Women’s Bodies in Korea’s Consumer Society, Part 3 (Final): Nation, Family, Self

busan-focus-06-03-2013-p-5(Source: Focus, Busan ed.)

Anti-Communist Fashion

As promised in Part 2, in just a moment I’ll jump straight into outlining and discussing the the second part of Taeyeon Kim’s 2003 journal article Neo-Confucian Body Techniques: Women’s Bodies in Korea’s Consumer Society.But before I do, I should mention that I’ve also started reading SeungSook Moon’s book Militarized Modernity and Gendered Citizenship in South Korea (2005), and it’s made me realize just how narrow a focus Kim’s article has.

That’s not really a criticism: in the 16 pages available to her, Kim does an excellent job of explaining how the 19th Century Joseon Dynasty’s Neo-Confucianist views of the female body were warped by, adapted to, and ultimately cam to survive and proper in the 20th Century. And that endurance does go a long way towards explaining the question I first posted in Part 1 — namely, why are Koreans so conformist in their fashion choices?

korean-anti-communist-posterBut what Moon’s book has also made me realize is that, however outlandish the connection sounds at first, today’s Korean fashion can’t be explained fully without mention of the postwar Korean state’s anti-communist ideology too.

Let me run with this for a moment. In a nutshell, Moon’s book gave me a more bottom-up perspective on life in postwar Korea than what I’m used to (decidedly top-down Troubled Tiger is one of my favorite books), and the more I read about it, the more I learned just how pervasive that ideology was in people’s everyday lives, and how almost any form of legitimate dissent or creative difference was often regarded by the state as nothing short of “leftist” subversion. I could give you examples, like Korean men with long hair being publicly shaved in the 1970s, or the police checking that women’s skirts were long enough (albeit more as an excuse to simply harass women), but you get the drift (source, right: theturninggate).

These attitudes didn’t suddenly disappear upon democratization in 1987. In hindsight, it’s incredibly naive for me (or anyone else) to account for conformity in modern Korean life without reference to it. Yes, even in something as innocuous-sounding as fashion.

(Update: I suddenly remembered this ad. But while it’s a good play on how the “rule” for miniskirts has completely reversed since the 1970s, the conformity remains the same. How else to explain wearing miniskirts in winter? An otherwise extremely wasteful use of the body’s resources to demonstrate one’s physical prowess to mates, just like a peacock’s tail?)

But that will be the subject of later posts. First, let’s finish Kim’s article, sans political ideologies (Update: after reading it, I recommend this recent post of the Metropolitician’s on Korean fashion, lest you feel that I give too pessimistic and conformist an image of Koreans; honorable mention should be made of this post of Roboseyo’s post too). The second part starts by placing the endurance of Neo-Confucian images of women’s bodies in modern times in the context of the endurance of Neo-Confucianism in Korean society as a whole:

Confucian Fundamentalism and Korean Identity

The first thing of note is that, despite how it may at first appear, the endurance of Neo-Confucianism in modern Korea is probably more because of Korea’s turbulent 20th Century rather than despite it, as 余 涵 彌fundamentalism of any stripe is usually a reaction against painful, forced transitions to modernity. As Kim says, in Korea’s case Japanese colonization and then civil war and division meant that its postwar search for national identity (source, right):

“…became essential to Korea’s postcolonial and post-war project for national reconstruction. Neo-Confucianism came to stand for essential ‘Koreanness’ and was quickly embraced as the authentic culture of Korea – so much so that challenges to Neo-Confucian principles were branded as threats to national integrity. Neo-Confucianism also maintained its gloss as part of the elite culture, and as more and more Koreans were becoming upwardly mobile, many strove to identify themselves with the former [elites], making what was originally an ideology and culture of the elite minority into the culture of all Koreans” (pp.102-103).

Some other consequences of that quest for self-identity include Korea’s bloodline-based nationalism (although the origins of that were closer to 1900 than 1953), and military regimes deliberately nurturing the idea that Korea has suffered invasions more than most, both now counter-productive (to put it mildly). Ironically though, for women it also ultimately meant a reaffirmation of the ideals of taegyo (태교), despite women’s entrance into the workforce for the first time and the nuclearization of the Korean family. There are two reasons for this, one speculative and one more concrete.

First, one increasingly under-appreciated aspect of postwar Korea was overcoming the psychological trauma of the physical dislocation and separation of Korean families due to the war, and until I started today’s post I didn’t realize that that may have affected Korean’s women’s postwar lives much more than men — remember that, under Neo-Confucianism, they weren’t really thought of as of as individuals in the Joseon Dynasty, and thus their families had been the primary source of their identity. But then, not only were they suddenly and violently brought out of the inner, private sanctum of those families and homes by the war, and then into the public sphere of schools and factories for the first time, those families also moved from the farm to the cities, and nuclearized in the process. Given those circumstances, it is natural to suppose that women might yearn for the good old days of certainty, especially former upper-class women to whom Neo-Confucian tenets had been most vigorously applied.

Rosie the Riveter We Can Do ItSecond, while for a time women’s physical labour in factories came to be regarded (rhetorically at least) as just as important and useful as their traditional domestic work in the home (as was, I might also add, their equally “needed”, expanded roles as sex workers too; I’ll save that for a later post), ultimately (source, right: Mike Beauregard; CC BY 2.0):

with the advent of a post-industrial, consumer capitalist society in the 1980s, women became more important as consumers than as factory workers, shifting the utility of their bodies from national labor production to national consumption, becoming, in effect, what Byran S. Turner (1996) calls the capitalist body. (p. 102)

Later, I feel that Kim exaggerates how “post-industrial” Korea is, but that doesn’t detract from the basic point that women, once exhorted and educated to work in the factories, were once again extorted to stay at home upon marriage, and to then focus on producing and raising children. Seeing as a good third or so of the blog is about how the Korean economy and minimalist welfare system is predicated on that fact, then I don’t feel the need to elaborate on and justify that here. Instead, of note is how they are also urged to consume as housewives and mothers, both for the sake of national development, and for the sake of obtaining the items necessary to secure and advance their family’s social status, as explained in Part 2. Ergo, it’s taegyo all over again, although I’ll admit that it sounds neither particularly Korean or even Neo-Confucian at the moment.

The Ensuing Social Malaise

But just like in Western countries after World War Two, you can’t expose most women to working life and equal education and then expect them to meekly return to the home once the economy and/or national emergency no longer requires their economic services; the contradiction leads to the appearance of various social malaises, such as the “housewives’ syndrome” that Betty Friedan so adroitly recognised in 1963. In Western countries, that recognition and the civil-rights movement led to Second-wave Feminism. But Korea has so far lacked the former, and is only just beginning to experience a form of latter, often more because of the signing and implementing of UN conventions on gender issues and so forth rather than domestic pressures. What unresolved social malaises then, have arisen in Korea?

Kim argues that uprooted Korean women naturally found solace in new, postwar media images of women, and following the new rules of fashion was certainly easier and more personally satisfying to most women then embracing new, entirely alien concepts of liberalism, individualism and feminism to which Korea’s new relationship with America exposed them to. Hence:

The Neo-Confucian values of harmonizing as one, proper behaviour and self-cultivation, [re-emerged] in the guise of conformity, propriety and self-improvement. (p. 107)

But as we’ve seen, while self-improvement for men involved training of the mind, resulting in transcendence of the individual self, women were considered incapable of this. Hence women’s primary means of self-improvement came to center on the physical body instead, and this ultimately explains the why of today’s social malaises in Korea today, notably that:

Hence taegyo is Korean and/or Neo-Confucian, because while plenty, if not most, Western women consider getting plastic surgery for the sake of bettering their chances in job interviews and marriage prospects so forth, very few do explicitly for the sake of their father’s and or husband’s families.

Finally, now for the how.

Correcting the Flawed Eastern Female

Oriental Girls(Source: Joel Ormsby)

I’ve already explained that Korean women tend to embrace conformity rather than individuality in their fashion choices, and articles about fashion in women’s magazines too are less “Western” than they may first appear. While opening paragraphs seem to promise articles “promoting liberation from the edicts of fashion, and self-expression over blind conformity,” for instance, what they actually do is set up strict guidelines for Korean women to follow, the authors often failing to recognise that their exhortations not to follow fashion magazines’ fashions, but their tastes and styles instead, actually amount to the same thing. Indeed:

What is right for [the authors] must be right for everyone else, for there is a blurry distinction between [the authors] and others, a legacy of the subjectlessness of the Korean woman. (p. 104, emphasis in original)

Sure, much the same can be said of Western women’s magazines, which Kim should have acknowledged. But remember the importance of the notion of “subjectless bodies” in Kim’s article (see Part 1), and that for Korean women the philosophical concept of the individual self, defined not by ki and the family but by the physical limitations of the corporeal body, is very new. Hence Korean authors and readers may not see the contradiction that their Western counterparts may. Moreover, articles often present:

…what [they] consider to be particular features of the Korean women – short legs, big face, yellow skin – as problem features that can be corrected by certain types of clothing and colours….[they] imply that the imperfect Korean body is disordered but can be put back in order through the tricks of fashion. The body is something to be rearranged so its apparent flaws are concealed or eliminated. These flaws themselves stand out as imperfections because they are features unique to Koreans and absent in white models (p. 104, emphasis in original)

I could go on to discuss the details of huge plastic surgery industry in Korea, but it’s been done to death elsewhere, and I think the above photo and this article sum it up better than any virtual ink spilt on the subject. Having said that, numerous sources have claimed that Korean women’s desires to look Caucasian are the result of an inferiority complex towards and cultural colonization by the West, but I think that both that desire and those influences have been grossly exaggerated. Consider this:

All three elements, the Neo-Confucian woman’s subjectlessness, the perception of Korean bodies as imperfect, and fashion’s function to re-order the disordered Korean bodies, make Korean women’s bodies particularly prone to alterations, rearrangements and re-creations of the body. (p. 104)

The biggest thing I’ve gained from these writing this series of posts (and I just so happen to think that it’s quite an original point too), is that in that statement above you can replace “Korea” with China, Japan, and/or Taiwan, and that argument would still be just as valid. Arguing that their shared plastic surgery mania is because all four countries share a history of cultural colonization and have inferiority complexes towards the West is tenuous at best, and if even if true, surely it would mean that Korean men too, say, would aim to look more Western? But no, they don’t, and not even with the huge size of the Korean male beauty industry today. But all four countries do share a history of Neo-Confucianism. On that basis, is it too much of a jump to argue that the Neo-Confucianist combination above is precisely why plastic surgery is so popular amongst women in this part of the world?