Radio Interview on Korean Cosmetic Surgery Tonight, 7pm


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!

For S. Korean men, makeup a foundation for success


In The Associated Press today. Please see here if you would like a fuller explanation of my comments in it though — naturally, author Foster Klug had to miss out a great deal of what was discussed in our interview!

Update: By popular demand, here is the quintessential kkotminam commercial, from 2003:

The black-haired man is now retired soccer player Ahn Jung-hwan (안정환), the blonde actor Kim Jae-won (김재원).

Essential Reading: “Multiple Exposures: Korean Bodies and the Transnational Imagination”

(Sources — left: unknown; right)

See The Asia-Pacific Journal for the article. Covering many of the themes discussed on the blog, and much more besides, expect to see me linking to it for many years to come!

Reading The Lolita Effect in South Korea, Part 3: A Wave of Middle School Girls Wearing Make-up…Is it all Girl Groups’ Fault?


It’s such a struggle being a feminist parent.

I have two daughters: Alice, born in June 2006, and Elizabeth, born in August 2008. Fortunately, Elizabeth at least is just fine in the girl-power department, and is “second-sex” to no-one. Rather, it’s my own sex-life that comes a far-distant second to catering to her demands 24/7, but let’s not go there.

Alice however, will regularly stroll down the toy aisle at the supermarket, and loudly proclaim that she doesn’t like the black and blue cars and trucks on one side because “they’re for boys”, to which I’ll have to gently remind her—yet again—that she actually has many she regularly plays with at home. She’s also started constantly posing and asking if she’s pretty, and it’s honestly starting to feel tiresome, almost pedantic to always reply “Yes, and strong and smart too!”.

This literally came to a head yesterday morning when she used those smarts to look for the clip-on earrings that her well-meaning but misguided kindergarten had given her for Children’s Day, eventually devising an elaborate system of stools and chairs to climb to the top of the chest of drawers and see if we’d hidden them there. Very proud of herself for finding them, she jumped on my face at 6:00am to wake me up and show them off (source, right).

I didn’t scold her though (at least not for the earrings), as nothing could faze me after seeing what had been done to the poor girls that grace (소녀나라; “Maiden Country”), which I’d found the night before while researching this post. Seriously, just take a look for yourself.

But in just a few years, will Alice and then Elizabeth also be among the alleged wave of middle and even elementary school students spending 30 minutes a day applying makeup? Hell no. But will they want to? Probably. Is that a bad thing? That depends. And why are so many students doing it now in particular?

All questions to bear in mind as you read the following story from The Chosunilbo below.^^ Found via Asian Correspondent, it was the second most read “society story” on Naver last week:

[오늘의 세상] 초등생까지 화장 열풍… 학교, 두 손 들었다

[Today’s World] Even Elementary Schools Raise Hands in Surrender at Wave of Students Using Make-up…

지나친 ‘얼짱 신드롬’… ‘걸그룹’들이 큰 영향 줘… 등교시간에도 30분씩 화장 / Excessive “Best-Face Syndrome”…Girl groups’ big influence…Even at school, spending 30 minutes at a time applying cosmetics

학칙 있으나마나… 화장하는 아이들 워낙 많아… 쉬는 시간 화장실은 파우더룸 / Whether or not there’s school regulations…Children are putting far too much on…In break times, the toilets become powder rooms

식약청의 경고… “어린이들은 피부 약해 트러블 생길 위험 크다”/ The Korean FDA warns…”Children’s skin is weak, and there is a big danger of problems developing”

“그 틴트(입술에 색을 내는 화장품의 일종) 나도 발라 볼래” / “Let me put on that tint too (tint: a kind of cosmetic that gives color to lips)”
“와~오렌지색 되게 예쁘다” / “Wow~the orange is really pretty”

(Source. Discussed here)

경 남지역 여자 중학교에 근무하는 국어교사 김모(34)씨는 며칠 전 교실에 들어서자마자 한숨이 나왔다. 학생들이 각자 화장품 파우치(작은 가방)를 꺼내놓고 ‘신제품 품평회’를 벌이고 있었다. 한 학생의 파우치 속엔 파우더, BB크림, 틴트, 아이라이너, 마스카라, 매니큐어 등이 가득 들어 있었다.

A few days ago, Kim Mo, a 34 year-old Korean teacher at a middle school in Gyeongsang Nam-do, walked into a classroom and saw something that took her breath away. In the classroom, there were children with a makeup pouch each (a small bag) and had taken everything out of them to have a “new makeup show”. In one student’s case, her pouch had been full of such things as powder, BB Cream, tint, eyeliner, mascara, and a manicure set.

화장한 학생들 얼굴도 제각각이었다. 어떤 학생은 파우더를 발라 얼굴이 뽀얗고, 어떤 학생은 액(液)을 발라 쌍꺼풀을 만들고 아이라인까지 그렸다. 틴트를 발라 입술이 빨간 학생들도 여러 명이었다.

Of the students who had put the makeup on, their faces were all different. Some had used powder to make their faces milky-white, while some had used a liquid to give themselves double-eyelids, even going so far as to use eyeliner. Several had also applied tint to their mouths and now had red lips.

쉬는 시간이면 이 학교 화장실은 ‘파우더룸’으로 변한다. 10여명의 학생들이 거울 앞에서 머리를 만지거나 화장을 한다. 서로 눈썹이나 아이라인을 그려주는 것도 흔한 모습이다.

If it’s break time, the toilets change into powder-rooms. Around 10 students will gather in front of the mirror and fix their hair or apply cosmetics. Drawing eyebrows on each other with eyeliner is a common scene.


김 교사도 처음엔 화장이 학칙에 위배되기 때문에 화장한 학생들이 눈에 띌 때마다 “화장을 하지 마라”고 했다. 클렌징폼을 건네주며 “당장 세수하고 오라”고 하기도 했다. 소지품을 검사해 화장품을 압수하기도 여러 번. 그래도 나아질 기미가 보이지 않자 요즘엔 “어린 나이에 화장하면 피부에 안 좋다”며 달래고 설득한다.

At first, Kim would tell students using cosmetics that they were against school rules, that they shouldn’t use them, and would immediately give them cleansing foam to clean the cosmetics off. She also checked to see if students had any cosmetics and would confiscate them if they did. As there was no sign of improvement however, then these days instead she tries to persuade them that “if you put on cosmetics when you’re young, then your skin won’t be good”.

김 교사는 “화장하는 애들이 워낙 많아 쫓아다니면서 일일이 지적하기도 힘들 정도”라며 “전쟁도 이런 전쟁이 없다”고 말했다.

Kim says “Chasing after students that use too much cosmetics while pointing out everything [that’s bad about using cosmetics?] to them is so exhausting”, and that “it’s such a battle”.

학생들은 백화점 화장품 코너에서도 주요 고객으로 떠올랐고, 화장품 회사들은 인기 캐릭터를 그린 상품을 쏟아내고 있다.

Students have risen to become the main customers at cosmetics corners at department stores, and cosmetics companies are having popular [manhwa?] characters on their products.

화장 붐에 교사들 / Teachers Raise Their Hands in Despair at Cosmetics Boom

교사들은 “화장하는 학생이 한 반에 몇 명이라고 세기 힘들 정도”라고 말한다.

Teachers say “there’s so many students using makeup in each class, it’s difficult to count them all”.

서울의 한 중학교 1학년 담임교사는 “학생들끼리 마스카라나 아이라이너를 생일 선물로 주고받을 정도로 화장에 대한 관심이 많다”며 “초등학생 때부터 화장을 시작해 피부가 어른처럼 엉망인 애들이 갈수록 많아진다”고 말했다.

One homeroom teacher for a first-grade middle-school class [for students roughly 13-14 years old] said “Students are interested enough in mascara and eyeliner to give them to each other for birthday presents”, and that “There are many students that, starting to wear makeup in elementary school, are ruining their skin like adults”.

학 부모들은 걱정이다. 중학교 2학년 자녀를 둔 김순옥씨는 작년부터 딸아이가 각종 화장품을 사 모으는 것을 보고 깜짝 놀랐다. 김씨의 딸은 바쁜 등교시간에도 30분씩 스킨·로션 등 기초 화장품부터 BB크림, 파우더까지 정성껏 바른다. 김씨가 야단을 치며 화장을 못하게 했더니 딸은 “화장을 안 하면 부끄러워서 학교에 못 가겠다”고 반항했다. 김씨는 “딸아이가 사춘기여서 그러려니 했지만 공부에 대한 집중력이 떨어지는 것 같아서 걱정”이라고 말했다.

Parents of students are worried. Kim Soon-ok, a mother of a 2nd grade middle school student [14 or 15 years old], has been very surprised at how her daughter has been buying and collecting all kinds of makeup since last year. Despite being busy, every school day she spends 30 minutes at a time applying everything from toner, lotion, and other basic cosmetics to BB cream and powder. Kim says that she scolded her daughter to make her stop using it, but her daughter resisted and replied that “If I don’t wear makeup, I’ll be embarrassed and won’t be able to go to school”. She added that “although this sort of thing is natural for a girl entering puberty, I worry that her ability to concentrate on her studies is decreasing”.


이처럼 학생들의 화장 문제가 심각해지자 얼마 전 식약청은 교육청과 학교에 색조 화장품 등의 사용을 자제하게 해달라는 요청문을 보내기도 했다. 식약청 화장품정책과 양준호 사무관은 “어린이들은 어른보다 피부가 약해 립스틱이나 매니큐어 등 색조 화장품을 사용하면 피부 트러블이 생길 수 있어 조심해야 한다”고 말했다.

Accordingly, the FDA sent schools and the Ministry of Education a letter requesting that they restrict student’s use of color make-up, and so on. Yang Jun-ho, and official within in the FDA’s Cosmetics Policy Department, said “Children’s skin is weaker than that of adults, and so if they use lipstick, manicures, or color makeup they have a [greater?] chance of skin problems developing, and should be careful”.

과도한 ‘얼짱 신드롬’ / Excessive “Best-Face Syndrome”

성적이 상위권이거나 모범적인 아이들이 화장하는 경우도 늘고 있다. 이처럼 학생들 사이에 화장이 널리 유행하는 현상에 대해 전문가들은 ‘얼짱 신드롬’과 10대 멤버들이 많은 ‘걸그룹’이 큰 영향을 미치고 있다고 분석한다. 건국대 이동혁 사범대 교수는 “요즘 10대들은 과거 세대보다 자신을 잘 포장해서 당당하게 드러내려고 하는 성향이 강하다”며 “그런 학생들의 특성이 외모를 중시하는 사회적 분위기와 어우러져 나타나는 현상 같다”고 말했다. 한국청소년활동진흥원 김용대 부장은 “예뻐지고 싶어하는 것은 사춘기 여학생들의 자연스러운 특징이지만 화장을 통해 자기만족을 추구하려는 청소년의 집단적 현상은 심각한 문제가 아닐 수 없다”고 말했다.

Even model students with high grades and rankings are increasingly using makeup. An expert on this phenomenon attributes this “beauty-face syndrome” to the influence of girl groups with members in their teens. Professor Lee Dong-hyuk of the Education Department of Konkuk University says “compared to past generations, these days social trends mean that teenagers attach a lot of importance to their appearance and want to show them off.” And Kim Young-dae, head of the Korea Youth Work Agency, says “it is a natural trait of female students entering adolescence to want to look pretty, but this mass of girls trying to find satisfaction and fulfillment through make up is a serious problem”.

Writer: 김연주 / Kim Yeon-ju –


While the headline clearly exaggerates a little by mentioning elementary school students, only then to talk about middle school ones, that’s probably one of the better articles I’ve read in the notoriously tabloid Korean media (update: apparently that same tabloid media has considerably lowered my standards!^^). Is the popularity of makeup among students as recent as the article suggests though? Let’s discuss that in a moment. First, let’s see what Meenakshi Durham has to say about cosmetics in The Lolita Effect itself, the book that inspired this ongoing series (p. 126):

Studies have suggested that little girls enjoy emulating fashion trends, using makeup, and attracting boy’s attention by wearing skimpy clothes. In social settings where girls are not going to be penalized or targeted for these behaviors, it’s easy to see how these things could be completely harmless, fun, or even empowering. Clothing and makeup aren’t problematic.

While I wasn’t joking earlier about what I saw on Sonyunara, reading that the night before was the real reason I didn’t (visibly) react negatively to seeing my daughter wearing earrings: children are always going to emulate what they see adults and/or other role models doing. Rather, it’s how we adults react to that that is the problem:

It’s the corollary assumption—that youth is sexy, that little girls are sexy, and that because of that they can be seen as having the same sexual awareness as adults—that’s of real concern. The problem is not with children, but with adults: with marketers who knowingly sell products and images with powerful sexual overtones to young girls, and with adults who then interpret girls’ bodies as sexually available. And there’s a larger, social problem, too, in that because of the increased sexualization of girlhood, children are engaging in sexual activity at younger and younger ages. This has fallout that is expensive both to the kids and to society as a whole.


At first, that probably sounds much more relevant to the US and other Western countries than it does to “sexually conservative” Korea. But you may be surprised. Not so much that Korean children too are engaging in sexual activity at younger and younger ages of course, albeit not quite at the rates of their US counterparts, but rather that the Korean age of consent is 13 (see here then here), and that Korea has a huge teenageprostitution problem, known as wonjo gyojae (원조 교제).

Moreover, not only is this exacerbated by the extremely low age of consent ensuring that many clients are not prosecuted, let alone teachers that have sexual relationships with their students, but until very recently, the Korean public – with important exceptions such as music columnist Kim Bong-hyeon and Professor Sooh-ah Kim at Seoul National University (see abstract below) –  was generally reluctant to acknowledge the increasing sexualization of particularly girl groups’ clothing and choreography in recent years, what effects that might have on teenagers, and, however indirectly and/or or marginally, on sustaining demand for the teenage-prostitution industry.

And if they were reluctant to discuss the music videos, then naturally there was a similar reluctance to discuss the same in ads featuring teenage members of girl groups:


As discussed elsewhere, Korean entertainment companies have strong incentives to sexualize both girl and boy’s groups clothing and choreography in order to help them stand out from other groups, and they also have financial incentives for groups to endorse as many products as possible; in a symbiotic relationship, this naturally combines well and perpetuates the Korean advertising industry’s heavy reliance on the use of celebrities.  Consequently, not only does the number of ads featuring girl group members likely show a direct relationship to the proliferation of girl groups in recent years, but also they too are increasingly sexualized, and – crucially – naturally have messages that resonate with teenage girls. After all, this is the heart of the Lolita Effect: that especially cosmetic and fashion companies want younger and younger girls to embrace the notion that hypersexual body display and obtaining a narrowly defined physical ideal are at the core of – nay, the only things required for – social and romantic success, and that these can best be achieved through purchasing those companies’ products.

This logic, of course, is nothing new. But, if you can forgive my naivety, I’ll never cease to be amazed at the audacity at some of the ensuing advertisements. On the far left in the school uniform advertisement above for example (discussed in more detail here), Victoria of the group f(x) is praised for her height, thinness, and, well, large breasts and buttocks (all of which is contained in “쭉쭉빵빵”, the old term for “S-line“). Meanwhile, in another one further up the page (this one) fellow group member Sulli (17) says “Romance will start in a semester without pimples”, and in the video below that she proclaims the efficacy of using skincare products to get your man over other methods such as: getting cosmetic surgery to get double eyelids; working on getting shiny, billowing hair; or even getting an S-line.

Granted, correlation doesn’t mean causation, and one additional factor may be the considerable relaxing of many rules about school uniforms over the past decade (skirt lengths are 10-15cm shorter than in 2000 for example, which—sigh—the Korean Federation of Teachers Association says “can make students more vulnerable to crimes”). But…naah. Provided the report is accurate, then of course middle school girls are suddenly wearing make-up because all these girl groups are suddenly endorsing them. It would simply be a bizarre coincidence otherwise.

(Source: unknown)

What to do about it? Beyond educating children on the hows and whys of advertising and/or forcibly taking their cosmetics off them, I’m open to suggestions. One think I certainly don’t think will work though, is complaining to the companies themselves, which have a strong vested interest in making their products appeal to young girls as explained. Indeed, this was recently indirectly demonstrated by Iconix Entertainment, the producer of the very popular Korean cartoon Pororo the Little Penguin (뽀롱뽀롱 뽀로로) above, which, despite the pleas of Korean parents, besieged by their children demanding breads and cakes like those in the show, politely declined to depict the characters eating healthier meals (I believe the characters are also on all manner of junk foods). And God knows how they would have reacted to my own suggestion that pink Loopy above, the only female character in the first season, do something other than constantly make said breads and cakes for the boys.

For more on the trails and tribulations of being a feminist parent, then I recommend following Baby Gender Diary on Twitter here, in their own words “A Mother and Father. Tweeting about our 3 year old girl and 6 month old boy and how people treat them differently”, and/or purchasing Cinderalla Ate My Daughter by Peggy Orenstein, next in my own wishlist. Or, for more posts in the “Reading The Lolita Effect in Korea” series, please see below.

The “Reading the Lolita Effect in South Korea” series:

Wanna Be Sweet?

(Sources: left, right)

Yeah, I know: a 3000 word post on gender issues this ain’t. But then I’ve always been a real sucker for high-definition images of women’s faces, and like fashionista Effiel in Seoul, simply loved singer Sandara Park’s (박산다라) expressions in these ones the instant I saw them. So I thought I’d make an exception!

Enjoy your weekend everyone!


Korean Sociological Image #53: “SK-II No. 1 Whitening Celebration Party”


See here or here for more photos. Is such a deathly pallor really something to be aspired to?

(For more posts in the Korean Sociological Images series, please see here)

Reading the Lolita Effect in South Korea, Part 1: The role of K-pop and the Korean media in sexual socialization and the formation of body image

A simply surreal video making the rounds at the moment. As explained by Lisa at Sociological Images, it:

…beautifully illustrates the socialization of children into particular kinds of worship. With hand motions, body movements, and facial expressions, this child is doing a wonderful job learning the culturally-specific rules guiding the performance of devotion.

Which led to a great deal of discussion at that site. But I’ll confine myself here to echoing Jason’s comment that it simply reminds him of his son picking up his own behaviors such as sweeping, and that the young girl:

…certainly isn’t worshiping here, but is just mimicking her parents and the other people around her. I can guarantee she has no concept of a deity.

But what has all that got to do with K-pop, let alone Meenakshi Durham’s The Lolita Effect? Well, because after reading all that, it was very interesting comparing my daughters’ own reactions to KARA’s Lupin just half an hour later. First, those of four and a half year-old Alice:

Then with her two and a half year-old sister Elizabeth:

Granted, perhaps you had to be there…and in which case I probably would have removed my dirty laundry from the floor first (sorry). But I didn’t notice it myself, because at the time I was simply transfixed.

You see, along with dozens of other K-pop music videos, Alice and Elizabeth must have watched and “danced” to Lupin at least 20 times before that night. But that was the first time that Alice at least seemed to demonstrate that she not only remembered it, but actually knew it very well, and was performing repetitive actions that were recognizably part of the same dance…which she’d demand to do seven more times before going to bed.

Unfortunately for my paternal pride though, in hindsight she was neither simply copying the music video nor giving her own original interpretation of it: as confirmed by her teacher later, she’s preparing for a Christmas performance at her kindergarten soon, and—yes—she’ll be dancing to Lupin.

So what’s the big deal? After all, while I’m still translating the lyrics myself (or at least I was until my “study” got invaded), they seem harmless enough:

But what if the kindergarten teachers had chosen Mister instead?

Or something by the Wondergirls perhaps? Two weeks from now, might I have looked on in abject horror as my 4 year-old kept thrusting her bottom out at me while singing I’m So Hot?

(See here for the video; the owner has disabled embedding)

No, because first, no matter how much WonderBaby’s appearances on national television could be construed as widespread public acceptance of that sort of thing, my wife confirms that many other Korean parents would also have complained well before then.

But second, and most importantly, actually Alice has already been thrusting her bottom out at me like the Wondergirls, for about three months now.

Seriously: several times a day, she’d suddenly run up to me giggling when I was at my desk, quickly thrust her bottom out at me a few times, then she’d run away in hysterics. Fortunately, she seems to have largely grown out of it now, but not through any discouragement on my part, which just seemed to make doing it all the more amusing for her.

Why did she start in the first place? I’ve no idea, as although she could have seen that dance move virtually anywhere, she wouldn’t have had any idea what it represented, or what adults would think of it. Perhaps one of her teachers overreacted to her or one of her classmates doing it or something, after which it became fun.

But whatever the reason, does that mean that it’s hypocritical to have any misgivings about Wonderbaby then?

Hell no. But to counter the argument that it’s just clean harmless fun, let’s be very specific about what the problems with her dancing to So Hot on national television are exactly. I can identify two main ones.

First, there’s the fact that Wonderbaby quite literally invites the viewer to view her as a sexual person. Of course, she probably has virtually no idea of the meanings of what she’s singing, let alone the consequences. In which case, one might already reasonably ask what she’s doing there in the first place, and in cases like this it is usually this naive, unknowing projection of sexuality that adults tend to be most concerned with. As explained by Durham in The Lolita Effect:

…the signals that girls send out about their sexuality, often naively, in response to the prevailing media and marketing trends, [are] signals that adults fear will attract harmful sexual attention. As the columnist Rosa Brooks lamented in the Los Angeles Times, “old fashioned American capitalism…is busy serving our children up to pedophiles on a corporate platter”….

….These charges open up quite a can of worms. Can marketers in fact “serve” children up to pedophiles? Is there any real danger in young girls wearing low-cut, skimpy, or “trashy” clothes, or is this just a harmless fashion trend designed to raise parental hackles, like so many others in the past? Could it even be seen as a feminist moves towards embracing a femininity or “girliness” scorned by previous generations and linking it to power rather than passivity? (p. 69)

I’ll return to the last point later. But before I do, from the outset I want to put paid to the notion that even children that young are completely neuter and/or are unaffected by sex in the media:

For children to take an interest in sex is not out-of-the-ordinary or scandalous. Even toddlers “play doctor” to explore each others’ bodies and mimic intercourse, though scholars are still debating what constitutes “normal” sexual behavior in young children. Sex is a part of life, so it is bound to surface in different ways at different developmental stages; it is not cause for alarm unless there is harm or abuse involved. Of course, sexuality needs to be dealt with in ways that are appropriate for the age and maturity of the child, the cultural and social context, and above all, the ethical implications of the situation, but sex per se cannot reasonably be viewed as harmful to minors. (p. 68)

And in particular:

The conventional wisdom is that interest in sex escalates as children approach adolescence; this is a biological viewpoint that connects the hormonal shifts and physical maturation of puberty with an increased interest in sex. But now sexuality marks preadolescence and childhood, too, and for many adults, this is justifiable cause for alarm. In today’s world, children as young as eight report worrying about being popular with the opposite sex; first graders describe being sexually-harassed by classmates; and by middle school, kids are steeped in sexual jargon, images, and exploration. Sex educator Deborah Roffman argues that little girls start wanting to look good for others at age four….(p. 65)

Very few—if any—cultures have found ways of adequately and appropriately dealing with the inconvenient fact of child sexuality (let alone the media) but surely Wonderbaby’s example doesn’t help. Nor do the music videos discussed below with slightly older girls either, but which I only realized thanks to Barry Raymond, a friend of mine that used to live in Korea (and now with 3 daughters himself):

No, that’s not them: rather, it’s a screenshot from the music video for Bang! (뱅!) by After School (애프터스쿨), which I translated back in June. One of my favorite Korean songs, I was originally a little miffed when Barry criticized it because the inclusion of the young girls, to which I replied on Facebook:

I’m usually quite wary of that too Barry, especially in Korea, where people are generally very reluctant to admit that things like that can be problematic. But in this particular case I think their presence is fine personally, because they’re gone within the first 20 seconds or so, and don’t perform any dance moves that can be considered remotely sexual. So they’re clearly supposed to be decorations at the beginning, considered quite separate to the grown-up (sexual) women of the group.

His response:

The lyrics and dancing that make up the song and video are all about sex. To place a child at the beginning of that exploits them in a sexual way. How would you feel about a child appearing at the beginning of Bad Romance or some other Lady Gaga song. It’s a girl group exploiting itself on the basis of sexuality, at least in this song. That is their choice, don’t force it upon the clearly underaged girls that appear in the video or try to make it appealing to an underage audience.


Hmmm, you may well have a point there, which I admit I wouldn’t have considered if you hadn’t brought up imagining the same in Bad Romance; I wonder if that shows just how used to that sort of thing I am here?

(15 year-old f(x) band member Sulli in Oh! Boy Magazine; source)

And finally, albeit admittedly after my asking if I could post it here at some point(!):

According to Wikipedia… See More’s typology of child pornography, the type described as posing involves (allow me to paraphrase) ‘deliberately posed pictures (video) of children fully clothed, partially clothed etc. where the context and/or organization suggests sexual interest’.

The”Bang” video places two clothed girls wearing the exact same attire as the older models at the beginning of the video. The girls dance alongside the older models where the older models are dancing in a sexually provocative manner (the younger girls are not in my opinion dancing in a sexually provocative manner). It should also be noted that while the girls wear the same outfits as the older models the fitting of their outfits is not alarmingly provocative although the same outfit on the older models is certainly sexually provocative. So we have a situation where several sexually provocative models are juxtaposed with what appears to be virtually identical under-aged girls. This to me would constitute a context of sexual interest where the line between the older models and the younger models is intentionally blurred.

Further to this context would be the lyrics….and the title of the song, “After School” along with the school oriented marching parade uniforms. To me this video is unambiguous contextualized sexual exploitation of children.

Is judging the Korean media and Korean music videos with an assessment system developed by the Paedophile Unit of the London Metropolitan Police merely imposing a Western value system on Korea? You decide, although I’d wager that in fact the Korean police have a very similar system.

Either way, not much later one of After School’s subgroups – Orange Caramel –  did the same again with their music video for A~ing (아잉):

For the sake of providing sufficient warning of the slightly NSFW image coming up in a moment, let me take the opportunity here to point out that it’s not so much the lyrics and dance moves that are the issue this time (see here for a video with them), but more having a child in a music video “sugar-coated with sexual undertones,” with an “obviously pedobaittastic tone,” and with “kinky cosplay lolita outfits”, all as noted by Johnelle at SeoulBeats. And so much so, that this next screenshot…

…instantly reminded of this next image, which I’ve had on my hard drive for years, from God knows where. Not looking very closely at the small print before then, I’d always assumed that it was the cover of an erotic fiction book, but it actually turns out to be a poster for a pornographic cartoon:

(Source: unknown)

Continuing with A~ing though, just in case you think Johnelle and I are exaggerating:

And in particular, these costumes, which—correct me if I’m wrong—seem to serve no other purpose than to have one’s breasts spill out of them:

All good wholesome stuff. So, like Johnelle notes, what’s with having a little girl dressed up in the same kind of vinyl red riding hood get-up as the women at the end?

So, does all the above mean I’m advocating that girls should never be allowed to appear in sexually-themed music videos (and so on) then? Yes, I guess so.

But how to set a minimum age for that? After all, the upshot of everything I’ve written so far that any age limit would be somewhat arbitrary and artificial.

If I did have to to set an age though (and it would be very unrealistic not to have one), then I’d say that the age of consent would be the most logical choice. Unfortunately however, in Korea that happens to be as low as 13 (see here and here), even though the age at which one can view and perform in sexually-related material and/or have reliable access to contraception is 18.

Yeah, I don’t see the reason for the huge discrepancy in age limits either…which is not quite the same as arguing that any of them should be 13.

But that’s a subject for another post. In the meantime, one argument against any age limit on appearances is that the average age at which girls begin to menstruate has been dropping steadily since 1850, so much so that – in developed countries at least – they now enter puberty between the ages of 8 and 13. It would be a pity to deny girls the right to express their ensuing sexuality in popular culture, especially with female sexuality in general being repressed and/or literally viewed as evil for so much of human history.

(16 year-old Bae Su-ji of Miss A; source)

Yet the notion that the feminist sexual empowerment of girls and women is what primarily motivated the appearances of Wonderbaby, the girls in the After School videos, the tight pants of 15 year-old Sulli, and 16 year old Bae Su-ji’s pose above is simply absurd, and indeed there is solid evidence that most young female entertainers are in fact pressured to wear their supposedly empowering skimpy clothing (and dance provocatively) rather than doing so out of choice. But although such arguments have still been made in Korea nevertheless, the overwhelming public attitude is to stick one’s head in the sand and deny the existence of teenage sexuality at all (let alone child sexuality), as this Korean commentator complains himself.

And in a sense, this is the official Korean government position too, if the article “Swept up by Girl Groups” by Jeong Deok-hyun is anything to go by. You can find it on pages 44-48 of the March 2010 edition of Korea Magazine, the official magazine of the Korean Culture and Information Service (downloadable here), and about this specific part on page 48…

“The shadow of recession and nostalgia:  Some are so surprised by the elder generations’ enthusiasm for girl groups that they cannot help but mention the Lolita complex. Nevertheless, that would be an example of an exaggerated principle that remains from the past authoritarian era. In the course of shifting from a masculine-dominated era to one of feminine equality, the imposing frames of age and gender are being slowly torn down. The time has come in pop culture where a man in his 40s can cheer for teenage girl groups without being looked at suspiciously.”

…my friend Dr. Stephen Epstein, Director of the Asian Studies Institute at Victoria University wrote to me:

The logic here is almost comical: the empowerment present is not that it brings young women to a heightened sense of their own possibilities in the world (which is mentioned nowhere in the piece), but rather that pop culture commodification of sexuality has reached the point that middle-aged men now have the privilege of ogling teenage girls in bands without fear of embarrassment. Now that’s what I call empowerment….


But again—and this bears repeating—its not girls’ sexuality itself that is the problem. Rather it is that:

…the expression of girls’ sexuality seems to be possible only within an extremely restrictive framework. Girls’ sexuality, it seems, has to comply with the markers of sexuality that we recognize, and it cannot be manifested, recognized, or mobilized in other, potentially more empowering and supportive, ways.

This is a form of mythmaking. When a concept as complicated, multilayered, and diverse as sex is reduced to expression through a single channel – the one involving lacy lingerie, skintight clothing, and the rest of what Ariel Levy calls “the caricature of female hotness” – it has to be seen as construction or a fabrication, in which the complexities of the subject are flattened into a single, authoritative dimension, and in which all other possibilities are erased.

So it is important to think about the ways in which girls are being coached to aspire to “hotness” by popular culture, and how the commercialized definitions of “hot” offer beguiling but problematic representations of sex that limit its vast and vital potential. (pp. 70-71, emphasis in original).

And that is the second major problem with WonderBaby’s appearance: how it already sets her on that path, and/or provides an example for others to follow. And while that is by no means a problem confined to Korea – Durham’s book alone is testament to that – it is taken to extremes here. As like I explain in Part 1, it is near impossible for a young aspiring female singer or actress to advance her career without doing “sexy dances” on numerous talk shows and entertainment programs:

And yet strangely, when 30-somethings (and above) do the same it is usually only as part of a big joke, as if they were suddenly neuter. Moreover, whenever a girl group’s music video features sexy dancing and lyrics that aren’t exclusively designed for a male gaze, then they have a very good chance of being banned from television, as anyone with even just a passing familiarity with K-pop can attest to.

But on a final note, one frequent complaint I have about most articles and blog posts on this subject is that they rarely explain why this is the case, nor why younger and younger women and girls are becoming more involved over time. And indeed, for all its popularity, even Durham isn’t as clear about this as I would like either, and I had to read her book several times to figure out what she actually means by “The Lolita Effect” exactly.

In short, it is the natural consequence of various industries’ (fashion, cosmetics, cosmetic surgery, diet-related, food, and so on) need to build, expand, and maintain markets for their products, which obviously they would do best by – with their symbiotic relationship with the media through advertising – creating the impression that one’s appearance and/or ability to perform for the male gaze is the most important criteria that one should be judged on. And the younger that girls learn that lesson and consume their products, the better.

Simplistic? You bet, and I’d be the last person to deny the role of a whole host of other factors, including – for one – the fact that basic biology makes women’s physical attractiveness a much more important factor in choosing a mate for men than vice-versa.

But do consider that: there is not a single country that did not also experience “housewifization” as a consequence of development; that in economic terms at least Korea is now officially the most consumerist country in the world, and much more so than the US (no, really); that comsumerism was explicitly conflated with national-security and anti-communism by the Park Chung-hee (박정희) regime of 1961-1979 (and very much still is); and finally that Korean women played a crucial role in that last, as that last link makes clear.

Given all that, then is anyone surprised that Korean women the thinnest in the developed world, yet actually consider themselves the fattest, and act and spend accordingly?

Correlation not always implying causation be dammed. And if nothing else, I hope I have at least persuaded you of that link with this long post!


The “Reading the Lolita Effect in South Korea” series: