In the News: Korean Celebrity, Ethnic Nationalism, and Beauty Ideals

Kim Yuna may well be the “Ad Queen” in South Korea, but the reality is that precious few female athletes have the face and body-type necessary to get noticed by Korean advertisers. Whereas for male athletes, they just have to be good at their sports.
Estimated reading time: 12 minutes. Image source: YouTube via Humoruniv.

My writing is pretty erratic these days, because reasons. Sorry about that. One of those reasons is worth mentioning though: I’ve been fielding lots of inquiries from journalists instead. Here are some of the results:

First up, from “In Pyeongchang, a surprise visit from Queen Yuna” by Nathan VanderKlippe in The Globe and Mail:

For “Korean advertisers, all their Christmases came at once when Kim Yuna became popular,” said James Turnbull, a South Korea-based author who writes about Korean feminism, sexuality and pop-culture.

By at least one measure, celebrity matters more in South Korea than elsewhere. Roughly 60 per cent of the country’s advertisements feature endorsements, some six times higher as those in the United States. Former South Korean advertising executive Bruce Haines once called the country’s advertising “beautiful people holding a bottle.”

Mr. Turnbull is critical of the unfair standards this imposes. South Korean Ahn Sun-ju was among the best golfers in the world, but South Korean advertisers said she needed plastic surgery if she wanted to appear in commercials.

Ms. Kim, however, “was tailor-made for Korean advertisements,” Mr. Turnbull said. She is “young, attractive, photogenic, a figure skater – thin, tall – whose body is the type they want.”

“The question isn’t so much why she retired so early as why she retired so late,” he added. “Because really, did she enjoy what she was doing?”

There’s lots to unpack in that short segment. Starting with giving credit to Roboseyo for the point about advertisers’ love of Kim Yu-na, who wrote that in 2009:

Kim Yu-na…is a teen-aged figure skating phenomenon out of Seoul. She’s only eighteen years old now, and she’s been kicking the crap out of the ladies’ singles category for a few years already. She’s telegenic and cute: she appears in TV commercials here in Korea and sells, better than most of Korea’s other “Best in the world/Korea at X” stars, for example Park Ji-sung (family name Park), the Soccer (that’s Football to the rest of the world) star who is holding his own impressively on Manchester United, but who’s so ugly, and un-charismatic in front of the camera, that they can only make commercials like this [long since deleted example—sorry]: keep the camera at a distance, and show him kicking stuff, because that’s the only time he looks impressive. (Notice at the end of the ad, when the close-up is as short as they can make it and still have him be recognizable, as if the camera’s afraid to get close to his face).

Catch me on a bad hair day, and I’m hardly charismatic in front of a camera myself. I’m all about widening the media’s narrow range of beauty ideals too. But it’s objectively true: even at his physical peak, Park Ji-sung’s face would never have launched a thousand ships. As a male celebrity however, his phenomenal popularity for his sporting prowess meant that advertisers still flocked to him nonetheless, especially after it became apparent he was responsible for one million new Manchester United-branded Shinhan Mastercard accounts. Add various other factors responsible for that world-high celebrity endorsement rate of 60 percent of TV commercials (see my journal article), plus—in this case—Koreans’ (in)famous toleration of blatant photoshopping, then you can hardly blame Gillette for joining his bandwagon in 2009:

Sources: Hidomin (2006), Betanews (2009).

Like Park Ji-sung, golfer Ahn Sun-ju was one of the best at her sport in Korea. Unlike Park Ji-sung, she was cursed with being a woman, which meant advertisers were very concerned about her appearance—and her body type didn’t fit their narrow requirements. Frustrated with her ensuing lack of corporate sponsorship, she ultimately chose to compete in Japan instead, where—to my shock and pleasant surprise—advertisers were more interested in her sporting achievements. As The Korea Times explains:

…[Ahn] said that when she competed in Korea, her ability as a golfer was never enough.

“Some (potential Korean) sponsors even demanded I get a plastic surgery,” she said. “Companies did not consider me as a golf athlete, only that I was a woman. It mattered most to them was whether my appearance was marketable. I was deeply hurt by that.”

Ahn her made pro debut with the KLPGA in 2006 and won six tournaments before jumping to the JPLGA. But despite her stellar play, she struggled to find a corporate sponsor in Korea.

“As you can see, I do not have a pretty face, I am not thin, I am not what you would call sexy,” Ahn said. “But does that mean I shouldn’t be playing golf?

“Japanese companies, on the other hand, focused on my ability as a golfer. They are more concerned about my performance and how I treat my fans. I am being sponsored by six Japanese companies, including a clothing brand.”

Writing in Kore in response to that article, Ethel Navales speculates that we can’t “say for certain that Ahn’s decision to move to JLPGA was due to Korea’s inability to accept her physical appearance”, and that she may have just been reacting to one negative experience, so “we certainly shouldn’t assume that the KLPGA puts those expectations on [all] their players.” But personally, I see no reason to challenge Ahn’s stated motivations for leaving. As for the KLGPA, I turned to Transnational Sport: Gender, Media, and Global Korea (2012) by Rachel Miyung Joo to learn more about its attitudes towards its female players, but unfortunately she doesn’t mention Ahn at all, focusing largely on Korean women in the (US)LGPA instead. So, while her descriptions of their Orientalist and sexualized depictions therein are fascinating, and her description of its 2002-2007 “Five Points of Celebrity” marketing drive (a.k.a. “Anti-butch Campaign”), “understood to place a large emphasis and personalities of the players rather than on their performance as athletes” (p. 153), sounds particularly relevant here, indeed we still can’t automatically assume the same of the KLPGA. But she does note that “[i]n the current media climate in South Korea, female golfers are often sexualized through sports tabloids, fansites, and advertisements” (p. 156; see Le Coq Sportif example below). Also, her description of what happened to the Korean image of predecessor Pak Se-ri, “probably the most popular athlete in South Korea at the end of the twentieth century”, is quite telling. Because after Pak left for the LGPA in 1998:

Sources: Kaikaihanno (Pak Se-ri, 1998), Yonhap (Ahn Sun-ju, 2014)

…there [was] a considerable shift in ideas of public sexuality in [South Korea]. This shift can be read in the changes to the public appearance of Pak Se-ri. She was transformed from a dowdy twenty-something golfer at her debut to the tidy player of today through a national makeover. The masculinity of Pak—her broad shoulders, strong legs, dark tan, baggy shorts, and flat short hair covered with ill-fitting baseball caps—did not detract from her initial national fame….[But] [o]ver the years, her public image has been transformed through a wardrobe redo and the use of heavy makeup. She is often featured in women’s magazines in tailored designer sportswear with highly stylized hair and makeup. In the photos, she strikes poses that emphasize her “feminine side”—taking a stroll in the wood, relaxing on a couch, playing with her dogs, or cooking in her kitchen. The transformation of a tomboyish national icon to the womanly figure of today demonstrates that, although femininity was not a requisite for her national importance, she was normalized into public femininity through the transnational circuit of images of professional golf.

“In the current media climate in South Korea, female golfers are often sexualized through sports tabloids, fansites, and advertisements.” One of many long, lingering shots of conventionally-attractive, (now) JLPGA player Lee Bo-mee in a 2016 Le Coq Sportif commercial. Source: YouTube.

In contrast, Kim Yuna shares the body type and looks of K-pop girl-group members, who are specifically chosen for their ensuing, very narrowly-defined suitability for advertising. So it comes as no surprise that, like them, the vast majority of her numerous endorsements appear to be for beauty and dieting-related products.

To note that isn’t to diminish her considerable achievements and hard work. But it’s entirely possible she would never have become such a national icon if her body didn’t fit the part. As was the case with Yi So-yeon, Korea’s first astronaut, whose treatment by netizens and the media was really quite shocking.

Finally, just for the record, the point about her retirement was actually made by Nathan, but I agreed. Also, it’ll be interesting to see to what extent the Garlic Girls’ endorsements will challenge all these body-standards for female athletes. But it’s time to move onto the (much shorter) second article.

Next, again for Nathan, a few days later I was quoted in “Behind Olympic death threats, a South Korean fan culture that takes speed skating seriously“,

It doesn’t help that the South Korean sense of nationalism also “stresses Koreanness through having Korean ‘blood,'” said James Turnbull, a writer and speaker on Korean culture. “This means many Koreans react the way they do because they feel like a member of their ‘family’ has been cheated.”

Admittedly, that last possibly sounds a little patronizing coming from a foreign observer. So I would have preferred Nathan had written that it was actually my Korean friend Ji-eun that said that, attempting to explain things after I expressed my mystification at the Korean (over)reaction to the Apolo Ohno controversy in the 2002 Winter Olympic Games—which included passers-by harassing my coworkers on the streets of (normally very pleasant and friendly) Jinju. But no matter: whoever points it out, bloodlines-based nationalism is very much a thing in Korea (and Japan), and has led to such oddities as numerous apologies for and a national sense of guilt and shame over the actions of Virginia Tech shooter Seung-hui Cho in 2007, despite his having left South Korea at the age of 8 and absolutely no-one in the US considering him “Korean.”

Left: highly-recommended further reading (source: Stanford University Press). Right: “A BBC poll from 2016 of various countries, asking what the most important factor in self identity was. South Korea has the highest proportion given for ‘race or culture – 25%” (source: BBC via Wikipedia).

Next up, a week later, I was quoted by Diane Jean in “En Corée du Sud, les femmes n’ont pas d’autre choix que d’être belles” (“In South Korea, women have no choice but to be beautiful”) for ChEEK Magazine. As you can see it’s all in French, so here’s a bad translation of my contribution:

“Of course these pressures are not unique to Korea, they are found elsewhere,” says James Turnbull, a specialist in feminism and pop culture in Korea. But without having lived here, where, on a daily basis, your beautician, your teachers, your parents, your colleagues, your bosses constantly repeat to you that you have to go on a diet […], we can not realize how these pressures are particularly harsh for Korean women. “

That Korean women face body image issues will come as a surprise to nobody. But it can be difficult to convey their intensity, especially to overseas observers who are constantly bombarded with negative body image messages themselves. Probably most effective then, is to hear from the victims in person, especially overseas Koreans who frequently express their shock at the level of body-shaming they experience here compared to in their home countries. Listen to Korean-American Ji Eun-gyeong for instance, writing for Ilda South Korean Feminist Journal:

In contrast to the casual attire and revealing clothing of some of the Korean American women in the student program, Korean female students were uniformly slim, wore formal clothing to school, and always had perfectly groomed hair and makeup. I remember gawking at the female students wearing formal suits and heels at nearby Ewha University, something that was unheard of at schools in the US, where it was perfectly acceptable to go to school wearing pyjamas and looking like you rolled out of bed.

In comparison to these women, I was fatter, did not know how to put on makeup “properly,” and was relatively not well-groomed. The physical standards for Korean women were a palpable social pressure on me and the Korean American women, and despite our best efforts to “fit in,” we always fell short. We did not have the skills, energy, or time to put on full makeup, to dress formally for school everyday, nor did we have the slim body types that almost everyone around us seemed to have. Most importantly, we were not “well-behaved” women.

As Korean American women, we were unused to having so many restrictions on our movement and our bodies. One student in my exchange program was slapped for smoking in public, and another was yelled out for having lightly dyed hair. Others were reprimanded for wearing revealing or messy clothing, such as shorts with “holes” in them (shredded shorts). We talked too loudly and laughed too hard. Because of these and the daily judgments about our physical appearance that left us lacking, most of the women in our program felt a demoralized and degraded while we were in Korea. The policing of our bodies was limited to Korean Americans, because we were being compared to Korean women, while the foreign women were help up to different standards.

In contrast, the Korean American men in our program had less restrictions on their dress or their physical appearance. While they were subject to some pressures – ie, having clean-cut haircuts and not being able to wearing shorts – they were subject to less judgment about their bodies than the foreign women.

Admittedly she was writing about 1994, but you don’t need me to tell you that very, very little has changed for the next generation. That is also indicated by the following damning statistics, collected in these slides for my lecture on body image for my “Gender in South Korea” course at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies last summer:

Statistic from “Explaining Underweight BMI and Body Dissatisfaction among Young Korean Women” by Tess Hellgren (2012).
Statistic from: “18% of Young Women Found to Be Underweight“, anonymous, The Chosun Ilbo (2014).
(Link to Georgia Hanias’s 2012 Marie Claire article in the slide, plus another one to an interesting critique.)

Finally, there was one more interview after that, but I was completely edited out of the article when it was finally published last week. I’ll wisely spare you my rant though, only mentioning it as a final excuse for the delay in posting. So too, that I also did a long podcast interview in March, which will hopefully be coming out in the next couple of months.

Any thoughts? About any of the articles? :)

Related Posts:

Korean Sociological Image #93: Korea’s Dark Circles

Very busy with work and deadlines these days (sorry), I picked up these daily planner post-its to try to make more efficient use of my time:

Daily Planner(Source: ebay)

Korean Sleep Deprivation 1I don’t recommend them: at 8cm in diameter, they’re much too small to write in, whatever language you use. Much more interesting than my frustrations with my pudgy fingers though, is that example daily plan provided. It reads:

  • 11:30pm to 6am: Sleep
  • 7-9: Prepare for Conference
  • 9-12pm: Attend Conference
  • 12-1: Lunch
  • 1-3:30: Attend Exhibition
  • 3:30-6: Attend Hagwon (Institute)
  • 6-7:30: Skip 300 times
  • 7:30-9: Memorize English Vocabulary
  • 9-11:30: Watch Online Lectures

Did the copywriters consider that a typical worker’s daily plan? Or more as one the ambitious professional should aspire to, starting with the strategic investment of 1500 won for a pack of 30?

Either way, it’s an interesting example of how Korea’s study-hard, work-hard, sleep-when-you’re-dead norm gets manifested and perpetuated in daily life, and one that would probably be little changed for consumers in other (developed) East Asian countries. In contrast, US adults, for instance, may also get less than seven hours daily sleep in practice, but the eight-hours ideal is an enduring myth. And very, very few aren’t achieving that ideal due to attending hagwons.

Korean high school students sleepAnother manifestation of Koreans’ attitudes to sleep comes from a high school teacher friend of mine, who says a common saying students there goes something like “Four hours sleep, go to a SKY university; five hours sleep, you fail.” I was recently reminded of it by the second “dark circle” on the right, which you can read more about at the Hankyroreh.

In both cases, frankly I’m surprised that the sleeping time is so high

How about you?

Update: Some statistics, via The Korea Bizwire:

Toz, a business that rents meeting rooms, conducted a survey on 1,800 high school seniors who used their study center. Results showed that 31 percent of the respondents slept five to six hours a night, and 30 percent answered that they slept four to five hours.

In other words, six out of 10 high school seniors were only getting five hours of sleep every night. Those who slept more than seven hours represented only five percent of the respondents.

(For more posts in the Korean Sociological Image Series, see here)

Guest Post: So JYP Wants to Know Who My Mama Is

For those of you who watched the music video of JYP’s latest hit, Who’s Your Mama, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.

The entire song is a tribute to big booties. When I first read the song title, I immediately remembered Will.i.Am’s song, I Got It From My Mama, which—surprise, surpriseis also a worship song for killer female bods.

Although the feminist in me wants to point out the fact that JYP’s entire song revolves around sexual harassment at the gym, that’s not what I’m going to talk about today.

But first, I need to quickly introduce myself. I’m a half-Korean hapa, who mostly identifies as a Korean. Although I was born in Seoul, the majority of my childhood was spent in Hong Kong because my parents decided to move there when I was 3. But thanks to my mother’s fear of me getting out of touch with my Korean roots, I spent almost every single vacation with my grandmother in Seoul.

Having grown up with in an interracial household, and in a cultural hub like Hong Kong, I considered myself to be pretty open-minded. Literally all of my Korean friends have often told me that my personality was “so American,” and I agreed with them (never mind the fact that I’ve never even lived in the States until I was 18).

But I was still very much tied to Korean culture whether I liked it or not. For example, up until high school, I was naturally skinny. And by skinny, I mean that I was basically skin and bones. But everyone in Korea always commented how my thigh gap was so nice, and how bony my arms were. A friend once casually commented on this by saying, “You have the ideal body—it’s like you have limb anorexia.”

Limb anorexia? Really?

But because the thin ideal is so prevalent in Korean society, I embraced it. I was so glad that I never gained any weight despite eating so much junk. However this “privilege” stopped in high school, when my metabolism completely slowed to a halt. I started gaining weight from my bad eating habits. Having been only used to wearing size 2 clothing, I cried the first time I wasn’t able to fit into my skinny jeans.

The funny thing is, I was never “fat.” It was the fact that I lost my thigh gap and “limb-anorexia look” that upset me. This led me to doing what any normal Korean female would do. I looked up dieting tips on Google and religiously researched any and every diet program I came across.

But this all changed when I chose to attend university in America.

Upon my arrival in the States, I realized that the standard for a “hot body” was much different. Sure, people thought thin people had nice figures, but for the most part—it was all about the curves. Fast forward to Sophomore year, I started feeling so much more comfortable in my own skin. I started weight training at the gym, which led me to discover the amazing sport of powerlifting. Watching my strength and endurance increase with each passing week allowed me to stay religiously devoted to my workout regimen. People started commenting on how “fit” I looked. The best part about weight training was that I could eat a lot more calories without worrying about looking fat. Hello restaurant deliveries.

After committing to a year of serious weight training, I went back to Korea to spend the summer. It was hilarious to hear my family and friends gasp and exclaim at how “big” I looked. My grandma said I looked obese. I tried to explain that it was muscle not fat—but she wasn’t convinced.

I thought I’d find more peace of mind at a gym, so I joined my neighborhood gym right away. It was a rather large chain, so their trainers were all “experienced.” On my first day at the gym, a few trainers came up to me and commented that I was lifting “too heavy.” I just brushed them off.

At least twice a week, some other gym-goer would come up to me to say that I was “lifting too heavy for a girl.” I didn’t care what anyone said. Their comments fueled my workouts. I loved that I was able to deadlift and squat more than most of the men at my gym.

I’d often have ahjussis or ajummas come up to me to say that I was really strong for a girl and that I should probably stop working out too much because I’d likely “hurt myself.”

My girl friends kept commenting on my “huge bicep” and “horse-like thighs” whenever we hung out. They weren’t trying to be mean—they just couldn’t understand why a skinny person wanted to get muscular.

I was in no way large. I finally reached a healthy BMI instead of being underweight. I was finally toned and healthy, and I was getting criticized for it. It’s funny to think that Koreans praise gool-bok-ji, or honey thighs (AKA healthy and toned thighs), but they’re only interested in seeing them on celebrities instead of normal people.

The standard of a fit body for Korea and the rest of the world is vastly different. Let’s refer back to the JYP video—the YouTube comment sections were all filled with non-Koreans exclaiming that none of the girls in the M/V were fit/curvy enough.

JYP Big BootyWhat do you think about these standards? Do you agree with my experience and observations? I’d love to hear your thoughts through the comment section below!

Anum Yoon hails from Korea, where she was raised on spam and eggs (with sesame oil and gochujang of course). She spent the last 4 years in America, tackling her cultural identity crisis, one awkward moment at a time. She’s currently blogging over at Current On Currency.

Update, James: Via Omona! They Didn’t, here’s a video showing model Eom Sang-mi’s reaction to her role in Jay Park’s Mommae MV, which is similarly objectifying. Alas, it’s not about JYP, as I misread when I first saw it, and it’s pretty laddish overall, but Sang-mi’s comments—e.g., “Why are they only showing my boobs?!”—are quite amusing and telling:

Related Posts:

The Skinny on the Thigh Gap

Mannequins with jeans(Source: Lion Hirth @Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0)

My latest article for Busan Haps, on (mostly) US teenage girls’ latest body image obsession, and why, to my great dismay, they themselves prove to be largely responsible for its success. Researching it taught me a lot about how people negotiate the messages about body image perpetuated by the media — read: never assume any groups are simply passive consumers — and how crucial it is to examine the role of social media to understand body image in 2015.

Also, I mention that, in December, the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority forced Urban Outfitters to remove a photo of a model with a thigh gap; since writing, France’s Parliament has also moved to make it a crime to use models below a certain BMI. I’m still not convinced that demonizing one body type (or part) is necessarily the answer though.

What do you think? Please let me know in the comments, either here or in the article.

A Weighty Matter: Deconstructing the Korean Media’s Messages about Body Image, Cosmetic Surgery, and Obesity

Korean Drama Screenshot(Source)

I was quoted in the Korea Times today, on “Korean primetime’s ‘lookism’ problem”. Due to my sloppy wording though, the fact that I was actually paraphrasing someone else(!) got lost in the final article. So, to give credit where credit’s due, and to use the opportunity to provide some helpful links to further reading, here’s my original email quote:

As researcher Sarah Grogan pointed out in Body Image: Understanding Body Dissatisfaction in Men, Women and Children (2007), watching more television doesn’t necessarily lead to greater dissatisfaction with one’s body—it’s the messages it gives that are what’s important. So, whether it’s a variety program, a music video, an advertisement, or whatever, if what you’re watching stresses being thin, if it encourages viewers to compares themselves with the ideal men and women presented, and/or if it makes you feel like there’s such a huge gap between your own body and theirs, then you’re just going be left feeling ugly. Television everywhere is guilty of that. Korean television though, really stands out with the sheer amount of programming time devoted to appearance and dieting, with its uncritical narratives that cosmetic surgery is a safe and reliable means to financial and romantic success, and with the seeming unconcern with, even positive encouragement of passing those messages on to children. Call that a gross generalization if you wish, but consider this: although Korean children (of both sexes) are only about average weight compared to other OECD countries, Korea is the only country where 20-39 year-old women are getting thinner. Is it really so strange to suppose that the Korean media might have had something to do with that? So unreasonable to suggest that it could sometimes present more realistic images of women?

To be precise, it’s the 2nd half of the 2nd sentence (from “if what you’re watching” to “feeling ugly”) where I’m paraphrasing Sarah Grogan again (p. 112). But, without my making that clear, then it’s no wonder that reporter Kim Bo-eun didn’t realize, and so didn’t mention Grogran. My fault sorry, and, not just because I’m feeling guilty at the *cough* inadvertent plagiarism, naturally I highly recommend Grogans’ book, although frankly I’d wait to see if a third edition is coming out before you consider purchasing it yourself.

Most the of the subsequent links are self-explanatory, so I’ll just highlight a couple. First, the one to Joanna Elfving-Hwang’s “Cosmetic Surgery and Embodying the Moral Self in South Korean Popular Makeover Culture” at the Asia-Pacific Journal, because it’s a must-read. At best, I can only supplement it myself with this recent translation of mine (with links to many more articles) on how scarily unregulated—and genuinely dangerous—the Korean cosmetic surgery industry is, with a Chinese patient dying just last week.

Next, my latest article for Busan Haps, where I debunk recent alarmist reports about—yes, really—a ‘Korean Obesity Epidemic’, especially among children. To quickly sum up my findings for you here, despite the definite improvements that can be made to Korean children’s health, they are actually only about average weight for the OECD (which I suppose is news for Korea), and Korean adults are still the 5th thinnest overall. Like with smoking however, it is both misguided and unhelpful to think in terms of overall rates rather than specific demographics, two extreme cases in point being young, urban women who are getting more underweight, and elderly, rural, poor women who do indeed tend to be (slightly) more obese than ‘average’. World-Changing Quiz ShowSomething to consider the next time a columnist or show host lectures Korean women on eating less—which will probably be as soon as next week, in the run-up to Seolnal on the 18th (source, right: Entermedia).

Finally, another clarification. By “Korean television…really [standing] out with the sheer amount of programming time devoted to appearance and dieting”, I don’t mean shows explicitly devoted to those subjects as such (although I’m sure that, comparatively speaking, their numbers would still be quite high). Rather, it’s that those subjects pervade Korean programming content, with hosts on Korea’s disproportionately high number of variety and guest shows, for example, frequently commenting on especially female guests’ appearances, either by jokingly fat-shaming those that don’t fit the ideal, or by prompting ‘impromptu’ skits, dance performances, or testimonials about dieting and miracle fat-reduction products by those that do, to the extent that such body-policing becomes an integral component of the entertainment (Kim Bo-eun also mentions some examples in Korean comedy shows).

This is just my strong impression though, which I admit I can’t offer any content analysis to back-up, and which I doubt even exists anyway (would anyone like to do some with me?). If any readers have a different impression of Korean television then, and feel that I’m mistaken, by all means please tell me why!

Korean Sociological Image #80: Fashion’s Complete Body!

Sometimes, I wonder if I exaggerate Korea’s alphabetization craze. Then I come across advertisements like this one:

Korean Body LinesThe advertisement on the left reads:

Tight chestline, Sleek braline; Slender waistline, No-cellulite bellyline; and Attractive y-line, Smooth legline. Fashion’s Complete Body! Summer Event. 10% Event Discount.

I couldn’t have put it better myself.

Please see here and here if this is the first you’ve heard of “alphabetization” though, with the latter link focusing on Western historical parallels and the Y-line specifically. Alternatively, see here for more on the physically impossible X-line!

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

Guest Post: Challenging Korea’s Body Image Paradigm

Korea Body Image(Source)

If you are a person living in Korea, you are likely to have had your weight or appearance commented on. “You have gained/lost weight!” is a customary greeting. Dieting is the most common topic for daily conversations. Ads promote unrealistic beauty standards for both women and men. Worse, if you don’t look like them, you are likely to be discriminated against or dismissed as some who needs to get some work done. Self-love is prohibited unless you look like a Barbie doll. There are voices and messages everywhere, both internally and externally, that arouse insecurity around your looks. Body-policing is a common practice.

Prospecs W Get Slim Kim Yuna GIFOverwhelmingly obsessed with thinness, I dare to call Korea an eating-disordered society. I know this because I have been struggling with eating disorders for 9 years, now marching on the road to recovery. Living here, staying on the recovery-track is extremely difficult because all the internal eating-disordered voices and negative self-talk, which I have worked so hard to detach myself from, become real external voices to attack my vulnerable psychological wounds. On the other hand, recovering from eating disorders in this country is double-strengthening my immunity to these eating-disordered voices. I am well-aware of how self-destructive and unproductive these voices are, and how I can protect myself from them.

But, what about those who haven’t been consoled? So many Korean people, especially women of all ages, believe there is no other way to be loved or socially recognized without dieting or getting plastic surgery. Men believe women should naturally look like the ready-made Barbie dolls in fashion magazines or entertainment shows when they are in fact extremely unrealistic. I guarantee there is not a single woman in this country who hasn’t felt insecure about her looks or body parts. Under such circumstances, women and men are likely to fall victims of eating disorders. Statistical data can’t speak for the reality because people are not even aware that these voices are ‘disordered’ voices. Obsession with thinness, extreme dieting, judging others by appearance and feeling insecure about their natural looks feel too ‘normal’ for people to acknowledge them as problems. Walking on the streets, I would hear fat talk or negative self-talk 99% of the time. These voices kill me, even more so to realize that there are so many souls who are suffering from from-mild-to-severe forms of eating disorders but are not even aware of it (Source above — unknown; source, below).

Men like thin pretty womenThe need for body image activism in Korea is dire, for the consequences of continuing the eating-disordered talks in public are obviously disastrous, both for individuals and the society. So, I have brought the Operation Beautiful campaign to Korea to counter the prevailing negative self-talks. I have been posting about it on my (Korean) blog Your Stage is the World, Not the Scale, along with my personal stories of overcoming struggles with distorted body image as well as critiques on dieting ads that make one feel insecure. I am working on compiling these stories to publish a book under the title, Surviving Eating Disorders Where Barbie Dolls Reign Supreme (but I think this will take decades). Currently, I am planning workshops for improving body image, to create safe space to talk about struggles with negative body image, to promote body diversity (healthy-at-every-size approach) and media literacy. I don’t want to force people to stop dieting and start loving themselves immediately. Instead, the most ultimate goal for all these activities is to give people agency over their own bodies and self-esteem, which will allow people to see what really matters and what is there to enjoy in life regardless of how they look.

The movement is only fresh. I am aware that social change doesn’t come easily or fast. However, I have a strong faith that by transforming ourselves, we can transform the society we live in. We individuals construct the society; we are not to be constructed by it. We are active agents. I want to tell my stories to you and listen to yours. I am collecting personal stories of struggles with negative body image or external pressure to conform to the unrealistic standards of beauty. Then, I want to open up off and online discussions on how we want to redefine beauty that suits us healthily. Hopefully, we can remind each other how beautiful our bodies are just the way they are; encourage each other to love our own bodies instead of fitting ourselves to someone else’s standards to get approval.

Please share your thoughts, stories, comments, anything you want to say about this movement. Thank you!

Minji.