Korean Sociological Image #53: “SK-II No. 1 Whitening Celebration Party”


See here or here for more photos. Is such a deathly pallor really something to be aspired to?

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

Sex and the Red-Blooded Woman

Remember these?

I first came across them back in 2008, the first time I really tried to understand Korean women’s penchant for skin-whitening. While it turns out that I originally misinterpreted what the images above were, from a 2005 study of the relationship between female attractiveness and hormones, one of its conclusions remains the same: the redder a women’s cheeks, the sexier.

In brief, the images are 2 composites made from 2 separate groups of 10 women each from the study (out of 59), all taken on the days they were ovulating, i.e. when they were most likely to get pregnant. On the left is that of the 10 women with the highest estrogen levels on that day in their menstrual cycles, and on the right of the 10 women with the lowest.

It sounds mean to the latter, but I’m sure there’d be little argument as to which women are the more attractive.

While I’ve touched in passing on the role of hormones in human sexual attractiveness many times before however, most notably the fact that women with (arguably) universally-attractive hourglass figures have much more estrogen than those with other body shapes, making them up to 3 times more likely to get pregnant, I don’t mean to imply that one’s preferences in the opposite sex are nothing but a reflection of their hormone levels.

Source: Pixabay @Pexels.

For example, all things being equal, then men with high testosterone are better mates for women, as that is a good indicator of physical health. But while a great many women might find men with “masculine” jaws like Harrison Ford irresistible however, that is not the same as saying that they would automatically choose to have children with them over more “feminine” men, as those same high hormone levels tend (and I stress, only tend) to make them poorer fathers relative to their more average rivals.

But ideally, women would get pregnant by the hunks, and trick other men who were better fathers into raising them, thinking they were their own. And one way in which men try to prevent this is by spending much more time with their female partners when they are ovulating, thereby ensuring that they don’t get a chance to have flings with those dashing Harrison Ford types just when they’re most tempted to. (Women in heterosexual relationships, take note of the extra attention right about the same time you feel like a night out with the girls!)

On the women’s side, one way to ensure that he doesn’t have flings when you’re having your period, thereby potentially having children with other women who will take some of his time and resources away from your own, is to trick him into thinking that you’re actually ovulating instead. And how best to do that?

Well, remember those red cheeks in the opening image?

I confess, I haven’t actually had many conversations with women about why they wear blusher, and invariably they’ve just said they do so out of habit, and/or that it makes them look prettier. And indeed it might, in the sense that if one associates red and pink with femininity (for whatever cultural and/or biological reasons), then wearing it would certainly make one appear more feminine. But in a new study by Ian Stephen and colleagues at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, one more very good reason to wear it has been revealed. In short, as Jina Pincott at Love, Sex, Attraction…and Science explains, they:

…recruited volunteers of various races and asked them to digitally adjust the color tone on more than 50 faces [of both sexes] to make them look as healthy and attractive as possible. Volunteers consistently added more red coloring to the cheeks — whether the face was Caucasian, Asian, or Black. The redder the face, the more suggestive it is of oxygen-rich blood reaching the skin. The more oxygen-rich blood, the more suggestive it is of the person’s general health and youth. An old person, a sick person, a person with hypertension or bad circulation…will not get rosy-cheeked.

And crucially, the researchers also found that volunteers preferred women over men with rosy cheeks. Why?

One reason may be the sex hormones, which show up more obviously in flushed female faces. But it may also be due to the fact that men already have ruddier faces than women do — they have higher levels of hemoglobin and arterial oxygen content in their blood. As a result, the male blush is not as obvious a cue of good health and high sex hormones.

Corroborated by this study that I discussed back in May, which showed that people tend to judge the same androgynous face on left as female because it is much lighter than that on the right:

In my view then, and regardless of my opinions on its origins, skin-whitening is an enduring but fundamentally anti-instinctive cultural practice. Or is it?

Despite all the above, please bear in mind that interpretations and explanations of otherwise objective studies of human attractiveness can in practice be very culturally determined…not least my own. For example, as an impressionable 19 year-old I became a huge fan of evolutionary psychology after reading this article in Time magazine in 1995, and in turn the sociobiological explanations of human attractiveness that are its bread and butter. But just 4 years later, I was suitably chagrined by a second article in the same magazine that exposed the fact that, for one, evolutionary psychologists’ depictions of the work division in hunter-gatherer societies was remarkably like that of 1950s suburban nuclear families. More recently, Bad Science provides a scathing critique in much the same vein, including of some of the specific points I’ve mentioned in this post, and while I share many commenters’ concerns that author Ben Goldacre doesn’t seem to appreciate the differences between media reports on evolutionary psychology and the discipline itself, he does make some valid points.

So please feel free to question anything here yourself also! And I have a request: while writing this post, I realized that I’ve never actually asked any Korean men themselves if they prefer women with light skin, let alone why. With apologies for my lack of field research then, can anyone that has please let me know? I have a sneaking suspicion that it might pressure to do so might primarily come from other women rather than men, just like I recently read somewhere is the case with losing weight, so I’d be very interested in finding out.

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

Love Stinks: Why More Korean Women Wear Deodorant Than Men

성유리-sultry-sung-yuriIn today’s Korea Times. I’ll chime in here with links and extra information that I couldn’t provide in the 800 words allowed there (source, left: fotoya):

“Men can sweat up to 50% more than women,” or so says deodorant maker Rexona. Yet not only do very few Koreans ever wear deodorant, advertisements for it that have started appearing in recent years have almost exclusively been aimed at women.

Far from being counterintuitive however, a study published last Monday in the journal Flavor and Fragrance demonstrates that women have very good reasons to pay more attention to how they smell.

Researchers at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia asked male and female volunteers to rate the strength of 32 underarm sweat samples collected from both genders, and then 32 more that had been disguised by different fragrances typically used to control or mask underarm odor. While both men and women rated the unadulterated samples as equally strong, 19 fragrances successfully disguised the smell for men, while women were deceived by just two.

Investigating further using only female volunteers’, again the unadulterated samples were rated equally strong, but whereas six fragrances succeeded in disguising the men’s smells, as many as 16 worked on the women’s.

Yes, I also thought that it was strange to test only female volunteers in the second series of tests, and I’m confused about the composition of the sweat samples in the first series too: were they just random samples from men or women, were they mixed together into some form of asexual smell, or what? Unfortunately, the above is the best I could make out from 4 even more confusing and widely divergent reports on the study here, here, here, and here, and with what I’m being paid then my sense of journalistic integrity doesn’t quite extend to paying for access to the study itself I’m afraid!

In other words, while women’s noses are more sensitive than men’s, their own odors are more easily disguised, leading women to wear more deodorant or perfume than men.

Naturally there’s much more to it than men’s worse sense of smell, as I’d wager that — at the moment at least — in most cultures it is much more culturally acceptable for women than men to spend a great deal of time and money investing in how they smell, and express an interest in “smelly things” in general, although this study does at least point to a possible biological basis for that. One commentator on one of those other reports argues that the proportion of male to female chefs suggests otherwise, but others argue that that is more due to discrimination than anything else.

As an aside, in the mating game, this may not always be good strategy: other research has shown that the scent of a woman’s sweat is particularly attractive to men at the most fertile time of her monthly cycle.

composite faces of the 10 women with highest and lowest levels of oestrogen(Composite images of women taken with the most (L) and least (R) amounts of estrogen when ovulating. Source: New Scientist)

I’ve lost the link behind that sorry, but with the proviso that what counts as “common sense” and “natural” in gender studies and behavioral science is very much dependent on its era (scroll down a little here for a classic demonstration of that), with so much else about women being the most attractive at the most fertile parts of their cycles then I don’t think that readers will be needing much convincing.

But there is much more than this behind the gender bias in the marketing of deodorant in Korea.

In their low deodorant uptake, Koreans are the exception rather than the rule. While it is true that the first aerosol deodorant was launched as recently as 1965, the first roll-on applicator tested in 1952, and Mum, the first ever commercial product for preventing body odor, only invented in 1888, every major civilization as far back as the ancient Egyptians has left a record of its efforts at disguising underarm body odor. So what makes Koreans so different?

Diet, weight, fitness and climate certainly all play a role in how much one sweats, how smelly it is, and one’s ability to smell others. While explanations involving ethnicity are fraught with danger, it is true that Northeast Asians have fewer of the apocrine sweat glands most associated with odor than average. Famous human behavioralist Desmond Morris (The Naked Woman, 2007) has argued that this makes them less susceptible to body odor. But while Northeast Asians on the whole may smell less than other groups, that does not mean that many individuals – particularly men – can relax about their personal hygiene.

That many do is probably at least partially due to a host of cultural and economic factors: for instance, during much of Korea’s recent history deodorant would have been considered a luxury that few needed and even fewer could afford; a notion that still lingers in the gifting of such basic items as spam and cooking oil for national holidays. Another is Korean men’s mandatory military service, a defining experience forcing youngsters to get used to going without many everyday basics.

nivea-deodorant-korea-데오드란트With a nod to all the commentators on my earlier big post on deodorant use and its marketing in Korea (source, right)…

On the other hand, given women’s physiological advantages and their dominance of the “smelly industries” worldwide, the very word “perfume” has feminine overtones to many Western male ears. It is reasonable to assume that “deodorant” has similar connotations for most Korean men. Yet looking at the popularity of kkotminam or “flower men” in Korea, challenging traditional notions of masculinity and spending more time and money on their appearance, deodorant manufacturers should be keen to tap into a whole new market.

Unfortunately the timing is bad: while “look at this strange side of the recession!”-type stories are in vogue at the moment, with everything from skirt lengths, alcohol and tobacco consumption, number of breast enlargement surgeries, lipstick sales, and even vasectomies variously being described as going up or down with the economy, experience from the financial crisis of 1997-98 suggests that sales of men’s cosmetics are about to drop. After four years of 10-20% growth from 1992, sales dropped 28.6% the next year, and ad spending by 37%.

Those last figures come from p. 125 of “The Trend of Creating Atypical Male Images in Heterosexist Korean Society” by Lim In-Sook, Korea Journal, Vol. 4 No. 4 Winter 2008,  pp. 115-146, available online here. They put paid to any side-notions I had that flower men ideals for men partially came from the need to stand out in the suddenly very competitive job market after the Asian Financial Crisis (which just goes to show that women’s changing tastes probably had more to do with it!), but given their relative popularity now then that may not be what happens to sales of men’s cosmetics during this latest recession though.

When (if) things pick up though, forget about those Korean deodorant advertisements for women that emphasize mother figures and friendships. Expect those for men to associate the right deodorant with sexual success.

Another recent study from the International Journal of Cosmetic Science has demonstrated that how a deodorant makes a man feel is much more important than any changes to his scent. Lest that sound like exaggeration, researchers found that women looking at men through one-way mirrors rated those wearing certain deodorants more attractive than others, due simply to the confident swagger the act of wearing the deodorant had given them!

An annoying, tantalizing way to end an article? That must mean I’m learning the tools of the trade then! For that above study see here, and I discuss it in more detail in that earlier post of mine.

The Scent of a Man: What deodorant commercials tell us about Korean metrosexuality

(Source: I am Goding)

As the message boards of numerous expat forums will attest, Koreans simply don’t wear deodorant, except for a few young urban sophisticates in the summer. What’s more, it’s likely almost all of those young urban sophisticates are women, as there have been no deodorant commercials aimed at Korean men yet (although Nivea did start using men alongside women for in-store promotions from 2007).

But why on Earth not? While I disagree with most prevailing explanations for the origins of Korea’s own, distinct brand of metrosexuality, that doesn’t mean that in the last decade or so there hasn’t been an explosive growth in sales of men’s skincare, cosmetic and grooming products to accompany that. It seems strange that Korean men prepared to spend the money and time on, say, wearing “masculine” sunblock for ten months of the year, wouldn’t also be concerned about how they smelled.

In Japan, even the middle-aged ajosshis are:

Explanations of why both sexes don’t wear deodorant usually focus on their (allegedly) sweating less than the average Westerner and the different kinds of foods that they eat. But personally, I give much more credence to the notion that — to the extent that most Koreans had even heard of the stuff until very recently — it was considered a luxury that few could afford, Korean consumerism in general still being trapped in the mentality of four decades ago. Back then, basic items were scarce, food barely adequate and lacking in quality or variety, and domestic monopolies and the restrictions on the imports of consumer meant that the customer was expected to be grateful for whatever he or she was given, as evidenced today by, for example: the gifting of soap, spam, cooking oil and/or shampoo (examples) on the two biggest holidays of Chuseok (추석) and Seollal (설날); a cuisine culture that — frankly — seems to consist of little more than throwing everything available together and then smothering the combination with salt, sugar or spicy pepper paste; and the often appalling customer service that still prevails in 2008 respectively.

Only slightly tongue-in-cheek, one could also argue that with virtually no-one wearing it and everyone used to the bad smell of each other to the extent that they don’t notice it, then the very minimal benefits of an individual wearing it mirror, say, the economics of my recently purchasing a videocall-capable phone: initially very expensive to myself, completely useless if others don’t have one also, but with increasing benefits to me as others do buy and use them (i.e. I can both talk to more and more people and services will probably become cheaper). Similarly, in the case of expensive Korean deodorant, as the number of users increased then Korean noses would become more and more sensitive to distinguishing between those who did and didn’t use it, and then later to lower prices and people having positive associations with and assumptions about the former group (source, left: cjswoxodwk).

Seemingly regardless of that background however, while it is true that early deodorant commercials featured – in a quintessentially Korean fashion – having a motherly figure explaining the benefits to respectfully attentive and nodding young Korean women (but which unfortunately predate the YouTube era), and that the first commercial below from just two years ago seemed to emphasize friendship more than anything else, commercials aimed at women are increasing in quantity and sophistication every summer, most like these two here and here (I can’t seem to embed them unfortunately) emphasizing deodorant’s supposed benefits in attracting the opposite sex just like their Western counterparts. Moreover, while for various reasons I personally hate any dubbed commercials, you don’t have to speak Korean to understand that the woman in the the second video opens with “What part of my body do you like the best? My legs? My ass? Or my hands?”, which, to put it mildly, you don’t otherwise hear all too often on Korean daytime television. Any wonder that it’s still the most popular deodorant commercial in Korea a year later?

But still, why aren’t deodorants marketed to men here? Actually there is a very detailed report on the Korean deodorant market available on the internet which may have the answer, and I’m quite happy to receive donations towards the US$753(!) required to purchase it and to pass on its conclusions when I do. But in the meantime, via this article on perfume science from the Economist magazine I’ve found, if perhaps not a perfect solution to the conundrum, then at least pointers towards further investigation. Here’s the gist of it, with my emphases throughout:

(Source: OHLALAMag)

THE very word “perfume” has feminine overtones to many male ears. Men can be sold “deodorant” and possibly “aftershave”, but the idea of all those dinky little bottles with their fussy paraphernalia is too much for the sensitive male ego. Yet no industry can afford to neglect half its potential market, and perfume-makers are ever keen to crack the shell of male reticence. Now they may know how to do so.

Craig Roberts of the University of Liverpool and his colleagues-working with a team from Unilever’s research laboratory at nearby Port Sunlight-have been investigating the problem. They already knew that appropriate scents can improve the mood of those who wear them. What they discovered, though, as they will describe in a forthcoming edition of the International Journal of Cosmetic Science, is that when a man changes his natural body odor it can alter his self-confidence to such an extent that it also changes how attractive women find him.

Half of Dr Roberts’s volunteers were given an aerosol spray containing a commercial formulation of fragrance and antimicrobial agents. The other half were given a spray identical in appearance but lacking active ingredients. The study was arranged so that the researchers did not know who had received the scent and who the dummy. Each participant obviously knew what he was spraying on himself, since he could smell it. But since no one was told the true purpose of the experiment, those who got the dummy did not realize they were being matched against people with a properly smelly aerosol.

Over the course of several days, Dr Roberts’s team conducted a battery of psychological tests on both groups of volunteers. They found that those who had been given the commercial fragrance showed an increase in self-confidence. Not that surprising, perhaps. What was surprising was that their self-confidence improved to such an extent that women who could watch them but not smell them noticed. The women in question were shown short, silent videos of the volunteers. They deemed the men wearing the deodorant more attractive. They were, however, unable to distinguish between the groups when shown only still photographs of the men, suggesting it was the men’s movement and bearing, rather than their physical appearance, that was making the difference.

For Unilever and other manufacturers of men’s scent, this is an important discovery. The firm’s marketing of its main product in this area, a deodorant called Lynx, plays up the so-called “Lynx Effect” – which is supposed to make men irresistibly attractive to women. Dr Roberts’s experiment, however, suggests that the advertised “Born chicka wah wah” of the product may have nothing to do with a woman’s appreciation of the smell, and everything to do with its psychological effect on the man wearing it.

The rest of the article focuses on the scientific theories of smell and attractiveness, not uninteresting in themselves, and I highly recommend you read the full article, especially the comments. Finally, a quick excerpt from the conclusion:

There are many useful inferences that might be drawn from this research. One would be that a woman’s choice of perfume will resist the vagaries of fashion. This may explain why most innovation in the industry involves changes in packaging and marketing, producing all that fussy paraphernalia, rather than changing what is in the bottle.

In hindsight of course, all quite obvious: I’m sure that we can all appreciate how, say, going through the process of our “date preparation routine” — showering listening to your favorite music, wearing more expensive clothes than usual, and finally putting on your expensive perfume/cologne/deodorant strictly reserved for special occasions, and so on – was a very important factor in getting into the mood for it, even though in hindsight showering immediately beforehand would have washed off natural pheromones crucial for the date’s success.

Hence my dismal record.

Also, while the reasons were unknown until know, manufacturers have undoubtedly long been aware of the effects of the phenomenon, but if not then the basic mechanics of capitalism alone — the inevitable saturation of markets and the rates of profit to fall — would constantly compel them to rebrand and repackage their products, the latest manifestations of which seem to be a decidely “Arctic” theme of absolutely any cosmetic marketed towards Western men.

But what does this tell us about the absence of such commercials in Korea?

(Source: Somang Cosmetics)

For a time, I was planning to look at the origins of Korean metrosexuality for my MA thesis (summary here), put wisely rejected that topic after necessarily watching hundreds of Korean cosmetics commercials aimed at men. Only now though, can I see that a surprising common theme of them is the almost complete absence of women in them. Or to be more precise, with exceptions such as the notorious, multi-layered one with Ahn Jung-hwan (안정환) from 2003 above (video, alas, unavailable), of the relatively few times women are featured in them most of the time they are not at all there to demonstrate the product’s alleged effects on women. Rather, generally they are effectively mere props in narratives very much focused on the men themselves.

Some examples, with and without women, starting with…yes, that one with Ahn and Kim Jae-won (김재원) that unfortunately utterly defined Korean masculinity to a generation of expats in 2002, (update: while I’m at it, I’ve added a parody by some Seoul students also) then with Ahn again and Hyun-bin (현빈) in 2006, unfortunately cutting prematurely his distinctive gesture and facial expression at the end:

Now two more commercials, both with Hyun-bin and from 2006, and the second with Kim Hye-su (김혜수). While they appear at first glance to feature women lusting after Hyun, in fact both commercials are actually for women’s cosmetics:

And finally, a exception from late 2007 with Jung Il-woo (정일우) that proves the rule: that wearing cosmetics=more hot sex with lots of women was not a theme of Korean commercials until — to the extent that there are international standards — very late in the development of metrosexuality compared to other countries:

Why is this significant? Well, because when I wondered in a previous post about why so few commercials for women’s cosmetics featured men — naively thinking attracting them was the sole reason women ever used them — I was very surprised and much impressed by Gomushin Girl’s answer (my emphasis):

…I think the main reason for male absence is the convention of putting the product itself in the ad. While some advertisements focus primarily on the made-up faces, most want to show the packaging and look of the product itself, be it lipstick, mascara, or what have you. This means that a lot of advertisements focus on the process of application, or the period just after the makeup has been put on. This process of being made up is strongly associated with the private sphere, and thus excludes men. Men are present when the results (fully made up and dressed) are there, and so can be part and parcel of clothing and other advertisements, but a make up advertisement needs to feature a woman in a private space, preparing herself for going into the public sphere. If the man were there, it would be subverting the purposes of her putting the makeup on in the first place.

And from which I now take away the conclusion that, very generally speaking, Korean cosmetic commercials for men are much closer to those of Korean (and Western) women’s cosmetics than they are of those of the “wear this and women will want to rape you” style that overwhelmingly dominate the equivalent ones Western men.

Why? We can speculate on any number of reasons. But whatever is ultimately responsible, I would argue that the difference shows that:

  1. Korean cosmetic companies were never in the driving seat behind the rise of metrosexuality in Korea over the last decade or so (which is not to say that they ever were in Western metrosexuality either)
  2. And that the development of Korean metrosexuality at least was always driven by and for women, and thus the manifestations of it in consumer culture have been heavily influenced by preexisting narratives in previously exclusively women-focused industries. Or in other words, it’s like cosmetic companies didn’t realize that they were actually supposed to be advertising to men now.

Both of which buttress(ed) my hypothesis in my thesis proposal

Lest that sound a little abstract though, let me conclude by stressing that, just like you’d expect, Korean men always have and always will strive for appearances and modes of behavior that are most likely to get them laid. My thesis proposal was really just about some of the possible reasons why thee, well, requirements of Korean women for them to have a greater chance to do so changed in Korea in the late-1990s.

As for why those didn’t include wearing deodorant? Well, given that women didn’t themselves, then there was hardly the demand by them that men did. And I strongly suspect that it will be at least 10 years before a tipping point of deodorant-wearing Korean women is reached and it is seen as standard, after which men will increasingly be expected to wear it too,.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to have my parents send batches of cheap roll-ons from home every few months. But if you’re a single male in Korea? Then it sounds like it can’t harm to pamper yourself!