The Gilded Cage of the “EyeBody” Trend?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am not exaggerating.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Scott Webb on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So why “gilded cage”?

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

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

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

But that’s not the point.

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

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

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

Until next week.

Related Posts:

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

Is This “False Equivalence”?

When men are objectified, it’s often as a male-power fantasy, whereas women are usually objectified as passive objects of a cishet male gaze. Where do you think these ads for a Korean gym fit in?

I stopped outside this Jeju City gym for the terribly photoshopped, giraffe-like figure of the man alone.

Then I noticed the banner of the woman behind me, presumably aimed at encouraging female customers to join. The contrast between his cockiness and her languid pose, seductively pulling down her leggings, immediately reminded me of this classic Shortpacked comic by David Willis:

What do you think? Are these gym ads an example of false equivalence?

Technically, the guy is pulling his pants down too—which took me a long time to notice, because it feels less integral to the concept as added after the fact, unlike the woman who was instructed to pose seductively from the get-go.

Or am I just saying that because I’m a cishet guy, instinctively feeling competitive and so immediately drawn to his pecs? Whereas cishet women reading first noticed his open crotch?

Please let me know in the comments below, or on Facebook or Twitter!

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

Hyundai Fit-Shaming Korean Girls

“In the 18th century, it was often assumed…that women were incapable of rational or abstract thought. Women, it was believed, were too susceptible to sensibility and too fragile to be able to think clearly.”

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

These days, I’m generally loathe to lead with quotes. Especially when I’m forced to admit I haven’t read A Vindication of the Rights of Woman since university, and had to rely for that line on its Wikipedia article instead.

But the video below deserves the hyperbole. Because ten years ago, I wrote a post about the widespread practice of calf-reduction surgery in Korea. It really got to me, learning about the literal slicing away of muscle and nerves to make legs slimmer and more “feminine” and “attractive.”

Afterwards, the women literally have to learn how to walk again. Why, oh why, is this still a thing?

For sure, technically Hyundai isn’t promoting operations. But it is contributing to their normalization by reminding everyone that muscular calves are “ugly,” thereby discouraging schoolgirls from exercising.

Like my 12 year-old daughter, who starts middle-school in two weeks. Thanks, Hyundai.

Part of a series (#1, #2, #3, #4) for cars fitted with Hyundai’s “SmartSense” system, the voiceover for the segment with the schoolgirl says:

우리 산중턱여고 나왔잖아

3년내내 아침마다 등산한 것 기억나?

이제 다왔다 올려다보면 고지가 저~기야.

그러다 문든 내 종아리를 봤는데,

헉 다리가 이게 뭐냐?!!

Our girls’ high school was on a mountainside.

Do you remember climbing it every morning for three years?

I’ve arrived, but if I look up I’m still not at the top.

Then at the gates I happened to look at my leg…

OMG, what’s this on it?!!

Are Korean girls and women still shamed for muscular legs though? Please let me know your own thoughts and experiences in the comments. It’s been ten years, so I would just love to learn that it’s actually a very outdated stereotype, and that Hyundai is just being lazy by relying on it.

Related Posts:

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

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

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

Estimated reading time: 12 minutes. Image source: YouTube via Humoruniv.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Update, July 2018: While preparing for my interview with Nathan, I remembered that a Korean journalist had made similar comments about a female golfer in 2016, and was consciously echoing him TBH, but I couldn’t find his article at the time. Now that I’ve just relocated it though, I was surprised to learn that he was actually talking about Park In-bee, who by coincidence very closely resembles Ahn. Unlike with Ahn however, one additional factor behind advertisers’ disinterest in her may be that her family moved to the US when she was 12 (she’s now 29), and that she only competed in Korea for the first time in May this year.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Statistic from “Explaining Underweight BMI and Body Dissatisfaction among Young Korean Women” by Tess Hellgren (2012). Screenshot: “Street Interview – Are you fat? (Asking Korean girls)당신은 뚱뚱한가요? Nicki Minaj VS Yoona” by Joo Won.Statistic from: “18% of Young Women Found to Be Underweight“, anonymous, The Chosun Ilbo (2014).
(Link to Georgia Hanias’s 2012 Marie Claire article in the slide, plus another one to an interesting critique.)

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

Any thoughts? About any of the articles? :)

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

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:

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