A reading list for everything you ever wanted to know about the sexualization of minors in K-pop
Estimated reading time: 3 minutes.
The best thing you can read to make sense of it, actually, is Haley Yang’s article in Tuesday’s Korea JoongAng Daily, which is an excellent primer—and a model example of how to convey a great deal of information in just a few hundred words.
If you do have the luxury of time however, and a feeling that all of this sounds very familiar, then please allow me present some of my own longform posts (and book chapter) on the same topics, going back all the way to 2010:
It’s all very cute and charming until you realize how rarely you see it used on men. Why is that?
Estimated reading time: 7 minutes. Right: So-hee of the Wonder Girls.
Yeah, Rosédoes look very cute and charming in that poster. So it’s not like I’m about to boycott my local Homeplus over it. I have absolutely nothing against her either, who likely had little to no input in the direction of their advertising campaign. But when you realize that peach on her head effectively sabotages the whole concept behind that campaign, despite all the planning, preparation, and financial risks involved in hiring one of the hottest and most expensive stars in the world to help create that concept in the first place, then you really do have to ask why.
The poster, one of two of her that that nowfeature prominently at Homeplus stores (and online), is part of the chain’s “25 Years: A Fresh Way of Thinking” rebranding campaign to mark its 25th anniversary and launch of its new one hour delivery service. But critics were non-plussed by Rosé’s first, very different commercial for the campaign in February below, only grading it only a 2.6 out of 5. One of them thought the dancing and focus on Rosé’s face and body in the first half rendered the commercial more like one for Yves Saint Laurent, for whom Rosé already works as an ‘ambassador.’ Many others, that the luxurious, almost mature tone and atmosphere would only cause confusion among consumers when the logo for the homely supermarket chain then suddenly appeared. Also, that people’s attentions would be concentrated more on Rosé rather than on the service being advertised, and that stressing that she was 25 was unnecessarily ageist and alienating. (Actor Yeo Jin-goo was also hired as an endorser for being 25, with his own commercial rightly focused on high quality food. But the limelight has firmly been on Rosé.)
I tended to agree, especially about the unnecessary alienation of the bulk of its much older customers. Because well before I saw that commercial, I’d already noticed Rosé’s and Yeo Jin-goo’s glamorous visages in the giant banners below at my own local Homeplus, their eyes seeming to follow me as I perused the toiletries aisle, pondering which toilet paper best represented me as a person. Their purpose just baffled me. Neither of them offered any hint of any particular new Homeplus product or service, with both just saying (lit.) “Why? I have this fresh thinking because I’m 25.” Was Homeplus trying to remind me I’m almost twice as old? That just like when I used to run into my horrified students in bars, could I please just stop embarrassing them and leave?
Shockingly however, younger Koreans didn’t seem to care less about any of their elders and betters thought of the campaign. By April, there were 30 percent more visitors to brick-and-mortar stores in that age group than a year previously; of 20-24 year-olds specifically, a whopping 60 percent. Meanwhile, online customers in the 20s and 30s combined also increased by 60 percent.
Which still doesn’t mean it was a good commercial. It wasn’t. But the next one, which came out on July 14, was. It refined the concept, presenting the perfect combination of the millennial dream of living in own’s one place in the heart of Seoul, of having the free time to luxuriate over the exquisite-looking grapes, and of having such a convenient fast delivery service for them available. And, lest I forget: that it was want-her or want-to-be-her Rosé showing us all of this too:
Which is why I’m so annoyed by the laziness of the two accompanying banner posters, which have since replaced those for the first commercial in stores (poor Yeo Jin-goo is nowhere to be seen):
This first one, ironically used as the YouTube thumbnail, is simply poorly executed: as it happens, I consider myself a more sensual person than most (just throwing that out there), but even I can’t picture anyone so enjoying the texture of grapes that they’d ever want to rub them against their face. But let’s say I do suspend my disbelief for a moment. Even then, I’m still not getting the feeling from this poster that Rosé was, say, really, really enjoying the grapes just a moment ago, but has suddenly just noticed me and is about to invite me to join. Instead, the poster simply shows what actually happened: she was instructed to put the grapes to her face, so she obliged. Not to pretend to be interested in them too, as she was asked and did so well in the commercial.
By all means, the grapes do add an aesthetically pleasing splash of green, and vaguely fit in with the headline of “As fresh as you see.” Her mesmerizing gaze back at the viewer? It quashes all doubts of why she’s a superstar. And perhaps—okay, I see it now—the taut, tight skin of the grapes is meant to vibe with Rosé’s own. Again, symbolizing that freshness concept. (But so too, illustrating the huge potential for any celebrity endorser to completely overshadow the advertised service or product.) But surely it was possible to do so without losing the sensuality of the original commercial?
Just see for yourself. Compare this first of two additional images Homeplus released on its Instagram on July 15, but neither of which seem to be displayed in stores. (Yes, I’ve visited four in the last two weeks to check, feverishly snapping away at Rosé; by now, the security staff have probably flagged me as a pervertedsamcheon fan.) This one isn’t perfect by any means, but it at least retains some of the sensuality of the commercial, by reminding consumers that delicious-looking grapes are best enjoyed by actually eating them. And again, even if making a link to her youthful skin was considered just as or even more important (because Korea), why not combine both motifs?
This next, much cuter and more playful Instagram one, is very difficult to dislike (notice a recurring theme?). But it too represents a big step away from the sensual concept of the commercial, and of the commercial before that as well. And yet, still it would have been a far better choice than the second poster actually chosen for the stores and homepage:
There’s three big reasons not to like it. No, really.
First, in the second, very aspirational TV commercial it’s ostensibly tied to, we were supposed to pretend Rosé was just like you and (much younger) me, only with a nicer apartment and more carefree lifestyle. Which worked. To a greater or lesser extent, you could still roll with that vibe in all of the other images with the grapes above too. Whereas this one just casually tosses that carefully crafted fantasy aside. As playing with the product by putting it on your head, combined with her looking not at you, but at a more important, separate person/photographer instead, instantly identifies her as a glamorous model or celebrity. Ergo, not at all like you or me.
Second, just in case I haven’t stressed it often enough: the whole concept of the entire campaign, best expressed in the second commercial, was all about Homeplus gratifying your senses. Being able to get your fresh fruit quickly through its new delivery service, then enjoying, perversely lingering on and luxuriating in its look, taste, smell, feel, and—if you try hard enough—sound too. There was a strongly implied erotic potential as well. But here? What I actually see when my raging alcoholism drives me to head out to my local store for a cheap bottle of whiskey? That would be placing a peach on your head. As in, Homeplus no longer cared what I think of how that peach looks, tastes, smells, and feels like, the whole ostensible reason for signing on its to new, trendy, one-hour delivery service in the first place (what, you too had forgotten this is what the campaign was selling?). Rather, the peach has become instead just a prop, a toy even, which ultimately could be replaced by just about anything Homeplus sells and still have the same effect. Say, even that toilet paper I eventually did choose.
So, being generous, at best it’s lazy. It’s unoriginal. You could say the peach on her head loosely matches the headline of (lit.) “Whenever, with no burden, lightly,” but it’s tenuous. More likely, the advertisers asked Rosé for that pose because again, it simply makes her look cute and carefree, campaign concept be damned. And also because third, finally, and more likely still, that’s just what advertisers do with young female models.
“Look at these images. What do they suggest to you about these men? Do they seem silly?”
“What about these images?”
“Most viewers find the images of the men odd or laughable. But the images of the women seem charming and attractive…Why should it seem funny to see a picture of adult men striking a pose when the same pose seems normal or charming to us in pictures of adult women?”
Or, to conclude by going back to where we started: no matter how cute and charming Rosé may appear in the last poster, the campaign’s concepts of sensuality, luxury, and convenience are frequently confused by focusing on her looks, skin, and cute personality instead. Had they been the focus from the get-go, that would have been fine, and I wouldn’t have been annoyed at all.
I really do have better things to do with my time than write about this shit.
Instead, I’m reminded that it’s just so normal and unremarkable to infantilize grown women in ads, and that advertisers just can’t help themselves.
Because in addition to the aforementioned gender imbalance (which is the real issue; there’s absolutely nothing wrong with being cute), let me leave you with two pages from the classic Gender Advertisements by sociologist Erving Goffman, first produced the same year as me—1976. Sometimes, as you’ll see, it’s astounding to realize how little has changed in the 46 years since then.
But first, let me extend my warm thanks to Professor CedarBough Saeji (a.k.a. @TheKpopProf) for her invitation to talk on this topic to her class last week. Next, to her students also for their many interesting questions and observations, given to me both in person and as they live-tweeted the event!
As there were too many tweets to respond to individually afterwards however, and because most were related to some key points I’d ended up having to rush over because I’d wasted far too much time showing videos of time constraints, I decided to clarify them in a long thread instead. Please click to read, and, because the more in the discussion the merrier, please feel free to respond yourself, either on Twitter or in the comments section below.
Finally, seeing as we’re on the subject of talks, let me also remind everyone that if you too would like me to give one to your own class or organization, whether in person or via Zoom, then I’ll probably jump at the chance if our schedules work out. So please get in touch! :)
If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)
The contents of Everyday Sexism (2014) by Laura Bates, a UK-focused collection of public submissions and statistics on the myriad of ways women experience sexism on a daily basis, will be depressingly familiar to anyone who already considers themselves a feminist. Having accidentally ordered the book though, I could hardly not read it. Besides, I reasoned, what cishet middle-aged white guy wouldn’t still have a lot to learn about the topic?
So I persevered. And sure enough, there were many things which gave me pause, especially the accounts of sexual harassment experienced by female university students. Partially, because I’d been blissfully unaware of that sort of thing when I was a student myself. Primarily though, because they strongly reminded me of an incident at the “morale-raising” YG Military Festival held in Yanggu County in Gangwon Province on 5 October 2019, at which the female university students hired to be doumi (lit. “help-elegant-beauties”) were forced to wear revealing clothes for the soldiers. From the news reports below, which discuss that in the context of how routine it is to provide sexualized performances by professional performers and/or K-pop girl-groups at such events, it’s easy to see how choices like these can encourage a somewhat objectified, servile view of women among the (usually) very young, impressionable Korean men that go through the male conscription system. Many do overcome that socialization experience, of course. But the consequences for all Koreans of those that don’t would fill many, many chapters in a Korean version of the Everyday Sexism book.
The festival has been held since  by Yanggu-gun to boost morale among soldiers, featuring competitive games, VR experiences, food stalls, and performances by singers and girl groups. There are also “experience booths” [really stalls/tables] for nail care, skin care, and tarot readings. This year, about 2,300 soldiers from the 2nd and 21st Divisions attended the festival.
논란은체험부스에서일어났다. 머니투데이에따르면행사대행업체측이행사장으로가는버스안에서여자알바생들에게흰색짧은테니스치마와몸에달라붙고가슴부분이파인옷을제공했다. 알바생들은 “속옷이비치고노출이심한옷이었다“, “조금만움직여도가슴이훤히드러났다“라고전했다. 이어 “행사담당자는 ‘군인들이쑥스러워하니직접데려오라‘, ‘군인들에게적극적으로대하라‘고지시했다“라는말도덧붙였다. 이들은피부관리부스에서군인들에게직접마스크팩을붙여주는일을했다.
The controversy took place over the experience booths. According to Money Today, on the bus going to the venue the event agency provided the female part-time workers with only short white tennis skirts and tight-fitting, lowcut tops to wear. The women complained, “They were so tight you can see my underwear through them,” and “Even if I moved only a little, my chest would be completely exposed.” They added, “The event manager instructed, ‘As the soldiers will be embarrassed, [especially those wanting you to put [skincare-type] facemasks on them], please approach them proactively and encourage them as you escort them into the booths.”
Some additional information from that report by Money Today:
One part-time worker complained that, “The clothes were much shorter and tighter than what we were told about, exposing my stomach even if I moved just a little,” and that “Even though we asked for sleeveless t-shirts because our underwear was visible, nothing was done about it.” It is said that some of the workers wore a separate coat over the clothes because of embarrassment.
A person from the event agency responsible for the clothes said, “It was just a tennis skirt like many students wear these days,” and that “We did not provide any clothes deliberately designed to overexpose the workers’ bodies.” They further explained that 25 women and 15 men were hired, but that “It’s customary that men have to do a lot of hard work, whereas women just have to be helpers and do things like pouring tea.”
Confusingly, in the video of the event above, many doumi can be seen wearing other clothing, which is not addressed by the anchors in the brief SBS News segment below that. Yet why should they? Whether through chance, smarts, and/or previous experience with doumi companies, that some of the women had alternate clothes on hand doesn’t negate the fact that those without had no other options.
Professional entertainment group Waveya (not a K-pop group) performing at a middle school in 2012.
On the other hand, if it’s the norm to hire young women in high-waisted skirts and low-cut tops for just about anything in Korea, including performances at schools, then the comment about no additional exposure being intended may well be true, if somewhat obtuse. That being said, I’m just as confused as you as are as to how men putting up tables and chairs somehow justifies forcing women to wear revealing clothes while serving tea. It’s also frustrating that the reporter didn’t challenge that non-explanation.
I see reason for optimism though, in that the issue of consent was the hook that made the incident newsworthy, especially given that this must-read by a professional doumi gives the strong impression that such incidents are routine. Had I been writing a news report myself, I might have continued by comparing students’ own festivals and events, which also regularly create controversy for their sexual overtones, but, crucially, at which the offending clothes are worn by choice. (Or perhaps not necessarily; the ensuing sensationalist reports are hardly deep, and now Everyday Sexism compels me to reconsider them.) However, the main reason for the news reports was more likely the harm caused to the military’s image, Asiae raising in their own report another controversial incident that occurred at a different military festival the year before:
On August 14 , a video titled “Fitness Model @ Military Consolation Performance” was posted on YouTube by the military. The model’s dance was quite sexualized, involving showing off body parts like her legs. At one point, she proclaimed “I will show you four basic poses now,” turning around to thrust her buttocks at the audience with her head down, her face visible underneath. To the cheers of the men watching, she answered “I’m 21!” when they loudly asked her age.
Netizens who saw the video on YouTube were angered, commenting that “The sexual objectification of the woman was excessive,” and questioning if such sexualized dances “were really the only way morale boosting performances could be done?”. Later, citing the video, a petition to abolish precisely those was posted on the Blue House’s public petition bulletin board [which the government has to respond to if it receives more than 200,000 signatures].
파문이커지자해당부대는영상을삭제조치했다. 부대는 “당시공연은민간단체에서주최하고후원한것으로부대측에서는공연인원과내용에대해사전에알수없었으나, 이번공연으로인해 ‘성상품화논란‘이일어난데대해사과의말씀을드린다“고했다.
As the controversy grew, the military unit that uploaded it deleted the video. A spokesperson said, “As the performance was organized and provided by a private company, we could not have known what the contents would be. Nonetheless, we apologize for the “controversy over sexual objectification” this performance has caused. They added, “To prevent recurrences in future, we will check the contents of performances provided by external organizations in advance.”
Here’s part of the offending video, a blurred news report about it and other similar performances, and an unblurred compilation:
Given how family-friendly the atmosphere appears in the video of the 2019 YG Military Festival earlier, reporters raising that “fitness” performance may seem unfair, let alone my adding the compilation video in which other performers quite literally spread their legs in soldiers’ faces (I’ll let you find those scenes yourself). Similarly, in light of recent news about how important performing for the military years ago wasfor thesuddenpopularity of K-pop girl-group Brave Girls, and how devastatingthe loss of such opportunities due to the pandemic have been for other girl-groups, then it may seem that only a stereotypical feminist spoilsport could find any fault with that mutually-beneficial system, especially considering how tame most of the K-pop girl-groups’ performances are.
Actually, so long as universal male conscription continues, I’m not at all against performances—which is not to say there aren’t some issues that still need to be addressed with them, as examined in previouspostsinthisseries. And yet, note that the family-friendly video is just one perspective produced by the local county government, which isn’t going to linger on the women’s bodies; unlike, say, the fancam below of New Heart, a professional cheerleading/dance team hired to perform at the 2018 festival. Also, just because this particular festival was relatively tame, that doesn’t mean something that raises more than just eyebrows may feature at the next one, let alone at more private performances on bases.
Indeed, a distinction needs to be made between performances by girl-groups and those by cheerleaders, fitness models, and so on. The former are more likely to perform in larger, more public venues; to be filmed; and to have reputations their management companies have to consider—considerations which don’t apply to private entertainers. Moreover, considering what we’ve seen of private entertainers’ performances so far, you do have to wonder what happens when no-one’s filming.
Ergo, this is no one-off. Engendering a sexually-objectified and servile view of women is fundamental to the Korean universal male conscription system. Don’t believe me? Just take the word of that military spokesperson. Not only does their feigned surprise, patronizing, disingenuous claim of ignorance, and passing of blame feel very, very familiar, but it’s surely revealing—pun intended—that their concern is over the controversy generated. Not the coercion, nor the revealing clothes.
The issue of the sexual suggestiveness of morale-raising performances for the military has also been raised at the state administration. On October 26, 2018, the [since dissolved] Barunmirae Party [now former] lawmaker Chae Yi-bae pointed out the problem and demanded that guidelines be prepared during an audit of the military court of the National Assembly Legislative Judicial Committee.
Representative Chae said, “There has also been a petition from the Blue House to abolish morale-raising performances that sexually objectify women. I apologize for them and promise to work to prevent similar cases. But it is doubtful if this is possible, as there are no relevant guidelines or procedures in place.”
However, in response to the controversy, the military announced that from January 2019 it would set up a deliberation committee for each unit to ascertain the contents of performances in advance when provided by outside companies and organizations.
If only that had extended to all companies and organizations involved, not just those providing performances. But, to finish with Money Today’s conclusions about the original incident—which may have sounded like hyperbole in isolation, whereas now:
Experts pointed out that in order to increase military morale, the perception of sexual objectification of women should be changed.
Yoon Kim Ji-young, a professor at Konkuk University’s Institute of Body & Culture, said, “It is an anachronistic and sexist idea to consider that the morale of male soldiers is enhanced only by putting women as an eye-catching and comforting object.” She criticized it as a masculine perspective.
Heo Min-sook, a legislative investigator of the Health and Welfare Women’s Team at the National Assembly Legislative Investigation Department, said, “It is highly likely that military soldiers are also uncomfortable and reluctant.” I am sorry for that,” he pointed out.
That doumi exist at all I’d argue, and in such great numbers, are a partial cause and effect of that last. So for the sake of completeness, in my next post, I’ll provide a full translation of an article about their origins (from 2006, I don’t think anybody will be worried about the copyright!).
Meanwhile, pondering what a Korean version of Everyday Sexism would look like is what led me to writing this post. For the sake of more like it, what other issues specific to Korea do think should be covered, which wouldn’t be in the original UK version? Please let me know in the comments!
Turning Boys Into Men? Girl-groups and the Performance of Gender for South Korean Conscripts:
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?
숨도못쉬는여학생교복…”인권침해수준” Uniforms Girls Can’t Breathe in…”An Infringement on my Human Rights.”
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.
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)
“슬림핏교복두려워요” 여학생들교복공포증 “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.
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)
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)
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)
Estimated reading time: 5 minutes. All screenshots: MV via Visualazn.
The “Queen of Charisma” deserves so much better than an 18MB, 240p MV for Tum, one of her classic hits:
To remedy that, go to Visualazn for a 428MB, 720p version to download posthaste. (I’d upload it myself, weren’t YouTube to instantly ban the copyright violation.) Watch that once, then come back here.
(If you’re pressed for time, this 1080p MBC Music Camp performance will have to suffice, which has some clips from the MV. But if it’s your first time especially, I really do recommend experiencing it through the high quality MV.)
I’m only so demanding, because to understand how people really feel about their pop culture, you need to appreciate the circumstances in which they consume it. Especially of when they first encountered it, and the technology that was used.
With Tum (a.k.a. Teum, Crack, Gap), for me it was late-2000, in the small southern city of Jinju. I had no cable or satellite TV, so I was reliant on free-to-air channels. It would still be a year before I had internet on my home computer for the first time, and five more before YouTube even existed. Trance music, my first love, was literally unheard of outside of far distant Seoul. I didn’t even have a radio, feeling there’d be no point given Korea’s surprisingly few genre-specific stations. So, in terms of discovering any new music at all, it felt like I was a child in the U.K. again, frustrated at the long, weekly waits for Thursday night’s Top of the Pops.
Of course the showcasing of Uhm Jung-hwa’s voluptuous body was integral to that. That’s why the CD I quickly purchased just didn’t cut it. It wasn’t like today, when you’re always just a click away from replaying your own favorite combination of amazing music sung and performed by incredibly attractive people. Back then, even with cable, a second viewing would have involved many tedious hours of watching music channels for those few precious minutes; without it, it was next to impossible. Instead, I had to content myself with the song alone, and accept that once the it left the charts and the music shows on the free-to-air channels, I’d likely never see the MV again.
That’s simply how it was with much of popular culture before the internet, no matter how meaningful it may have been to you. You just had to learn to live with it.*
Yet I don’t mean to elevate or privilege my outdated, distance-makes-the-heart-grow-fonder perspective. It’s neither superior, nor somehow more authentic than that of anyone encountering it for the first time today. It’s just mine, and part of my motivation for writing.
Indeed, the fresh perspective YouTube offers only motivated me further.
This was unexpected. Typically, the replay button is cruel to our most cherished pop-culture memories, and I didn’t expect scrutiny of Tum to be any kinder. Take the above scene from 3:51-3:54 (2:28-2:31 in the performance video) for instance. For the last 20 years, that moment of Uhm Jung-hwa looking glamorous as fuck while being mistress of all she surveys, has been indelibly burned into my brain. Only now though, can I take the time to notice all the hair in her face, which would have obscured her vision. The spell of my willing disbelief has been irrevocably broken—let alone totally ruining my long sought after screenshot.
Yet, truthfully, I’m genuinely stumped at locating any other similar oversights in the MV. It’s not perfect—the pauses are unnecessary and long, and the King Kong theme is only loosely tied to the lyrics—but there are many other objectively charismatic moments of Uhm Jung-hwa moments remaining to latch on to. If anything, being able to see it in such detail now has only further convinced me of how it much holds up after 20 years, and it’s this renewed appreciation that compels me to write. For it deserves far greater recognition as the classic it is, many more dance remixes than the single, terrible one I refuse to link to, and, again, at the very least, a decent quality video on YouTube.
Alas, that last I can’t provide. But I did put several days into finding that download for you. And I can give what is, as far as I know, the world’s very first English translation of the lyrics:
Track 2, Queen of Charisma, released November 2000.
I waited for you like you thought I would, I only had eyes for you
Don’t leave me alone for a long time for just no reason, I can’t take it anymore
Didn’t you have any feelings for me as I was changing?
Even if there were a lot of different reasons for doing what you did, it is so frustrating to think about you
제발 이젠 내게 말해줘 너의 힘없는 얼굴이 내 생각엔
아무런 느낌 없는 너처럼 그저 희미해질 뿐이야 난 이제
더 이상 기다리지 않아 나를 언제나 바라본 널 이렇게
아무런 감동 없는 나처럼 매일 같은 날 일 뿐이야 오 제발
Please tell me now; your powerless face, I think,
is fading away, as if you have no feelings for me
I’m not waiting anymore, as you have always looked at me like this
Every day is just the same, emotionless like me, oh please
그렇게 말도 없이 나만을 쳐다보면 너무나 힘이 들어 이렇게 우린
오래도록 지쳐있긴 하지만 언젠가 끝낼 수 있는 날 있잖아
이젠 모든 걸 버리고 우리만의 기억을 생각해봐
너와 나의 사인 아주 가까웠지만 언제부터 이렇게 멀어졌니?
Gazing at me without saying a word leaves me feeling so tired, we’ve
been so frustrated for a long time— there are so many times when I want to just end things
Please put everything aside and focus only on our shared memories
You and I were once very close, when did you drift away?
(Chorus repeats and end)
I appreciate any corrections—while these lyrics were quite simple, you’ll notice I didn’t provide literal translations, as I felt that would diminish from their intended meaning. Please also do tell me your own rants or raves about Tum, or about any other of Uhm Jung-hwa’s songs (Festival is another favorite of mine!), whenever or however you first encountered them :)
*VCRs were a possibility of course, but their bulk and expense meant few 20-somethings had them.
If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)