon Kim provides a good summary of why a new trend of portraying “virtuous” women then arose, with depictions of breastfeeding in particular becoming the main subjects of paintings for the first time (p. 91):

“…[the 1930s were] the height of colonialism, when conservatism and progressiveness coexisted…Fine artists tended to depict the opposites [of the much-criticized Modern Girls], that is, virtuous women who demonstrated chastity and sexual restraint. Modernization was underway…but unfavorable economic conditions inside and outside the country made Koreans wary of change. [Under the conditions of the Great Depression and coming war], the colonized and impoverished Korean nation took comfort in the idea of women carrying out their motherly duties and grooming the next generation for a more prosperous future.”

In a previous chapter, “The Modern Girl as a Contested Symbol in Colonial Korea”, Yeon Shim Chung notes that other reasons for the adoption of the virtuous mother as a nationalist symbol include the facts that most of the new beauty products for the Modern Girls and New Women—as well as the original ideals themselves—came from Japan. Indeed (p. 82):

“Commerce and feminism intersected with colonialism in controversial ways. Korea’s access to Western goods was one vehicle for Japan to prove its utility as a civilizer and modernizer. As voracious consumers of these goods, Modern Girls inadvertently participated in Korea’s colonial subordination to Japan, which entailed [heavily] promoting [to both Koreans and to the West] progressive images of Japan while denigrating Korea as a remote, pre-industrial land…”

Which may have included bare-breasted women in hanbok, as the comment threads linked to earlier suggest, and why many Koreans’ understandable first reaction to seeing them is to dismiss them as Japanese propaganda.

• Most ordinary women entering the newly-created jobs open to them, of course, had no time for men’s criticisms of their newfound professional and sexual freedoms, or the shoehorning of their consumer purchases into narratives of nationalist betrayal. Indeed, as Young Na Kim describes in “Being Modern: Representing the ‘New Woman’ and ‘Modern Girl’ in Korean Art“, Western clothes became the norm by the 1930s (p. 222) “…not because they signified modernity, but because they were practical and comfortable.” Also, and in particular, further examples she gives caution against tendencies in previously mentioned sources that neatly categorize trends and depictions into the decadent 1920s vs. the virtuous 1930s (p. 238):

“One of the characteristics of the Modern Girl was her consciousness of her body. There were now attempts to freely express the physical strength or beauty of woman’s body. Nude paintings, which once were banned from being shown in public, now could be displayed at an exhibition with no restrictions, but they were still depicted in the setting of the artist’s studio. However, there is a photograph of famous dancer Choi Seong-hee [left, below] in 1931 which reveals that she exposed her body half naked in a public performance, as if to declare the freedom of the body. Kang Dae-sok’s photograph of a female nude [the first nude photograph in Korea; right, below] should be also noted in this context, in her stretched posture facing toward the sky as if to embrace the whole world, breaking away from the passive reclining or standing nude form.”

(Sources: knnews, 술취한★북극성)

• Moving rapidly to the postwar era, two easy guides I recommend on the transition to the full adoption of Western-style clothing are: Sunae Park et. al., “The Process of Westernization: Adoption of Western-Style Dress by Korean Women, 1945-1962” in Clothing and Textiles Research Journal, Vol. 11, Issue 3, 1993, which has more on the practical considerations behind the shift, and Karlyne A. Anspach and Yoon Hee Kwon, “Western Dress Styles Adopted by Korean Women” in Home Economics Research Journal, Vol. 4, No.4, June 1976.

Next, there is the oft-mentioned mini-skirt fever prompted by singer Yoon Bok-hee, hemlines reaching a peak of 30cm above the knee in 1968. But in my opinion, the liberalization of Korean clothing and attitudes then is exaggerated. While more revealing imagery from the period tends to stick out, it may not be representative, not unlike the aforementioned wide gap between the busty ideals promoted by the Korean media and ordinary Korean women’s attitudes today. Also, not only was Yoon branded a “public enemy” for her bravado, and had eggs thrown at her the very same day she revealed her mini-skirt, but this was hardly the swinging ’60s in Korea. In fact, the country was desperately poor at the time (less than 1 in 10 Koreans had washing machines, refrigerators, phones, or televisions), with most of the public unable to spend much on fashion, and possibly deeply resentful of those that could.

Fears of the ensuing social conflict are one big reason for the implementation of the highly authoritarian “Yushin System” of 1972-1981, which included forced haircuts for men, minimum skirt-lengths for women, and strict censorship of sexual media content.

(Sources: Joongang Ilbo, 나르샤)

This censorship would not just end in the early-1980s however, but in fact sexual content would ultimately be encouraged by the government, as part of its “3S” policy of “sex, screen, and sport” to distract people from politics. Accordingly, Madame Aema, “the most explicit of Korean movies ever made,” would hit the theaters in early-1982.

• In the late-1980s, the government began to lift restrictions on the use of foreign models in advertisements. First, they were allowed to appear in advertisements for foreign products, then in 1994, for domestic products also. Their use exploded after that, particularly after the liberalization of the magazine market in 1999.

This is relevant for understanding exposure taboos, because both Korean and overseas-sourced advertisements with foreign, overwhelmingly Caucasian, models tended to—and still tend to—portray them in more revealing clothing and/or sexually-themed advertisements than their Korean counterparts, perpetuating long-held stereotypes of Western lasciviousness and Korean modesty. In particular, various developments in the fashion industry meant that for roughly 10 years from 2000-2010, it was extremely rare to see a Korean lingerie model, until the entertainment industry began to see the attention-seeking possibilities and financial gains from having its girl-group members and female actors become endorsers.

That said, I remain unaware of any Korean female nipples that have ever graced any advertisements here.

(Sources: Metro, July 8 2010, p. 7., ckmania)

In the summer of 2002, record numbers of Korean women would take advantage of the soccer World Cup to go out and have a good time, and weren’t modest about what they would like to do with the soccer players; in the process, they directly challenged conservative standards of dress, as well as taboos against assertive representations of female sexuality in the media. Although both developments had in fact already begun in the mid to late-1990s, and were accelerated by the sexual politics of the aftermath of the Asian Financial Crisis, unfortunately the “movement” was then largely co-opted and channeled into narratives of support for the national soccer team by the media and government.

This set a modern precedent for the very literal use of women’s—and also men’s—bodies for Korean military, nationalist, economic, and soft power purposes, roles which would come to fit the K-pop industry like a glove.

Finally, in addition to the K-pop industry and government censorship regimes perpetuating the notion that breasts are bad, but women’s legs and men’s abs are good clean harmless fun, there is the dramatic rise of the cosmetic surgery industry over the last few decades to consider. Fueled, I’d go so far as to say primarily by, Korea being one of only two countries in the OECD where photographs are required on resumes, despite multiple attempts to stop the practice. And this is the same industry that, as previously noted, is heavily encouraging bustier body ideals.

Exhausted after reading that? You’re not the only one(!). Yet that potted history of the taboo is still just the bare-bones, and needs considerable fleshing-out. Not least, from all the Korean-language sources I’ve also discovered and barely scratched the surface of, as well as the voices of Korean women and men themselves. I also acknowledge the almost complete lack of mention of men, and eagerly await your suggestions for further scholarly sources on Korean men’s nipples in particular ;)

Despite all the generalizations and gaps however, a clear theme of fluidity and rapid change in Korea’s exposure taboos emerges from all the above, and there’s no reason to suppose those won’t continue. Indeed, to those that feel that women walking around with exposed breasts is too much of an extreme to ever return to, it was once considered just as outlandish for men to expose their chests too, as pointed out by activists in the Free the Nipple campaign:

(Via: Astronomy in Reverse)

Moreover, to those that feel that such a campaign has chances for success in Western countries, but that a Korean equivalent will inevitably lag far behind, I’d point out how recent the call for change is in Western countries too.* And nobody who was in a crowd of Red Devils in Korea in 2002—or, indeed, in a candlelight democracy vigil in 2017—can fail to appreciate what ordinary Koreans are capable of when decide they can no longer tolerate other people’s bullshit.

Kudos then, to the activists from Womenlink earlier this month. You can read more about their event (and see many more comments) in two posts on Womenlink’s Facebook Page, or on their homepage, and here’s my translations of their posters and placards to round off this post:

*As friends have rightly pointed out, the puritan standards of the US referenced in those links do not represent those of all Western countries. In particular, nude beaches have been popular in much of continental Europe for decades, and standards for the workplace and presenters on television are much more relaxed. Also, nudity is common on French daytime and primetime TV. 

(Source: @womenlink)

(Speech Bubbles): Your nipples are showing! / Arrgh! (Women’s) Nipples! / Your nipples are too dark!

(Source, this image and following 3: @womenlink)

Those aren’t eyes there.

(lit.) Nipples have a wide language.

(Source, this image and following two: @womenlink)

We wear padding (which isn’t ventilated) to hide our nipples, we wear bras to hide our breasts, to hide our bras we wear vests, and to hide our vests we wear t-shirts…this prickly heat is so frustrating! We can’t live like this! Free the Nipple!

Q) If you have a lot of sexual experience, do your nipples get darker? A) No way!

Free the nipple / Why is looking at only women’s nipples restricted to over-18s?!?! Let’s stop the sexual objectification of women now!!

Update: Korea Observer reported on a very similar event in 2014, although I’m unsure if it was connected with Womenlink in any way. Here’s a video from that:

The Revealing the Korean Body Politic series:

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

Yes, Dove’s Real Beauty Bottles Commercial is Flawed. But Let’s Consider Where It’s Coming From.

Simple functionality can’t explain the incredible range of hourglass-shaped products aimed at women.
Screenshot: YouTube

Have you seen Dove’s “Real Beauty Bottles” commercial? The one which offers Dove body wash in bottles designed to mimic women’s body shapes?

You can understand the reasoning. Dove’s long-running “Real Beauty” campaign has always been about celebrating body diversity. So, why not offer alternatives to the typical hourglass design?

Ironically though, the execution completely contradicts that message, as the internet has gleefully pointed out:

  • It encourages paying attention to one’s body-shape, when that’s not supposed to be important.
  • It only offers six bottle designs, despite the huge diversity of women’s body shapes in reality. (And all of the bottles are white too.)
  • It’s really just a gimmick, offering only a very limited run of 6,800 bottles, spread among social media influencers in 15 countries. Meaning that even if ordinary women were somehow inspired to seek out the design that best matched their body shape, they wouldn’t actually be able to get one.
  • And, in being so short-lived, and only providing the same one, classic bottle design in practice, ultimately it implies that there may just be one best body type after all.

Writing in the Atlantic, Ian Bogost thinks that last is inadvertent; given how “hilariously stupid” this campaign has been (Jezebel), I’m inclined to agree. Regardless of any marketing campaign centered on bottles’ shapes, hourglass designs will always be much more stable and easier to grip than most of the alternatives, let alone those monstrosities provided by Dove.

That said, they’re not the only option. Which got me thinking: where had I seen so many hourglass bottles before? Why, with slimming drinks of course. What is up with that?

You know the answer, and it’s not ergonomics. Indeed, many marketers and advertisers are not shy about the connections they’re making between their products’ designs and the body ideals—and insecurities—they’re promoting, instead elevating them as a unique selling point. Most notoriously perhaps, in 2009, when Son Dam-bi endorsed “Today’s Tea” drink for Lotte Chilsung. Which:

(Source)

Not only sets up Son Dam-bi’s body as the one, singular standard for all the other women featured to define themselves against:

(Source, all screenshots: Paranzui)

But also makes sure to do so for teenage girls too:

And makes only the scene with the man humorous, to remind us how absurd it would be for men to ever do this sort of thing:

It’s really quite a feast of problematic messages. And, sadly, almost karmic in how Son Dam-bi herself has grappled with severe body-image issues in recent years, reports about her “still ‘frantically’ trying to lose more weight” emerging just as this post was published.

Usually, advertisers are less brazen, but they do still create and highlight a connection. See here for more examples and discussion from 2011 for instance, when there seemed to be a real trend:

(Source)

With that however, I don’t mean to imply they were the majority of slimming drinks. Nor are they in 2017, as a perusal of any convenience store fridge can attest.

But connections between bottle shapes and women’s bodies are definitely still being made, whether in the classic hourglass form or otherwise:

(Source: YouTube)
(Source: YouTube)

What’s more, if my search had extended to the packaging and marketing of slimming products in general, then I would have been simply overwhelmed with material. Wisely, I’ll confine myself to just one recent, representative example, that of Son Na-eun’s (Apink) commercials for Calobye:

(Source: Ezday)

Likewise, it’s never difficult to find an example of women’s bodies being used to represent a product or service. Again to give a recent for instance, below an obese woman magically loses weight and turns into model and actor Ray Yang, to represent a reduction in LG’s monthly installment rates (and, in a rare case of equal-opportunity objectification, has an obese man turn into model Choi Yong-ho too):

But it can seem like we’ve taken a long detour from a critique of Dove body wash bottles. So, let’s reflect on what we’ve learned on the way.

First, again, that hourglass bottles can’t be explained away by ergonomics, or claimed to be incidental. Who would even try, in the face of such overwhelming evidence?

Yet I’m often frustrated by the lack of mention in articles about their marketing campaigns, especially when writers otherwise wax lyrical over every other little detail. Why this blind spot exists, I’ll suggest a reason for in a moment.

(A rare exception: Apparently “the curve of the [sure] bottle beautifully captures both the swell of sea waves and women’s S-lines.” Source.)

Next, this is by definition gendered marketing, which is usually predicated on and helps perpetuate a whole host of problematic gender roles:

Also, no-one is saying that slimming drink companies can’t distinguish their products from competitors’ by packaging them in this way. In addition, perhaps there are practical limitations to quickly conveying slimming on packaging, on a box, or on a bottle, or through their shapes, without using an hourglass motif. We do, after all, make exaggerated cola-bottle shapes to convey we mean a woman for instance (or we did: now it just feels distasteful). It may explain why articles don’t bother to mention that, because by default an hourglass design is chosen to convey slimming. And, being so common, that choice is unremarkable.

Which begs the questions: does it really make a product stand out, if so many other companies are doing the same thing? Are scenes of Son Na-eun dancing, hourglass hips highlighted with CGI (just in case we didn’t notice), really the best Calobye could come up with to make their product stand out? Or is their campaign just yet another case of using a celebrity to quickly grab viewer’s attentions (*cough* as per my opening image *cough*), which may then linger on the actual product in the 15 second time-slot, and somehow persuade the viewer that the product is responsible for those hips? Wouldn’t, ultimately, ditching the celebrity with the unobtainable body be cheaper, and using models with a range of body types have much wider appeal?

Perhaps I’m being naive. But surely marketers and advertisers have good financial reasons to ask these questions themselves, not just pesky sociologists and feminazis with axes to grind. And, given photoshoppers’ skills in crafting an hourglass waist (or S-line, or wasp waist, or whatever) for almost every woman that appears in an advertisement or photoshoot? Then no, I’m no longer convinced that it’s all that difficult to convey slimming through a representing a range of body types. Or that some patriarchal conspiracy is afoot either, so much as sheer laziness on the part of marketers and advertisers.

(Source: instiz. The image on left is from a photoshoot for a 2014 commercial for Oceanworld)

What I am convinced of is how incredibly tiring this must be for women, constantly being reminded that your body doesn’t measure up to this one, monotonous standard, even though less than 1 in 10 women can ever achieve it.

I’d read about this pressure many times before of course. It can be difficult to relate to for a guy, no matter how sympathetic. But now, it feels just a little less abstract.

Which, all in all, is not a bad lesson to take away from some silly bottles.

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