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

From the moment Korean schoolchildren start developing, and their hormones start raging, Korea’s school uniform codes give them a daily reminder that girls’ bodies should be hidden and controlled.
Sources: left, “How much do you really know me?” by VisualValor/大前, used with permission; right, Mike Rowe, (CC BY-NC 2.0).

More than half of Korean men think revealing clothes lead to rape. Almost as many Korean women do too.

Those and other shocking statistics (English, Korean) come from a survey of 7,200 adults aged 16 to 64 conducted by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family last year. In 2013, a survey of 200 South Gyeongsang Province police officers by the Korea Women’s Development Institute found similar results.

But do those statistics shock though? Really?

Be honest. I know my audience. The fact you’re reading this at all, tells me you’ve probably read similar news before. However much you wish things were different, really you’re no longer surprised at all.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying we shouldn’t be trying to make that difference. In fact, I hope to convince you that the struggle is more important than ever. But, instead of my typical wringing of hands, let me make my case by posing you another question instead: why do people cling so strongly to such patriarchal, victim-blaming beliefs, when the evidence supporting them is non-existent?

Even as far back as 1996 for instance, Korean Women’s groups, lawyers, and academics had thoroughly debunked any supposed links between clothing and sexual assault. Yet still the beliefs remain over two decades later. Despite Korea’s Slutwalks. Despite the Gangnam murder. Despite all the hard work by activists, educators, women’s groups, academics, and lawyers. Despite…you know the rest.

What gives?

While pondering this myself, I came across “This Article Won’t Change Your Mind” by Julie Beck in the Atlantic, about the bases of the post-truth era. And then it clicked:

…[People] will occasionally encounter information that suggests something they believe is wrong. A lot of these instances are no big deal, and people change their minds if the evidence shows they should—you thought it was supposed to be nice out today, you step out the door and it’s raining, you grab an umbrella. Simple as that. But if the thing you might be wrong about is a belief that’s deeply tied to your identity or worldview—the guru you’ve dedicated your life to is accused of some terrible things, the cigarettes you’re addicted to can kill you—well, then people [will] do all the mental gymnastics it takes to remain convinced that they’re right.

Previously, I’d mostly seen this notion of cognitive dissonance raised when an author was talking about religious beliefs. Convincing people of the real causes of rape though? Surely, it was just a matter of presenting the facts?

Patently not. Instead, if those statistics are anything to go by, to many people it is just common sense that a short skirt and an exposed bra strap will lead to rape. Which, just like the notion that the world was created by a supernatural being, or that the mainstream media constantly lies about Trump, is a version of common sense that ultimately derives from some very closely-held beliefs, integral to people’s worldviews and identities. In this case, about sex, gender roles, and male-female interaction. And you don’t get much more fundamental and strongly-held beliefs than those.

That is to say, no abstract surveys by slutty feminazis are ever going to change their minds.

So where then, do these victim-blaming notions of sex and rape come from? In short, from everywhere, which is how come those beliefs are held so strongly.

It’s only a feminist cliche because it’s so true.

Among the many methods and messengers, one is undoubtedly the romanticized depiction of dating violence in Korean dramas. Another is inadequate, heteronormative, marriage and biology-focused sex education, which teaches girls not to be alone with their permanently sexed boyfriends, lest he demand sexual compensation for paying for their date. Another is the government and media encouraging the exposure of women’s and girls’ bodies for soft power, nationalist, and military causes, but discouraging it when it’s of their own accord. Linked to which is women being told to cover up on public transport to prevent upskirt photos, rather than potential perpetrators warned not to take them. And yet another, which will be the focus here, are the double-standards and victim-blaming inherent to Korea’s school uniform rules. They’re such a big deal because, when kids start developing, and when their hormones start raging, they teach fresh young minds how to deal “appropriately” with both—and what punishments girls and women will receive if they don’t learn that lesson.

For those unfamiliar, here’s a taste of what Korean school uniforms are like:

Korean school uniforms have actually had quite a chequered history over the past decade. In the late-2000s to early-2010s, the focus was on their increasing cost, which was partially fueled by retailers’ habit of hiring K-pop stars to promote them; ultimately, the industry announced a voluntary moratorium on celebrity hires, which lasted for about two years. At about the same time, there was a great deal of controversy over girls wearing shorter and shorter skirts, which was tied to the liberalization of students’ rights (more on this later). Annual “naked graduation ceremonies” started hitting the news too, where students would attack their no longer needed, much-hated uniforms with knives and scissors. And then, in late-2015, Korean entertainment mogul JYP came under fire for girl-group TWICE’s overly-sexual and body-shaming advertisements for Skoollooks, which surprised because, JYP’s characteristic, pimp-like demeanor aside, their messages were little different from those which preceded them.

Compare Skoolooks’ 2015 ad with JYP and Momo of Twice (source: Instizwith Smart’s 2008 ad with Shinee and Victoria of f(x) (source: Soompi).

But what of the boys in that history? If they’re mentioned at all, they’re framed as victims, being so distracted by the girls’ uniforms that they’re unable to concentrate—along with their male teachers. Another strong theme is adults stressing how vulnerable the girls are on their commutes, simply for wanting to be fashionable by wearing their skirts high.* Peruse the links, and you sense a collective throwing of hands in the air, as girls are reminded again and again that everything that happens to them is their fault…alongside repeated, titillating, pictures of their offending legs.

(*Related: A recent Al Jazeera report discusses how Japanese schoolgirls are indeed more vulnerable to harassment than adult women, for whom the harassment drops once they graduate and stop wearing school uniforms. But this is because schoolgirls are perceived as less assertive and more vulnerable, and has nothing to do with the make-up of their uniforms per se.)

By coincidence, an ad from an unidentified retailer that popped up the day before publication. The text in the photo reads: A 3D-level bodyline, a 3D design which fits your body perfectly; Capture men’s hearts with the tulipline, a skirt which shows off your body; Control the length of your skirt freely; A very good figure zipper, shows off your good-looking clothes. Source: 라니‏@ComfortnLullaby. (Update: Shortly after publication, Korea Exposé published a more detailed look at the advertisement.)

Yet all these points are already depressingly familiar from similar discussions in Englishspeaking countries. And all of the above links happen to be in English too. So, I want to add something new to the English discussion of Korean uniforms by translating segments of some (mostly) recent Korean-language articles on the subject. Centered around this one:

속옷 입지 않으면 벌점… 황당한 학교 / Absurd Schools Punish Students For Not Wearing Underclothes

Written by Song Min-seo, edited by Son Ji-eun, OhmyNews, 26.02.2017

…지난 2016년 ‘청소년인권행동 아수나로’에서는 온라인을 통해 여성 청소년을 억압하는 서울시 소재 학교의 교칙들에 대한 설문 조사를 실시했다. 200여 건의 응답은 하나같이 학교보다는 수용소를 연상시키는 해괴한 교칙들과 사례들을 담고 있었다. 이 글에서는 해당 설문 내용을 바탕으로, 여성 청소년에게 가해지는 제재와 차별에 대해 다루어 보고자 한다.

…In 2016, the NGO “Asunaro: Action for Youth Rights of Korea” conducted on an online survey of Seoul school students about the ways in which their schools discriminate against and curtail the rights of female students. More than 200 responses revealed a series of bizarre rules and practices more reminiscent of concentration camps than of modern schools. In this article, I would like to discuss what sanctions and discrimination against women and youth emerged from the questionnaire.

The first part deals with restrictions on hairstyle and length, and discusses a case of a teacher in a school in Gyeonggi Province, who admonished a student with short hair for looking like a boy, telling her it wasn’t feminine enough and that men wouldn’t like her. Then later:

…복장 규제 또한 여전히 나아진 것 하나 없이 잔재한다. 치마 끝이 무릎 밑 몇 센티미터, 혹은 위 몇 센티미터에 오는지 재는 것은 빈번하고, 일정한 기간을 두고 복장을 대대적으로 검사하는 학교도 있었다. 한 학교는 여학생을 의자 위에 세워 놓고 교사가 자를 들고 치마 길이를 잰다. 이 행위는 학생들의 의사를 전혀 묻지 않은 채 강제적으로 이루어지고, 심지어 남교사도 참여한다. 응답자는 이 행위에 수치심을 느꼈다고 말한다.

…[Despite the Seoul City Council’s Students’ Rights Ordinance of 2011], uniform regulations showed little to no improvement also. Requirements that skirt lengths come to a minimum of a few centimeters above the knee, or even below the knee, were very common, and some schools regularly checked them. For those checks, all the girls in the classroom are required to stand on their chairs while the teacher measures the length of the skirts [This is discussed in several of the videos above—James]. This check is compulsorily, with no concern given to the students’ opinions or feelings at all, even if it’s a male teacher doing the checking. Respondents said that they felt very embarrassed and ashamed by these checks.

Let’s pause from the article for a moment with news about one such inspection:

“왜 이렇게 짧아” 교복 들어 올린 교사 ‘강제추행’ / “Why is Your Skirt So Short?” Lifting a Student’s Skirt Ruled ‘Indecent Act by Force/Compulsion’

MBN, 09.09.2015

A transcript (via MBN), with my translation:

지난 2013년 서울의 한 고등학교. 교사 56살 박 모 씨는 교실에서 자기소개서를 쓰고 있던 한 여학생에게 다가가 왜 이렇게 치마가 짧냐며 교복 치마를 들어 올렸습니다.

이 과정에서 여학생의 속바지가 드러났고, 박 씨는 강제추행 혐의로 재판에 넘겨졌습니다.

박 씨는 단지 복장 불량을 지적하려고 치마 끝자락을 잡아 흔들었을 뿐 추행하려는 의도가 없었다고 주장했습니다.

하지만, 1, 2심 모두 유죄로 보고 벌금 5백만 원을 선고했습니다.

공개된 교실에서 16살 여학생의 치마를 들어 올린 것은 객관적으로 볼 때 성적 수치심을 일으키는 행위라는 겁니다.

또 강제추행죄는 꼭 동기나 목적이 있어야 성립하는 것은 아니라고 판단했습니다.

피해 여학생이 치마를 살짝 건드린 것이라며 처벌을 원치 않는다고 진술했지만 받아들여지지 않았습니다.

처음 조사에서 속바지가 훤히 비쳐 수치스러웠다고 진술했기 때문에, 합의 과정에서 진술을 바꾼 것으로 판단한 겁니다.

대법원 역시 상고를 기각하고 박 씨에게 강제추행죄를 적용해 벌금형을 확정했습니다.

In a Seoul high school in 2013, a 56 year-old male teacher identified only as “Mr. Park” grabbed the skirt of a female student who was writing a self-introduction letter, lifting it as he accused the student of having a skirt that was too short. In the process, the student’s underwear was exposed, and Mr. Park was accused of causing an “Indecent Act by Force/Compulsion.”

In his defense, Park insisted that he did not intend for the student to expose herself, but only to grab and shake the end of the skirt to point out that it was too short. However, it was judged that raising a girl’s skirt in a classroom in front of others is always an act of sexual shaming, regardless of the intent or motivation. Consequently, he was found guilty in both his first sentencing and by the Supreme Court in his appeal, receiving a fine of 5 million won.

Back to the article:

여학생이 무조건 교복 치마만 착용하도록 여학생의 바지 착용을 교칙으로 금지한 학교도 있다. 19세기도 아닌 21세기에, 학교 밖 여성들은 자유롭게 원하는 옷을 입는데, 학교만이 아직도 여성에게 바지를 착용하지 못하게 하는 19세기에 머물러 있는 것이다.

Some schools prohibit schoolgirls from wearing pants, only allowing them to wear school uniform skirts. But this is the 21st century, not the 19th, and away from our schools girls and women can wear what they want freely. Why do schools seem so firmly entrenched in the past?

And another break already sorry, because this pants vs. skirts issue was a big deal for me back in 2011, when I was concerned that my daughters would ultimately have no choice but to attend a skirts-only Korean middle school (my eldest daughter was starting elementary school then). Fortunately, we ultimately found an underfunded but otherwise lovely multicultural school for them, which among its many other benefits doesn’t actually have a uniform. But reading the above suddenly got me was curious as to how many Korean schools still insist [only] their female students freeze every winter:

교사 ‘성차별’ 발언 등 여학생 인권침해 여전 / Teachers Are Still Violating Female Students’ Rights Through Sexist Language and Verbal Attacks

Kwon Su-jin, Veritas, 07.03.17

…여학생에게 치마교복만 입도록 할 경우 성차별적 관행이 될 수 있다는 점에서 여학생의 바지 교복 선택권을 보장해야 한다는 내용도 담았다. 2015년 서울교육청 학생생활규정 점검 결과 ‘치마와 바지 선택권 조항’이 있는 학교 비율은 중학교 73%(281교), 고등학교 59%(189교)에 그쳤다.

…it was stated that girls should have the right to choose school uniforms because it is a sex discrimination practice if girls are allowed to wear skirt school uniforms. According to the Seoul City Education Office, in 2015 the ratio of schools with optional skirts or pants was only 73 percent (281 schools) of middle schools and 59 percent (189 schools) among high schools.

Note that this only refers to Seoul schools, and that the Seoul City Council Students’ Rights Ordinance of 2011 was only followed to varying degrees by schools in the rest of the country; consequently, the nationwide figures are likely to be lower. Continuing:

‘여학생다움’을 강조한 두발, 복장 기준의 개선도 필요하다고 봤다. 여학생과 남학생에게 상이한 기준을 적용한 용의복장 규정 여부를 점검해야 한다는 내용이다. 상담 사례에 따르면 학교평판을 이유로 여학생은 춥더라도 치마만 입어야 한다는 교칙이 있는 학교도 있었다.

I [the author] think that it is necessary to improve dress codes, which currently seem to be focused on female students. It is necessary to check for double-standards. According to a case heard by the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education’s Students’ Rights Center for instance, one school had a rule that girls should wear only skirts “because of the school’s reputation.”

Back to the main article:

학교 안의 여성들은 스타킹의 색깔마저도 하나하나 통제당한다. 이상한 점은, 스타킹 색에 관한 규제가 학교마다 통일되지 않았다는 점이다. 어떤 학교는 검은색만을, 어떤 학교는 살색만을 신게 한다. 그러나 이유는 같다. ‘야해 보이기 때문’이다. 스타킹 색마저도 성적 대상화의 소재가 되는 것이다.

The color of girls’ stockings is controlled by schools too. What is strange is that the rules for those aren’t uniform [no pun intended—James], but vary widely depending on the school. Some schools demand black stockings only, some schools demand flesh-colored ones. But in each case, the justification is the same: “It has to be dull.” It seems even stockings’ colors are considered a potential source of sexual objectification and sexualization.

응답자 A의 학교에서는 카디건을 허리에 묶는 것을 금지하는 교칙이 있었다. 허리 라인이 드러나서 선정적으로 보인다는 것이 근거라면 근거였다. 이 교칙은 여학생에게만 해당되었고, 당연하게도 여학생의 반발을 샀다. 그러자 학교가 취한 조치는 교칙을 없애는 것이 아닌 남학생에게도 똑같은 규칙을 적용하는 것이었다.

One respondent to Asunaro’s survey had a school rule that prohibited cardigans from being taken off and tied around the waist, as this was considered to draw attention to and sexualize the wearers’ waistlines. Of course, this rule only applied to girls, who complained a lot about it. In response, the school didn’t just eliminate the rule, but decided to apply it to boys as well.

머리부터 발톱까지… 그것도 모자라 속옷도 통제 / From Student’s Heads to Their Toenails…Even the Underwear They Can Wear is Controlled

여성 청소년의 속옷까지 통제하는 학교. 변화하지 않는 교칙으로 학교 안 청소년들은 억압받고 있다 / Schools Even Control Female Adolescent Girls’ Underwear. Unchanging School Rules Are Pressuring Female Students. Source: jackmack34@Pixabay.

학교는 여학생의 속옷에 관해서도 교칙을 만들어 규제한다. ‘흰색속옷, 티셔츠, 나시만 허용’, ‘작년까지는 셔츠 속에 나시 입는 것 금지, 현재는 무채색이고 프린팅 없는 티만 가능하고 꼭 입어야함. 브라만 차고 셔츠 입어도 벌점’. ‘브라 등 속옷 입지 않으면 벌점’.

Schools regulate female students’ underwear with such rules as “Only white underwear, t-shirts, and vests are allowed” at one school; at another, “Until last year, wearing vests under shirts was prohibited. Now, you have to wear a vest or t-shirt over your bra [and under your shirt], otherwise you get punished. But only black or white t-shirts are permitted, with no prints on them”; and at another “You get punished if you don’t wear a bra or other type of underwear.”

이상한 것은, 이런 교칙이 있는 대부분의 학교에서는 남학생에 관한 속옷 규제는 없는 경우가 많았다. 여학생만이 더운 여름에도 티셔츠(심지어 프린팅도 색도 없는), 나시, 브래지어를 껴입어야 하는 상황이다. 게다가 이러한 교칙들이 존재하는 이유를 물으면 ‘성범죄 유발 가능성이 있기 때문’이라고 답한다. 성범죄의 잘못이 가해자가 아닌 피해자에게 있는 것이라고 말하는 것과 같다.

Strangely, in most schools with these rules, there was usually no underwear regulation for boys. Only girls have to wear t-shirts (even with their colors regulated), vests, and bras, even in the hot summer months. In addition, if you ask what these rules are for, the answer is they’re because of the increased possibility of sex crimes without them. It’s like when such crimes occur, that it’s the victims’ faults, not the perpetrators’.

A quick addition to those rules:

바지교복 금지·생리공결제 미준수…학교 ‘여학생 인권’ 실종 / Prohibiting Pants, Not Provided Mandated Menstrual Leave…Schools Are Violating Female Students’ Rights

Anonymous author, Money Today, 07.03.2017.

불합리한 교칙으로 불편을 겪는 여학생도 있다. 서울 B고등학교는 여학생의 경우 무조건 검정구두에 흰 양말을 신어야 한다. 혹한기에만 한시적으로 운동화를 허용하기도 했으나 학교가 정한 디지인만 신을 수 있다. 이 학교에 다니는 한 여학생은 “차가운 구두를 신고 미끄러운 길을 걸을 때면 다칠까봐 불안하다”고 토로했다.

There are other ways in which female students suffer from unreasonable uniform requirements. At one high school in Seoul, girls could only white socks with black shoes, or, for a very limited time in winter, sneakers specially designed by the school. A girl at the school said, “I’m worried about getting hurt in my cold shoes when I walk on icy roads.” [I’m guessing she’s referring to the black shoes?—James.]

The next section of the main article deals with rules about cosmetics, and the sexual language used and/or stereotypes raised by teachers as they punish the students that flout them. That doesn’t just happen when enforcing cosmetics rules of course, and indeed is so often mentioned by the above articles above that I may cover it in a separate post later. But for now, the article concludes:

학교는 이처럼 아주 당연하게, 청소년을 보호 또는 교육한다는 허울 좋은 명목으로 자신이 원하는 자신의 모습을 직접 결정할 권리를 앗아간다. 이러한 학교에서 여성은 누군가에게 자신의 몸이 통제당하는 것이 이상한 일이 아니라고, 당연하다고 생각할 수밖에 없다. 학생의 모습, 학생의 표본을 교사의 권력과 폭력적인 언어로 규정하는 이상하고 작은 낡고 폐쇄적인 사회, 이런 작은 사회 안에 밀어넣어지는 여성들. 그들이 “내 몸은 내가 알아서 할게!”라고 외칠 수 있게끔 더 많은 여성청소년인권에 관한 지지와 관심이 필요하다.

Schools have to decide for themselves if they want to be known for “protecting” or for educating youth. In the meantime, the young women in them can not help but think how strange it is that their own bodies are so controlled by others. This is such a strange, small-minded, old, and closed society that judges the appearance of its students so, that allows for teachers to abuse their powers to this extent, and that so readily restrains women with such rules and such violent language. We need more support for and concern about the human rights of women and youth so that they can grow to stand up as independent adults who can say, “I will be the one to take care of my own body!”.

Source: Isabel Santos Pilot, (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

It’s not all doom and gloom though. Let me end with a segment about a school where the students’ rights ordinance has been fully implemented, and what positive changes it has brought to the school’s educational culture:

“교복 위 패딩 안돼”…‘학생인권’ 관심 늘었지만 갈 길 멀어 / “No Padding Allowed in Uniforms”…Interest in Students’ Rights Has Increased But Still Has Far to go

Kim Ji-yun, Hankyoreh, 31.01.17

…조례가 교육 현장에서 잘 안착해 의미를 보여주고 있는 사례도 있다. 서울 금옥여자고등학교에는 ‘금옥인권위원회’라는 이름의 동아리가 있다. 소속 35명의 학생들은 차별금지와 의사표현의 자유, 학습에 관한 권리 등 조례 속 정신을 녹여낸 6개의 소위원회에서 활동한다. 이민혁 담당교사는 “학생인권, 장애인권, 여성인권, 아동학대예방 등 학생들의 관심사에 따라 자발적인 소위원회를 꾸려가고 있다”며 “고등 교육과정을 마친 학생들이 졸업 뒤 사회 구성원이 되어서도 조례로부터 시작한 관심을 지속하길 바란다”고 전했다.

There are cases where the students’ rights ordinance has been fully implemented and is beginning to have a real influence. For example, there is a club named “Geumok Human Rights Committee” in Geumok Women’s High School in Seoul. Of the 35 students that belong to it, there are further grouped into six subcommittees that focus on different areas of the ordinance, including such as discrimination prevention, freedom of expression, and the right to learning. Geumok Women’s High School teacher Lee Min-hyeok said of them, “We are making voluntary subcommittees based on students’ interests, such as student rights, disability rights, women’s human rights, and child abuse prevention.” I hope the students continue fighting for these causes after they graduate.”

이 교사는 “학생인권소위원회의 경우 최저시급, 근로계약서 작성법 등 청소년노동권을 비롯해 ‘휴식권’(조례 10조)을 주제로 야간자율학습에 관한 토론을 진행했다”며 “차별받지 않을 권리에 주목한 장애인권소위원회는 근처 중학교에서 ‘장애 이해교육’을 진행할 만큼 내실 있는 활동을 펼쳤다”고 말했다. “서울 남영동의 경찰청 인권보호센터(옛날 대공분실)를 동아리 학생들과 함께 방문한 적이 있습니다. 권리침해로부터 보호받을 권리, 양심·종교의 자유 등 조례 내용을 마중물로 근현대사 교육까지 진행할 수 있었죠.”

Lee continued, “In the case of the Student Human Rights Subcommittee, we recently had a discussion night on the theme of the minimum wage. Another subcommittee on disability rights was able to carry out activities that increased their understanding of disability education and came up with ideas that will be utilized at nearby junior high schools.[An unidentified student] said, “With my clubmates, I visited the Human Rights Protection Center of the National Police Agency in Namyeong-dong in Seoul, and learned a lot about my rights of protection, my rights of freedom of conscience and religion, and so on.”

인권동아리 단장으로 활동한 금옥여고 3학년 김조은양은 “보통 학생은 억압받는 게 당연하다고 여기는데, 조례 제정을 씨앗으로 삼아 우리의 의무와 권리에 대해 생각해볼 수 있었다”며 “성별, 나이, 장애로 차별받지 않는 사회를 꿈꾸게 됐고 조례 등 정책의 중요성도 깨닫게 됐다”고 전했다.

Kim Jo-eun, a third grade student at the school and former president of the club, said, “Students these days think it is normal to be oppressed. But using the rights ordinance as a spark, I began to learn about my human rights. I could dream of a society in which I was not oppressed, and I realized the importance of policies such as ordinances that could make that happen. “

조례를 통해 학교 문화를 민주적으로 바꾸는 사례도 있지만 갈 길은 여전히 멀다. 2015년 11월27일 서울시의회 교육위원회 장인홍 의원이 공개한 ‘(서울시교육청 관내) 중·고등학교 학교규칙 점검 결과’에 따르면, 중·고교 702곳 가운데 87%(609곳)는 여전히 교칙에 두발 길이·염색·파마 등에 관한 엄격한 규제를 두고 있다.

There are more cases where a school’s culture has become more democratic through the students’ rights ordinance, but there is still much to be done. According to a inquiry published by the Seoul Metropolitan City Council on November 27, 2015, 87 percent (609) of the 702 middle and high schools examined still had strict regulations on the dyeing and perming of hair, and so on.

Let me conclude by returning to Beck’s article in the Atlantic that inspired this post. After noting that group discussions are much more effective than lectures for changing hearts and minds, she concludes herself that:

“One real advantage of group reasoning is that you get critical feedback,” McIntyre [a research fellow at the Center for Philosophy and History of Science at Boston University] says. “If you’re in a silo [like Facebook], you don’t get critical feedback, you just get applause.”

But if the changes are going to happen at all, it’ll have to be “on a person-to-person level,” Shaw says.

He tells me about a patient of his, whose family is involved in “an extremely fundamentalist Christian group. [The patient] has come to see a lot of problems with the ideology and maintains a relationship with his family in which he tries to discuss in a loving and compassionate way some of these issues,” [former cult member Daniel Shaw] says. “He is patient and persistent, and he chips away, and he may succeed eventually.”

“But are they going to listen to a [news] feature about why they’re wrong? I don’t think so.”

When someone does change their mind, it will probably be more like the slow creep of Shaw’s disillusionment with his guru. He left “the way most people do: Sort of like death by a thousand cuts.”

And on that note, please do share this post with friends, family members, and/or coworkers that you wouldn’t usually—if just one changes their mind, then the last two weeks(!) spent on it will have been worth it. And who knows? Maybe that person’s influence will ultimately lead to a school changing its uniform rules too.

Please also note that I’ve never taught in a Korean school, and haven’t taught Korean teens in over seven years, so I would really appreciate any feedback on anything in this post, especially if you have any recent experience at/with either. Thanks!

Brains & Beauty: With Korean women achieving higher education, why do so many rely on the scalpel?

Hanbok Fashion Show(Source: Republic of Korea; CC BY-SA 2.0)

“I believe in equality and love the Free the Nipple movement. After four years in Korea, I am still intrigued by its thirst for modernity mixed with its fear of losing its cultural past, sometimes to the point of schizophrenia.”

And with that self-introduction, how could I not accept Manouchka Elefant’s proposed guest post?

As well as being a long-time reader, she’s also a Swiss recipient of the NIIED scholarship, and has just completed her Master’s in finance at Yonsei University (see here for her LinkedIn bio). She adds:

“Anyways, a few friends read my paper [for my Modern Korean Society & Culture class] and found it very interesting and suggested I publish it. Since your blog is my reference on the subject I thought I’d send it to you.”

Flattery will get readers everywhere. So, without any further ado, let me present her post:

Introduction

Women in Korea have come a long way since the beginning of the century. They have more freedom, greater access to education, and higher spending power thanks to their increasing participation in the workforce. This emancipation of women has been accompanied by a seemingly paradoxical phenomenon: the explosion of the beauty industry and in particular the normalization of plastic surgery procedures. Per capita, South Korea is the number one country for non-invasive and invasive plastic surgery performed and counts the highest number of plastic surgeons (Raitt 2014). The peninsula’s history and Confucian heritage has a tremendous impact on women’s growth in society as well as on contemporary beauty ideals. Today cosmetic surgery can be seen as the two sides of a same coin, it is both an appropriation of one’s body and conformation to society’s expectations of women in Korea.

Historical heritage

Analyzing womanhood in Korea requires us to understand the country’s Confucian heritage and its revolutions. Typically, the contemporary obsession for beauty in Korea is seen as “conformity to patriarchal version of femininity in order to maximize women’s chances of success in marriage and the economy” (Ruth Holliday 2012). However, in a relatively short period, the Confucian ideal has gone through a lot of transformations, notably in the 1930’s and after the Japanese occupation.

Confucian Ideal

Confucian scholars would be quite surprised to see that Korean people no longer appreciate women with beautiful moon faces. In their time, “virtuous femininity” meant that upper class women conformed to an exacting Confucian decorum (Ruth Holliday 2012). Whether a wife, mother, or daughter, a woman’s self was fully dependent on that of men. They were restricted to the domestic sphere, and their success was in their “ability to mimic a concealed and deferential ideal, defined by virginity or maternity” (Ruth Holliday 2012).  Chastity and modesty were highly valued and expected of women from a young age (Lee 2014). To some extent, Korean women are still expected to portray an image of innocence and modesty no matter their age.

Also inherited from the Choson dynasty is the concept of embodying one’s social class through one’s appearance, with the “practice of displaying social status through class-appropriate clothing and decorum, and the ways in which they are interpolated in neoliberal discourses of self-improvement and class mobility are evident in the ways in which cosmopolitan subjectivity is embodied through cosmetic surgery as a sign of a desired class, social or gendered identity” (Elfving-Hwang 2013), leading to one of the theories behind cosmetic surgery as a way to achieve social class identity, which seems to be only part of the phenomenon.

Modern Girl

The 1920-1930’s with its fun flapper girls in the West, dancing to jazz and smoking were in stark contrasts to the Confucian doctrine, yet this new “modern girl” had a strong impact on Korean women and their an seok-ju modern womanaspiration to emancipate themselves from constraining paternalism (appendix 1, source: Gusts of Popular Feeling; rather than in the original separate appendix, I’ve posted images and tables as they came up—James). The modern girl’s short hair was in direct clash with Confucian values and was seen by many as a sexual revolution (Chung 2012). However, the modern girl was associated to decadence, bourgeoisie, and conspicuous consumption.  “A woman drawing attention to her own sexuality – body and desire- was frowned upon in traditional Korea” and the modern girl came to symbolize more than women’s freedom, but also the “fracturing of class [poor versus bourgeois] and citizenship [Korean versus Japanese]” (Chung 2012).

Furthermore, the modern girl was not a mere imitation of Japanese or American influences, it went deeper than hair and clothes, “it mirrored the changing social consciousness, the collective identity of traditional womanhood as an aspect of modernity and modern conditions in colonial Korea” (Chung 2012).

Additionally, the modern girl “challenged the traditional gender roles and centuries of Confucian morality by accumulating products that enhanced female beauty and sexuality” (Chung 2012), which also meant that one was able to alter their appearance and other’s perception of them through consumption. We can wonder if it was a precursor to contemporary Korea’s constant availability of cosmetics and clothing shops.

However, in the context of occupied Korea, the modern girl was highly criticized for being influenced by the Japanese media and to some extent for supporting the colonial agenda. It was seen as another way in which Japan attempted to impose itself as a modernizer over Korea and that “the modern girl phenomenon evolved in the framework of this cultural and economic subordination of the era, which led to its conflicting popular reception” (Chung 2012). Paradoxically, people were attracted to this new image of femininity, spurring their “voyeuristic participation in mass culture, titillating the public while inviting condemnation at the same time” (Chung 2012). It can be similarly observed with today’s pop-culture idols, with the public simultaneously attracted by these sophisticated girl bands while criticizing their over-sexualized image.

Wise Mother Good Wife

At the other end of the spectrum is the ideal of wise mother good wife and although it also served to empower women, its motivations were quite distinct from the modern girl. This concept was at the complicated “intersections of patriarchy, colonialism, nationalism, and western modernity” under which women followed, fought back, or appropriated the predominant male dominated world (Choi 2009).

The wise mother good wife ideology was used by different groups, each with its agenda. Korean nationalists reinforced the role of mothers as educators of Korean children and as supporters for their husbands. Japan’s gender program used it both at home and in colonial Korea “with the aim of producing obedient imperial subjects and an efficient, submissive workforce” (Choi 2009), while protestant missionaries saw it as a way to spread their faith with a “pious mother and wife as a moral guide in the Christian family” (Choi 2009). All of this contributed to the education of women in Korea.

This ideology was deeply rooted in a patrilineal social structure, promoting chastity, marriage and motherhood. It was in direct clash with the modern girl, which was highly criticized for her vanity, her consumption, and her relatively open sexuality. Nevertheless, wise mother good wife also served as a platform to empower women, even if within a restricted domain. The women who “benefited from this education centered in domesticity paved the way to new domains for career women” (Choi 2009). Women were however, not educated for their own benefit and advancement as individual beings, but rather for what they brought to men and society, therefore not for their emancipation. Nonetheless, it set the path towards higher education and more freedom for Korean women.

Women’s Growth in Korean Society

Women’s Education

As we saw, there were several different movements promoting women’s education in Korea, from the protestant missionaries to the Japanese regime. However, some Confucian scholars, influenced by the West, also associated the advancement of women as a sign of a modernized society. They thought that “woman is the foundation of human society and the girder of the house and thus if she is weak or ignorant, she would not be able to fulfill her central role” (Choi 2009).

With Korea’s independence and its efforts towards development, education became widely available to both genders. Educating women therefore was modernizing Korean society, as well as increasing the Higher Education trend for men and women in Koreaworkforces’ overall education level to achieve economic development. In 1966, only 33% of girls went from elementary school to middle school. Similarly, 20% continued to high school and 4% to university. However, by 1998, 61.6% went from middle school to high school and 61.6% to university (Korean Overseas Information Service n.d.). By 2006, the number of women reaching higher education was as high as that of men, with 81.1% and 82.9% respectively entering college and university (table 1)  (Ou-Byung Chae 2008).

This remarkable progress in the number of women achieving higher education also came with its own challenges. Although women achieve higher education there is still a strong gender bias both in the educational curriculum, in the family sphere, and in the workplace.

Women’s Employment

Today, Korea is known for its high educational standards but also for the high inequalities between men and women in the workplace. Last years’ World Economic Forum ranked Korea 111th out of 136 nations in its Global Gender Gap report. While in 2012, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) pay gap report placed Korea in the top of the list with a 39% differences between men and women’s pay (McKay 2014).

Although women have made a lot of progress in Korea’s work environment, according to Statistics Korea’s latest figures, they still only participate for about 50% in the workforce, whereas men reach over 73% participation. Furthermore, the market research firm CEOScore found that in 2013 about 1 out of 1,430 employed women reached a corporate management job against 1 out of every 90 men (McKay 2014). On top of it, Korea also shows the poorest level of female graduate employment among the OECD countries (McKay 2014).

Granting the Korean government has made it part of its objectives to change the situation, a number of factors create this tense work environment for women. It is commonly perceived that women in Korea suffer from higher job discrimination, starting from the hiring process all the way to corporate advancement. The Korean work culture and social expectations of gender roles both have an important effect. High unemployment further reduces women’s chances of finding good jobs, with the economy feeling global pressures and a staggering number of overqualified job hunters, women are often passed over for men in an environment where youth unemployment has been around 8% since 2010 (Park 2014). Both women and men, see being good looking as the next level to compete in the job market and “employment cosmetic surgery” is growing in popularity with both genders (Korean Overseas Information Service n.d.).

Furthermore, preconception of women’s gender roles as mothers and wives results in discrimination in the workplace. The government’s policies to increase women’s participation in the workforce are not “working well because companies still view men and women’s societal duties as different” (McKay 2014). Additionally, the prevalent perception that women are supposed to quit working after getting married to focus on raising children means that “women are being forced to choose between having a career or having a family” (McKay 2014). Very few women go back to work after having had children in Korea, not necessarily by choice. During recruiting, a lot of companies prefer male recruits over young women, apprehensive at the prospect of them getting pregnant (maternity leave cost). As a result, a lot of women choose to delay having a family (Lee 2014).

Breaking the glass ceiling is particularly difficult, with a male dominated work culture. After-work bonding, involving copious amount of alcohol, can improve work relationships and even impact promotions. However, these are not widely considered as appropriate for women, especially if they have children, and whom often don’t want to drink as much as their male colleagues. With numerous reports of male colleagues using alcoholic intoxication as an excuse for sexual harassment, it also puts women in a vulnerable position. Of reported workplace sexual harassment 44.5% of them happened at a hoesik (McKay 2014).

Additionally, there is a strong form of blatant sexism in the workplace. Taking the form of pressure against women not to take roles with responsibilities, to their abilities being questioned on the basis of their gender. Today’s sexism “arises from […] subordination for male authority, especially in the current capitalist environment where women are gradually gaining influence” to the point that some men feel threatened by women taking jobs they consider as being theirs (Lee 2014). Even more, “powerful women are facing negative sentiment among people in general” (Lee 2014).

On top of it all, women are expected to be feminine and complacent, to conform to social expectations (Lee 2014). In Korea, this usually means conforming to the rigid code of beauty.

The Female Ideal of Beauty

In all cultures and societies, beauty norms and representations are not frozen in time, but are constantly changing. The place of women in society has a very strong impact on what is deemed appropriate for their appearance. “Historically, Korea is a nation founded on Confucianism that places women at the bottom of the hierarchy and that treats women as inferior to men” (Lee 2014). Furthermore, Korea seems to be special in the way that the traditional model of beauty from the Choseon era lasted a long time without drastic changes until the country opened up to external influences (voluntarily and involuntarily) and at which point it was completely transformed. During the colonial period new beauty ideals started to emerge, but it is from the 1960’s on that a beauty revolution took place and accelerated with the country’s development.

Korean Beauty Standards

With the rapid transformation of Korea from a rural economy to a developed one, the role of women in society tremendously changed and with it the norms and customs of beauty. Looking back at pictures from the first part of the 20th century (appendix 2, below), we can see women with round faces, often with a center part in their hair. For many centuries, thick glossy hair, fair skin, thin eyebrows and small lips were the symbols of beauty. Make-up was often home-made from spices and plants and used minimally to enhance features. It was only acceptable for entertainment ladies to wear white powder or colorful products. In the 1930’s the Korean garb still was the norm and only very wealthy women would occasionally wear western clothing. Since the Choseon period (1392-1919) a simple yet elegant appearance, associated with a dignified behavior and humble manners, were considered the quintessence of beauty and elegance following Confucian standards. However, as the country suffered from poverty, most women did not have the means to spend on their appearance, only wealthy women could. Western fashions were for the wealthy and city folks while the average person still wore traditional clothes. “Korea was not a strong country, and people’s efforts to protect and preserve their identity served to strengthen their conservative values” (Lee 2014), which also translated in the way they portrayed themselves. This shifted slowly until the 1980s when Korean clothes started being reserved for special occasions and western fashion became the norm.

Examples of Korean women in the 1900’s(Appendix 2, L-R: Portrait of four women, Peng Yang, Korea, 1924; Bride, Gishu, Korea, 1926; A young ‘kisaeng’ in full Korean traditional dress, ca. 1904. Source: University of Southern California Library)

After the war, Korea opened up further to western culture, which became synonymous with development and modernity. Until the 1987 Democracy Movement “Confucian tradition was largely responsible for dictating the roles of women” (Lee 2014) and with it the way they should present themselves in society, but The 'S' Shapethis new era transformed both the role of women, bringing them from the home to the workplace, and the perception of beauty. “Under consumer capitalism Korean women’s bodies have entered the public sphere, no longer hidden away but now available for scrutiny and consumption” (Ruth Holliday 2012).

In Korea, there is tremendous pressure on women to conform, and most women are conscious of the “harsh criticism that comes when [they] deviate from the norm” (Lee 2014), leading to a strictly defined beauty ideal. The contemporary beauty ideal is quite far from the prevalent model of only 20 years ago. Nowadays, the Korean ideal of beauty looks nothing like the moon-shaped beauties of the past. Fair skin is still admired, but beautiful features are singularly different than in the past. Eyes should be big and open, the bridge of the nose should be high and its tip slender, the face should be small with a narrow jaw, the body should be very slight yet show an “S” shaped curves (appendix 3, source: The Grand Narrative). To some extent, this new ideal looks more like a comic book character than a realistic image of women, and can rarely be achieved without constraining one’s body or altering it drastically through cosmetic procedures. Yet it is omnipresent in the media, advertising, and in the messages directed to children from an early age (appendix 4).

Bean paste S-line V-line(Appendix 4: Messages directed to young children carry messages of beauty, physiognomy and conformity, here in an advertisement for bean paste. Source: The Grand Narrative)

This standardization of beauty is especially strong among young women who want to emulate celebrities and are constantly being reminded by the media and society that showing good care for one’s appearance is essential for achieving a good marriage and a successful life. The popularity of cosmetic surgery is such that it is considered normal for celebrities to be redone and still represent role models. It is hence no wonder that Korea is the countries with the highest number of children having plastic surgery and double eyelid surgery is a common gift for graduation from parents.

The paradox goes even further, asking women to embody simultaneously images of innocence and purity, while being glamourous and exciting to the male gaze. However, “expressions of sexual subjectivity remain a big taboo in Korea” where we “can have a 25 year-old’s S-line quite literally highlighted for a heterosexual male gaze, but heaven forbid she admit to having sexual feelings and experience herself” (Turnbull 2012).

Standardization of beauty is also spread through the assignment of different letters to exemplify the ideal shape, “while this practice is seemingly frivolous on the surface, it actually belies much more pernicious trends in society at large, when you have celebrities vocally espousing their alphabet-lines and therefore actually objectifying themselves as a conglomeration of “perfect” body parts rather than as whole, genuine people” (Turnbull 2013).

Fueling the Korean cosmetic industry’s steady growth of more than 10% per year for the last few years, the beauty obsession is constant, from adds for plastic surgery and dieting in public transportation to the “mushrooming cosmetic shops, which have increased 37% a year on average” (Raitt 2014). In a patriarchal society where women are not yet treated as equals, these all reinforce the belief that “pretty girls are more valuable” (Lee 2014) and push for conformity. It is a new way to impose the demure Confucian-influenced image that is wanted and anticipated of women.

Conforming to the Ideal

Some researchers assign plastic surgery in the “Neo-Confucian ‘culture of conformity’, where the unity of the whole is more important than the individuality of the one, producing beauty as a new requirement of decorum’ for women” leading to an environment where women are “obsessed with their appearance” (Ruth Holliday 2012).

Furthermore, the backlash in Korea can be very strong and according to scholar Lee Sang-Wha three factors have “helped uphold Korean society and eventually led to the demure girl image of today: gender segregation, division of gender-assigned labor and the subordination of women” (Lee 2014). It left no place for feminism in Korea’s Confucian heritage where the old values still push them to “appear subordinate and innocent” (Lee 2014).

However, important changes in Korean society can offer another reason behind contemporary beauty trends. The political and economic transformations of the past 30 years, accompanied by an incredible speed of democratization and industrialization, offered new social opportunities for women. As we have seen earlier, university attendance is extremely high, and Korea actually has one of the highest rate for women’s enrollment in college globally according to the OECD.  Some sociologists argue that this “recent upsurge in female societal empowerment may be associated with an oppressive backlash in media portrayals of gender ideals” (Turnbull 2013). This unrealistic expectation on women has also been observed in other regions and “historical data suggest that societal shifts toward gender equality are often accompanied by increased media portrayal of unrealistic gender norms as a reactive “tool of oppression” by mainstream society” (Turnbull 2013) further pressuring women to conform to the beauty ideal.

All of these negative forces appear in the private and the public spheres. The “care of self and cosmetic surgery increasingly link notions of ‘correct’ or ‘appropriate’ appearance with performing adequately in society as a social subject” (Elfving-Hwang 2013).

Plastic Surgery’s Normalization

The numbers speak for themselves, the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons’ global ranking places Korea number one in procedures per capita in 2010 (table 2, below), ahead of the United States and Brazil, and also tops the list with the biggest number of registered cosmetic surgeons per capita (Elfving-Hwang 2013). According to the Korean Association for Plastic Surgery, “1 in every 77 people in South Korea has had [at least one] plastic surgery (Raitt 2014). The Fair Trade Commission also stated that one quarter of the world’s plastic surgeries take place in Korea, representing a 500 billion won industry (Raitt 2014).

Plastic Surgery Procedures per 1000 population, 2010There are two categories of cosmetic procedures. For the non-surgical procedures, the most popular ones are in order of importance: Botox, hyaluronic acid injectables, laser hair removal, autologous fat injectables, and IPL laser treatments (Raitt 2014). These petite surgeries are highly popular as they are non-invasive, cheaper, and require no down-time, exemplified by Botox which counted 145,688 procedures in 2012. On the other hand, the surgical procedures in order of popularity are: lipoplasty, breast augmentation, rhinoplasty, blepharoplasty (double eyelid), and abdominalplasty (table 3, source: source: the Korean Consumer Agency).

Top plastic surgery procedures in 2010As shown by these statistics, plastic surgery in Korea is increasingly normal, with more and more women, and men too, opting to go under the knife. However it is important to point out that women are not passive consumers of beauty, on the contrary they are “highly informed, active agents in their engagements with cosmetic surgeons” (Ruth Holliday 2012). Cosmetic surgery is seen as something positive, that enables access to a desired social status and becomes a symbol of middle class and gendered identity (Elfving-Hwang 2013). Furthermore, the liberalization of cosmetic surgery is also seen as “democratizing practice” and the high growth rate of complex surgeries with high risks, such as the chin and mandibular reduction operation, reflect the trivialization of the practice (Elfving-Hwang 2013).

Confirming earlier arguments about the culture of appearance, plastic surgery has become a marker of consumer middle class identity, of wealth and social status. In turn it “emerges as a highly effective force encouraging individuals to perceive aesthetic surgical intervention as a practical and normative option for self-improvement” (Elfving-Hwang 2013). However, it carries an important weight as well, creating an internalization of patriarchal beauty standards, where “women constantly examine their bodies in a negative and pathological light” (Ruth Holliday 2012) in their insatiable quest to an unrealistic body image.

Conclusion

Women’s place in Korean society, their assigned gender role and idealized representation, is the fruit of the country’s Confucian heritage as well as external influences from the West and Japan. Korean women have not yet reached emancipation as shown by the fact that they still do not own they own body and image and that they are subjected to the paternalistic ideal of beauty. Women’s higher education level is met by tough sexism in the workplace, and although they have more freedom and spending power they still suffer from the constant pressure to conform to beauty standards and expected behavioral traits. The strong backlash against those who do not conform also serves as a way to keep women in check and limit their emancipation.

However, all is not negative. With the new generation coming of age, more and more women are fighting against the system to gain recognition and equal rights in the workforce and it ripples to the private sphere through their increased independence. Korean gender roles are still changing and women will find a way to reconcile their need belonging to the group and their want for self-determination.

References

Choi, Hyaeweol. 2009. “”Wise Mother, Good Wife”: A Transcultural Discursive Construct in Modern Korea.” Journal of Korean Studies, Vol.14(1) , pp.1-33.

Chung, Yeon Shim. 2012. “The Modern Girl (Modeon Geol) as a Contested Symbol in Colonial Korea.” In Visualizing Beauty: Gender and Ideology in Modern East Asia, by Aida Yuen Wong. Hong Kong University Press.

Elfving-Hwang, Joanna. 2013. “Cosmetic Surgery and Embodying the Moral Self in South Korean Popular Makeover Culture.” The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 11, Issue 24, No. 2.

Kim, Taeyon. 2003. “Neo-Confucian Body Techniques: Women’s Bodies in Korea’s Consumer Society.” Body & Society 9(3): 97–113.

Korean Overseas Information Service. n.d. “Women’s Role in Contemporary Korea.”

Lee, Annie Narae. 2014. “The Fight for Equality: Women’s Struggle to Defy Prejudice, Stereotypes and Tradition.” Groove, Issue 91, pp.58-65.

McKay, Anita. 2014. “The Working Woman: Is Korea Ready for Women in the Workplace?” Groove, Issue 91.

Ou-Byung Chae, Jung-Hae Choi. 2008. “Korean Society in Change: Statistics and Sources (I, II, III, IV).” Korean Journal of Sociology 42.

Park, Hyejin. 2014. “Qualified, trained and nowhere to go.” Groove, Issue n.91.

Raitt, Remy. 2014. “The Big Bucks in Beauty: From cosmetics to eyelid surgery, vanity spurs Korea’s economy.” Groove, Issue n. 91.

Ruth Holliday, Joanna Elfving-hwang,. 2012. “Gender, Globalization and Aesthetic Surgery in South Korea.” Body & Society, Vol.18(2), pp.58-81.

Turnbull, James. 2012. “Bikinis, Breasts, and Backlash: Revealing the Korean Body Politic in 2012.” The Grand Narrative, Korean Feminism, Sexuality, and Popular Culture.

—. 2013. “Revealing the Korean Body Politic, Part 3: Historical precedents for Korea’s modern beauty myth.” The Grand Narrative, Korean Feminism, Sexuality, and Popular Culture.

“Sexy Concepts with James Turnbull”

Lee Hyori Bad Girls SBS Inkigayo 인기가요 25 May 2013(Source)

Ahem. But really, they’re just a very small part of my July interview with Colin Marshall for the Notebook on Cities and Culture podcast, where we also discuss:

…what Westerners find so unappealing about Korean plastic surgery; the associations of the “double eyelids” so often surgically created; why he used to believe that Koreans “want to look white”; the meaning of such mystifying terms as “V-line,” “S-line,” and “small face”; the uncommon seriousness about the Western-invented concept of the “thigh gap”; how corn tea became publicly associated with the shape of the drinker’s jaw; Korea’s status as the only OECD country with young women getting thinner, not fatter; Korean advertising culture and the extent of its involvement with the “minefield” of Korean irony; the prominence of celebrities in Korean ads, and why the advertisers don’t like it; how long it takes to get tired of the pop industry’s increasingly provocative “sexy concepts”; the result of Korea’s lack of Western-style reality television; how making-of documentaries about 15-second commercials make the viewers feel closer to the celebrities acting in them; why he doesn’t want his daughters internalizing the Korean sense of hierarchy; why an expat hates Korea one day and loves it the next; how much homework his daughters do versus how much homework he did; the true role of private academies in Korea, and what he learned when he taught at one himself; the issues with English education in Korea and the oft-heard calls for its reform; the parallels between English test scores and cosmetic surgery procedures; the incomprehension that greets students of the Korean language introduced to the concept of “pretending to be pretty”; and how to describe the way Korean superficiality differs from the Western variety.

Apologies in advance for not being much more succinct when I spoke (I’m, well…er..uhm…working on that), and by all means please feel free to ask me to clarify or elaborate on any of those topics.

Also note that Colin has interviewed over 30(?) other expats and Koreans, men and women, and Korea and overseas-based speakers for the Korean component of his series, all most of whom are much more articulate and entertaining than myself, so I strongly encourage you to browse his site. I myself was blown away by Brian Myers’ interview yesterday, which was full of insights and observations that all long-term expats will be able to relate to (and will be very useful listening for those thinking they may become one), and Bernio Cho’s is essential if you want to understand the Korean music industry better. And those are just the two I’ve listened to so far!

Revealing the Korean Body Politic, Part 8: The Bare-Leg Bars of 1942

Liquid stockings nylon world war two(Source, above and below: Rare Historical Photos)

Back in the early-1940s, newly-invented nylon stockings were the must-have fashion item in the US. But supply could never meet up with demand, with 4 million pairs once selling in just 4 days.

Then the US entered the war, and all the nylon available was suddenly needed for parachutes, ropes, and bomber tires. Dupont, the sole manufacturer, retooled all its stocking machines.

Still desperate for the look though, women improvised with ‘liquid stockings’ instead, using foundation, black eyeliner, and eyebrow pencils to draw them on their legs. Stores soon began catering to the demand, adding more sophisticated lotions, creams, and sprays. Specialist ‘bare-leg bars’ followed.

So I read via this great book when I was 15, (although unfortunately that panel didn’t get scanned for the online version), and I’d like to pretend that I was taken aback by the lengths some would go to the sake of vanity, and precocious enough to realize that people were no different in 1991. In reality though, I simply thought that the women were crazy (hey, I was 15!), and didn’t understand how anyone could have been fooled by such a poor substitute.

More likely, women ‘wore’ them because liquid stockings became a pseudo-fashion in their own right—or at least until nylons became liquid stockingsavailable again (sparking the ‘nylon riots‘ of 1945). Either way, they’re another good example of the genuine concerns women had about maintaining a feminine appearance when they started working in factories in World War Two, as well as their cheap solutions (although this particular one would have been used off the factory floor). I’m glad to finally have a name for them, and a wealth of photographs to use in my presentations :D

Anybody know of any similar shortages and improvisations by women (or men!) in Korean fashion history though, which may resonate more with Korean audiences? Thanks!

The Revealing the Korean Body Politic Series:

Revealing the Korean Body Politic, Part 5: Links

So Ji-sub Vivian(Source: Vivien)

In Part 4 back in February, I mentioned that Korean women were getting less breast augmentation and more breast reduction procedures than their counterparts in the US and Brazil, despite having a genetic predisposition towards small(er) breasts. Add that North Koreans think busty women are “intentionally and lewdly stressing [their] femininity,” and that Wacoal’s ‘Bra That Makes Big Breasts Look Small’ would probably be just as popular in Korea as in Japan, then I wrote that all signs point to “a big disconnect between ordinary Koreans’ — and even models’ — attitudes to fashion, body image, and sexuality and what you may see on Korean TV.”

Won Bin Beyond 1As Dr. Roald Maliangkay at the Australian National University points out however, it’s very much the same with men:

….The majority of men appearing on posters and billboards are celebrities. Although the wide use of cosmetic surgery is making men look increasingly similar, they are often associated not merely with a product, but also with a popular drama, and in some cases, a steamy bed or bathroom scene. That is not something the average worker would ever seek to emulate, nor be able to, as the nation’s corporate dress code remains conservative.

See “The bra boys of South Korea” at World News Australia for more, which is mostly about the kkotminam (꽃미남) phenomenon, or here for more on the disproportionate role of celebrity endorsements in the Korean media (source, right: Wonbin Thailand).

Next, in Part 4 I also discussed how official North Korean attitudes to women’s clothing have been changing in response to women increasingly becoming breadwinners, generally becoming more restrictive. For more on this “Female Face of North Korean Capitalism,” see Andrei Lankov’s recent lecture at the Royal Asiatic Society in Seoul:

Third, via Lisa Wade at Sociological Images, here is:

…a great short clip instructing women workers newly employed in industrial factories during World War II on how to do their hair to maximize safety. It assumes both ignorance and vanity on the part of women and speaks to the lack of efficiency caused by efforts to remain attractive on the line.

As I pointed out in — yes, again — Part 4, those assumptions about vanity need to be placed in the context of wartime shortages, when attention to beauty and fashion were viewed as extravagant and unpatriotic. But despite that, women’s anxieties about both were still explicitly encouraged, preyed upon, and/or encouraged by industry, and actually even by the government itself. The ensuing contradictions, double-standards, hypocrisy, and backlash are very similar to what has been occurring in South Korea since the 2000s with women’s rapid entrance into the (part-time) workforce, and make comparisons very useful and compelling.

world war 2 women workersFor more on the backlash in Korea specifically, see “The hate underlying the ‘__ Girl series’ and criticism of women’s organizations” at ILDA (in addition to all the links in previous posts in the series). Finally, for more on the wartime US case, first see “The Impact of War on 1940′s Fashion in the USA” at Glamor Daze for a primer on women’s fashions in the period; then, see Bored Panda for rare color photographs of women working in aircraft manufacturing plants in World War Two, taken by:

“Alfred T. Palmer who worked for the Office of War Information (responsible for promoting patriotism, war news management and women recruitment)” whose photos “had to lure young women into the factories by showing women workers as glamorous and even fashionable.” (My emphasis; see example on right).

Update: also see Kathryn M. Brown’s 2010 MA thesis Patriotic Support: The Girdle Pin-up of World War 2 (it can’t be directly linked sorry—type the title into the searchbar) for more on how malleable and adaptable — and, as explained, ultimately hypocritical and contradictory — the language, prevailing standards for, and attitudes towards beauty and fashion proved to be for the needs of government and industry (see Part 3 for modern Korean and earlier US parallels also).

The Revealing the Korean Body Politic Series:

Lee Hyori: Korean Pin-up Grrrl #1?

Lee Hyori Pin-up Grrrl(Source)

Out of all this week’s stories, up tomorrow in the Korean Gender Reader, probably one of the most important — but also the most under-appreciated — is the news that Lee Hyori (이효리) will no longer be doing any commercials for products that conflict with her animal rights, environmental, and/or vegetarian beliefs.

This excludes her from working with so many companies, that her agency had to clarify that she hadn’t given up modelling or endorsements altogether.

Certainly, she’s already well known — and liked — for being so outspoken and sassy, which is very rare for female celebrities here. But this is still a significant step, because it’s difficult to think of any other Korean celebrity explicitly rejecting the endorsement culture upon which their agencies so heavily depend. Let alone someone who was once the country’s biggest sex-symbol.

Lee Hyori and Dog(Source)

Moreover, while she’s open to charges of hypocrisy, as it’s undoubtedly much easier to take an ethical stance on endorsements after years of making millions from them, she did at least acknowledge this contradiction in a recent interview, and at only 33 could have continued to do them for decades. Also, with “We can’t help but be subjected to the power of the companies when we sign a contract. Hara, please don’t forget my words,” her tweet of advice to Goo Ha-ra (구하라), one of her replacements as a soju model, she indirectly criticized companies’ excessive power over their endorsers — recall Ivy (아이비) being sued for an completely non-existent sex-tape for instance, or Choi Jin-sil (최진실) being sued for going public about being a victim of domestic abuse, and then being sued again after she committed suicide — and/or entertainment agencies’ willingness to enter into such arrangements regardless. And, albeit perhaps unfairly, has put the onus on much younger celebrities to be more discerning with their own choices (or, rather, to challenge their agencies’ choices).

Can anybody think of any other Korean celebrities that have made similar ethical stands and/or critiques of the media and entertainment industries? I admit I don’t have much time to follow Korean celebrity news, and would be happy to learn that Lee Hyori isn’t as exceptional as I thought!

(Update: Also, if anybody come across a Korean source that places Lee Hyori’s decision in that above context, that would also be appreciated. Unfortunately, apparently they’re just as rare!)

Related Posts:

Radio Interview on Korean Cosmetic Surgery Tonight, 7pm

(Source)

Tonight at 7pm I’ll be on Busan e-FM’s Let’s Talk Busan again, this time talking about Korean beauty standards and cosmetic surgery. You can listen on the radio at 90.5, or online here (please note that you’ll have to download Windows Media Player 10 first), and I’ll add a link to the archived version once it becomes available.

Sorry to those of you who tuned in 2 weeks ago, only to hear me speak for just a couple of minutes in total: 7 guests was far too many. But I’m happy to report that there’ll just be 3 of us this time!