Looking for Adult K-Webtoon & Novel Recommendations?

One of my favorite Korean YouTubers starts a new series

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes. Photo by @thiszun from Pexels

“What is he, man or mouse? Is he interested in nothing more than tea and the wider issues of life? Has he no spirit? Has he no passion? Does he not, to put it in a nutshell, fuck?”

Those who wish to know should read on. Others may wish to skip on to the last chapter which is a good bit and has Marvin in it.

Douglas Adams, So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, Chapter 25.

With that, Douglas Adams finally addresses readers’ burning questions about Arthur Dent, the main character of his classic Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series. Reach the same point in the fourth book, and you’d be asking too. Why indeed, describe a cishet man meeting women he was interested in, some of whom felt a mutual attraction for him, only to tell us nothing whatsoever about what happened next? For three whole books?

Those 1980s readers’ frustrations mirror my own with Korean pop culture today. Dramas in particular often fall flat for me because the adult characters seem to have relationships but never sex.

No, I don’t need to see them in bed necessarily. Nor does sex have to be the plot’s focus. Just have them acknowledge it’s a thing. Talk about its associated problems and pleasures sometimes. Admit experience and desire. Make bawdy jokes. You know, like normal adults do, including asexuals.

Don’t, and I just can’t relate to the characters at all.

I could continue with my feelings about other elements of Korean pop culture, such as being unable to find much interest in or desire for K-pop idols presented for our sexual objectification who are not allowed to actually have sex themselves. But you get the idea. You may also find my very limited experience quite unlike your own, and actually know plenty of Korean dramas, say, in which the characters don’t shy away from talking about about one-night stands, contraception, consent, and so on. If so, then do please let me know.

Which brings me to why I’m so excited about YouTuber Daisy’s latest video below. Many years ago, I finally found the relatable, adult stories I was seeking not in dramas, but in the monthly manhwa compendium PopToon instead—only then for it to cease publication just a few months later. Heartbroken, I refused to make the transition to webtoons. But, she’s finally persuaded me to take the plunge, and I hope you’ll find something of interest in her video too, and/or in later ones in the series (note she includes fluent English CC subtitles):

Ironically, I didn’t actually like any of her suggestions here, mostly because I’m not a fan of the sharp, angular drawing style in most of them. But I am looking, so please send me your own recommendations!

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

Related Posts:

Korean High School Girls Complain They Can Barely Breathe in Uniforms Smaller Than Clothes for 8-Year-Olds.

Even university students are astonished at how short and restrictive they’ve gotten.

Estimated reading time: 12 minutes. Photo by Noah Buscher on Unsplash.

Ten years since I first wrote about it, I’m still astounded that K-pop stars can endorse school uniforms. Surely, much of the blame for Korea’s notorious issues with female body image can be laid squarely on K-pop and school uniform companies’ shoulders? Those same companies that tell 12-year-old girls entering middle school that their new uniforms will help them show off their tits and ass to boys?

Left: Victoria Song of f(x) showing off her ‘S-line’ in 2009 (Source unknown). Right: Eun-ha of GFriend in 2016; middle caption says “The ‘Tulip Line’ skirt that will immediately capture men’s hearts” (Source: MLBPARK).

But things may not be so one-sided as they may seem. At the end of her must-read March 2017 post “Time to Stop Skirting the Issue: Sexualization of School Uniforms in South Korea,” Haeryun Kang noted in Korea Exposé that:

Tighter uniforms have been popular among boys and girls for years. A recent survey of over 9,000 teenagers showed that students from elementary to high school generally preferred uniforms that were slightly tighter and shorter. In the debate surrounding the sexualization of teen uniforms, the voices of teenagers themselves is conspicuously absent.

In my own post “How Slut-Shaming and Victim-Blaming Begin in Korean Schools” too, published on the same day (hey, great minds think alike), I noted that being able to wear more fashionable clothes had also been directly tied to the liberalization of students’ rights. Plus, students the world over have generally always wanted to improve upon their drab uniforms. Once the sexualization of their uniforms began in earnest here a decade ago then, there would undoubtedly have been many girls who genuinely wanted to wear the tight, figure-hugging styles promoted by K-pop stars, and probably often despite the objections of their parents and teachers too. To assume they were simply dupes of the uniform companies instead would be incredibly naive and misguided, let alone patronizing.

Alas, the survey mentioned by Kang is likely unreliable, as it was conducted by a school uniform company itself. But her conclusion still stands: listen to teenagers themselves. Don’t assume.

When you do, you discover what girls are saying these days is that they can’t breathe in their uniforms. That they hate them. That wearing them is having serious effects on their learning, well-being, and physical health. That they’re angry. That rather than being a reflection of their wishes, having such limited clothing choices imposed on them is actually an infringement of their rights.

In other words, generally the complete opposite of what the schools and the uniform companies would like them to. Wow—teens don’t like being told what to do. Who’d have thought?

Let’s hear from some of those teens, starting with those interviewed in the following June 2018 MBC News Today report. Appropriately enough, it’s opened by everyone’s favorite news anchor Lim Hyeon-ju, who also didn’t like being told what to do—in March that year she’d become the first Korean female news anchor to wear glasses on the job, and later would go on to be the first to appear without a bra:

My translation of the transcript:

숨도 쉬는 여학생 교복…”인권침해 수준” Uniforms Girls Can’t Breathe in…”An Infringement on my Human Rights.”

Anchor

여자는 치마에 블라우스, 남자는 바지에 셔츠. 중·고등학교 교복에 적용되는 흔한 규정인데요. 그런데 요즘 여학생들 사이에서는 치마 대신 바지를, 블라우스 대신 편한 셔츠를 입게 해달라는 요구가 끊이지 않고 있습니다. 그 속사정을 서유정 기자가 취재했습니다.

Girls wear a skirt and a blouse, boys wear pants and a shirt. This is a common rule regarding middle and high school uniforms. Nowadays however, there are constant calls from girls to likewise be able to wear more comfortable shirts and pants. Reporter Seo Yoo-jeong covers the story.

Reporter

단추도 채워지지 않는 블라우스, 숨 쉬는 게 힘겨울 정도로 꽉 조여진 허리라인. 20대 여성들이 카메라 앞에서 중·고등학교 교복을 입고 힘겨워합니다.

Blouses so tight that all the buttons can’t be done up, waistlines that make it difficult to breathe. In front of the camera, women in their 20s are struggling to wear middle and high school uniforms.

[김서윤] “숨을 못 쉬겠어요. 단추를 하나만 더 풀게요.”

[Kim Seo-yoon] “I can’t breathe. I’ll just undo one more button.”

[정겨운] “이런 걸 입고 하루에 12시간 이상을 산단 말이에요? 이건 진짜 인권 침해인데.”

[Jeong Gyeo-woon] “You mean you have to live wearing these things for more than 12 hours a day? This is a real human rights violation!”

요즘 여학생들의 교복 블라우스가 얼마나 작고 불편한지를 눈으로 보여준 이 영상은 조회수 20만 건을 넘기며 인터넷을 뜨겁게 달궜습니다.

This video, which shows how small and uncomfortable girls’ school uniform blouses are these days, has already received more than 200,000 views. [James—Its contents will be covered in more detail later below.]

요즘처럼 날이 더워질수록 교복에 대한 여학생들의 불만은 더해갑니다.

As the days get hotter with the summer, girls’ complaints about their school uniforms will only increase.

기자가 입어보니, 기성복으로 나온 교복을 줄이지 않고 입었는데도 블라우스는 치마 허리선을 아슬아슬하게 덮을 정도로 짧습니다. 손을 들면 맨살이 그대로 드러날 정도입니다. 통은 더 좁게, 길이는 더 짧게.

This reporter tried on an off-the-shelf uniform. Yet even though it was not shortened, the blouse only barely covered the waistline of the skirt. When I raised my hand, the bare skin of my waist was exposed. [Compared to the uniforms I wore as a girl], the waist is narrower and the length is shorter.

학교에서 정한 대로 교복업체는 디자인을 맞춰줄 뿐이라고 합니다. [◇◇교복 업체 관계자] “학교의 원래 원칙은 짧아서 이게(허리선이) 보여야 했어요. 그걸 저희가 이번에 길게 뺀 거예요.”

It is said that school uniform manufacturers [generally] only produce designs as determined by the schools. [Anonymous school uniform manufacturer] “Even though your midriff got exposed when you raised your hand, in fact the original school’s design for this blouse was even shorter. We lengthened it.” [James—Consider the implications for sexuality equality in classroom interactions and discussions when the girls’ clothes alone ensure they’re too embarrassed to even raise their hands!]

“이런 불만은 ‘교복을 없애달라’, ‘여학생들도 바지나 남자 셔츠를 입게 해달라’는 국민청원으로까지 이어지고 있는 상황. 이런 요구를 받아들여 남녀구분 없이 ‘편한 교복’을 입게 하는 학교들도 조금씩 생겨나고 있습니다.

The ensuing dissatisfaction is leading to national petitions calling for girls to be able to wear boy’s uniforms, or to do away with school uniforms entirely. Schools that accept these demands and have allowed boys and girls to wear ‘comfortable uniforms’ are also slowly emerging.

서울의 한 고등학교는 봄 가을엔 헐렁한 후드 티를, 더운 여름엔 반바지와 면 티셔츠를 교복으로 입습니다. [김현수/고등학교 1학년] “팔도 더 잘 올라가고 그러니까 생활하기도 더 편해요. 집중하기 더 편한 것 같아요.”

[Kim Hyeon-su, first year student at this high school] “I can raise and move my arms much more easily, so I have a better quality of life. I think it’s easier to for me to concentrate too.” One high school in Seoul allows baggy hoodies to be worn in the spring and autumn, and shorts and cotton t-shirts in the hot summer.

옷값을 줄이고, 공동체 의식을 갖게 하는 교복의 긍정적인 기능은 살리되, 성별에 따라 복장을 규정하고 움직임에 불편을 주는 폐단은 버리자는 취지입니다/

With these comfortable uniforms, the school’s goal is to retain the good points of school uniforms such as the reduction in the cost of clothes and the fostering of a sense of school community, while also doing away with defining uniforms by sex and removing any features that make it difficult to move freely. (End)

Next, adding to the point about exposed waists especially, here are some segments from a March 2018 CBS No Cut News report by Gwon Hee-eun:

슬림핏 교복 두려워요여학생들 교복 공포증 “I’m afraid of slim fit school uniforms”: Girls’ School Uniform Fears

…여학생들이 입는 하복 셔츠는 짧은 기장 탓에 책상에 엎드리면 셔츠가 훤히 올라가 맨살이 드러나는 것은 물론, 가만히 있어도 속옷이 비칠 정도로 얇다.

…Because of the short length of the summer blouses, they rise up and reveal girls’ skin when they bend forward while sitting at their desks. They are also thin enough to reveal the outlines of underwear even while the girls are sitting still.

이때문에 보통 하복 셔츠 안에 민소매나 반팔 티셔츠를 덧대어 입는 것이 일반적이다. 어떤 학교에서는 이를 ‘교칙’으로 지정해두기도 할 정도다. 더 단정해 보인다는 이유에서다.

Then 16 year-old Jeon Somi endorsing Skoolooks, here wearing their ‘Slim-line Jacket.’ Source: Somiracle – Jeon Somi 전소미 Vietnam Fanpage.

For this reason, it is common to wear a sleeveless or short-sleeved T-shirt underneath a summer blouse. Some schools have even incorporated this into their uniform codes, believing it looks neater. [James—Assuming this rule only applies to girls, this means they would swelter under blouses, bras, and t-shirts in summer classrooms, compared to boys enjoying just one layer. See my earlier post to learn more about many more discriminatory rules like this.]

여학생들의 교복이 과하게 짧고 작아 불편을 초래한다는 사실은 여러 차례 지적돼 왔다. 그러나 교복업체들은 여전히 날씬해보이는 ‘슬림핏’을 마케팅 포인트로 내세운다.

It has often been pointed out that girls’ uniforms are uncomfortable and inconvenient because of their small size and short length. However, promoting this ‘slim fit’ is at the heart of school uniform companies’ marketing strategies.

교복 광고 속 날씬한 여자 아이돌들은 타이트한 자켓과 짧은 치마를 완벽하게 소화해낸다. 하루에 열시간 넘게 교복을 입는 학생들에게는 그런 완벽한 ‘슬림핏’이 불편하다.

In school uniform advertisements, slim female K-pop idols perfectly fit into their tight jackets and short skirts. However, they are uncomfortable for [real-life] students [with a much wider range of body types] who have to wear them for more than 10 hours a day.

최근 유튜브에서 눈길을 끈 ‘교복입원프로젝트’ 영상을 보면 이런 문제는 더 적나라하게 드러난다.

The extent of the problem becomes readily apparent when you see the following video from the ‘School Uniform Hospitalization Project,’ which has recently attracted attention on YouTube [as seen in the first report].

(Not by FemiAction, but this later video by RealCafe of boys trying on girls’ uniforms is also interesting and amusing)

‘불꽃페미액션’이 제작한 이 영상에는 여섯명의 여성이 등장해 실제 여학생 교복 상의와 아동복 사이즈를 비교하고, 직접 착용해보기도 한다.

In this video, produced by Fireworks FemiAction, six women appear, compare the sizes of actual school uniform tops and children’s clothes, and try them on.

여학생용 교복셔츠와 남학생용 교복셔츠를 비교해봤더니, 여학생용 교복셔츠가 훨씬 비침이 심했다. 여학생용은 글씨 위에 셔츠를 겹쳐도 글씨를 바로 알아볼 수 있는 반면, 남학생용은 다소 시간이 걸렸다.

When the boys’ shirts were compared with the girls’ blouses, the uniform shirts for girls were much more see-through. For girls’ blouses, things with writing on them hidden underneath were immediately able to be made out. Whereas with boys’ shirts, it took some time.

키 170cm, 가슴둘레 94cm 기준인 여학생 교복 셔츠와 7~8세용 15호 아동복 사이즈를 비교해보니 가로 폭은 별 차이가 없었고, 기장은 아동복보다 훨씬 짧았다.

When comparing the size of a school uniform blouse for girls with a height of 170cm and a chest circumference of 94cm to a casual size 15 t-shirt intended for girls between 7-8 years old, there was no difference in width, and the length was much shorter than that of the t-shirt.

활동성이 전혀 고려되지 않은 사이즈로 만들어졌다 보니, 머리를 묶거나 팔을 뻗는 등의 동작도 하기 어렵다.

Blouses of this size don’t take any activity or movement into account, so it’s difficult to tie your hair or stretch your arms.

이렇듯 많은 학생들이 아동복보다 작은 교복으로 불편함을 겪고 있지만, 학교 내에서 체육복 등 편한 옷으로 갈아입고 있는 것도 허용되지 않는다.

…[The article continues by saying that students would prefer changing into their more comfortable gym uniforms, but this is generally only allowed in exceptional circumstances such when their regular uniform is torn or has food spilt on it.]…

(Update: As reported by The Korea Bizwire in June 2020, an ironic side-benefit of the Covid-19 Pandemic has been that schools have become more relaxed about this, allowing students to wear their gym uniforms on days they have physical education classes at school. The logic is that allowing them to wear them for the entire day reduces physical contact with other students while changing.)

실생활에서 불편함을 느끼는 학생들이 꾸준히 문제제기를 하고 있지만, 교복 판매업체의 정책과 각 학교의 교칙 등 여러 가지가 얽혀있는 사안이라 명확한 해결책이 나오지 않고 있다.

Students who feel uncomfortable in real life are constantly raising problems, but there are no clear solutions due to issues that are intertwined with the policies of school uniform vendors and school rules of each school. (End)

Source: Pixabay.

Finally, some segments of a July 2017 report by Son Ho-yeong for The Chosun Ilbo:

여고생에 ‘8세 사이즈’ 입어라… 숨쉬기 힘든 S라인 교복 Uniforms for High School Girls are Smaller than Clothes for 8 Year-Olds…S-line Uniforms that Make Breathing Difficult

서울 양천구의 한 여고에선 교복 블라우스를 ‘배꼽티’라고 부른다.… 이 학교 정모(17)양은 “교복에 몸이 갇힌 느낌”이라고 했다.

In one girls’ high school in Yangcheon-gu, Seoul, school uniform blouses are called ‘crop tops’….One 17-year-old student there said, “I feel trapped in my school uniform.”

…상당수 학교가 맵시를 강조하면서 허리선을 잘록하게, 길이는 짧게 디자인한 교복을 채택하고 있다. 보통 몸매인 학생들도 조금만 움직이면 속옷과 맨살이 훤히 드러나 제대로 활동하기 어렵다. 체형이 통통한 학생은 꽉 끼는 교복 때문에 수치심을 느끼는 경우도 있다. “교복 때문에 학생들의 인권이 침해받는다”는 소리가 나올 정도다.

…Many schools have adopted school uniforms designed to be short and with narrow waistlines, while emphasizing style. Yet their tightness means that students with average bodies find it difficult to study properly because their underwear and bare skin are exposed if they move a little, with larger than average students feeling even more anxious. [Indeed], you could go so far as to say school uniforms are violating their human rights.

예전 교복은 활동성을 고려해 펑퍼짐한 스타일이 많았다. 학생 일부가 멋을 내느라 치마 길이를 줄이고, 허리선을 강조하는 식으로 수선했다. 요즘은 처음부터 교복이 몸에 달라붙게 나온다. 늘이기는 어려운 디자인이다. 자신의 실제 몸 치수보다 큰 것을 사도 사정은 다르지 않다. 서울 종로구의 한 여고생은 “겨울 교복보다 두 치수나 큰 여름 교복을 샀는데도 허리의 ‘S라인’이 지나치게 들어가 밥을 먹고 나면 옷이 끼어 거북하다”고 했다.

With older school uniforms, there were many styles that were both flattering and didn’t hamper movement. [Naturally however,] some girls would shorten their skirts and emphasize their waistlines to look more attractive. Yet these days, school uniforms cling to the body from the beginning, and are difficult to stretch. Compensating by buying larger sizes may not even help either. One high school girl in Jongno-gu, Seoul said, “I bought a summer school uniform that is two sizes larger than my winter school uniform. But the ‘S-line’ on the waist is too overdone, and after I eat my clothes still start clinging to my body.”

A 2003-2005 school uniform advertisement featuring BoA; I’m unsure who the boy/man is sorry. See many more examples from then here.

날씬한 맵시만 강조하다 보니 여고생 교복 치수가 8세 아동복 수준이 되기도 한다. 서울 강북구의 한 인문계 여고 교복 상의(키 160㎝·88 사이즈)와 시중에 판매 중인 7~8세 여아용 티셔츠(130 사이즈)를 비교했더니 크기 차이가 거의 없었다.

As they emphasize only slim fit styles, the size of school uniforms for high school girls is the same as casual clothes for 8-year-olds. There was little difference in size when comparing a school uniform top (160cm tall, size 88) for girls in a school in Gangbuk-gu, Seoul and a t-shirt for girls aged 7-8 years old (size 130) sold at the local market.

2016년 기준 우리나라 여고생의 평균 키는 160.6㎝, 8세인 초등학교 1학년 여아 평균 키는 120.5㎝이다.

As of 2016, the average height of high school girls in Korea was 160.6 cm, and the average height of a 8-year-old girl entering elementary school was 120.5 cm.

교복은 기성복과도 차이가 있다. 한국산업표준(KS)에 따르면 키 160㎝인 여성 청소년의 ‘보통 체형’용 기성복 상의(블라우스 기준)는 가슴둘레 88㎝, 허리둘레 72.8㎝이다. 본지가 구한 여고 교복 상의의 가슴둘레는 78㎝, 허리둘레는 68㎝였다. 교복이 기성복 가이드라인보다 가슴둘레 10㎝, 허리둘레는 5㎝가량 작다.

School uniforms are also different from ready-made clothes. According to the Korean Industrial Standard, a 160cm tall female adolescent’s non-uniform, off the shelf, blouse-like top for a ‘normal’ body type has an 88cm chest and 72.8cm waist. Yet the waist circumference of a girls’ high school uniform blouse obtained for this report had an 78 cm and a 68cm waist, meaning that school uniforms are about 10 cm shorter in chest circumference and 5 cm in waist than required by the standards for off the shelf clothes.

일부 여학생은 교사의 단속을 피해 남학생용 교복을 사서 입기도 한다. 대전 서구의 한 남녀공학 고교에 다니는 이모(16)양은 “남학생용 교복은 라인이 없어 편하다. 학생주임 선생님이 남자 교복을 입지 못하게 수시로 단속하지만 몰래 입는 친구가 많다”고 했다.

For the sake of comfort and to avoid unfair school rules regarding girls’ uniforms, some wear boys’ school uniforms instead. One 16-year-old girl who attends a coeducational high school in Seo-gu, Daejeon, said, “The school uniform for boys is comfortable because there is no figure-hugging ‘line’ built into them. Although our teachers regularly crack down on this, many of my female classmates secretly wear them.”

교복 브랜드의 ‘슬림 라인’ 전쟁은 2000년대 초부터 시작됐다. 멋을 위해 교복을 줄이는 학생들이 늘면서 교복 제조업체들이 허리가 쏙 들어가고 길이가 짧은 디자인의 교복을 내놓기 시작했다. ‘재킷으로 조여라, 코르셋 재킷’ 같은 광고 문구를 내세웠다.

The ‘Slim Line’ war of school uniform brands began in the 2000s. As more and more students want more fashionable uniforms, manufacturers have responded by offering short designs with tight waists. In their advertising, they use phrases such as ‘Tighten with a jacket, corset jacket.’

…교복 업체가 사람마다 다른 체형을 고려하지 않는 것도 문제다. 한 업체는 체형 데이터를 바탕으로 청소년 ‘대표 체형’을 뽑아내 이를 기준으로 교복을 만든다고 광고한다. 하지만 이는 ‘보기 좋은 체형’일 뿐 해마다 몸이 변하는 청소년들에게 일률적으로 제시하는 것은 무리다.

Another problem is that school uniform companies do not cater to different body types. One company advertises that it makes a school uniform based on the ‘representative body type’ based on data collected about young people’s physiques. However, this supposedly representative type is really only a stereotypical ‘good looking body type’ [like that of the K-pop stars in the ads], nor does a single type take into account the fact that adolescents’ bodies are constantly changing. (End)

Photo by 周 康 from Pexels

Thoughts? Still not enough? If so, I recommend also watching Dr. Kyunghee Pyun’s (Fashion Institute of Technology, State University of New York) presentation for the UBC Centre for Korean Research on “Impression Management of School Uniform Culture in Korea,” which I was able to attend on Zoom a few days ago. While it’s only loosely related, and covers much earlier time periods, it does provide some useful context:

Also, and finally, for a more recent and in-depth look, here is an 8-minute, November 2020 report by my local Busan MBC, ironically at one point filmed where I took this related, well-discussed picture. Unfortunately, producing a transcript and translation would be a bit prohibitive sorry, but the English CC seems to provide the gist. Enjoy!

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

Related Posts:

I’m Obsessed with the Collective Amnesia Surrounding EXID’s Sexy Ice Cream Ad

And I’m not afraid to quote poetry to justify it!

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes. Screenshot: YouTube.

You the bride

are a form of grace,

your eyes honey.

Desire rains on your exquisite face.

Afroditi has honored you exceedingly.

Excerpt, Song to Groom and Bride, Sappho.

The word “sensual” has always been a favorite of mine, once I learnt it was brimming with sex. Even just to say it can feel like a carnal act, if you let it. Close your eyes, linger on the syllables as you would on the face of a lover, and the tip of your tongue teases you with memories of all the places it’s been—and hints at the pleasures still left to explore.

Foods that can similarly be luxuriated over then, lend themselves to sensual advertising. Take ice-cream. I don’t eat it like you see in the ads, and neither do you. But I get them. Being allergic to dairy, so not eating my first ice cream until I was seventeen, I really do relish the soy variety when it makes one of its rare appearances in supermarkets here.* I even have a bottle of Kahlua saved specially for just such occasions.

Not unlike Kahlua or even sex itself though, too much of the same thing can easily become boring and routine. That you and I can both roll our eyes at the notion of orgasming over ice cream, only points to how advertisers sexing it up is so routine as to be mindless cliché. Just so routine in fact, that by 2019 Baskin Robbins Korea seemed to have forgotten they were doing it at all, and were forced to withdraw and apologize for an ad where they’d replaced the usual woman with an 11-year-old girl wearing cosmetics.

And I do mean “the usual woman”:

Source: Frankie Huang/@ourobororoboruo.

Issues this gender imbalance raises include the strong potential to infantilize women while simultaneously sexualizing girlishness, and the suggestion that women are just too damn hormonal to think rationally:

[There is a] powerful, symbiotic relationship between women and carnality, as indicated by the preponderance of erotic narratives in advertising addressing women. This is particularly overt in the advertising of products that are depicted as being endowed with the power to enable women to experience intense quasi-sexual pleasure from their consumption. Examples of such product categories include chocolate, luxury ice cream, biscuits, and shampoo. This is a world that reflects a perception of women as ‘consummate consumers’ who are ruled by their bodies and, as such, are less able than men to resist the lure of carnal pleasures (Belk 1998; Belk and Costa 1998).

Source: Pauline Maclaran and Lorna Stevens (2004),”Special Session: Gender and the Erotics of Consumption”, in GCB – Gender and Consumer Behavior Volume 7, eds. Linda Scott and Craig Thompson, Madison, WI: Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 1 to 14. (Download)

But I sense EXID fans are getting a little frustrated by this point. Posting an infamous, bawdy, 2012 Japanese commercial for Gligo’s Dororich Creamy Cafe Jelly in a moment is hardly going to help either.

There is a method behind my madness. First, I needed to take advantage of my recent purchase of a book on Sappho to establish some cultural capital, in the hope I’d have at least a shred of credibility remaining by the end of this post. For what male feminist/feminist ally would ever admit to being utterly transfixed by this?

I hear and share your numerous objections. Accept it not so much as an ad though, but for the sort porn it is, complete with five gravure idols (NSFW), addictive Benny Hill-like music, and blatant masturbation and ejaculation symbolism, and it’s so over the top that I can’t help but revel in its hilarity.

The Korean media couldn’t make that concession however. Take one of the first reporters to cover it:

“CF 영상 자체가 에로틱하다는 것이 그 이유다. 밝은 조명에 우유와 젤리가 섞이는 장면, 청순한 외모의 여성들 뿐이지만 남성들의 마음을 자극하는 요소는 다분하다.” (Herald Economy)

The reason the CF [is gaining tremendous popularity among Japanese men] is because it’s erotic. The scene in which milk and jelly are mixed in bright light, and only women with pure and fresh appearance, all these are enough to stimulate men’s hearts.

Contradicting themselves, even more stimulating elements were listed; alas, those did not include the symbolism of the spurting cream. Later reporters (or their cautious editors), if they mentioned the cream at all, only caused themselves more embarrassment in their Kakfaesque refusal to acknowledge the completely obvious:

“또 사방에선 알 수 없는 흰 액체가 날아온다.” (Korea JoongAng Daily)

“And white liquid is coming from out of nowhere.”

“게다가 우유를 상징하는 하얀 액체가 이 소녀들에게 날아들어 묘한 상상을 자극하게 하고 있어 일각에서는 비난이 쏟아지고 있다.” (The Chosunilbo)

“In addition, it is criticized because the scene in which white liquid that symbolizes milk is being poured over the girls is triggering strange imaginations.”

“또 사방에서는 우유로 보이는 흰 액체가 계속해서 날아든다.” (Herald Economy)

““And white liquid that seems to be milk is continuously being sprayed.”

I realize there may be official or unofficial rules in the Korean news media regarding acknowledging explicit content, even symbolism. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence either, and it would remain a blessing to find an official news source that, in reporting on this commercial, hadn’t patronized its readers over something so trivial.

Be that as it may, the next reason, and finally, is because now you know exactly what went through my mind when I saw EXID’s commercial for Lotte’s Goo Goo ice-cream a few years later:

I only didn’t write about it at the time, because I expected the media and fans to immediately be all over it. Gligo’s Dororich Creamy Cafe Jelly commercial, after all, made quite the splash in social media when it came out. It took balls, I thought, for Lotte to be so brazen about the origins of its own very literal money shot.

Screenshot: YouTube.
Screenshot: YouTube.
Screenshot: YouTube.

But, crickets. Whereas some reporters did point out the new, sexualized direction for Goo Goo’s advertising, most merely gushed about the endorsement choices in their typical advertorials. Social media too, or at least in respect to this commercial, seemed surprisingly reticent on the subject of ejaculation, and to have completely forgotten about the Creamy Cafe Jelly. By the time I realized people just weren’t talking about it, the moment for laying a world exclusive claim to this cosmic connection had passed.

I was loathe to end without a conclusion too. Perhaps on such an indecorous subject though, in which the innuendos came thick and fast as I typed (believe me, it’s harder to avoid them easier to just go with the flow get them off your chest roll with them), there wasn’t one to be made?

Still, the sexy ads and commercials will continue regardless, symbols of orgasming will always be an indelible part of that, and sex and K-pop are synonymous. Indeed, after the 2012 Japanese inspiration, then EXID’s 2015 sequel, 2018 saw JooE of Momoland step up in her commercial for Baker 7. Or rather, her “mother” and gardener:

I invite readers to offer any more examples, and to come to their own conclusions about them. To prepare for the 2021 follow-up, what do you think needs to be said about sexualization in ads, and about the gender imbalance in those selling chocolate, ice cream, biscuits, and shampoo? Is it necessarily bad if they depict orgasms? Please let me know in the comments!

Related Posts:

“Spring Girls,” by Sunwoo Jung-a, Is Both Feminist and as Sexy as Hell. Let’s Give It the Attention It Deserves.

Watching SPICA’s “Tonight” is an Awesome Teaching Moment About the Male Gaze. Here’s Why. (Part 1 of 3)

“Fucking is Fun!”: Sexual Innuendos in Vintage Korean Advertising

“With Throbbing Heart and Trembling Hands, the Groom Undresses the Waiting Bride, to Unveil the Mystery”

• “Fuse Seoul” Clothing Brand Subverts Gender Stereotypes, Offers Women Comfortable Clothing. What’s Not to Love?

Korean Sociological Image #19: Gee, Gee, Gee…Girls’ Generations’ Latest Ad Speaks Volumes About Korean Gender Roles

*If you too are desperate for soy milk ice-cream in Korea, try specialist cafes and CU convenience stores. Supermarkets in my area have sometimes stocked it over the years, but always discontinued it after just a few months.

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

Researchers Announce “Asian” and “Western” Beauty Ideals Based on 3D Photos of Miss Korea and Miss Paraguay Contestants—Get Repeated Uncritically by Korean Media

3D facial photography is a promising new approach for researching beauty ideals, but studies based on beauty pageant contestants alone should not be presumed to speak for entire populations.

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes. Photo (cropped) by JC Gellidon on Unsplash

Last week saw a textbook case of how not to report about beauty ideals.

The catalyst was a press release by the Catholic University of Korea (CUK). Widely copied and pasted across the Korean media, the title of the sole English translation was “S. Koreans Prefer Women with ‘Oval Face, Wide Forehead, and Small Lips’.”

The problem is, they don’t, necessarily.

Rather, what should have been reported was that a joint Saudi, US, Paraguayan, and Korean Dentistry and Orthodontics research team, including one professor from CUK, had announced they’d discovered commonalities in the facial differences between Miss Korea 2012 and Miss Paraguay 2013 contestants.

Then, when the announcement went straight to the researchers’ conclusions, as in this article from Yonhap

연구팀은 미스코리아 54명과 미스파라과이 34명을 대상으로 3D 카메라로 얼굴 정면과 측면을 특수 촬영해 길이 및 각도를 측정했다. 측정값을 기준으로 인종에 따른 심미성 차이를 평가하고, 두 결과를 서양인의 대표적인 황금비(golden ratio)와 비교했다.

The research team measured various lengths and angles of the faces of 54 Miss Korea and 34 Miss Paraguay contestants by using special photographs of the fronts and sides of their faces using a 3D camera. The differences in racial beauty standards were determined based on the differences in the measured values between the two groups, and each groups’ results were also compared with the golden ratio, [a representative ideal of facial beauty for Westerners].

Source: Biz Khan.

그 결과 한국인은 전반적으로 갸름한 얼굴형과 넓은 이마, 작은 입술을 선호했지만 파라과이인은 약간 각진 얼굴에 큰 입술을 선호하는 것으로 나타났다. 두 국가가 선호하는 얼굴은 서양에서 이상적인 비율로 판단되는 황금비와도 차이가 있었다.

As a result, it was found that Koreans generally preferred a slim face shape, wide forehead, and small lips [left], but Paraguayans preferred large lips with slightly angular faces [right]. The faces preferred by the two countries were also different from the golden ratio.

…Reporters should have inquired on what grounds researchers made wide, sweeping pronouncements about the entire Korean and Paraguayan populations’ beauty ideals, considering their study was just on a handful of beauty pageant contestants. Either by simply asking, or by reading the study for themselves.

I realize to have expected either was incredibly naive. Quick content and clickbait titles are key, both of which are all the more effective if they confirm readers’ stereotypes. Plus, in fairness, the academic English of the study would have been beyond most Korean reporters.

They could at least have linked to it though. Yet not only did no reporters offer even this bare minimum, many failed to provide any identifying details about the study whatsoever.

So, I sought it out and examined it myself.

Photo by Nicola Fioravanti on Unsplash

That study was “Comparison of facial esthetic standards between Latin American and Asian populations using 3D stereophotogrammetric analysis” in the Journal of the World Federation of Orthodontists, Volume 9, Issue 3, 2020, Pages 129-136, by Mohamed Bayome, Jae Hyun Park, Ahmed M. Shoaib, Nam-ki Lee, Victor Boettner, and Yoon-Ah Kook (please contact me if you can’t get access to any of the studies I mention here). Further adding to the likelihood that no reporters actually read it, last week’s articles included either a picture of CUK Department of Orthodontics Professor Yoon-Ah Kook and/or the earlier graphic supplied by the university (note the watermark), neither of which were in the study.

In short, the researchers make—justify—their mental leap on their argument that beauty pageant judges are objective and representative (p. 130):

“These beauty contestants reached the final stages of the contests based on selections made by the competition panels consisting of media figures, artists and producers, famous plastic surgeons and orthodontists, as well as other community influencers. This means that their opinion plays a principal role in forming the general public opinion.”

Indeed, writing in the Korea Times about the 2019 Korea pageant, Lee Han-na mentions that the “judging panel consisted of experts in the areas of fashion, music and entertainment, joined by actresses and former Miss Koreas.” Which I don’t deny sounds diverse, nor that, say, cosmetic surgeons in particular play a huge role in shaping general public opinion in Korea.

That such groups may be bringing their own subjective preconceptions, worldviews, and agendas to any discussion of beauty however—let alone the six Dentistry and Orthodontics professors involved in this study—seems not to have occurred to them.

Moreover, in the Korean case in particular, beauty pageant judges’ role as gatekeepers is further undermined by the public’s utter disinterest in the event, as well as by ironically choosing a 2018 winner who was far too “fat” for many Korean netizens’ standards. Also, to counter charges of objectification and lookism, contestants’ academic backgrounds, personalities, and performing abilities have been given much more prominence in judging since the early-2000s.

I’ve only been able to find one reporter, Go Jae-won at Donga Science, who suggests that the researchers’ conclusions shouldn’t be taken for granted. To say that journalists were not doing their job here is an understatement:

이번 연구는 미스코리아는 2012년 참가자들의 얼굴을 대상으로 미스파라과이는 2013년도 참가자들을 대상으로 분석이 진행됐다는 점에서 최근 참가자들의 트렌드를 반영하고 있지는 않다는 한계가 있다. 또 미스코리아 참가자들이 한국인들의 평균적인 미적 기준을 반영하고 있다는 근거도 부족하다는 지적도 있다.

By analyzing 2012 Miss Korea and 2013 Miss Paraguay participants, the study has limitations in reflecting recent trends. In addition, some point out that there is a lack of evidence that Miss Korea participants reflect the average aesthetic standards of Koreans.

Another issue was the researchers’ liberal use of overgeneralizing terms such as “Westerners,” which are particularly useless and misleading when talking about beauty preferences and racial differences. So too, was perpetuating the myth that the “golden ratio” is a signifier of beauty, for which there is actually inconclusive evidence at best that it plays any role in attractiveness whatsoever. To be sure, technically they acknowledged that lack, which their study further confirmed, but—jumping ahead—they and/or CUK should have anticipated the ensuing “Westerners just loooove the golden ratio in their women” style of reporting.

Photo by Evelyn Chong from Pexels

But given that the other, explicit aim of the study was “to compare the facial esthetic standards between Paraguayan and Korean beauty pageant contestants,” that was clearly too much to ask. For they were no less careful to restrict their conclusions to only beauty pageant contestants than any tabloid news reporter. For instance, consider the loose generalizations from the introduction (p. 129-130, my emphases):

Attractive Asians are characterized by longer faces than the general population and with less height of lower lip and chin and smaller volumes of chin and cheek. On the other hand, attractive Latin Americans are distinguished by less nasal prominence, large nasolabial angle, less protrusive lips, and less prominence of the chin.

And from the conclusion (p. 136, my emphases):

“From our results, it may be claimed that most Latin American individuals, in general, prefer rectangular faces with wide mouths and large lips, especially the lower lips, whereas in general, most Asian individuals prefer long tapered faces with small mouths and lips [see below]. Even though it might be well-known that the Misses are not selected solely based on their faces, as these contests include various measures, it is quite unlikely to have a qualified finalist who did not have a beautiful face.”

In between those six pages, many various nationalities and racial groups are mentioned, but none are defined. Are Paraguayans included among the Westerners they mention? The Caucasians? It’s all very confusing, and particularly irresponsible for an academic journal article.

Photo by Ike louie Natividad from Pexels

This is a shame, for I believe 3D facial photography is very much a promising new approach into researching beauty ideals, and have no reason nor inclination to dispute the results of this study. Indeed, I’m now overwhelmed by all the intriguing “related articles” to pursue. But the researchers’ conclusions in this one? Peruse the sources used, and conspicuous for their absence are any from sociology, gender, or media studies. Had there been some input from those fields, perhaps the researchers would have been more rigorous with their definitions. In turn, they may have been more restrained in their beliefs that beauty pageant judges were objective and representative, upon which their conclusions rest. And more circumspect in going to the media with them.

These flaws are also evident in a similar study by different researchers published just a few months earlier in The Journal of Cranofacial Surgery (Volume 31, Number 3, May/June 2020. (Which, because of reporters’ unprofessionalism/laziness/crushing deadlines, for a long time I thought was the one actuallybeing referred to.) In that study of 44 Miss Korea and 22 Miss Paraguay contestants (competition years not given), the researchers were ironically much more forthright about the difficulties of determining racial beauty ideals. Yet ultimately, they ended up even more convinced that the beauty pageant contestants possessed objectively-determined, universal-shared racial beauty ideals, a conclusion perhaps facilitated by the cheat of simply referring to Koreans and Paraguayans as “Asian” and “Western” throughout.

Yet it was three of the same researchers behind the first study who already demonstrated the potential of 3D facial photography in an article published in the March 2017 Korean Journal of Orthodontics (47(2):87-99). Specifically, the faces of 52 Miss Korea 2012 contestants and 41 young adult female students of a nursing school at Wonkwang Health Science University were compared, and no overarching conclusions extending to entire Korean population were made.

What they did say? Again, please let me know if you can’t get access, and we could discuss the differences between the groups in the comments, or make them the subjects of another post. Either way, let me be forthright with my own biases from the beginning. Isn’t it uncanny how page 95’s “proportional diagram of the average face from the Miss Korea group (A) and another from the general population group (B)” instantly reminds you a young and middle-aged Jang Yoon-ju? Or is it just me?

With apologies in advance for the unflattering picture, please let me know in the comments!

Sources (cropped): dlscks98, YouTube.

Related Posts:

Busting the Myth of Jeju Island’s Topless Divers

Free The Nipple in Korea? Why Not? Uncovering the history of a taboo

If You Don’t Have Kim Yuna’s Vital Statistics, Your Body Sucks and You Will Totally Die Alone

Revealing the Korean Body Politic, Part 7: Keeping abreast of Korean bodylines

Those Damned Double Eyelids…

Korean Sociological Image #49: Lee Hyori has an Asian Bottom?

Why We Need to Stop Talking about “Asian” and “Western” Women’s Bodies—The Series:

Part 1

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Webinar Series: The Impact of Korean Popular Culture on North America

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Busting the Myth of Jeju Island’s Topless Divers

Estimated reading time: 25 minutes. Image source: KpopStarz.

Imagine for a moment, there’s a bona fide reason to open a post about Korea’s female sea divers, known as haenyeo, with this image of iconic K-pop group Girls’ Generation promoting Gangnam.

Many of you will immediately recognize its age: Jessica, in the center, left the group in September 2014, two and half years after they were appointed as honorary publicity ambassadors for the district. Yet still their aura of stylishness, cosmopolitanism, and confidence remains so vivid, and district officials’ desire to link that aura to Gangnam so powerful, that this eight year-old advertisement can still be seen in airports even today.

Now imagine if, at the same time it was produced, it was an open secret that the Seoul Metropolitan Government had begun collaborating with a foreign government to set up brothels in Gangnam. Not necessarily K-pop themed, but brothels nonetheless. That by the time Covid-19 struck, the majority of overseas visitors to the district would not be the starry-eyed hallyu fans you’d expect from the sub-heading on the ad, nor medical tourists. Rather, they’d be stressed businessmen from that foreign country, encouraged by both their government and their companies to let off steam by going on sex tours to Gangnam. For some of the more high-ranking among them, their liaisons with Korean sex workers would even be arranged by Seoul government officials themselves, to better facilitate trade and investment deals.

That sexing-up of Gangnam’s image with Girls’ Generation? One hell of a coincidence. Whatever your feelings about sex work, you could ask serious questions about what choices the members had in their image being used to promote it. So too, if they ever made any profit from doing so, rather than all of it going to SM Entertainment.

You can guess where I’m going with this.

A sex tourism industry really was developed throughout Korea in the 1960s and 1970s, but especially on Jeju Island.

On the mainland, its history is complicated by that of the parallel sex industry set up for the USFK, and complicated further still by the earlier industry for (primarily) Japanese officials and male tourists in the 1930s, as we’ll delve into later. But on Jeju, the story after the establishment of diplomatic relations between Korea and Japan in 1965 is relatively simple.

There, according to Dr. Caroline Norma of RMIT University, prominent Japanese businessmen, private companies, and even the Japanese Ministry of Infrastructure, Transport, and Industry were directly involved in the setting up of tourist facilities and infrastructure in the 1970s—all for the explicit purpose of gambling and sex tourism for Japanese businessmen, and all with the full support of Korean president Park Chung-hee who wanted to develop the island as a tourist resort. Certainly, there was opposition in both countries. Yet by 1986, over 1000 women would be working in the 4 ‘kisaeng houses’ established, and the industry would come to be so integral to the island’s economy that the Jeju prefectural government would ask to be exempted from the anti-prostitution law of 2004—and saddled with swathes of abandoned buildings when that request was refused.

You can also guess that Jeju’s tourist brochures from the 1970s would be replete with glamorous photos of youthful models posing as Jeju’s haenyeo. For example, this one below, which at least features realistic outfits for the time (as I’ll explain in detail later):

Source left, cropped: hansoo7007; the highest quality image I’ve been able to find. Source right: National Folk Museum of Korea via Google Arts and Culture. Unfortunately, the only definitive dating of this image I’ve found is from a 1974 postcard, but it probably dates to at least several years earlier.

Here’s another with different models, superimposed over a background of local landmark Dragon Head Rock. This photo was likewise featured on the cover of a tourist brochure, on postcards, and on souvenirs:

Source: Prof.dr. R.E. Breuker, Leiden University, Marginalia on Northern Korea. Used with permission.

But forget about the burgeoning sex tourism industry behind the scenes for a moment. So too, the affected poses. Besides those, what is “off” about about these photos exactly? Which isn’t off about this one below, of genuine haenyeo from the early-1960s?

Source: Jeju Provincial Self-governing Haenyeo Museum via Google Arts & Culture.

Recall that I described them as “glamorous.”

It’s true the word can have many meanings, including—ironically for our titular subject—“busty” in Korean. But in this particular case, the first two photos are glamorous because their emphasis is on the models as women, not as haenyeo. It’s on their femininity. That’s why they still look like models, despite the authentic outfits and the equipment. Whereas in the last picture, all but one of the haenyeo are too busy to care less about the photographer, which is a good indicator they’re the real deal. If there’s any emphasis in the photograph at all, it’s on the profession.

If stressing femininity was the purpose in the former photos however, this raises the question of why it was necessary to use a haenyeo theme. Even on the added justification that the haenyeo symbolized Jeju, whereas, say, generic bikini models wouldn’t, there were significant numbers of haenyeo on mainland coasts who would have begged to differ.

Source: Dolga Dolga@YouTube. This statue of a Busan haenyeo is located in a popular drinking spot in the summer, and gets a lot of attention (and damage) from drunks.

The answer is that the decision was merely the continuation of a long, preexisting history of marginalization, exploitation, othering, and sexualization of Jeju haenyeo, as I’ll discuss later. But it was indeed from the 1970s when this stress on their femininity began in earnest.

Writing in 2013, Shin-Ock Chang from the Department of Sociology at Sungkyunkwan University described the result of four decades of that:

…femaleness is the most mobilized and utilized aspect of women divers in order to please visitors to the island. Women divers’ femaleness has taken the forefront in the island’s tourism development. The femaleness is pervasive in tourism related materials including magazines, posters, basalt sculptures, FRP (Fiberglass Reinforced Plastics) materialized caricature sculptures, and souvenir items. Indeed, the feminine character of women divers is what one comes across most in traveling on the island, and is particularly pervasive in places where tourists are expected to pass through such as hotels, restaurants, museums, shopping centers, coastline car driving roads, and beaches.

Left: K-pop singer Ivy in 2017, via enews24. Source right (cropped): leesangtaek.

Lest this sound like what some would disqualify as typical feminist overreaction over, say, taking harmless funny pictures in front of a couple of statues (a Jeju vacation ritual), consider that “pervasive” means precisely that. For instance, as of 2010, there were 33 haenyeo statues along the coastal roads of Jeju. Thirty-one of these, Chang notes, were the A to C types in Figure 4 below which emphasize and exaggerate the haenyeo’s “female body lines such as breast, hip, and legs.” Also striking was that 19 were of the A type, which she notes bears a strong resemblance to the 1972 photo of a model in a rather inauthentic and impractical bikini in Figure 5 (but still, as indicated through the picture title and equipment, an ostensible haenyeo):

Source: Chang, p. 24.

Moreover, with ubiquity comes familiarity and normalization, and the Korean public, mainland tourists, and foreign visitors alike tending to regard such objectifying as only natural. For example, also consider that last year, the Jeju Women and Family Research Institute released its 2019 Gender Impact Assessment of Jeju Tourism Contents Report (2019년 제주특별자치도 관광 콘텐츠에 대한 특정성별영향평가) in which it identified problematic gender and sexual stereotypes in those contents, and made recommendations on how to correct them. Among the many mentions of haenyeo, one example given was the unnecessary use of those sexualized statues of them used in the background of a video for children shown in the Jeju Dialect section of the Jeju Education Museum (pp. 55-56):

시청각 영상물에서 해녀의 이미지 가성적으로 표현됨. 유두, Y존, 섹슈얼한 포즈 등 지나치게 여성의 신체 일부를 드러냄으로써, 해녀의 신체 에대해 성적인 이미지를 강조하고 있음. 아울러 단어와 문장에 맞지않 은이미지를 사용하고 있음. 해녀에 대한 섹슈얼한 이미지 활용에 대한 문제제기는 이미 많이 진행되어 왔고 개선되고 있는 상황임. 이러한 변화에 맞추어 개선 필요. 특히 어린이/청소년 대상 전시물의 경우 미래 세대에 미치는 영향에 대한 고민 필요

☞ 특정성, 특히 여성에 대한 외모를 강조하는 이미지 활용은 지양. 이미지 개선 필요.

My translation:

The video includes likenesses of haenyeo. But those likenesses are in sexual poses and show off female body parts such as nipples and crotches, stressing an overly physical and sexual image of the haenyeo. Moreover, they are completely unrelated to the words and phrases of the Jeju dialect that are the video’s focus.

There have been many improvements made in the use of overly sexual imagery of haenyeo, and [this museum] needs to improve in line with these changes. In particular, in the case of exhibitions aimed at children and teenagers, it is advisable to consider the impact of such imagery on future generations.

☞ Special attention needs to be given to the rejection of imagery that emphasizes women’s bodies. Improvements to this imagery are necessary.

Yes, that is indeed unfortunate shading on the second statue, but it’s no fault of the video. It’s hardly prudish to wonder why the sculptor(s) were instructed to take that particular creative direction with it either, when everyone would balk at them doing the same for other professions.

But in addition to their shared stress on haenyeo’s femininity, there are two more common themes to be aware of.

Let me explain them by posing you a question. Do you think a 30-something haenyeo should have been chosen as the face of a tourism competition last year to win round-trips to Korea? When 9 out of 10 haenyeo are now over 60 years old?

Screenshot (cropped): Korea Tourism Organization.

There were good reasons. The Korean Tourism Organization promoted the competition through painfully scripted videos of young influencers in Korea waxing lyrical about literally everything, which automatically excluded all those too old to care less. Also, essentially the same role was envisioned for the eventual winners: a miserly 2 days and 3 nights of hotel accommodation were only provided if they chose to meet with the 1 of 30 Korean “friends” available they’d selected upon entering, of whom Go Ryeo-jin above was one. Realistically, very few young hallyu fans would have opted to spend such a limited time with a more representative haenyeo their grandmother’s age. In fact, in that sense, claiming in her own video that Go was the youngest haenyeo of all may only have further added to her appeal. It’s not like any hopeful competition entrant would have quibbled that it wasn’t actually true.

In fairness, the competition did offer the opportunity to meet elderly “friends” in other professions. But this (mis)representation of haenyeo is all too common. For example, when Go played a similar role the year before:

Source: The Traveller. The Korean subheading at bottom literally says “Jeju Naturalism Travel,” but probably “Travels Among Jeju’s Nature” is closer to the intended meaning. Note the anachronistic rubber flippers.

Hey, no-one’s blaming Go for her side-hustles. But Traveller‘s glamorous representation of haenyeo in particular is problematic. Not because feminists are natural spoilsports, but because, in addition to her relative youth, Go’s wearing one of the much flimsier traditional diving outfits like you saw in those glamorous photos earlier. Which were taken precisely when haenyeo stopped wearing such outfits in favor of wetsuits.

Yes, no working haenyeo has actually worn those for nearly 50 years.

So, unless explicitly set before the 1970s, any modern representation of haenyeo that doesn’t convey the reality that 9 out of 10 of them are elderly women in wetsuits, is misinformed at best and a deliberate misrepresentation at worst. And, again, begs the question of the agendas—or at least stereotypes and cultural baggage—of those choosing the representation.

Left: Her Kyungsuk, Hamo Jeju, 2014. Right: Lee Okyong, Gosan Jeju, 2013. Photos by Hyung S. Kim via BuzzFeed.
Source: Noby Leong@Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

The logical outcome of the stress on haeneyo’s femininity is then, a stress on their youth. And the flimsy traditional outfits are best at highlighting both themes, which is why we encounter them far more often than wetsuits.

For example, in this fashion show as part of a haenyeo festival in October 2008, which—make of it what you will—I first found pictures of on the misogynistic, alt-right site Ilbe, where members usually post pictures of women only to ridicule or ogle them:

Source: Hankyung.

In fairness, young women have already been performing as haenyeo in various capacities for a very long time. Here are two examples from the 1960s:

Source: e-영상역사관, 1969 & 1966.

I would have loved to have continued with more examples here. In particular, of all the instances of haenyeo in Korean pop culture from the last 70 years that I’ve collected these past two months, as all those were surely both strongly influenced by and strong influences on this sexualized positioning of haenyeo. Through their sheer weight of numbers alone, I felt, it would have been obvious to anyone that this combination of femininity, youth, and overabundance of traditional outfits in them has always been a thing.

But that long list would have rapidly snowballed. Better then, to provide you with the tools to judge such representations of haenyeo for yourselves, wherever you may find them.

That’s our cue to discuss the traditional outfit in detail.

A screenshot from the 2009 TV series Tamra, the Island, with Seo Woo playing a haenyeo. Naturally, it prompted many “news” articles about the topless myth, and a great deal of speculation as to how much of her chest viewers would be treated to. (See my first impressions of the series when it came out here.)

Joo-Young Lee and Hyo Hyun Lee, both from the Department of Textiles at Seoul National University, offer a refreshingly simple guide to the traditional outfit in their 2014 examination of the loss of haenyeo’s physiological adaptions to the cold due to adopting wetsuits (p.4.):

Jeju haenyeo wore a bathing suit made of cotton-broadcloth in white or black (100% cotton with 30 counts, about 0.5 mm thick, and 8.5% water absorption at a dry condition) until wetsuits were supplied. Before the broad cotton cloth was imported from Japan [a 99.6 percent monopoly by 1919—James], the bathing suit was originally made of muslin (thin cotton cloth). Haenyeo preferred the broad cotton to the muslin bathing suit because the broad cotton was relatively thicker and stronger in salty water than the muslin cloth.

I’d add that according to the Jeju Weekly, the difference between the white and black outfits is that the former were made from muslin, woven from traditional looms, while the latter were made from broad cotton cloth that was machine-woven, then dyed black. I doubt this difference in material and method of manufacture continued until the 1970s however.

Source: Lee and Lee, p. 4.

From bitter experience, different romanizations can lead to considerable confusion. So, please take note of the original Korean:

  • The “juck-sam” referred to is “적삼.”
  • The “so-jung-ee” is “소중이.”
  • And the “mul-su-gun” is “물수건.”
  • However, although Lee and Lee only use “mul” in that last name, it simply means water, and every other source I’ve encountered attaches it to the other two names also—i.e., mul-juck-sam/물적삼 and mul-so-jung-ee/물소중이. So I will too.
  • Also, for your interest, su-gun also means towel, which is what it closely resembles.
  • Many sources (example) refer to the entire traditional outfit as “murot” or “mul-ot,” but this—”물옷”—simply means “water clothes.”
  • I’ve only ever seen white muljucksam, but am happy to be shown black ones existed.
  • And finally so-jung-ee, literally “valuable thing,” is often a euphemism for genitals, and probably no coincidence here.

Next, here’s a more detailed breakdown of the mulsojungee from a (Korean) 2013 article by Kim Hyun-mi and Jang Ae-ran of the Department of Beauty & Art at Cheju Halla University and the Department of Clothing and Textiles at Jeju National University, respectively:

Source: Kim and Jang, p. 359. Source below: Zum.

Very confusingly, Kim and Jang mention a jjokiheori/조끼허리 at the top rather than a muljucksam. But that length of it above, indicated by the dotted line extending into the mulsojungee, seems to be mistaken. A jjokiheori is a waistcoat-like covering that is so short it almost looks like a bra (see right), and is most commonly used with hanbok. However, much more commonly used on top of both men’s and women’s hanbok are jeogori (저고리), of which the women’s is usually as short as a jjokiheori, but has large loose sleeves that the jjokiheori lacks; indeed, the muljucksam has been described as a kind of jeogori, albeit with much narrower sleeves to prevent them dragging in the water. As I’ve only been able to find a single additional reference of jjokiheori being used by haenyeo then, and no pictures, there’s no reason to consider it further.

Besides which, it’s the maechin/매친 shoulder strap that’s crucial. This ensured that only the upper chest—but not the breasts—would be exposed if the muljucksam wasn’t also being worn. That, plus the fact that the mulsojungee seems to have come in black just as often as white, sharply distinguishes haenyeo from Japanese ama (海女):

Source, cropped: TheStory

But “crucial”?

Fixating on breast exposure may seem very childish. Not least, because as you can probably tell from the examples below (and as many readers with breasts will already have been well aware), it is obvious that the thin material would have hidden little, and that the functional side-slits for easy adjusting and removal, plus the practicalities of the job (including infant childcare), would in practice have meant frequent breast exposure. It’s also true that the haenyeo would have been working well away from the prying eyes of most men. And even if men did see them—such as fishermen in passing, handlers of the haeyneo’s boats, or men on their shore unloading the haenyeo’s catches—breast exposure was still routine outside of cities in Korea, even as late as the 1950s.

Source: Jeju Special Self-Governing Province
Caption: “Haenyeo at work while wearing muljeoksam” by Yang Ha-sun, 1966. Source: Haenyeo Museum via Google Arts & Culture.
Source: 에뜨랑제(Etranger)나그네의 길
Caption: “Haenyeo warming themselves up in groups after just leaving the water/공동물질을 마친 해녀들이 삼삼오오 짝을 지어 불을 지펴 언몸을 녹이고 있다 (1968년).” Source: I Love Jeju Magazine.
Source: Whimoon Alumni Association. Multiple NSFW images follow.

And yet the mulsojungee would rarely have naturally ridden down below the bust, nor the thick maechin shoulder strap come off, without the wearer quickly fixing them when able. Let alone a haenyeo forgoing wearing a mulsojungee entirely.

In other words, there’s a world of difference between photos like these, taken in passing while the haenyeo were too busy working to care less about the photographers, with photos of haenyeo openly revealing their breasts to them.

Rest assured there are multiple alleged examples from English and Korean google searches to be found of the latter. Armed with this knowledge of the outfits though, now you can instantly tell that a good, say, 95 percent of the nude images are actually of ama, whatever their captions may claim. And it is highly likely that those 5 percent that are indeed of haenyeo were staged.

Knowing this last to be a fact is a good basis on which to investigate why.

Source: @WhoresofYore.

When doing so, there’s three potential factors to consider.

The first is the influence of sexualized representations of ama. Frankly, I am unfamiliar with their traditional outfits, and can not speak to how realistic Yoshiyuki’s Iwase’s (influential) depictions of them topless were—while most are clearly glamorized and staged, many others seem to be little different from those we saw of haenyeo working, albeit with much less clothing.

Regardless, given Japan’s much more liberal media environment in the postwar era, ama were much more intensively and rapidly sexualized than their counterparts in Korea. For instance, their fetishization in film goes back at least as far Michiko Maeda’s Revenge of the Pearl Queen (1956), which tellingly also contained Japanese cinema’s first nude scene. By the 1970s, there were numerous soft-porn films centered around ama.

Source: film.ru.

This is important, as it’s plausible to argue that the glamorized depictions of haenyeo from the early 1970s were simply due to timing.

Which is ultimately quite mistaken. But still plausible.

In particular, and somewhat inconveniently for branding Jeju as a cishet man’s sexual paradise, that period saw the beginning of the most authoritarian phase of Korea’s military regime. This included a harsh crackdown on burgeoning youth culture, including on its attendant challenges to conservative standards of dress and restrictions on nudity in art and the media. If that likewise affected advertising, then using models in genuinely skimpy haenyeo outfits would have served the same glamorizing purpose as bikinis. Being authentic, they would have helped deflect potential criticism and charges of hypocrisy that using models in bikinis might have incurred.

Military regimes are not well-known for suffering public opinion however. It’s also unlikely women’s movements would have raised such trifling matters when so many of their members were routinely being brutally beaten by factory-owners and police.

Alternatively, many older readers may recall the very successful James Bond movie You Only Live Twice had been released just a few years earlier. While it was set in Japan, and only featured ama characters, the similarities in tone with the glamorized depictions of haenyeo we saw are obvious, particularly the 1972 example of a model in a white bikini (but the existence of which slightly contradicts the military crackdown rationale). Indeed, at least one former Peace Corps Volunteer admits the movie was very, very much on his mind upon his arrival on the island in 1973.

Mie Hama as Kissy Suzuki in You Only Live Twice (1967). Source, cropped: ScreenMusings. Source above-right: Anastasia Ashman.

But information about the movie’s (unlikely) popularity in Japan itself is hard to find, and regardless, Japanese businessmen traveling to Jeju for sex would undoubtedly have been much more influenced by ama characters in homegrown soft-pornography films. It’s also reasonable to assume that despite the outlawing of pornography in Korea, and despite official restrictions on direct cultural imports from Japan specifically, Japanese sex tourists’ stereotypes and objectification of ama would still have filtered across to the Korean public through various means, and influenced their preexisting notions of haenyeo.

This would have been especially true after Korean films and photos featuring semi-nudity became widely available in Korea, most notably after President Chun Doo-hwan’s “Sex, Screen, Sports” policy began in 1980. These haenyeo-themed examples from the Kyunghyang Shinmun newspaper for instance, which have a very similar feel to Japanese examples from 10 or even 20 years earlier:

Source, left(1987), right(1979; cropped): Moreska@Flickr, used with permission. The red box on the right very helpfully explains that that model is “Film actor Kim Min-jeong symbolizing the haenyeo style. A woman with the sea and sky, radiating a pure warmth”

Meanwhile, Japanese pornography itself had become much more explicit by that stage. I’ll leave interested readers to find ama-themed examples themselves however, confining myself here to passing on the trailer of the (comparatively mild and amusing) Nympho Diver: G-String Festival (1981) instead. Partially, because of its conspicuous Korean subtitles, which title it as Lustful Haenyeo, and partially because it’s quite typical of the sort of adult movies I’d find playing on very late-night Korean television in the 2000s.

Lest I have come across as too critical and prudish in this post, for the record I’m actually a strong supporter of ethical pornography produced in safe environments, by and for consenting adults, and which focuses on women’s pleasure just as much as men’s. Yet I’m hardly ignorant and naive either, and am well aware that most pornography presents women as all too eager to have sex with just about any cishet man who bestows his gaze upon them. So I’m not surprised then, that the aforementioned Jeju Women and Family Research Institute’s 2019 report on tourism materials found numerous cases of voyeurism being normalized as both completely natural for men and just clean harmless fun, which I’m astonished haven’t been torn down yet in the wake of angry protests against Korea’s spycam epidemic. One of these examples (p. 58), from Jeju Loveland, depicts a haenyeo in all but name:

Incongruous Caucasian man in Victorian-era clothing aside (a whole other topic), I’ll leave readers to connect the dots to earlier, pre-internet examples.

The next factor to consider is that the 1970s weren’t the first time haenyeo had been used to sex-up the island for the tourism industry. One prior attempt comes from the 1950s:

Source, top-right: KRpia. Source, all others: 유자향내를 따라서.

Clearly, these photos are part of a series, of which more are available at the single source. Frustratingly however, no extra information about them is provided (my bad for not contacting the owner yet). Also, while the one at the top-right is available elsewhere, most notably in the KRPia Database, I lack the institutional access required to see if any additional information is provided there. (I’ll return to this practical issue later.)

An additional source of frustration is that although some of the outfits appear inauthentic, eagle-eyed readers will have noticed that in an earlier picture of genuine working haenyeo from the 1960s I provided, some of them too wore outfits with two shoulder straps.

After spending so much time researching and familiarizing myself with the traditional outfit, I frankly throw my hands up in despair at that observation. (And so miss that they could simply be a kind of tank-top?) Yet the fact remains that those 1950s photos above were obviously completely staged and glamorized, particularly of the bare-breasted woman. But why?

A tantalizing hint can be found through the following photograph in a June 2012 article in the Jemin Ilbo. Not only because it’s very similar to the above (albeit still very uncertain if it’s related at all), but because the caption there claims it was for a tourism shot:

Source: Jemin Ilbo.

Again frustratingly, that’s the entirety of the information about it. But if true?

Likewise, what to make of the following photo, which is also very staged, but with authentic outfits? Curiously, an authoritative source dates its production to exactly July 21, 1958, but doesn’t say on what that date is based. Nor indeed, any other information about it:

Source: Hankook Ilbo.

Considering Jeju had just seen 10% of its population killed in a brutal repression of an uprising in 1948-1949, and Korea was one of the poorest countries in the world in the decade after the war, then the very notion of producing tourism photos for the island seems absurd, let alone such titillating ones. And yet they stubbornly exist.

I apologize that the pictures raise more questions than answers. But I’m on much firmer ground with the final factor to consider, to be considered when viewing images 20-30 years earlier from the colonial period: that generally, Japanese colonial representations of Korean women were used to dangle the possibility of sex with locals, to present them as primitive and in need of civilizing, or both.

Source: Moreska@Flickr. Used with permission.

Alas I can not possibly do justice to the extensive literature on the development of the sex industry in colonial Korea driving that, let alone dare to publicly take a stance in the politically-charged debate on its links to wartime comfort women. So, I will confine myself to making two points about its scale, as this was a big factor in why postcards and posters of Korean women were so prolific.

First, among colonial empires, the Japanese one stood out for the number of men from the home country working in its colonies. To give a specific example: according to politics and international affairs Professor Atul Kohli of Princeton University, “there were 87,552 government officials in Korea in 1937, 52,270 of whom were Japanese, whereas the French state in Vietnam (relatively large itself compared to British colonies in Africa) only had 3000 French officials. In other words, for geographically-similar sized colonies the Japanese had fifteen officials for every French one.”

I don’t mean to imply that Japanese officials were the bulk of the clients, which wasn’t the case at all. But those numbers do suggest that, per capita, the sex industry catering to such a colonial presence would have been comparatively large. Also, secondly, why regularly visiting sex workers was considered completely normal and unremarkable.

Yet for Japanese living in the Home Islands, why travel to Korea for that?

“The most famous gisaeng during Japanese colonialism, Jang Yeon-hong.” Source: zixundingzhi. Note the accompanying prominent placing of the Japanese General Government Building, completed in 1926.

One reason was the relative ease, both because of the geographical proximity and because a huge industry for Japanese tourists was developed in the interwar years. Another was the persuasiveness of the ensuing extensive advertising. Also, as Hyung Il Pai of the University of California explains (p. 73), there were “millions of train schedules, pamphlets, and guidebooks estimated to have been distributed at major piers, train stations, and department stores throughout the empire.” Unfortunately, being designed to be disposable, very few of those have survived. But it’s unlikely their contents would have differed much from the sturdier pocket-size guidebooks and attractive postcards that do remain, and these had consistent themes. As Okpyo Moon from the Department of Anthropology at the Academy Of Korean Studies explains (p. 151):

While actual places visited by Japanese travelers concentrated on urban centres and newly constructed modern colonial facilities, many of the postcards printed and circulated during the Japanese colonial period emphasized images of pre-modern exoticism. For instance, most of the tourist postcards of the time depicted Korea with images of rural rather than urban, female rather than male, elderly people or children rather than lively young men, passive and static rather than active and moving, traditional and past-oriented rather than progressive and modern. The continuous reproduction and wide distribution of these images helped Japanese travelers to perceive colonial Korea as something to be conquered, enlightened, modernized, desired, and consumed.

In the last two decades, a big online market for these postcards has developed, driving up costs and making access more difficult. Also, most of the universities and museums with digital archives of the postcards, and, presumably, as much verifiable information about them as is available, either require institutional access or visits in person—and most are in the US. Add that such painful, emasculating depictions of Korea may not be a favorite subject of Korean historians, so the vast majority of scholarship on the postcards appears to be Japanese (which I don’t speak), then unfortunately it feels extremely difficult, here in Busan, to pursue the subject in as much depth as I’d like.

The January 1927 cover of Chang Han (長恨 Enduring Bitterness), a very rare examination of the colonial sex industry written by the sex workers themselves. Source: Adan Mun’go.

An informal survey of what material is publicly available however, demonstrates that the overwhelming majority of glamorous pictures of Korean women in them are of kisaeng. It would be very hypocritical and misleading to perpetuate their own stereotype that they were largely sex workers; however, the colonial (male) tourist gaze didn’t discern their internal distinctions and artistry, stressing their alleged sexual skills and availability instead. This context should be borne in mind when you see examples like those two a moment ago, and Moon (pp. 153-4) notes their obvious similarities with later tourism materials:

An apparent continuity can be observed between the pre-war and the post-war Japanese perception of Korea and in the ways in which tourism was later promoted in Korea. The tourist posters printed and distributed by the Korean government in the 1970s, for instance, invariably depicted women in Korean traditional dress either dancing or playing musical instruments such as [12-stringed Korean harps]. The continuity with kisaeng images in the postcards of the colonial period cannot be missed.

This depiction of Korean women in traditional outfits, accompanied by the tools of their trade, but in which it’s ultimately their femininity that is being highlighted, does sound somewhat familiar.

Meanwhile, of the other colonial postcards featuring women, many of the others were like that of the somewhat wizened-looking rural woman with exposed breasts. In an era when the adoption of Western dress was rendering breast exposure increasingly taboo in the cities, and covering them a signifier of (Japanese-led) modernization and civilizing, then the intention of the photographer was clearly to shame. For this reason, many Korean historians and the public have—not unreasonably—refused to accept that breast exposure was nonetheless still routine in the countryside then.

But because of what we know about the traditional outfit, we know that it was indeed for shaming purposes that the haenyeo below was told to pull down her mulsojungee to expose her breasts, in this, the single verifiable postcard featuring a haenyeo I’ve been able to find:

Source: Moravius@Flickr. Used with permission.

My source, to whom I’m eternally grateful, gave a little more information about its origins in their message to me:

[This] is part of a set of eight postcards which I bought from a Chinese dealer some 15 years ago. As you will know, postcards produced by Japanese businessmen in Korea for sale mainly to Japanese tourists and collectors are an important—and very often the only—source of photographic material of the colonial period. They often came in sets of several cards held together by a colourful printed envelope. The Cheju-do set also includes an explanation sheet (in Japanese, of course). These are the only Cheju-do postcards in my collection, so it seems Cheju-do was not popular with Japanese tourists at that time.

Actual tourists aside, it has been argued that glamorized posters and postcards of young, nude Jeju haenyeo were also produced, but I have yet to find any actual examples. Also, for readers’ interest, another similar, shaming depiction of topless Jeju haenyeo can be found in a Japanese newspaper from 1934 (p.24).

(Update) And then the following appeared. Alas, not from a Japanese postcard, but intriguing nonetheless:

With my considerable thanks to historian JiHoon Suk for passing it on, this topless, alleged Jeju haenyeo comes from the cover of the June 1928 edition of the Korean literary-intellectual magazine Donggwang (동광), with the caption:

“濟州道 海女들이 감(柿)를 드린 바지를 입고 潛水질하는 거슬 海邊에서 볼ᄯᅢ에는 꼭 南洋에 간 感이 잇다. 女子들은 어찌나 健康한지 젖가삼이 쑥쑥 나오고 血氣잇게 다니는 그 女子들은 陸地의 男子보다 몃배의 힘이 잇을 것이다. 市長에는 女子뿐이고 巨里에 낭구(木) 팔러 오는 사람도 女子이고 심할 것은 牛馬의 力으로 回轉시킬 돌방아까지 女子 3, 4人의 힘으로 도는 것을 보앗다. 陸地의 女子들이 濟州島 女子들의 하는 活動을 볼 때에는 참 놀랠것이 만흘 것이다. (寫眞은 濟州에서)”

Suk explains that, basically, “the intention here is to emphasize how strong and healthy the women of Jeju (including haenyeos) are compared to (even) men of the ‘mainland’,” and that specifically “when the caption mentions ‘젖가슴이 쑥쑥 나오고’ (Their breasts are well-built and protruding),” he is “quite positive that this is alluding to the common complaint that the Korean (mostly male but some females as well) intellectuals were talking at that time that Korean women lacked healthy postures and development and [were] thus inferior to more healthy (i.e. ‘Western’) bodies.”

Indeed, this was a common complaint at the time in China, Taiwan, and Japan, too, and I’m looking forward to covering the topic in more detail in the next post in my series on that.

I stress only alleged haenyeo though, as she’s clearly not wearing the traditional haenyeo outfit, and her bottoms closely resemble those of the ama featured in Iwase Yoshiyuki’s photographs taken 30 years later. We also only have the caption writer’s say-so that the woman was a haenyeo (there was no related article), and the editors were probably not all too concerned about accuracy when they were conjuring up a rationale for putting a nude woman on the cover. So, I’d wager that she was indeed an ama—or a least a haenyeo working elsewhere in the Japanese empire, of which there were many. Alternatively, the adoption of the ‘traditional’ outfit in the 1920s may have been much more piecemeal and gradual than I suggested. Either way, it just goes to show haenyeo’s long history of being sexualized, and my thanks again to Suk for passing it on.

But frankly, it’s high time to move on from (over)analyzing tantalizing, but ultimately very frustrating single examples the further back in time we go. Let’s conclude instead, by addressing four elephants (whales?) in the room.

The first is that simple geographical isolation meant that Jeju residents were inevitably marginalized and othered throughout Korean history. And Jeju haenyeo in particular, about whom most mainland Koreans would have known very little beyond that they dived and wore skimpy outfits, would have been very easy to conjure exotic, sexualized narratives about. An internal Orientalism, if you will.

The isolation driving this was significant until surprisingly recently. As the island is just a quick, cheap flight away today, it can be difficult to appreciate how difficult it has been to get to for most of its history, and that what later became the standard practice—flying to Jeju for honeymoons—only really began in the mid-1980s. In stark contrast, when the glamorized pictures of haenyeo were being produced in the early-1970s, the Seoul-Busan highway had only just been completed. Only 1 in 100 Koreans had cars then. Also, consider Koreans’ abject poverty at the time: still less than 1 in 10 had washing machines, refrigerators, phones, or televisions. Not for nothing would the Minister of Education in 1973, in a rare moment of candor, publicly praise sex workers for bringing in so much foreign exchange “with their cunts.” (Which is not to imply the sex workers weren’t still treated appallingly by the government, and aren’t still awaiting compensation even today.)

Source: Measured Excess: Status, Gender, and Consumer Nationalism in South Korea by Laura Nelson (2000), pp. 87-88.

Next is the stereotype of Jeju women as feminist Amazonians, which does not jibe well with much of what you’ve read so far. By all means, gender relations on Jeju have long been much more complicated and interesting than on the mainland, and today at least Jeju women do indeed generally have more equitable gender relations compared to their mainland counterparts. But I also invite you to read this journal article from 1976 for an academic perspective on those from the time, in which the author Soon Young-yoon bluntly concludes “Jeju martriarchy does not exist.” This assessment has not changed over time, Dr. Norma also noting that Jeju women were not particularly empowered in the 1970s (p. 417):

Even with [the income from tourism]…the island was still significantly poorer than the rest of South Korea. Women living on Jeju were, therefore, even more vulnerable to the demands of the Japanese men who traveled there in large numbers in the early-1970s.

Nor were haenyeo in any more of a position to challenge the sexualized narratives being written about them by the Korean and Japanese governments. Consider that even while celebrating haenyeo history and culture for instance, this short 2016 Arirang video also features the now elderly women themselves describing the realities of their dirty, difficult, and dangerous job. In particular, they point out that it was not at all their choice to do the work, and that they were always looked down upon for doing it:

“Life was so hard that we couldn’t live without harvesting underwater” (2:12), “There was no other way to make a living” (2:20), “It’s hard work, but what can we do…I sent my children to college on the mainland with the money I made doing this” (2:32), “Diving in the sea is such a harsh, low-esteem job” (5:14).

I highly recommend Joey Rositano’s blog about haenyeo for many more in-depth interviews in that vein, and his recently released book Jeju Island’s Haenyeo, A User’s Manual. (And if you’ve just read 6000 words on haenyeo, how can you not buy it?). Full disclosure: I am especially grateful for his giving me time for an interview, and regret that so little of what we talked about made it into this post. But one thing we did talk about, and which was also mentioned to me by my other friends living on Jeju, leads me to my third point: that the image of haenyeo held by most actual Jeju residents is much more folksy than sexualized. Moreover, that haenyeo are far more concerned about increasingly severe pollution and other existential threats to their livelihoods caused by Jeju’s tourism industry, than about nipples on a few statues.

I am happy to defer to his and others’ experience of Jeju, let alone of the voices of haenyeo themselves, and look forward to hearing readers’ own impressions and stories as visitors or residents. I also acknowledge that most of the sources used here are somewhat old, and that there have been important developments in the last decade or so in the preservation of haenyeo history and the amplification of their voices.

And yet, while their modern image may indeed be moving well beyond the sexual stereotypes discussed here, their lack of control and profit from it sounds depressingly familiar. As a young haenyeo explained in an interview on Rositano’s blog in 2017 (my emphases):

Q) Nowadays there are a lot of touristic items such as jewelry, statuettes and other items featuring the women divers’ image. You’ve become a symbol of the island.

A) I think that it is good and realize that it is also due to the push for Unesco designation. It is good that we are recognized and I guess the outside world has the image in their mind that we are tough because we are divers. But we don’t seem to benefit from these touristic items. The people who make them are the ones who benefit. The ama…are more well-known in the world than we are, and in their villages the divers receive money for the touristic items they sell. This is not the case on Jeju Island. They (the local government) could make a certain item particular to each village and give us a cut of their revenue, but they aren’t doing this.

Q) How about when you are photographed?

A) That, too, doesn’t benefit us. It benefits the photographer….

Source: The Jeju Weekly. Caption: “Tamna Sullyeokdo,” painted in the early 1700s by artist Kim Nam-gil at the order of County Magistrate-cum-Navy Deputy Commander Lee Hyeong-sang, depicts haenyeo wearing white clothes as they dive near Yongduam Rock in Jeju-si. Inside the white circle, you can see the haenyeo working under water. (Photo: Korean Maritime Museum Webzine)

Two months ago, I was inspired to start writing this post by reading that in fact, the haenyeo had been topless over a century ago, our final elephant in the room. Frankly, my choice of title is a little misleading (sorry), but I was just too attached to the double-entendre to give it up.

The Chosun Ilbo, August 2015. For a discussion, see Korean Sociological Image #92: Patriotic Marketing Through Sexual Objectification, Part 1.

A century is a long time though, and realizing why the image of topless divers endured nonethless, and who it was for, I couldn’t help but recall Seungsook Moon’s must-read below. For it was from her that I first really grasped how the Korean government, military, and industry has long used, and literally even broken women’s bodies for nationalist and developmentalist ends. All too often, with little to no input or agency from women themselves, and over their desperate opposition.

It’s very difficult now, not to place the sexualization of haenyeo on the same continuum.

Right: From 207, then 17-Year-Old K-pop star Tzuyu being indirectly presented as “A Special Gift for [those] Korean Men” who have completed their military service.

With that, I am absolutely not saying every young, attractive woman in a traditional haenyeo outfit you’ll see will have been placed there with ulterior motives. But the next time you do encounter one in a tourist brochure, webtoon, talkshow, television series, or movie, I urge you to consider who chose to represent haenyeo that way, and ask why exactly.

Or indeed, to always ask who and why about any cultural text. Especially when you’re not entirely sure the people in them are the ones calling the shots.

Thanks for reading.

(Many thanks to Joey Rositano, ResearchProjectKorea, Hyung-Gu Lynn, Prof.dr. R.E. Breuker, Moreska, Moravius, and JiHoon Suk for their generous assistance and advice.)

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