Merry Christmas, Powergirls! And Powerboys Too!

Merry Christmas PowergirlsAs promised, I’ve gotten the writing bug again, and am just putting the finishing touches to some long posts. I’ve even decided to start publishing every Monday too! :D

Apropos of New Year’s resolutions though, starting this coming Monday sounds a little premature. By the same token, the next Monday as well, which will still be New Year’s Day in much of the world. But hey, you’ve got to start sometime.

So, Monday the 2nd it is. Until then, let me leave you with my favorite Christmas card again, found in Daiso while looking for some stocking fillers for my daughters. It reads: “Like a powergirl, always be confident! Spread/Brace your shoulders, be strong/cheer up! Yay!”

And on that note, Merry Christmas, Powergirls everywhere! And Powerboys too! :)

Chinese Eunuchs Confuse Me

What role do Neo-Confucian notions of the “life force” (ki) play in buttressing modern Korean patriarchy?

Warm Nest(Warm Nest by Eugenia LoliCC BY-NC 2.0)

Many years ago,Taeyeon Kim’s “Neo-Confucian Body Techniques: Women’s Bodies in Korea’s Consumer Society” was my Communist Manifesto of Korean gender relations. It was short, to the point, and instantly melded everything I knew about the subject into a simple, coherent narrative. It didn’t galvanize me into taking up arms against the bourgeoisie exactly, but it did encourage me to study more, ultimately leading to this blog. Take these quick excerpts to see why:

First, from page 99 (references removed; italics in original):

“To understand the Neo-Confucian body, it is essential to understand the concept of ki. A material force which links the body and mind into one system, ki flows through all things, giving them form and vitality….There is no distinction between the self and the universe. Neo-Confucian men were encouraged to let go of ego and become selfless, that is to have no consciousness of an individual and separate self apart from others….Ki was passed from parent to child throughout the generations, acting as a material link between ancestors and descendants….The family composed a unified body through ki, and the identity of the family and self and family was continuous and undifferentiated.”

Then, from page 100 (ditto):

Neo-Confucian scholars considered women to have inferior ki to that of men. This notion continues to be held today. One study of a village in Korea found that women were believed to be inferior to men because they did not carry the life-giving force (ki) that men did. Women were believed to be passive receptacles of the life which men implanted in them; they played no active part in creating life. Such incubation was perhaps the most important role of a woman’s body in Korea. Her body was a vessel through which the male line and ki could be perpetuated. As such, the most important physical traits for a woman were features that revealed her potential to bear children—particularly boys. “During the Yi [Choson] Dynasty, the attribute valued above all others in a prospective bride was her potential capacity to bear sons. Compared to this, her beauty and wealth were secondary.”

Upon reading that, suddenly I saw a Matrix-like ki (기) pervading everything, providing the ideological bedrock to the many, blatantly patriarchal aspects of Korean society. For instance: Koreans’ preference for sons and consequent sex ratio problem (resolved, but with a legacy of an excess of increasingly misogynistic 20-something men); the hoju system (호주제), only abolished in 2008, under which only fathers or husbands could be heads and/or legal representatives of a family; the traditional (and still prevailing) custom of only having men perform jesa (제사), or ancestor worship rights, and usually only at the eldest son’s home; and Korea’s extremely low adoption rates, with 70% of those that are adopted domestically are girls. Indeed, as The Economist explains of that last:

Traditional Confucian notions of the bloodline family still hold sway, as do aspects of primogeniture. Women who cannot bear children face strong social stigma, as do orphans and adoptees, whose chances of getting a job and marrying are limited. Many adoptions in South Korea are concealed from family and friends—and, in many cases, the adopted child. Parents ensure that the baby’s blood type matches their own; some mothers even fake pregnancy. All this sends the message that adoption is shameful, in turn discouraging more of it. The secrecy also explains why 95% of infants adopted within South Korea are less than one-month old: young enough to be passed off as biological children. A majority of adopted babies are girls so as to avoid difficulties over inheritance and at ancestral family rites, which are normally carried out by bloodline sons.

Korean Domestic Adoptions 70% girls(Source: Netizenbuzz)

Of course, ultimately I did realize that ki didn’t explain all that much actually. That, alas, Korean gender relations remained a messy subject, and that I still have a lifetime of learning about it ahead of me. But I hadn’t come across anything to challenge Taeyeon Kim’s characterization of the concept either, so I retained my lingering affection for it.

Then I listened to an episode about eunuchs on the BBC Radio 4 podcast In Our Time, hosted by Melvyn Bragg. That week, it featured Michael Hoeckelmann talking about eunuchs in China, Karen Radner about them in the Assyrian Empire, and Shaun Tougher in the Roman one. Jumping ahead to the sections which made do a double-take (several, in fact, as I’m sure they will to you too):


Michael Hoeckelmann) Most eunuchs came from the lower strata of society. So, if not the eunuch himself had decided to undergo castration—there are some cases in Chinese history where some eunuchs are known to have castrated themselves—then the decision rested with the family. So families that could not afford the Confucian education that was necessary and required for [a career in officialdom], they would decide to have one of their sons castrated, and to send him into the palace, in the hope that once he rose to a considerable position of power he would help his own family, his own kin.


Karen Radner) [The eunuchs, unlike] all the other people in Assyria, did not identify themselves with reference to their father’s name. Everyone else was such and such son of such and such, they were not. That’s very important. Also, as we’ve already discussed, a key attraction [for the royal family] is that they cannot father children; that’s hugely important in a society where the existence of the family across generations is one of the key incentives of human life…you achieved eternal life by having children who would invoke your name in regular rituals. Obviously that couldn’t happen with a eunuch…the royal family instead took on that responsibility. One can describe the eunuchs almost as adopted children of the royal family.

Melvyn Bragg)But then what happened in China, as you began to say Michael, the eunuchs began to adopt children in order that these children would do exactly as Karen was saying—have prayers or whatever…ceremonies after their death to keep them alive as their ancestors.

Michael Hoeckelmann) Yes, indeed. And just as Karen was saying, like in ancient Assyria, kinship and family was all important in China…and when eunuchs were castrated they even kept what was formerly attached to their bodies in order to be buried with them (the so-called “Three Treasures”) kept in a jar because they had to show them to regulators at the imperial court. Anyway, so the eunuchs start to adopt children at a very early stage in order to bequeath their property and in order to continue the family line. Because what they had done, or what had been done to them—the castration—was actually a breach of filial piety; they were not able to continue the family line…at least not biologically.

I know what you’re thinking: Ancient China is not Korea. Also, if Taeyeon Kim’s definition of ki has substance to it (and, my youthful naivety aside, there’s still no reason to suppose otherwise), then it’s difficult to believe that it hasn’t very much provided an ideological buttress to various aspects of Korean patriarchy today. And probably in China also, where, among other things, boys command a price twice that of girls in the lucrative trade in kidnapped children.

But, if it turns out that in Korea too, jesa was and/or is more important than continuing ki—indeed, really quite separate and distinct from it—then I’m still left feeling a little chastised that I came to accept something so readily without examining it properly, simply because it provided a handy, scholarly confirmation of my pre-existing views.

But what you’ve also probably thinking is that Taeyeon Kim is just one source. And, although I’ve read more about Neo-Confucianism since then, most recently The Sage and the Second Sex: Confucianism, Ethics, and Gender edited by Li Chenyang (2000), I have to admit I’ve read nothing about ki specifically. So, on that note, let me end this post with not a revelation sorry, but a), if nothing else, a link to a very interesting podcast for you to take away from it; and b), my again posing the question provided in the introduction: what role, if any, do Neo-Confucian notions of ki play in modern Korean patriarchy?

Thanks in advance to any more learned readers than I who can provide any clarification, and/or suggest links or books for further reading. Also, please feel free to raise just about anything (Neo)-Confucianism-related in the comments, including any interesting stories about what your Korean family and/or friends do during Chuseok or Seolnal, and their attitudes towards the notion of women performing jesa. Thanks!

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)

Two Must-Listens About Korean Popular Culture

Flower of Capitalism Olga Fedorenko(Source: The Korea Society)

First up, I wouldn’t usually make an announcement about an event in far-off New York, but I have no hesitation in making an exception for friend and fellow Korean Popular Culture Reader contributor Dr. Olga Fedorenko, who’s lecturing at the Korea Society on Tuesday evening. As the FB event page and Korea Society website explain:

Advertising in South Korea is often referred to as a “flower of capitalism.” Rather than calling attention to the inherent links between commercial advertising and capitalism, this clichéd metaphor presents advertising as a wholesome, creative medium of public good and positive contribution to society. South Korean’s consume advertising as a product of popular culture and celebrate it for the humanist societal ideals it often promotes, instead of viewing it as an intrusive commercial message. Dr. Fedorenko explores the origins of such attitudes toward advertising through some notable contemporary examples, and considers challenges of using advertising for public good in the twenty-first century South Korea.

I owe a lot to Olga for much of what I’ve written about Korean advertising over the years, most recently referencing her work in my post “Sex, Self-Confidence, and Social Activism: When Women Made Soju Ads” about Korean femvertising, so you have my personal guarantee that her lecture will be very interesting. (You may also find this review of her dissertation interesting, let alone her dissertation itself.)

As I type this I’m unsure if her lecture will be recorded unfortunately, but it probably will—most Korea Society lectures are made into podcasts, and increasingly online videos are provided too. Either way, I’ll provide a link once her’s is/are ready later this week.

Update: Here is the video. It is also available as a podcast here or here.

Next, for those of you who were unable to attend Aliosa Puzar’s lecture in Seoul last month, and frustrated that it wasn’t recorded, I’m very happy to announce that he has just been interviewed on the same topic(s) by the Korea and the World team. (Full disclosure: they’re the cool guys who also interviewed me back in November). Make sure to visit Beyond Hallyu for an excellent review of his podcast first, then you can listen to it directly on the Korea and the World website. (It’s also available on iTunes.)

Aljosa Puzar Coming of Age in South Korea(Source: Facebook)

Once again: what are you waiting for? ;)

Korean Sociological Image #89: On Getting Knocked up in South Korea

Korean Births Out of WedlockAs in, how many Korean women are pregnant when they walk down the aisle? How many get married after giving birth? How many mothers don’t get married at all? And how have public attitudes to all those groups changed over time?

I’ve spent the last two weeks trying to find out. It’s been surprisingly difficult, apropos of a subject many couples would prefer to keep under wraps.

It all started with this Arirang news report, thanks to the interesting way it framed Korea’s low birthrate problem:

An aging population and low birthrate — two problems that Korea and Japan have in common and are trying to solve.

And since having children out of wedlock is considered socially unacceptable in either country, the focus is on encouraging people to get married.

So the countries share similar problems, but do the people of Korea and Japan share similar views on marriage?

A report by the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs says NO…

(Arirang, December 4, 2014; my emphasis)

My first thought was that a focus on marriage made a lot of sense. From that chart alone, you can guess that there is considerable prejudice against single mothers and their children in South Korea, to the extent that Korea was (and is) notorious for overseas adoption. In 2008, Seoul National University Professor Eun Ki-Soo saw a direct relationship between such attitudes and Korea’s low birthrate problem:

According to the International Social Survey Program (2002) and Korean General Social Survey (2006), Korea “had one of the highest number of respondents who believed ‘people who want children ought to get married.’ The only countries that scored higher than Korea were the Philippines and the United States, but the differences in the scores were not statistically significant….In the face of such strong social norms regarding marriage and reproduction, young people who are unable to marry also may not feel like they can have children. Such a phenomenon is manifested in contemporary Korean society in the form of a low fertility rate”

(Eun, pp 154 & 155; see bibliography)

Likewise, two weeks ago the Park Geun-hye Administration pinpointed the cause of Korea’s low birthrate “to be the social tendency to marry late”, and announced that it aimed “to buck that trend by rectifying the high-cost marriage culture in Korea, increasing the supply of rental housing for newlyweds and expanding medical insurance benefits for couples with fertility problems.” (Note that the number of marriages in 2014 was estimated to be a record low, with 50% of 30-somethings seeing marriage as “dispensable”.) Last week, Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs researcher Cho Sung-ho reaffirmed that “it is necessary to support young people so they can experience dating, marriage and childbirth without too many difficulties”, and that “In order to do that, creating quality jobs and support programs for job seekers must be introduced as part of measures to tackle the country’s low fertility rate” (source, below: The Hankyoreh).Please Have More Babies

Yet in saying young people need support, surely Cho is is just reiterating Korea’s — and other developed economies’ — biggest social problem of the 2010s (and likely 2020s)? And what use is there in making it easier for young Koreans to get married, when married couples aren’t having enough children in the first place?

Simply put, Park Geun-hye’s announcement feels disingenuous, distracting from the difficult reforms of Korea’s patriarchal work-culture needed.

But my second thought was on the Korean women that do get knocked up. Specifically, those that do so before or without ever getting married, the only two groups I’ve ever heard the term used for (quick question: does anyone use it for married women, except in a humorous sense?). First, because that 2.1% rate of out of wedlock births is actually the highest it’s been in decades, albeit by no means because attitudes have softened over time:

Available statistics [Korea Statistical Yearbook #55, 2008] indicate 6,141 illegitimate child births in 1990 and 8,411 in 2007, representing, respectively, 0.66% and 1.69% of the total child births; a percentage rise that seems mainly due to the general fall in child births from 1990 to 2007 (931,602 in 1990, and 497,188 in 2007).

(Payen p. 72, my emphasis; see bibliography)

(For comparison’s sake, there were 403,500 childbirths in the first 11 months of 2014, while a February 4 estimate put the yearly figure at 430,000. Update: a February 26 report put it at 435,300, the second lowest level ever.)

Second, because despite everything I’ve written above, I was surprised that the the rate wasn’t higher still. Why? Partially, because of personal experience, one of my wife’s cousins having a child before getting married, but no-one in her village treating that as unusual or something to be embarrassed about (she later married and had a second child). And mainly, because that lack of a reaction was already explained by the following comment left by @oranckay on my 2008 post, “Why Korean Girls Don’t Say No: Contraception Commercials, Condom Use, and Double Standards in South Korea.” While the post itself has long since been completely rewritten, and the comments deleted (sorry!) because that meant they no longer made sense, you’ll soon see why I decided to save his one:

(Note that it was written in reaction to my surprise and confusion at public outrage at Korean female celebrities kwon sang woo son tae-young pregnancy marriagerevealed to be having premarital sex — how times have changed!(?) — but the lack of any negative reaction to regular announcements of celebrity pregnancies before marriage, one example mentioned in the post being Kwon Sang-woo’s and Sohn Tae-young’s that September {Source, right: Dramabeans}.)

…I think one needs to take into account that not all pre-marital sex is the same. There is a difference between just having sex and having sex with someone you are going to, or intend to, marry, and traditional/Joseon and even 20th Korea saw this as a big difference. Having sex on the premise of, and as consummation of, commitment, was the normal, socially acceptable way to have pre-marital sex. So valued was a woman’s virginity that a decent man could only sleep with her if he was ready to “take responsibility for her,” as the saying would go, and so on, because that’s what sleeping with her was supposed to imply. Fiction and non-fiction narratives (many known to me personally) are full of this kind of thinking. I know couples that decided not to have sex because they weren’t sure they were getting married, that didn’t have sex because he was going to the military and he wanted to be sure he’d come back alive before permanently “making her his,” as that would be too traumatic for her, and of couples that lived together (and obviously were having sex) before being married and it was acceptable because they were going to marry, had family approval, but couldn’t marry because maybe the girl’s elder sister wasn’t married off yet or they were both still in college but both sets of parents wanted to get them married after graduation, or one of those odd reasons. Maybe no money; whatever.

Anyway, the best example I can think of all this is classical Korean prose fiction (since that’s all I ever think about). There is plenty of premarital sex in traditional Korean prose fiction (“novels”), graphic in only a few exceptions I’m afraid, but we are at least told that it is happening. The reason this fiction wasn’t thrown into the flames at Confucian book burning parties (and there were Joseon poets who did indeed call for novels to be burned for their bad influence) was because whenever there is pre-marital sex the parties always end up married. In fact you know they’re going to marry before you get to the end because they slept together. The most readily available example would be “the most classic, all time” story Chunhyang Jeon. The most “대표적” Korean story of all time and it involves “happily ever after” pre-marital sex. So it’s one thing for a celebrity to have a bulging waistline at her wedding and another for a video to surface of her having a romp with one of her producers, for example, or even to shoot a fully nude bed scene in a feature film.

Update: Via KLawGuru, comes news that there used to be a law that was very much in the same vein, and which was only very recently repealed:

In 2009, a crime called “Sexual Intercourse under Pretense of Marriage” was ruled “unconstitutional.” It used to be a crime for a man to have sex with a woman by deliberately deceiving her into believing that he would later marry her. To learn more, click here.

But to reiterate, just how common are those bulging waistlines at weddings? And (how) have people’s attitudes changed over time? After seven years, it was high time to do a proper follow-up on oranckay’s comment. I hit the books.

Chung-hyan Versions(Sources: left, 나는 수풀 우거진 산에 갔더니; right, Opeloverz)

Unfortunately, I was unable to find much at all about premarital pregnancy and childbirth specifically. Instead, I spent much of the next two weeks collecting and typing up a lot of fascinating, related information about attitudes towards virginity, premarital sex, sexual experience, cohabitation, and contraceptive use, forced as I was to deconstruct and think about all aspects of the phenomenon (read: desperately search for any related topics whatsoever in indexes). Then I realized that I was going about things entirely the wrong way, and should: a) devote a separate post to those next month; and b) rely on someone who’s already done all the hard work for me instead. Sure enough, just a couple of pages of the right book would literally speak volumes:

…In the mid-1980s, cohabitation was not rare. [Yoon Hyungsook, pp. 18-24] writes that three out of ten marriages concerned cohabitating couples, and that all these couples even had children at the time of their wedding. Although these couples were not officially married, it was “only” legally, not in the eyes of the villagers. The important point to mention is the fact that all these cohabitations were approved by both spouses’ in-laws, with the wife fulfilling her role of daughter-in-law as if she was legally married. When the wedding ceremony comes later, delayed because of financial difficulties, it confirms a relationship, ascertains the position of the woman in her husband’s family, and makes the couple fully adults in the eyes of society.

So, cohabitation did exist, was not rare, and was often a living arrangement used by people of poorer classes for whom marrying meant heavy expenses. Kendall (p. 123) writes that “by the 1970s cohabitation before marriage was common among village children who worked off the land and among rural migrants to the cities. It remains a common practice among urban workers.”

Spencer and Kim Eun-shil also delve on cohabitation in their studies about female migrant factory workers. But, while for women of Spencer’s research, this living arrangement was not the norm, it was most common in Kim’s research; a difference possibly related to the 20 years that have passed between the two studies and changes of attitudes and practices in relation to marriage and cohabitation (1970-1990).

(Payen, pp. 87-88. Kendall and Spencer books mentioned are below; see bibliography for Kim.)
Getting Married in Korea Cover Yogong Factory Girl Cover(Source, left: Google Books; right, Amazon)

Of course, I acknowledge that the above is just a indirect confirmation of oranckay’s comment really (although that is still valuable), and I can’t possibly do justice to Payen’s thesis on cohabitation in Korea here, nor on how and why it’s actually become less common since the 1990s. In the comments section below though, Gomushin Girl provides a good summary of one of the most important factors behind that shift:

[One] important aspect here is the socioeconomics of it all . . . earlier research like Kendall’s and Spencer is looking at a Korea that was either still relatively poor or just emerging as a major economy. They’re already reporting a very class-based variance in attitudes towards premarital sex and pregnancy [and cohabitation—James], with higher socioeconomic status associated with lower acceptance. I’m not surprised to see that as Korean wealth increased, people increasingly adopted attitudes associated with wealth.

Also, we shouldn’t be left with an overly sanguine, no nonsense image of attitudes to premarital pregnancy in the past either, as the opening to a Korea Herald article about adoption linked earlier attests:

In 1976, a 17-year-old Korean girl gave birth to her first child. A few months before the delivery, she had been forced to marry the man who raped and impregnated her.

“That was the norm at the time,” Noh Geum-ju told The Korea Herald.

“When you get pregnant as an unmarried woman, you have to marry the father of your baby. Other options were unthinkable.”

(The Korea Herald, 28 January, 2014)

Update: Here’s another example from a celebrity couple, currently involved in a domestic violence case:

Seo Jung-hee [a former model and actress] said her husband [comedian-turned-clergyman Seo Se-won] sexually assaulted her at the age of 19, so she had to marry him, and she had been his virtual prisoner for 32 years. She said she was too afraid of him to seek a divorce and had to endure because of the children.

(The Chosun Ilbo, 13 March 2015)

I also read that, traditionally, if a suitor was spurned by his intended bride, he could consider raping her to secure her family’s consent. Mostly, due to the shame involved, but of course the imperative was all the greater if she became pregnant. I can’t remember the exact reference sorry (I will add it if I do), but I did find the following:

…The “proper” women must remain chaste, and the requirements of being chaste are utterly crazy. As a rule, a traditional Korean woman carried a small silver knife. The knife is for self-defense, but not the kind of self-defense that you are thinking. The knife is there to kill yourself with if you are about to be “disgraced”. Realistically, “disgraced” means “raped”. However, technically “disgraced” meant any man other than your husband touching you.

One story during the Joseon Dynasty speaks of a virtuous woman who, because a boatman held her hand while helping her into the boat, either jumped out of the boat and drowned herself or cut off her own hand, depending on the version. It is unlikely that this story is true, but this was the moral code to which traditional Korean women were supposed to aspire. In a similar horrifying vein, rape-marriages – forced marriage to a man who raped you – happened regularly until late 1970s, since living with the rapist as a proper woman is better than living as a fallen woman.

(Ask a Korean!, December 3, 2008)

But we were talking about attitudes towards and rates of premarital pregnancy in the 2010s. Which, to conclude this post, naturally I would end up learning more about from the following Korea Times article than from my entire 20-year collection of Korean books(!). Some excerpts (my emphasis):

…premarital pregnancy is now humdrum, even among people who are not stars.

In a survey that consultancy Duo Wed conducted between June 1 and June 14, one-third of 374 newlyweds questioned said the bride was pregnant when they married.

Of these couples, 92.1 percent said their babies were unexpected…

Beautiful D-line…Changing perceptions on premarital pregnancy are also affecting other related industries: wedding dress rentals and tourism businesses.

A wedding dress shop director says she has recently noticed more pregnant brides-to-be.

“They look for dresses depending on the number of months they are pregnant,” says Seo Jung-wook, director of Pertelei, in Cheongdam-dong, southern Seoul.

“Women who are three to five months pregnant fit well into a bell-line dress, while those further into their pregnancy often look good in an empire-lined dress.”

Other dress shops have their own selections of “D-line dresses” in stock because of increased demand [which no longer have to be custom made and bought].

Sigh. I’d always assumed that D-lines were just a joke sideline (no pun intended) to Korea’s body-labeling and shaming craze. I should have known better.


…The tourism industry is also catching up with the trend. Instead of honeymoons, travel operators promote “babymoon” programs for pregnant newlyweds.

These programs avoid placing any burden or stress on the baby or the mother.

Kim Jin-hak, representative director of Honey Island, a tourism agency specializing in services for newlyweds, says the agency’s “babymoon” program is popular with brides…

(The Korea Times, July 23, 2013. Source, above: WStar News)
Babymoon(Source: Lotte Tour)

As always, this is just a start. For many follow-up posts, I plan to look at journal articles (which will probably be more fruitful), Korean-language sources, plus blogs about or often covering marriage and pregnancy in Korea, such as the sadly now defunct On Becoming a Good Korean (Feminist) Wife. Plus, of course, any readers’ suggestions (for books also!), which will be much appreciated.

Please pass them on, and/or tell me in the comments about any of your own experiences and observations about premarital pregnancy (and so on) in Korea. Do you personally know any women who were pregnant at their weddings? (Or were you or your partner yourself/herself? By all means, please feel free to comment or email me anonymously!) What were their family’s and friends’ feelings and reactions? Was the couple effectively forced to get married, in a case of “사고 쳐서 결혼” (lit., “marriage by accident,” or a shotgun wedding)? How about those of you with Korean partners? Did your foreignness make a difference? Thanks!

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


— Ki-soo, Eun “Family values changing—but still conservative”. In Social Change in Korea, edited by Kim Kyong-dong and The Korea Herald, 146-156. Korea: Jimoondang, 2008.

— Kim, Eun-shil “The Making of the Modern Female Gender: the Politics of Gender in Reproductive Practices in Korea”, (PhD dissertation, University of California, 1993) [Referenced by Payen]

— Payen, Bruno “Cohabitation and Social Pressure in Urban Korea: Examining Korean Cohabitants’ Behavior from a Comparative Perspective with France” (MA thesis, The Academy of Korean Studies, Seongnam, 2009).

“Sexy Concepts with James Turnbull”

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

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

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

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

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

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!