Movie Review: Our Body/아워 바디 (2019)

What’s it like to meet someone who embodies a purpose? How do you cope when that person moves on?

“The moment I wanted to stop, is the moment I started running.” Estimated reading time: 5 minutes. Spoilers for first half of film. Source, all images: Naver Movies.

What main character Yun Ja-yeong (Choi Hee-seo) does stop at the beginning of this film is studying for years alone in her small, dingy apartment for the civil service examinations, the path to securing a rare stable job in Korea. Her goal was—is—depressingly normal, shared by as many as half a million young Koreans at a time.

What makes Ja-yeong different to them is that she’s done nothing else since graduating. That she chose this path despite having attended a prestigious university, which would have made her a shoo-in for most other jobs. But now she’s too old for those at 31, which also means she kept at her goal long after most would have wisely given up. Her inexplicable failure is further compounded by her briefly-seen boyfriend pointing out that she has no life or ambitions outside of studying and passing. (After some unenthusiastic sex, he leaves her for precisely this reason. She seems surprised—already we’re not.) Even her fateful decision not to take the latest round of exams is taken more out of apathy and resignation than resolve about what to do next.

But when the enormity of having wasted her entire adult life does hit her, it hits hard. She collapses in tears in a local park, the cheap convenience store food she lives off tumbling down the steps.

Then as if in a vision, the figure of jogger Gang Hyeon-ju (Ahn Ji-hye) suddenly materializes to hand her dropped items back to her, before vanishing out of her life again just as quickly. Looking poised, confident, athletic, and driven in her expensive athleisure wear, she is everything Ja-yeong is not.

Drawn like a moth to the flame, over the next few weeks Ja-yeong watches YouTube videos about jogging and struggles to put them into practice, shuffling and wheezing around a school track in old sneakers and clothes, all for the sake of a chance to meet Hyeon-ju again. She must also get a job—it’s implied that her mother (a much too young for the role Kim Jeong-yeong) has been paying all her rent and living expenses all this time, but, bitterly disappointed with Ja-yeong’s decision, may not do so indefinitely.

Finding the job search difficult because of Korea’s blatant ageism however, middle-school friend Min-ji (Noh Susanna) takes pity on Ja-yeong and manages to get her a basic, entry-level admin job in the company she works at. Yet she’s awkward there, unable to relate to her much younger coworkers, nor sharing their ambition. You sense that her time there will be short.

Then she does find Hyeon-ju. Soon, Hyeon-ju’s brought her into her large jogging club, then later lets her go on group runs with her and two other male members once she’s improved. Yet for all the viewer’s anticipation of their meeting again, the development of their relationship is glossed over, the focus going on Ja-yeong’s ensuing physical and mental transformation instead. Suffice to say, she becomes every bit as confident of herself and proud of her body as Hyeon-ju. This reflects in her job too, where she realizes the opportunities that are open to her, and even plans on a career.

Yet still her mentor remains frustratingly private. Only after running together for months does Ja-yeong even learn that she works in the publishing industry, and is a fledgling author.

That admission does presage a greater level of intimacy to follow, with more sudden phone calls from Hyeon-ju for personal midnight and sunrise runs together, and invites to drink at her place. In the first, after pointedly asking Ja-yeong what her sexual fantasies are, a very drunk Hyeon-ju strips to her underwear due to the heat. It sounds cliched, and is, but despite yourself you also yearn for them to begin a sexual relationship then—not only because of the camera’s focus on their bodies throughout this deeply sensual film, which makes it feel somewhat inevitable, but also simply for the opportunity to learn anything about Hyeon-ju at all. What makes her tick? What is she getting out of their relationship? What made her take Ja-yeong under her wing, a seeming basket-case who chased after her literally bawling her eyes out the second time she saw her, a complete stranger?

It doesn’t happen. Nor in the next visit, when Ja-young, concerned she’s missing their group runs and not answering her phone, waits outside her door until Hyeon-ju stumbles home drunk. Ja-young knows the reason is because her novel was rejected by a publisher, but doesn’t reveal this. Then after more drinks together inside, Hyeon-ju, in a rare moment of vulnerability, asks if she wants to read it—but Ja-yeong has already passed out.

Two minutes later of screentime later, Hyeon-ju’s dead, hit offscreen by a car during their next run together. It’s strongly implied she stepped in front of it deliberately.

Believe me, I debated over whether to reveal that spoiler.

I plead that after her death, exactly halfway in, Our Body feels like a different film entirely, impossible to discuss further without mentioning the circumstances that precipitated the change. For in that second half, the focus moves to her job, where Ja-young must deal with the conflicting demands of her grief, office politics, and her mother’s and friend’s expectations. Suddenly, she is every young Korean woman, chafing at her assigned place in a deeply hierarchical, status-obsessed, and sexist society.

Watch the film primarily for that last element, and you’ll be rewarded; I’ll wrap up my brief review here for so as not to spoil it.

But do not necessarily expect to be able to answer the question many other reviewers raise, of if Ja-young wants to be Hyeon-ju, be with Hyeon-ju, or both.

If forced, I’d argue the former. Primarily, because despite her growing confidence, Ja-yeong never initiates contact beyond that desperate chase at the beginning. Indeed, perhaps because Hyeon-ju comes across as somewhat of a ghostlike figure throughout, aloof and distant to the end, never giving Ja-young much to grasp on to with which to develop any potential platonic or romantic desire. Yet being the intense focus of the main character for all that, for this reason the underdevelopment of Hyeon-ju’s own story is my main frustration with this otherwise softly subtle, thoughtful film. So too that of Ja-yeong’s middle-school sister Hwa-yeong (Lee Jae-in), whom you suspect by the film’s end is the only other character who has any real sense of how Ja-yeong has changed and what she’s going through—but those conversations Ja-yeong needs with her never happen.

There are many torrents available; alternatively, it can be watched online with subs at DramaCool. Please tell me your thoughts!

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

Related Posts:

Korean High School Girls Complain They Can Barely Breathe in Uniforms Smaller Than Clothes for 8-Year-Olds.

Even university students are astonished at how short and restrictive they’ve gotten.

Estimated reading time: 12 minutes. Photo by Noah Buscher on Unsplash.

Ten years since I first wrote about it, I’m still astounded that K-pop stars can endorse school uniforms. Surely, much of the blame for Korea’s notorious issues with female body image can be laid squarely on K-pop and school uniform companies’ shoulders? Those same companies that tell 12-year-old girls entering middle school that their new uniforms will help them show off their tits and ass to boys?

Left: Victoria Song of f(x) showing off her ‘S-line’ in 2009 (Source unknown). Right: Eun-ha of GFriend in 2016; middle caption says “The ‘Tulip Line’ skirt that will immediately capture men’s hearts” (Source: MLBPARK).

But things may not be so one-sided as they may seem. At the end of her must-read March 2017 post “Time to Stop Skirting the Issue: Sexualization of School Uniforms in South Korea,” Haeryun Kang noted in Korea Exposé that:

Tighter uniforms have been popular among boys and girls for years. A recent survey of over 9,000 teenagers showed that students from elementary to high school generally preferred uniforms that were slightly tighter and shorter. In the debate surrounding the sexualization of teen uniforms, the voices of teenagers themselves is conspicuously absent.

In my own post “How Slut-Shaming and Victim-Blaming Begin in Korean Schools” too, published on the same day (hey, great minds think alike), I noted that being able to wear more fashionable clothes had also been directly tied to the liberalization of students’ rights. Plus, students the world over have generally always wanted to improve upon their drab uniforms. Once the sexualization of their uniforms began in earnest here a decade ago then, there would undoubtedly have been many girls who genuinely wanted to wear the tight, figure-hugging styles promoted by K-pop stars, and probably often despite the objections of their parents and teachers too. To assume they were simply dupes of the uniform companies instead would be incredibly naive and misguided, let alone patronizing.

Alas, the survey mentioned by Kang is likely unreliable, as it was conducted by a school uniform company itself. But her conclusion still stands: listen to teenagers themselves. Don’t assume.

When you do, you discover what girls are saying these days is that they can’t breathe in their uniforms. That they hate them. That wearing them is having serious effects on their learning, well-being, and physical health. That they’re angry. That rather than being a reflection of their wishes, having such limited clothing choices imposed on them is actually an infringement of their rights.

In other words, generally the complete opposite of what the schools and the uniform companies would like them to. Wow—teens don’t like being told what to do. Who’d have thought?

Let’s hear from some of those teens, starting with those interviewed in the following June 2018 MBC News Today report. Appropriately enough, it’s opened by everyone’s favorite news anchor Lim Hyeon-ju, who also didn’t like being told what to do—in March that year she’d become the first Korean female news anchor to wear glasses on the job, and later would go on to be the first to appear without a bra:

My translation of the transcript:

숨도 쉬는 여학생 교복…”인권침해 수준” Uniforms Girls Can’t Breathe in…”An Infringement on my Human Rights.”

Anchor

여자는 치마에 블라우스, 남자는 바지에 셔츠. 중·고등학교 교복에 적용되는 흔한 규정인데요. 그런데 요즘 여학생들 사이에서는 치마 대신 바지를, 블라우스 대신 편한 셔츠를 입게 해달라는 요구가 끊이지 않고 있습니다. 그 속사정을 서유정 기자가 취재했습니다.

Girls wear a skirt and a blouse, boys wear pants and a shirt. This is a common rule regarding middle and high school uniforms. Nowadays however, there are constant calls from girls to likewise be able to wear more comfortable shirts and pants. Reporter Seo Yoo-jeong covers the story.

Reporter

단추도 채워지지 않는 블라우스, 숨 쉬는 게 힘겨울 정도로 꽉 조여진 허리라인. 20대 여성들이 카메라 앞에서 중·고등학교 교복을 입고 힘겨워합니다.

Blouses so tight that all the buttons can’t be done up, waistlines that make it difficult to breathe. In front of the camera, women in their 20s are struggling to wear middle and high school uniforms.

[김서윤] “숨을 못 쉬겠어요. 단추를 하나만 더 풀게요.”

[Kim Seo-yoon] “I can’t breathe. I’ll just undo one more button.”

[정겨운] “이런 걸 입고 하루에 12시간 이상을 산단 말이에요? 이건 진짜 인권 침해인데.”

[Jeong Gyeo-woon] “You mean you have to live wearing these things for more than 12 hours a day? This is a real human rights violation!”

요즘 여학생들의 교복 블라우스가 얼마나 작고 불편한지를 눈으로 보여준 이 영상은 조회수 20만 건을 넘기며 인터넷을 뜨겁게 달궜습니다.

This video, which shows how small and uncomfortable girls’ school uniform blouses are these days, has already received more than 200,000 views. [James—Its contents will be covered in more detail later below.]

요즘처럼 날이 더워질수록 교복에 대한 여학생들의 불만은 더해갑니다.

As the days get hotter with the summer, girls’ complaints about their school uniforms will only increase.

기자가 입어보니, 기성복으로 나온 교복을 줄이지 않고 입었는데도 블라우스는 치마 허리선을 아슬아슬하게 덮을 정도로 짧습니다. 손을 들면 맨살이 그대로 드러날 정도입니다. 통은 더 좁게, 길이는 더 짧게.

This reporter tried on an off-the-shelf uniform. Yet even though it was not shortened, the blouse only barely covered the waistline of the skirt. When I raised my hand, the bare skin of my waist was exposed. [Compared to the uniforms I wore as a girl], the waist is narrower and the length is shorter.

학교에서 정한 대로 교복업체는 디자인을 맞춰줄 뿐이라고 합니다. [◇◇교복 업체 관계자] “학교의 원래 원칙은 짧아서 이게(허리선이) 보여야 했어요. 그걸 저희가 이번에 길게 뺀 거예요.”

It is said that school uniform manufacturers [generally] only produce designs as determined by the schools. [Anonymous school uniform manufacturer] “Even though your midriff got exposed when you raised your hand, in fact the original school’s design for this blouse was even shorter. We lengthened it.” [James—Consider the implications for sexuality equality in classroom interactions and discussions when the girls’ clothes alone ensure they’re too embarrassed to even raise their hands!]

“이런 불만은 ‘교복을 없애달라’, ‘여학생들도 바지나 남자 셔츠를 입게 해달라’는 국민청원으로까지 이어지고 있는 상황. 이런 요구를 받아들여 남녀구분 없이 ‘편한 교복’을 입게 하는 학교들도 조금씩 생겨나고 있습니다.

The ensuing dissatisfaction is leading to national petitions calling for girls to be able to wear boy’s uniforms, or to do away with school uniforms entirely. Schools that accept these demands and have allowed boys and girls to wear ‘comfortable uniforms’ are also slowly emerging.

서울의 한 고등학교는 봄 가을엔 헐렁한 후드 티를, 더운 여름엔 반바지와 면 티셔츠를 교복으로 입습니다. [김현수/고등학교 1학년] “팔도 더 잘 올라가고 그러니까 생활하기도 더 편해요. 집중하기 더 편한 것 같아요.”

[Kim Hyeon-su, first year student at this high school] “I can raise and move my arms much more easily, so I have a better quality of life. I think it’s easier to for me to concentrate too.” One high school in Seoul allows baggy hoodies to be worn in the spring and autumn, and shorts and cotton t-shirts in the hot summer.

옷값을 줄이고, 공동체 의식을 갖게 하는 교복의 긍정적인 기능은 살리되, 성별에 따라 복장을 규정하고 움직임에 불편을 주는 폐단은 버리자는 취지입니다/

With these comfortable uniforms, the school’s goal is to retain the good points of school uniforms such as the reduction in the cost of clothes and the fostering of a sense of school community, while also doing away with defining uniforms by sex and removing any features that make it difficult to move freely. (End)

Next, adding to the point about exposed waists especially, here are some segments from a March 2018 CBS No Cut News report by Gwon Hee-eun:

슬림핏 교복 두려워요여학생들 교복 공포증 “I’m afraid of slim fit school uniforms”: Girls’ School Uniform Fears

…여학생들이 입는 하복 셔츠는 짧은 기장 탓에 책상에 엎드리면 셔츠가 훤히 올라가 맨살이 드러나는 것은 물론, 가만히 있어도 속옷이 비칠 정도로 얇다.

…Because of the short length of the summer blouses, they rise up and reveal girls’ skin when they bend forward while sitting at their desks. They are also thin enough to reveal the outlines of underwear even while the girls are sitting still.

이때문에 보통 하복 셔츠 안에 민소매나 반팔 티셔츠를 덧대어 입는 것이 일반적이다. 어떤 학교에서는 이를 ‘교칙’으로 지정해두기도 할 정도다. 더 단정해 보인다는 이유에서다.

Then 16 year-old Jeon Somi endorsing Skoolooks, here wearing their ‘Slim-line Jacket.’ Source: Somiracle – Jeon Somi 전소미 Vietnam Fanpage.

For this reason, it is common to wear a sleeveless or short-sleeved T-shirt underneath a summer blouse. Some schools have even incorporated this into their uniform codes, believing it looks neater. [James—Assuming this rule only applies to girls, this means they would swelter under blouses, bras, and t-shirts in summer classrooms, compared to boys enjoying just one layer. See my earlier post to learn more about many more discriminatory rules like this.]

여학생들의 교복이 과하게 짧고 작아 불편을 초래한다는 사실은 여러 차례 지적돼 왔다. 그러나 교복업체들은 여전히 날씬해보이는 ‘슬림핏’을 마케팅 포인트로 내세운다.

It has often been pointed out that girls’ uniforms are uncomfortable and inconvenient because of their small size and short length. However, promoting this ‘slim fit’ is at the heart of school uniform companies’ marketing strategies.

교복 광고 속 날씬한 여자 아이돌들은 타이트한 자켓과 짧은 치마를 완벽하게 소화해낸다. 하루에 열시간 넘게 교복을 입는 학생들에게는 그런 완벽한 ‘슬림핏’이 불편하다.

In school uniform advertisements, slim female K-pop idols perfectly fit into their tight jackets and short skirts. However, they are uncomfortable for [real-life] students [with a much wider range of body types] who have to wear them for more than 10 hours a day.

최근 유튜브에서 눈길을 끈 ‘교복입원프로젝트’ 영상을 보면 이런 문제는 더 적나라하게 드러난다.

The extent of the problem becomes readily apparent when you see the following video from the ‘School Uniform Hospitalization Project,’ which has recently attracted attention on YouTube [as seen in the first report].

(Not by FemiAction, but this later video by RealCafe of boys trying on girls’ uniforms is also interesting and amusing)

‘불꽃페미액션’이 제작한 이 영상에는 여섯명의 여성이 등장해 실제 여학생 교복 상의와 아동복 사이즈를 비교하고, 직접 착용해보기도 한다.

In this video, produced by Fireworks FemiAction, six women appear, compare the sizes of actual school uniform tops and children’s clothes, and try them on.

여학생용 교복셔츠와 남학생용 교복셔츠를 비교해봤더니, 여학생용 교복셔츠가 훨씬 비침이 심했다. 여학생용은 글씨 위에 셔츠를 겹쳐도 글씨를 바로 알아볼 수 있는 반면, 남학생용은 다소 시간이 걸렸다.

When the boys’ shirts were compared with the girls’ blouses, the uniform shirts for girls were much more see-through. For girls’ blouses, things with writing on them hidden underneath were immediately able to be made out. Whereas with boys’ shirts, it took some time.

키 170cm, 가슴둘레 94cm 기준인 여학생 교복 셔츠와 7~8세용 15호 아동복 사이즈를 비교해보니 가로 폭은 별 차이가 없었고, 기장은 아동복보다 훨씬 짧았다.

When comparing the size of a school uniform blouse for girls with a height of 170cm and a chest circumference of 94cm to a casual size 15 t-shirt intended for girls between 7-8 years old, there was no difference in width, and the length was much shorter than that of the t-shirt.

활동성이 전혀 고려되지 않은 사이즈로 만들어졌다 보니, 머리를 묶거나 팔을 뻗는 등의 동작도 하기 어렵다.

Blouses of this size don’t take any activity or movement into account, so it’s difficult to tie your hair or stretch your arms.

이렇듯 많은 학생들이 아동복보다 작은 교복으로 불편함을 겪고 있지만, 학교 내에서 체육복 등 편한 옷으로 갈아입고 있는 것도 허용되지 않는다.

…[The article continues by saying that students would prefer changing into their more comfortable gym uniforms, but this is generally only allowed in exceptional circumstances such when their regular uniform is torn or has food spilt on it.]…

(Update: As reported by The Korea Bizwire in June 2020, an ironic side-benefit of the Covid-19 Pandemic has been that schools have become more relaxed about this, allowing students to wear their gym uniforms on days they have physical education classes at school. The logic is that allowing them to wear them for the entire day reduces physical contact with other students while changing.)

실생활에서 불편함을 느끼는 학생들이 꾸준히 문제제기를 하고 있지만, 교복 판매업체의 정책과 각 학교의 교칙 등 여러 가지가 얽혀있는 사안이라 명확한 해결책이 나오지 않고 있다.

Students who feel uncomfortable in real life are constantly raising problems, but there are no clear solutions due to issues that are intertwined with the policies of school uniform vendors and school rules of each school. (End)

Source: Pixabay.

Finally, some segments of a July 2017 report by Son Ho-yeong for The Chosun Ilbo:

여고생에 ‘8세 사이즈’ 입어라… 숨쉬기 힘든 S라인 교복 Uniforms for High School Girls are Smaller than Clothes for 8 Year-Olds…S-line Uniforms that Make Breathing Difficult

서울 양천구의 한 여고에선 교복 블라우스를 ‘배꼽티’라고 부른다.… 이 학교 정모(17)양은 “교복에 몸이 갇힌 느낌”이라고 했다.

In one girls’ high school in Yangcheon-gu, Seoul, school uniform blouses are called ‘crop tops’….One 17-year-old student there said, “I feel trapped in my school uniform.”

…상당수 학교가 맵시를 강조하면서 허리선을 잘록하게, 길이는 짧게 디자인한 교복을 채택하고 있다. 보통 몸매인 학생들도 조금만 움직이면 속옷과 맨살이 훤히 드러나 제대로 활동하기 어렵다. 체형이 통통한 학생은 꽉 끼는 교복 때문에 수치심을 느끼는 경우도 있다. “교복 때문에 학생들의 인권이 침해받는다”는 소리가 나올 정도다.

…Many schools have adopted school uniforms designed to be short and with narrow waistlines, while emphasizing style. Yet their tightness means that students with average bodies find it difficult to study properly because their underwear and bare skin are exposed if they move a little, with larger than average students feeling even more anxious. [Indeed], you could go so far as to say school uniforms are violating their human rights.

예전 교복은 활동성을 고려해 펑퍼짐한 스타일이 많았다. 학생 일부가 멋을 내느라 치마 길이를 줄이고, 허리선을 강조하는 식으로 수선했다. 요즘은 처음부터 교복이 몸에 달라붙게 나온다. 늘이기는 어려운 디자인이다. 자신의 실제 몸 치수보다 큰 것을 사도 사정은 다르지 않다. 서울 종로구의 한 여고생은 “겨울 교복보다 두 치수나 큰 여름 교복을 샀는데도 허리의 ‘S라인’이 지나치게 들어가 밥을 먹고 나면 옷이 끼어 거북하다”고 했다.

With older school uniforms, there were many styles that were both flattering and didn’t hamper movement. [Naturally however,] some girls would shorten their skirts and emphasize their waistlines to look more attractive. Yet these days, school uniforms cling to the body from the beginning, and are difficult to stretch. Compensating by buying larger sizes may not even help either. One high school girl in Jongno-gu, Seoul said, “I bought a summer school uniform that is two sizes larger than my winter school uniform. But the ‘S-line’ on the waist is too overdone, and after I eat my clothes still start clinging to my body.”

A 2003-2005 school uniform advertisement featuring BoA; I’m unsure who the boy/man is sorry. See many more examples from then here.

날씬한 맵시만 강조하다 보니 여고생 교복 치수가 8세 아동복 수준이 되기도 한다. 서울 강북구의 한 인문계 여고 교복 상의(키 160㎝·88 사이즈)와 시중에 판매 중인 7~8세 여아용 티셔츠(130 사이즈)를 비교했더니 크기 차이가 거의 없었다.

As they emphasize only slim fit styles, the size of school uniforms for high school girls is the same as casual clothes for 8-year-olds. There was little difference in size when comparing a school uniform top (160cm tall, size 88) for girls in a school in Gangbuk-gu, Seoul and a t-shirt for girls aged 7-8 years old (size 130) sold at the local market.

2016년 기준 우리나라 여고생의 평균 키는 160.6㎝, 8세인 초등학교 1학년 여아 평균 키는 120.5㎝이다.

As of 2016, the average height of high school girls in Korea was 160.6 cm, and the average height of a 8-year-old girl entering elementary school was 120.5 cm.

교복은 기성복과도 차이가 있다. 한국산업표준(KS)에 따르면 키 160㎝인 여성 청소년의 ‘보통 체형’용 기성복 상의(블라우스 기준)는 가슴둘레 88㎝, 허리둘레 72.8㎝이다. 본지가 구한 여고 교복 상의의 가슴둘레는 78㎝, 허리둘레는 68㎝였다. 교복이 기성복 가이드라인보다 가슴둘레 10㎝, 허리둘레는 5㎝가량 작다.

School uniforms are also different from ready-made clothes. According to the Korean Industrial Standard, a 160cm tall female adolescent’s non-uniform, off the shelf, blouse-like top for a ‘normal’ body type has an 88cm chest and 72.8cm waist. Yet the waist circumference of a girls’ high school uniform blouse obtained for this report had an 78 cm and a 68cm waist, meaning that school uniforms are about 10 cm shorter in chest circumference and 5 cm in waist than required by the standards for off the shelf clothes.

일부 여학생은 교사의 단속을 피해 남학생용 교복을 사서 입기도 한다. 대전 서구의 한 남녀공학 고교에 다니는 이모(16)양은 “남학생용 교복은 라인이 없어 편하다. 학생주임 선생님이 남자 교복을 입지 못하게 수시로 단속하지만 몰래 입는 친구가 많다”고 했다.

For the sake of comfort and to avoid unfair school rules regarding girls’ uniforms, some wear boys’ school uniforms instead. One 16-year-old girl who attends a coeducational high school in Seo-gu, Daejeon, said, “The school uniform for boys is comfortable because there is no figure-hugging ‘line’ built into them. Although our teachers regularly crack down on this, many of my female classmates secretly wear them.”

교복 브랜드의 ‘슬림 라인’ 전쟁은 2000년대 초부터 시작됐다. 멋을 위해 교복을 줄이는 학생들이 늘면서 교복 제조업체들이 허리가 쏙 들어가고 길이가 짧은 디자인의 교복을 내놓기 시작했다. ‘재킷으로 조여라, 코르셋 재킷’ 같은 광고 문구를 내세웠다.

The ‘Slim Line’ war of school uniform brands began in the 2000s. As more and more students want more fashionable uniforms, manufacturers have responded by offering short designs with tight waists. In their advertising, they use phrases such as ‘Tighten with a jacket, corset jacket.’

…교복 업체가 사람마다 다른 체형을 고려하지 않는 것도 문제다. 한 업체는 체형 데이터를 바탕으로 청소년 ‘대표 체형’을 뽑아내 이를 기준으로 교복을 만든다고 광고한다. 하지만 이는 ‘보기 좋은 체형’일 뿐 해마다 몸이 변하는 청소년들에게 일률적으로 제시하는 것은 무리다.

Another problem is that school uniform companies do not cater to different body types. One company advertises that it makes a school uniform based on the ‘representative body type’ based on data collected about young people’s physiques. However, this supposedly representative type is really only a stereotypical ‘good looking body type’ [like that of the K-pop stars in the ads], nor does a single type take into account the fact that adolescents’ bodies are constantly changing. (End)

Photo by 周 康 from Pexels

Thoughts? Still not enough? If so, I recommend also watching Dr. Kyunghee Pyun’s (Fashion Institute of Technology, State University of New York) presentation for the UBC Centre for Korean Research on “Impression Management of School Uniform Culture in Korea,” which I was able to attend on Zoom a few days ago. While it’s only loosely related, and covers much earlier time periods, it does provide some useful context:

Also, and finally, for a more recent and in-depth look, here is an 8-minute, November 2020 report by my local Busan MBC, ironically at one point filmed where I took this related, well-discussed picture. Unfortunately, producing a transcript and translation would be a bit prohibitive sorry, but the English CC seems to provide the gist. Enjoy!

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

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The Gilded Cage of the “EyeBody” Trend?

My students teach me to reevaluate Korea’s latest dieting trend. Is motivation dependent on selfies necessarily a bad thing, when 20-somethings already feel constantly overexposed?

Estimated reading time: 9 minutes. Photo by @thiszun from Pexels

Before the pandemic, I’d routinely request to take photos of my students in the second class of the semester. No, that wasn’t creepy at all.

It was the only way to learn the names and keep track of the progress of all 120 of them, whom I’d only meet for one class a week. Originally, when I started teaching at my university in 2010, I’d ask them for passport photos, which they’d supply without a second thought. Due to the requirement for resumes and job applications, which still exist today, Korean 20-somethings especially were used to providing passport photos for all sorts of documents, and typically had many stored at home.

Gluing all those photos onto name cards however, was a thankless task. Once in possession of my first smartphone then, I’d eagerly explain that it would be much more convenient to just quickly go around the class with it, taking shots of each group at their desks. Most instantly saw the logic, and seemed to appreciate my making the effort.

Occasionally, the odd female student—never male—would initially be a little nervous. Yet once I made it absolutely clear that they would only be for my own use, and how unethical and unprofessional it would be for me to upload them to social media, they soon relaxed. Generally, taking the pictures would turn into a brief ice-breaking activity, with most students happily posing or just goofing around with their classmates for the camera. The next class, they’d all have a good laugh at my printouts of the photos while attaching their names to them, and that would be that.

A mild example of the photoshopping done to resume photographs. Source: entomol10.

But by 2019, it was no longer a laughing matter. Increasing numbers of female students would be covering their faces as I took their shots, literally wailing. Many would be on the verge of tears, so daunting and so overwhelming was the prospect of an unedited, unfiltered image of them getting out there, no matter how remote.

I am not exaggerating.

So to their great relief, I starting asking everyone to just send me picture files instead. Again, a much more laborious and time-consuming process from my perspective, with many of the ensuing photos being so altered as to render the students unrecognizable. But I’d learned my lesson. When offline classes resume, I will never be asking to take pictures of my students again.

I’m not judging them. I’m not a woman, and I didn’t reach adulthood in the midst of a massive spycam epidemic. I don’t have to bring “specs” like my filtered, digital appearance to play in a desperate competition for jobs with other 20-somethings either. Nor do I mean to imply that young Koreans are any more sensitive on this issue than zoomers in other countries.

Merely, this is the context I bring to the “EyeBody” trend (눈바디/noonbadi) I recently learned of. Here’s a definition from the Naver blog Styler Life:

눈바디란 눈(Eyes)와 인바디(Inbody)의 합성어. 체중계의 숫자보다 ‘눈으로 보이는 몸의 라인이나 근력 상태가 더 의미 있는 변화다’라는 취지에서 나온 단어다. 즉 체중에 연연해하지 말아야 더 건강한 몸을 만들 수 있다는 의미. 눈바디를 이용한 다이어트 방법은 매우 간단하다. 매일매일 자신의 전신 사진을 찍어 기록하는 것. 많은 헬스타그래머가 이 방법을 이용하고 있으며 후기에는 효과를 보았다는 내용이 대다수를 이룬다.

The term “EyeBody” is a compound word of “Eyes” and “InBody.”* It means that a visible change to your body form or muscle strength is a much more meaningful sign of health and fitness than a number on the scales. In other words, it means that you can make a healthier body if you don’t get too attached to your weight alone.

The EyeBody method is very simple. Take a full body picture of yourself every day and record it. Many health-focused Instagrammers use this method, and the majority say that it has been effective in later periods of their training [after big fat losses have already been achieved—James].

*(Initially a sophisticated test of one’s body conditions pioneered by the company BioSpace, the term became so well-known and generic that the company changed its name to it.)

Again, but for the name, the trend is hardly confined to Korea, and you can probably anticipate potential problems. For example, Seoul Economic Daily explains:

체성분이 좋은 방향으로 변화하고 체중이 줄었어도, 거울에 비친 다이어트한 모습에 불만족할 때는 다이어트나 운동의 효과가 없다고 여길 정도로 눈바디의 기준이 절대적이다. 불특정 다수에게 자신의 다이어트 과정을 노출해 동기부여 장치로 활용하면서 생긴 현상이지만 보여주기만 신경 쓰다 보면 자신의 건강을 오히려 해치는 결과를 낳을 수 있다.

Even if one’s body composition changes in a healthy direction and weight is reduced, following the EyeBody practice places exacting standards on you. When you feel that despite your efforts, no changes are visible in the mirror, yet at the same time you rely heavily on displaying changes to a wider audience to gain the motivation you need, you may end up harming your own health in order to seek those changes required.

Yet I was a gym junkie myself once, and constantly wore tank-tops to make sure everyone knew it; it’s difficult to criticize something I would undoubtedly do myself if I were in my early-20s again. Plus, I have several Facebook friends who seem to post nothing but updates on their runs, crossfit routines, healthy meals, and/or selfies of their glorious bodies. Clearly with much healthier habits than myself, their feeds don’t strike me as raising too many issues, provided their goals continue to center around healthy body weights.

Moreover, this exhibitionist approach may in fact be one of the most effective methods, as the Chosun Ilbo explains:

…정씨는 “주로 아침 공복 상태에서 휴대폰으로 사진을 찍어 인스타그램(Instagram) 개인 계정에 기록하고 있다”며 “운동 시작 전 신체와 이후의 신체 변화를 기록하는 게 다이어트에 도움이 될 거라고 생각했고 무엇보다 남들과 비교하는 것보다 내가 남긴 사진들을 보며 더 자극이 됐다”고 말했다.

[Jeong Ah-yeong (30), an office worker from Gyeonggi-do] said, “Mainly, I take pictures with my mobile phone in the morning on an empty stomach, and record them in my personal Instagram. Really, it’s much more stimulating to see those pictures that I left myself than to compare my body with other people’s.”

서울 여의도에서 일하는 직장인 장주은(31·가명)씨도 인스타그램 개인 계정에 식단과 운동 습관을 기록하며 다이어트에 열을 올리고 있다. 장씨는 20대 때부터 ‘1일 1식’, ‘삼시 세끼 닭가슴살만 먹기’ 등 다소 극단적인 다이어트를 시도해왔다. 하지만 체중이 빠졌다 금세 돌아오는 요요 현상(yo-yo effect)을 겪었다.

Jang Joo-eun (31, pseudonym), an office worker in Yeouido, Seoul, is also heating up her approach to her diet by recording her daily habits in her personal Instagram account. In her 20s, she said, she tried rather extreme diets, such as the “one meal a day” one or the “three o’clock, three meals of chicken breasts.” However, while she did lose weight with these, it always quickly returned due to the yo-yo effect.

…장씨는 “연예인들이 한다고 알려진 다이어트는 직장인이 시도하기엔 비현실적인 방법”이라며 “행동과 습관을 바꾸는 다이어트를 시작하면서 변화는 느린듯 하지만 매일 기록하면서 보람을 느끼고 있다”고 말했다.

이들은 걸그룹 아이돌의 극단적인 식단과 같은 무리한 다이어트가 아닌 꾸준히 실천하는 을 택한 셈이다.

…Jang said, “The diets promoted by celebrities are unrealistic for office workers.” Rather, she prefers a straightforward method to the excessive, extreme ones of girl-group idols. “Although the changes are slow with my current diet, which focuses on changing behavior and habits, I feel rewarded as I record my small improvements every day.”

Photo by Scott Webb on Unsplash

Of course I do still maintain some reservations. In her Instagram photos featured in the article, Jeong looks unhealthily thin, but I concede may naturally be skinny. Also, Jo Min-yeong, quoted next, heads a dieting and liposuction clinic notorious for its comical fat and body-shaming commercials. And yet her explanation of the rationale behind the EyeBody method, while vague, may make some sense:

요즘 유행처럼 번지는 SNS에 자신의 식단과 운동 사진을 올리는 것 역시 다이어트 비법 중 하나다. 이는 실제 의학적으로는 ‘행동수정요법’으로 분류된다. 식습관, 운동량, 활동량 등 평소 행동 중 비만의 원인이 되는 요소가 있는지 살펴보고 이를 건강한 행동, 즉 다이어트를 위한 행동으로 고치는 방식이다.

‘매일 거울 보기’, ‘다이어트 자극용 사진 보기’ 등도 시각적인 자극을 통해 다이어트 동기를 부여하는 행동수정요법에 해당한다.

One of the secrets to successfully dieting is to upload photos of your dieting and exercising on social media. Known as “behavioral modification therapy,” it is a way to identify and correct what aspects of your life might be causing obesity, such as your eating habits, amount of exercise, and amount of activity. ‘Daily mirror viewing’ and ‘Viewing pictures for diet motivation’ are also considered behavior modification therapy that motivates you to diet through visual stimulation. (Right: “Picture of Dream Body as Smartphone Wallpaper Helps Weight Loss.”)

조민영 비만클리닉 365mc 천호점 대표원장은 “행동수정요법은 체중 감량을 위해 먹고 싶은 것을 참고 억지로 운동하는 것을 말하는 것이 아니라 생활습관을 바꿔 스스로 건강한 음식을 찾고 운동을 즐길 수 있도록 돕는 것”이라고 설명했다.

Cho Min-yeong, CEO of Obesity Clinic 365mc explained, “Behavioral modification therapy is not so much about forcing yourself to eat and exercise to the weight level you desire, but more about encouraging yourself to change your lifestyle and help yourself find healthy food and enjoy exercise.”

조 원장은 “시각적인 자극은 빈도가 높아질수록 더욱 강해지는데 매일 거울을 본다면 자극을 주는 횟수가 늘어나 다이어트 동기 부여가 배가 된다”며 “닮고 싶은 몸매 사진을 자주 보는 것도 비슷한 효과를 낸다”고 말했다.

Cho continued, “The more frequent the visual stimulation, the stronger the motivation. So, if you look at the mirror every day, the number of stimulations increases.” Also, “Seeing pictures of the body you want to resemble often has a similar effect.”

So why “gilded cage”?

Consider where I first heard of EyeBody, which was in a short fan-engagement video by Korean lingerie company Qmomo, as one does. The subject was all the tricks you can use to achieve that perfect EyeBody selfie:

Blink and you’ll miss them though, I recommend watching this longer video by 이지은 다이어트/Jiny diet. The English CC, which I think she writes herself, provide a good translation:

I agree, those are all excellent selfie tips. Assuming that is, you share the body ideals of the YouTubers, which I don’t—I find the model more attractive in the “before” photos in the first video, and have never understood the Korean obsession with small heads expressed in the second.

But that’s not the point.

Normally, I would be very dismissive of a trend like EyeBody. But a book I recently read about sexuality in Japan challenged long-held preconceptions on that subject, which I didn’t realize I had. Still in the same contemplative frame of mind while putting pen to paper for this post, I recalled the dramatic changes to my students’ attitudes to body image and digital media over the last 11 years. So, I looked at EyeBody practitioners in a new light. I saw the agency, confidence, and potential they saw in their bodies, which mirrored my own once. I read too, about why men especially might be drawn to posting muscular selfies in a time of austerity. Maybe, in an environment in which 20-somethings already feel constantly overexposed, why not take control of that for your own advantage? May EyeBody—dare I say it—actually work?

(My own commitment to writing here every Monday in 2021, after all, has already necessitated a radical transformation to my own habits—but, crucially, only because I made it public.)

But those videos. I get it—selfies, in themselves, can be a source of empowerment too. But EyeBody feels a little deeper. Selfies and likes as the method, not the goal per se. Why diminish it? Or, in reality, do its practitioners easily fall prey to the temptations of selfie tricks? Thereby fatally undermining the authenticity that distinguishes EyeBody from other dieting trends?

Until next week.

Related Posts:

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

“Fuse Seoul” Clothing Brand Subverts Gender Stereotypes, Offers Women Comfortable Clothing. What’s Not to Love?

Estimated Reading Time: 7 minutes. Source: Fuse Seoul.

There’s just something about the Fuse Seoul underwear featured in this ad. Why do so many women want to get their hands on it?

One big reason is that despite appearances, the underwear is actually for women, produced by a company not shy about picking and choosing from features standard for menswear to offer women more comfortable options. As CEO Kim Su-jeong explained shortly after the company’s founding in October 2018:

“앞으로도 다양한 체형의 모델을 기용하고, 그동안 남성들만 누리던 ‘의복혜택’을 여성복에도 적극 도입할 것”이라고 설명했다.

“We will continue to use models of various body types and actively introduce the ‘clothing benefits’ that only men have enjoyed so far.”

…퓨즈서울은 단순히 스타일을 넘어서 그동안 남성복에게만 적용되어왔던 자켓 안주머니, 히든 스트레치밴딩, 넉넉한 바지주머니와 밑위길이를 여성사이즈에 맞게 제작하여 품절대란을 일으키기도 한 바 있다고 업체 측은 전했다.

…the company goes beyond just a style, reporting that they’ve been unable to meet the demand for their clothes with jacket inner pockets, hidden stretch banding, generous trouser pockets, and rise lengths appropriate for the wearer’s size, all features which are usually only found in menswear. 

Further elaborating on her motivations in an interview in July 2020 (source, right):

“점점 여성복 사이즈가 줄어들고 있어요. 지난 5년간 눈에 띄게 보이는 현상입니다. 예전에는 27인치가 M사이즈였는데, 지금은 27인치가 L사이즈가 됐습니다. 브랜드마다 사이즈도 다릅니다. 왜 여성복은 규격이 일정하지 않은지, 여성복 디자이너로서 그 이유를 알고 싶었어요.

“The size of womenswear has definitely been decreasing over the past five years. Previously, 27 inches was considered a medium size, but now 27 inches is considered a large. Different brands have different sizes too. As a womenswear designer, I wanted to know how and why the standards were constantly changing.

어느날 남동생 옷을 입었는데 정말 편했습니다. 남자 형제가 있는 사람들은 대부분 남성복이 얼마나 편한지 알 겁니다. 그 때부터 남성복을 연구하기 시작했습니다. 남성복은 여성복에 비해 사이즈 혼란도 변동도 거의 없습니다. 브랜드가 달라도 규격은 거의 같아 편하게 구매할 수 있습니다.”

One day, I was wearing my brother’s clothes, and they were really comfortable. Most people with brothers will know how comfortable menswear is. From then on, I began to study menswear. Compared to womenswear, menswear shows little confusion or change in size. Even with different brands, the sizes and specifications are almost the same, so you can easily purchase what you need.”

Another reason is because they’re tired of the tropes surrounding the advertising of women’s underwear, which this ad completely upended:

Source: @Harang_0601, in response to a since deleted tweet that featured the images below:
Source: Fuse Seoul.

Translation: “I can’t even think of the model as a woman, I thought this was an advertisement for men’s underwear…That just goes to show how much usual women’s underwear advertisements are shot for a male gaze, and how women are so used to that… Only tears remain.”

Sources: @Yuzru12 and @NDG_0_0.

Translation: This the difference between gazing and being the subject of the gaze… One the left is a harmless and passive pose for the male-gaze, whereas the right model has a strong stare back at the viewer. What to make of the exposure of women’s bodies also varies greatly depending how the picture was taken and viewers’ points of view.

On their own Twitter account, Fuse Seoul themselves stressed their deliberate attempt at machismo:

Source: @fuseseoul.

Translation: The aim with this Prince Gwanghaethemed pictorial was to go beyond simple mirroring by using a macho image, formerly considered exclusively for men, in a female photoshoot. But please note this wasn’t intended to be a critique of any specific vendor.

And on a woman becoming king:

Source: @fuseseoul.

Translation: I think that when a woman becomes a king, she can not only become a more effective politician, but can also become a more vicious king.

In hindsight, it should have been obvious that another reason for the attention was that the model, dressed as male royalty and posed with all the confidence and machismo of a typical men’s underwear ad, is a woman herself, a crossfit trainer known as Shark Coach, a.k.a. Shark Lee and Lee Yun-ju (Instagram, Twitter, YouTube). Here’s a video of her preparing for the photoshoot:

And CEO Kim Su-jeong, who has a youtube channel of her own, on some of the elements that went into the shoot:

Yet throughout much of the research and writing of this piece, frankly I was completely mistaken about Shark Coach’s sex.

One reason is because Korean male celebrities were featured in ads for bras as long ago as the early-2010s. Albeit not so much wearing them, as promoting the idea that if women purchase a brand and style he endorses, “it might even be him who one day helps them take it off.” Another is that Korean men’s clothing company Uncoated, for one, uses a female model to model its underwear. So it wouldn’t be too much of a leap for a progressive women’s clothing company like Fuse Seoul to likewise reverse the sexes in its own ads.

Source: donor2222.
Source: Uncoated.

That being said, more relevant are two biases behind my mistake. First, a benign one: due to underwear reviews by YouTuber Daisy, a late-20s Korean woman I’ve long subscribed to who covers everything from cosmetics to sex toys on her channel (In Korean, but she writes her own English and Japanese CC translations), I’ve become very persuaded that the distinctions between men’s and women’s underwear aren’t quite as distinct as those I grew up with. So, again, I wasn’t at all fazed to see a man model “women’s” underwear:

(But because it would be strange to include those reviews but nothing about the Fuse Seoul underwear, here is one I’ve been able to find.)

(And here’s Kim Su-jeong on why this underwear is such a big deal.)

I can’t in good conscience not also mention and highly-recommend “natural-size” model and YouTuber Cheedo a.k.a. Park Lee-sul too, who I’ve also long been a subscriber to (but who provides no English subtitles unfortunately). Despite rarely discussing underwear specifically, she has a lot to say about the escape the corset corset and no-bra movement, further convincing me of the changes to women’s fashions underway. Actually, you may recognize her from a BBC video about that:

But the main reason for my mistake, of course, is because I thought Shark Coach looked like a man.

I don’t doubt for a minute that many of you did too, and I don’t feel embarrassed about it. But on the other hand, just a few days ago Shark Coach herself complained on Youtube about being constantly misgendered. And it’s precisely such gender stereotyping and rushes to judgement that Fuse Seoul is encouraging people to avoid.

Source: @crossfit_shark

I will try. I’m glad to say too, that Fuze Seoul’s approach seems to be making some progress: for a time, this underwear was the most sought-after item of its kind on ZigZag, a Korean app for women’s clothing.

But what do you think of the ad? Will you buy the underwear, or any of their other gender-neutral clothes? How to address the many remaining doublestandards (NSFW) in just the advertising of underwear alone?

Source: @rad_bunsbian.

Please let me know in the comments!

Related Posts:

How Slut-Shaming and Victim-Blaming Begin in Korean Schools

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

Revealing the Korean Body Politic, Part 7: Keeping abreast of Korean bodylines

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

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

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

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

Researchers Announce “Asian” and “Western” Beauty Ideals Based on 3D Photos of Miss Korea and Miss Paraguay Contestants—Get Repeated Uncritically by Korean Media

3D facial photography is a promising new approach for researching beauty ideals, but studies based on beauty pageant contestants alone should not be presumed to speak for entire populations.

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes. Photo (cropped) by JC Gellidon on Unsplash

Last week saw a textbook case of how not to report about beauty ideals.

The catalyst was a press release by the Catholic University of Korea (CUK). Widely copied and pasted across the Korean media, the title of the sole English translation was “S. Koreans Prefer Women with ‘Oval Face, Wide Forehead, and Small Lips’.”

The problem is, they don’t, necessarily.

Rather, what should have been reported was that a joint Saudi, US, Paraguayan, and Korean Dentistry and Orthodontics research team, including one professor from CUK, had announced they’d discovered commonalities in the facial differences between Miss Korea 2012 and Miss Paraguay 2013 contestants.

Then, when the announcement went straight to the researchers’ conclusions, as in this article from Yonhap

연구팀은 미스코리아 54명과 미스파라과이 34명을 대상으로 3D 카메라로 얼굴 정면과 측면을 특수 촬영해 길이 및 각도를 측정했다. 측정값을 기준으로 인종에 따른 심미성 차이를 평가하고, 두 결과를 서양인의 대표적인 황금비(golden ratio)와 비교했다.

The research team measured various lengths and angles of the faces of 54 Miss Korea and 34 Miss Paraguay contestants by using special photographs of the fronts and sides of their faces using a 3D camera. The differences in racial beauty standards were determined based on the differences in the measured values between the two groups, and each groups’ results were also compared with the golden ratio, [a representative ideal of facial beauty for Westerners].

Source: Biz Khan.

그 결과 한국인은 전반적으로 갸름한 얼굴형과 넓은 이마, 작은 입술을 선호했지만 파라과이인은 약간 각진 얼굴에 큰 입술을 선호하는 것으로 나타났다. 두 국가가 선호하는 얼굴은 서양에서 이상적인 비율로 판단되는 황금비와도 차이가 있었다.

As a result, it was found that Koreans generally preferred a slim face shape, wide forehead, and small lips [left], but Paraguayans preferred large lips with slightly angular faces [right]. The faces preferred by the two countries were also different from the golden ratio.

…Reporters should have inquired on what grounds researchers made wide, sweeping pronouncements about the entire Korean and Paraguayan populations’ beauty ideals, considering their study was just on a handful of beauty pageant contestants. Either by simply asking, or by reading the study for themselves.

I realize to have expected either was incredibly naive. Quick content and clickbait titles are key, both of which are all the more effective if they confirm readers’ stereotypes. Plus, in fairness, the academic English of the study would have been beyond most Korean reporters.

They could at least have linked to it though. Yet not only did no reporters offer even this bare minimum, many failed to provide any identifying details about the study whatsoever.

So, I sought it out and examined it myself.

Photo by Nicola Fioravanti on Unsplash

That study was “Comparison of facial esthetic standards between Latin American and Asian populations using 3D stereophotogrammetric analysis” in the Journal of the World Federation of Orthodontists, Volume 9, Issue 3, 2020, Pages 129-136, by Mohamed Bayome, Jae Hyun Park, Ahmed M. Shoaib, Nam-ki Lee, Victor Boettner, and Yoon-Ah Kook (please contact me if you can’t get access to any of the studies I mention here). Further adding to the likelihood that no reporters actually read it, last week’s articles included either a picture of CUK Department of Orthodontics Professor Yoon-Ah Kook and/or the earlier graphic supplied by the university (note the watermark), neither of which were in the study.

In short, the researchers make—justify—their mental leap on their argument that beauty pageant judges are objective and representative (p. 130):

“These beauty contestants reached the final stages of the contests based on selections made by the competition panels consisting of media figures, artists and producers, famous plastic surgeons and orthodontists, as well as other community influencers. This means that their opinion plays a principal role in forming the general public opinion.”

Indeed, writing in the Korea Times about the 2019 Korea pageant, Lee Han-na mentions that the “judging panel consisted of experts in the areas of fashion, music and entertainment, joined by actresses and former Miss Koreas.” Which I don’t deny sounds diverse, nor that, say, cosmetic surgeons in particular play a huge role in shaping general public opinion in Korea.

That such groups may be bringing their own subjective preconceptions, worldviews, and agendas to any discussion of beauty however—let alone the six Dentistry and Orthodontics professors involved in this study—seems not to have occurred to them.

Moreover, in the Korean case in particular, beauty pageant judges’ role as gatekeepers is further undermined by the public’s utter disinterest in the event, as well as by ironically choosing a 2018 winner who was far too “fat” for many Korean netizens’ standards. Also, to counter charges of objectification and lookism, contestants’ academic backgrounds, personalities, and performing abilities have been given much more prominence in judging since the early-2000s.

I’ve only been able to find one reporter, Go Jae-won at Donga Science, who suggests that the researchers’ conclusions shouldn’t be taken for granted. To say that journalists were not doing their job here is an understatement:

이번 연구는 미스코리아는 2012년 참가자들의 얼굴을 대상으로 미스파라과이는 2013년도 참가자들을 대상으로 분석이 진행됐다는 점에서 최근 참가자들의 트렌드를 반영하고 있지는 않다는 한계가 있다. 또 미스코리아 참가자들이 한국인들의 평균적인 미적 기준을 반영하고 있다는 근거도 부족하다는 지적도 있다.

By analyzing 2012 Miss Korea and 2013 Miss Paraguay participants, the study has limitations in reflecting recent trends. In addition, some point out that there is a lack of evidence that Miss Korea participants reflect the average aesthetic standards of Koreans.

Another issue was the researchers’ liberal use of overgeneralizing terms such as “Westerners,” which are particularly useless and misleading when talking about beauty preferences and racial differences. So too, was perpetuating the myth that the “golden ratio” is a signifier of beauty, for which there is actually inconclusive evidence at best that it plays any role in attractiveness whatsoever. To be sure, technically they acknowledged that lack, which their study further confirmed, but—jumping ahead—they and/or CUK should have anticipated the ensuing “Westerners just loooove the golden ratio in their women” style of reporting.

Photo by Evelyn Chong from Pexels

But given that the other, explicit aim of the study was “to compare the facial esthetic standards between Paraguayan and Korean beauty pageant contestants,” that was clearly too much to ask. For they were no less careful to restrict their conclusions to only beauty pageant contestants than any tabloid news reporter. For instance, consider the loose generalizations from the introduction (p. 129-130, my emphases):

Attractive Asians are characterized by longer faces than the general population and with less height of lower lip and chin and smaller volumes of chin and cheek. On the other hand, attractive Latin Americans are distinguished by less nasal prominence, large nasolabial angle, less protrusive lips, and less prominence of the chin.

And from the conclusion (p. 136, my emphases):

“From our results, it may be claimed that most Latin American individuals, in general, prefer rectangular faces with wide mouths and large lips, especially the lower lips, whereas in general, most Asian individuals prefer long tapered faces with small mouths and lips [see below]. Even though it might be well-known that the Misses are not selected solely based on their faces, as these contests include various measures, it is quite unlikely to have a qualified finalist who did not have a beautiful face.”

In between those six pages, many various nationalities and racial groups are mentioned, but none are defined. Are Paraguayans included among the Westerners they mention? The Caucasians? It’s all very confusing, and particularly irresponsible for an academic journal article.

Photo by Ike louie Natividad from Pexels

This is a shame, for I believe 3D facial photography is very much a promising new approach into researching beauty ideals, and have no reason nor inclination to dispute the results of this study. Indeed, I’m now overwhelmed by all the intriguing “related articles” to pursue. But the researchers’ conclusions in this one? Peruse the sources used, and conspicuous for their absence are any from sociology, gender, or media studies. Had there been some input from those fields, perhaps the researchers would have been more rigorous with their definitions. In turn, they may have been more restrained in their beliefs that beauty pageant judges were objective and representative, upon which their conclusions rest. And more circumspect in going to the media with them.

These flaws are also evident in a similar study by different researchers published just a few months earlier in The Journal of Cranofacial Surgery (Volume 31, Number 3, May/June 2020. (Which, because of reporters’ unprofessionalism/laziness/crushing deadlines, for a long time I thought was the one actuallybeing referred to.) In that study of 44 Miss Korea and 22 Miss Paraguay contestants (competition years not given), the researchers were ironically much more forthright about the difficulties of determining racial beauty ideals. Yet ultimately, they ended up even more convinced that the beauty pageant contestants possessed objectively-determined, universal-shared racial beauty ideals, a conclusion perhaps facilitated by the cheat of simply referring to Koreans and Paraguayans as “Asian” and “Western” throughout.

Yet it was three of the same researchers behind the first study who already demonstrated the potential of 3D facial photography in an article published in the March 2017 Korean Journal of Orthodontics (47(2):87-99). Specifically, the faces of 52 Miss Korea 2012 contestants and 41 young adult female students of a nursing school at Wonkwang Health Science University were compared, and no overarching conclusions extending to entire Korean population were made.

What they did say? Again, please let me know if you can’t get access, and we could discuss the differences between the groups in the comments, or make them the subjects of another post. Either way, let me be forthright with my own biases from the beginning. Isn’t it uncanny how page 95’s “proportional diagram of the average face from the Miss Korea group (A) and another from the general population group (B)” instantly reminds you a young and middle-aged Jang Yoon-ju? Or is it just me?

With apologies in advance for the unflattering picture, please let me know in the comments!

Sources (cropped): dlscks98, YouTube.

Related Posts:

Busting the Myth of Jeju Island’s Topless Divers

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

If You Don’t Have Kim Yuna’s Vital Statistics, Your Body Sucks and You Will Totally Die Alone

Revealing the Korean Body Politic, Part 7: Keeping abreast of Korean bodylines

Those Damned Double Eyelids…

Korean Sociological Image #49: Lee Hyori has an Asian Bottom?

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

Part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The results:

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

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

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

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

Source: Vippng

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

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

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

Happy 2020 everyone!

Update

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

(Anonymous, used with permission.)

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

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

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

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

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