Those Damned Double Eyelids…

How can a society still have Caucasian beauty ideals if its members explicitly don’t want to look White?
Park Bom 2NE1 Can't Nobody Screenshot(Source)

Ubiquitous skin-whitening ads. Cosmetic surgery clinics with only Caucasians on their websites. Until a few years ago, almost never seeing a Korean lingerie model.

With parents, hakwon-owners, and recruiters demanding only Caucasian English teachers too, you can hardly be blamed for assuming that the corollary of White privilege is Caucasian beauty ideals. Add the large numbers of Korean women who get surgery for double-eyelids or more prominent nose-bridges, features widely perceived as much more common among Caucasians than Koreans, then who hasn’t once thought that Korean women go under the knife because they want to look White?

Of course, actually talk to Korean cosmetic surgery patients, and most take great offense to that notion. And they would surely know their own motivations—much better than any outsiders or newbies to Korea, who may not realize what intellectual baggage and racial stereotypes they’re bringing with them. Also, light skins have been associated with non-farming elites for millennia; Caucasians may be used on cosmetic surgery websites more in an Occidentalist sense to signify class and lifestyle than specific body features; and Caucasians were really only used in lingerie modelling because moonlighting pornography actors tainted it for Korean models. Even double-eyelids may not be as Caucasian as thought, as it is commonly claimed that possibly as many as 50% of Koreans have them (although in my experience, little to no evidence is ever provided for any figure—even by academics).

Korean Cosmetic Surgery Clinic Website(Source)

That said, I think commentators can sometimes come across as a little smug and superior as they point out the mistakes of “expats-turned-anthropologists“; after all, expats are just strangers in a strange land, trying to make sense of the place. What’s more, they don’t form their opinions in a vacuum, they’re not all simply racist, and I hardly countered all their observations with that last paragraph. So it would be incredibly myopic and defensive to just dismiss their opinions, and/or to pretend that current Korean beauty ideals haven’t been at all influenced by the “the very real presence of white people” in Korea in the last 60 years.

In short, Korean beauty ideals are complicated. And sure: perhaps by all those “expats,” I’m really just talking about myself not so long ago (that’s complicated too). Either way, over the years I’ve been reading about body image in Korea, I’ve often been taken aback by the number of academics who didn’t acknowledge how convoluted the subject is. Some just seemed to take Caucasian body ideals as a given. Why? Were they just being lazy? Were they simply parroting the narratives about Korean cosmetic surgery that dominate the English-language media? Hadn’t they ever—damnit—actually talked to Koreans, who would have vehemently denied wanting to look White?

Reshaping the Female Body, Body Image(Sources: Left, right)

Apologies though, for not taking note of exactly who said what at the time, but then I’m not here to attack any convenient strawmen. Instead, I want to pass on an alternative explanation that I’ve just come across:

  • First, that because different body features, types, and weights have different positive or negative associations (e.g., fat people are lazy), however unfairly and irrationally (jumping ahead, flat noses and eyelids without a crease have negative connotations in the US).
  • Next, that because these associations are legitimated—indeed, perpetuated—by the seeming scientific rationality and objectivity of cosmetic surgeons
  • That consequently, Korean cosmetic surgery patients tend to choose from a limited number of (positively-associated) procedures that tend to make them look more Caucasian (or, more accurately, a heavily Caucasian-influenced, Westernized, increasingly global ideal) than Asian, rather than the other way round (with the proviso that “Caucasian” and “Asian” are largely social constructs).

In other words, they can still retain Caucasian beauty ideals despite not wanting to look Caucasian personally.

Caveats abound. One of the most obvious of which is that it sounds like I’m saying any empowerment patients feel—and most do feel empowered—is really a sense of false consciousness, their choice of positively-associated procedures really being heavily circumscribed by society, their surgeons, and themselves. I’m very wary of any notion of consumers as dupes though, so I was glad to stumble across the work of Kathy Davis for an opposing viewpoint, as described in Body Image: Understanding body dissatisfaction in men, women, and children by Sarah Grogan (2nd ed., 2007). Yet she too acknowledges empowerment still occurs within the context of culturally-limited options (page 70, my emphases):

The question of why women are willing to undergo unnecessary surgery to make their bodies conform more closely to accepted norms may help us to understand the nature of body dissatisfaction in women. Kathy Davis (1995) in Reshaping the Female Body: The Dilemma of Cosmetic Surgery looks at cosmetic surgery from a broadly feminist viewpoint. She argues that understanding why women engage in a practice which is painful and dangerous must take women’s explanations as a starting point. She attempts to explore cosmetic surgery as one of the most negative aspects of Western beauty culture without seeing the women who opt for the “surgical fix” as what she calls “cultural dopes”(i.e., by taking seriously their reasons for having cosmetic surgery).

Page 71:

Women she interviewed [in the Netherlands] reported that they experienced the decision to have cosmetic surgery as a way of taking control of their lives, and that cosmetic surgery was something that they had decided upon for themselves, rather than under pressure from partners or knife-happy surgeons. They were clear that they had made informed choices, based The Politics of Women's Bodieson weighing up the risks and possible benefits of surgery. Davis takes the position that cosmetic surgery may be an informed choice, but it is always made in the context of culturally limited options. She argues fiercely against the idea expressed by many authors, including Kathryn Morgan (1991), that women who opt for cosmetic surgery are victims of male lovers, husbands, or surgeons. She also disagrees that women who opt for cosmetic surgery are the dupes of ideologies that confuse and mystify with the rhetoric of individual choice.

Davis (1995) sees women as active and knowledgeable agents who make decisions based on a limited range of available options. She argues that women see through the conditions of oppression even as they comply with them. The women she interviewed reported that they had made free choices, although these “choices” were limited by cultural definitions of beauty and by the availability of particular surgical techniques. The “choices” need to be placed within a framework that sees women’s bodies as commodities.

But the journal article which inspired this post is “Medicalization of Racial Features: Asian-American Women and Cosmetic Surgery“, Medical Anthropology Quarterly 7(1), pp. 74-89, March 1993 by Eugenia Kaw, which I read on pages 167-183 of The Politics of Women’s Bodies: Sexuality, Appearance, and Behavior, Rose Weitz (1st edition, 1998; source, above-right). Originally, I intended to summarize it for you here, but since I’ve started writing I’ve found a PDF of the article, so frankly I see no need—interested readers can just download it and read it for themselves. Instead, let me provide some copy and pastes here to give the gist for any much-too-busy-but-still-quite-interested readers.

First, from page 79, on the negative associations of “Asian” features:

Eugenia Kaw 1From page 81 on the how the medical industry legitimizes and perpetuates those negative associations:

Eugenia Kaw 2Finally, from pages 85-86, on the clear patterns that emerge despite patients making “truly individual choices” (alas, Kaw too is guilty of casually throwing in that 50% figure!):

Eugenia Kaw 3Again, caveats abound. Not only is Kaw’s article quite dated, but there are dangers in extrapolating studies based on Bay Area surgeons and patients to Koreans (to be clear, Kaw herself never does so). As Ruth Holliday and Jo Elfving Hwang explain in “Gender, Globalization and Aesthetic Surgery in South Korea”, Body & Society, June 2012 18: 58-81 (page 7 at this downloadable link):

In researching cosmetic surgery in Korea, a further problem of ‘ethnic’ cosmetic surgery studies which focus on Asian-Americans is that their results have been generalized to apply to ‘countries of origin’; that is, Koreans in Korea. Accordingly, what are seen as ‘whitening’ practices in the West are also presented as ‘Westernizing’ practices in the East without much consideration of localized discourses that intersect with more globalized practices of cosmetic surgery. Explanation of Korean cosmetic surgery only in terms of Westernization seems unlikely given Korea’s strong sense of nationalism, as well as its national relationship with other regional powers, for example, Japan.

Indeed, their article is a real eye-opener in its own right (no pun intended!), and made me realize how Korean cosmetic surgery is even more complicated than I imagined, and how much more I have to learn. For example, from page 13 (source, below-right):

Blepharoplasty [eyelid surgery] in particular has often been explained in terms of ‘Westernization’. However, it is worth remembering that whilst many Koreans already have a double eyelid, many Westerners undergo blepharoplasties too. Wider eyes signal youth, energy and alertness. Korean women have used temporary eyelid tapes and glues for decades, most usually justified as easing the application of make-up. Eye surgery is seen as a more convenient permanent fix (the surgery takes ten to twenty minutes depending on technique) which saves time and allows greater participation in sports and swimming, for example. Blepharoplasties (like breast augmentations) Korean Eyeappear to have originated in Japan (the first performed by a surgeon named Mikamo in 1896) and were originally used to treat children born with one single and one double eyelid (Miller, 2006). East Asians tend to have more adipose fat in the eyelid than Caucasians and importantly men and women who have too much fat removed are seen negatively as artificially western. Wider eyes may be desirable, but they must be wider Korean eyes, not Western ones. The most important aim of cosmetic surgery is to create a natural look that ‘enhances’ the body without losing the ‘Koreanness’ of the subject who undergoes surgery.

Like most epiphanies then, this is really a starting point for me rather than the final word, and I realize it may already be familiar to the many readers who’ve done more research into cosmetic surgery than myself (thank you for indulging me!). Nevertheless, I do think that the Korean public and cosmetic surgeons and patients will share many of the same associations as their Bay Area counterparts. And, even if I’m mistaken about that, investigating public associations of and (especially) medical discourses surrounding certain body features promises to be a fruitful new line of investigation for understanding body image in Korea. I’d be very interested and grateful to hear your thoughts on that, and your own observations.

Update: It wasn’t really relevant to the making of this post, but Joanna Elfving-Hwang’s “Cosmetic Surgery and Embodying the Moral Self in South Korean Popular Makeover Culture” in The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 11, Issue 24, No. 2, June 17, 2013, focusing on the Korean show Let Me In, would be an excellent starting point for more on those medical discourses.

Update 2: I’ve been blogging for so long, sometimes I forget what’s already been posted! Please see here for one of my most-heavily commented posts, in which a reader discusses how those negative associations of monolids came about.

From Asian to Caucasian: Update

(Businesswoman, by the_toe_stubber)

A recent comment on my post From Asian to Caucasian: Response From a Reader from last year, and which I’m sure you’ll all agree is worth highlighting here rather than having it wasted unread in obscurity on an old post!

With permission, in a moment I’ll place you in the capable hands of Anna then, to whom I’m extremely grateful for the time and effort she put into this. But first, because I haven’t really made it clear previously, I should mention that I’m always open to guest posts (which this 2500+ word ‘comment’ has surely become), as for reasons of time, resources, and/or personal interest, I am simply never able to write as many posts on as many subjects as I like. If you’re ever interested, and please don’t be put off by thinking that there is a minimum word-limit(!), then please just drop me a line.

Now, without any further ado:

…Hey James,

Your work is fascinating and is quite hilarious at times. I am currently writing a thesis on cosmetic surgery in South Korea and your blog really caught my interest. I wanted to just add to the comments here and to also add to your discussion. Beware, this might get a little long.

First of all, I know people can get quite defensive when people say Korean women are undergoing cosmetic surgery to become “white.” (evidence of the comments above). I mean honestly, nobody would like to hear that. Also, Korean women, as was mentioned in your blog and in other people’s comments, don’t go around piping that they did their eyes to look white. One of the driving factors in contemporary society as to why Korean women go under the knife is because 1) cosmetic surgery is a marker for upper class wealth 2) social mobility and 3) economic stability. Women get their faces done or whatever part they deem necessary to look prettier because beauty gets jobs and husbands in an extremely competitive market, and I mean both the market for jobs and husbands.

Furthermore, If you take the time to read Korean forums on cosmetic surgery, a majority of women undergo cosmetic surgery to gain self confidence. It is quite interesting and tragic as well that many of the Korean women who post on these forums talk about how cosmetic surgery will bring a new stage in their lives. Beauty is everything. And they talk about searching for self-esteem like they never had it in the first place and the only way to be “reborn”, “transformed” or to gain their lost self-esteem is through cosmetic surgery. Some of these Korean women are aware of the pressures on them from society to get cosmetic surgery as well and they complain about those reasons too. Korean society is not only very conscious about appearances but how those appearances conform with what the cultural norms are. Therefore, if one girl gets a job because of a pretty nose or eye job, then there will be tons of women who will go get that nose job in the hopes that their chances for getting the next job will be increased. Its a dog eat dog world.

Now set that all aside. I believe that everything has a historical context and cosmetic surgery in South Korea is no exception. Cosmetic surgery in South Korea didn’t just appear in the 1990s to attain a “universal beauty standard.” Nor is the pervasive popularity of specific procedures just because of modernization and the consumer culture it brings. First of all, I take issue with the claim of a “universal beauty standard”. Modernization and globalization has complicated a lot of things so what may seem true now may not ring true when societies were isolated from each other. Korea, for example, was known as the hermit kingdom due to their refusal to open up to foreign influences until they were basically pried open. BEAUTY STANDARDS THEN did not fall in line with “universal” beauty standards now, to say the least. An oval and round face as well as small features were considered beautiful. If you look at old portraits of Korean women, do you see women with overly sized dopey eyes and shaved V-line chins? Or whatever the damn letter is? It is quite the opposite.

Beauty standards may all seem the same way now but that is because we have been socialized to think a certain way due to overwhelming western influences. I know this is an argument that some people get tired of hearing but that is just the truth. Modern history was dominated by our Western/European counterparts and as globalization is rapidly changing the way information is disseminated, such beauty ideals are able to really influence the individual sitting in the living room in any part of the world privy to a TV or any other popular media outlet and those channels in their native language that send such messages. Korean media is no exception. As we all know the Korean media is largely responsible for the beauty standards that Korean women consume.

Now, lets talk about history some more. Since each country has a different history, such history should be used to help explain why certain practices become widespread. Yes, cosmetic surgery is a universal phenomenon in that people do it all over the world. But depending on the place, certain plastic surgery procedures are preferred over others. The question here that we need to ask, in which James has been eloquently trying to answer, is why do women go for such particular procedures?? To attain a universal beauty standard?? Well that answer would make everything too easy now wouldn’t it? And I already said that in Korea, beauty was quite different until they were confronted with different bodies such as the west.

Korean people are first and foremost going to do cosmetic surgery on their eyes, nose, and chin. The most popular being the Double eyelid surgery. Now James emphasizes why the double-eyelid??? Why is this procedure the most popular?? Just because the SUPPOSEDLY universal standard dictates this? Or because Asian women just want to be white?? We really need to probe a lot deeper. WHY, to Korean women, is the big dopey double eye lid considered beautiful when arguably before the infiltration of the west, it wasn’t?

Now, I know there is a percentage of Korean people who already have the double eyelid, so whats the big deal? Well the big deal is that those who didn’t have the double eyelid were considered just as good looking until this ideal changed. The fact that the single lid was problematized after a certain point in Korean history is telling of the fact that perceptions in Korean society began to change. Beauty standards is not in fact universal. Something was influencing Koreans to change their mind. Now what was it??

I look at Korean history in the past century as a whole bunch of successive traumatic events which modernization has just served to confuse and exacerbate Korean society. You have Japanese colonization, then independence which was short-lived with the U.S. occupation, then the split of the peninsula, the fratricidal Korean War, and the ensuing U.S. dominance that followed afterwards. Then without much time in between Koreans were caught in a nationalistic frenzy to economically develop, then democratization happened, and then market forces opened up and voila! in a matter of 30 years Korea is not only a democracy, it is one of the biggest economies in the world, and is still experiencing the onslaught of modernization. What does this equal?? A very confused and unstable society. I honestly think the Korean people have not been able to properly digest their traumatic past. Now what does this have to do with cosmetic surgery? Read on if you haven’t been bored out of your mind yet.

Now starting from Japanese colonization, Koreans were taught to believe they were inferior. Since the Japanese didn’t look too different from Koreans, they couldn’t really harp on the whole racially different argument to establish their superiority. However, it was a traumatic experience nonetheless, in which the Korean people were subjected to mental and psychological degradation where they were made to believe, they were not “good enough.”

Now with the entrance of the Americans during and after the Korean War, this is where I believe Koreans began to see their bodies, their PHYSICAL FEATURES as defected and flawed. Other scholars such as Tae Yon Kim and David Palumbo-liu discuss this affect on the Korean people as they were confronted with an overwhelming presence of American bodies. The Americans, upon coming to Korea to “help” the “poor people”, were confronted with a curious looking bunch. One of those Americans, by the name of Dr. Millard, set out to fix such faces in order to “read” the Koreans better. Dr. Millard was a military surgeon who was sent to Korea on a good will mission to reconstruct war-damaged bodies. Dr. Millard, in addition, to reconstructing such “war damaged bodies” became obsessed with making the Korean or “oriental” legible for the American people. He thought the single lid made Koreans look lazy, sneaky, untrustworthy and basically dumb. He became the first white person to create a double-eyelid surgery for the Asian face. This is monumental. Although double-eyelid surgery was present in Japan before the introduction of cosmetic surgery in Korea, what David Palumbo-liu states and other authors also cite him, is that cosmetic surgery actually reached its popular high point in Korea during this time frame. Dr. Millard began to “treat” Korean patients and he has photos of his first Korean patients in his original work, Oriental Peregrinations. It’s fascinating and extremely disturbing at the same time. Basically the Korean people were mentally brainwashed to view their eyes, their facial shape as inherently flawed. Their natural features were a defect meant to be fixed. The introduction of Dr. Millard’s double eyelid surgery during the Korean War really shows how cosmetic surgery is tied up with trauma, war, and foreign domination. The words he used to describe Korean eyes in his articles, are used in Korean websites, in present day Korean websites to describe natural single lidded Korean eyes. Why is it that the words used to describe Korean eyes by a an American military surgeon during the Korean War, used to describe Korean eyes in modern day society?? Korean websites are carrying on the tradition of passing on this idea that Korean eyes are naturally defected, if you have the single-lid that is. And the only difference is that now, double eyelid surgery is cloaked under the label for women to look more beautiful.

There are more linguistic connections in descriptions of the Asian eye that harks back to Korea’s traumatic history but I won’t go into it.

So Korean women undergo cosmetic surgery to look more beautiful and yes we can just stop it at there. They just want to look beautiful. But why I ask again, those CERTAIN aspects? Why did those certain aspects become what was “Beautiful?” when it wasn’t before? Although Korean women may not know that they are changing their eyes based on white standards of beauty, (in fact many wholeheartedly believe the double eyelid surgery is tailored to make Asian eyes more beautiful) single-lidded eyes were problematized because of confrontations with the West and now it has become so commonplace in Korea that these origins have been forgotten and it is now a natural thing to think. That single lidded small eyes are ugly and big dopey eyes are pretty and that is just the way it is because they are told that and they consume that every day of their lives.

I think, saying Korean people are fixing their eyes to become more Caucasian is not the right way to put it. In my opinion, Korean people are fixing their eyes because they are naturally made to believe that it is flawed, a legacy that was left by Korea’s historical trauma. I see cosmetic surgery in Korean society as a way Korean people are trying to reconcile their “flawed bodies” and “fix” themselves. I look at cosmetic surgery a bit differently and it might seem a bit far fetched but when you keep digging, sometimes you can’t help but think this way.

This is where trauma comes into the picture. My argument, basically sees unresolved trauma as a major factor in the pervasive practice of cosmetic surgery, especially the double eyelid. I won’t go in depth there because that would require me to talk about trauma and how trauma can last for generations. But anyways I hope that my comments show cosmetic surgery in Korea is wrapped up in a lot of complex issues.

IT IS NOT just about attaining a beauty standard or to look white. There are historical consequences that explain as well as add to the modern picture of why Korean women flock to clinics to get their eyes done.

This message probably won’t be read but this was a really great exercise for me to keep my mind active and up to date with all the stuff I have to read for my research. I know it was quite selfish of me to post such a long entry so my apologies.

But hopefully somebody learns something and gains or at least thinks again when discussing this subject.

Addendum (in a follow-up comment):

Also, I read my post again and I didn’t specify what kind of Korean websites, I meant Korean cosmetic surgery websites.

Also another piece of interesting information is that cosmetic surgery originally had a bad reputation due to its associations with prostitution during and after the Korean War. Basically cosmetic surgery was seen as disreputable because Korean war brides were the ones who mostly underwent cosmetic surgery in order to better assimilate into their new American husband’s life. These Korean War Brides were seen as prostitutes and some of them really were. So another little interesting piece to the whole picture –> forwarding now 50 years later cosmetic surgery is such a pervasive practice that it is now quite the cultural norm.

I have provided some readings that briefly talk about this, because cosmetic surgery in Korea is such a little explored subject in Academia, and the majority of the articles just skim the surface, the literature below I believe has done some justice on the topic as well as how U.S. domination has affected Korean society.

• Dissertation called the “The Moving Eye: From Cold War Racial Subject to Middle Class Cosmopolitan, Korean cosmetic Eyelid Surgery, 1955-2001″ by Taeyon Kim

James: I haven’t been able to find a copy of that online unfortunately, but in case the name sounds familiar, I discuss her 2003 journal article “Neo-Confucian Body Techniques: Women’s Bodies in Korea’s Consumer Society” at great length in my series entitled journal article “Women’s Bodies in Korea’s Consumer Society”, starting here.

• Nadia Kim, Imperial Citizens: Koreans and Race from Seoul to LA (2008)

• David Palumbo-liu, Asian/American: Historical Crossings of a Racial Frontier (1999)

(ELP_NIKE_KOREA, by gkristo)


And here’s an update from Anna…

Hey James!

I was just doing some more reading and I realized that I had written incorrect information about the Japanese not being able to use racist ideologies during Korea’s colonization. In fact they did, in terms of Japan being the superior blood race–>a focus on ethnonationality. Japan differentiated itself from Korea by focusing mainly on the centrality of blood. Although Japan outwardly promoted a Pan-Asian ideology where the Japanese would protect their Asian neighbors from Western imperialism, the brutality of the Japanese towards the Koreans obviously showed that this was all bullshit. The oppression of Japan towards Korea also helped Korean individuals foment Korea as a “nation” around blood as well. Nadia Kim says this is connected to why Koreans are so obsessed with blood types…pretty funny. So “race” for Koreans originally focused on ethnonationality and purity of blood and blood ties. Then the West came in and complicated the picture with their own racial ideologies of black and white which also the Koreans were pretty primed to accept due to their already hierarchical associations to the lighter skin/darker skin complex.

Also, I won’t go into detail too much because I have probably lost you already, but it seems like the concept of lighter skin and the color white as pure and good was a pretty salient concept in Korea before the West. Koreans and the Japanese have seemed to have an obsession with white for a while.

Kim writes, “The country has valorized white as representatives of its people’s purity and desire for peace since the Three Kingdoms Period of 57 B.C. to A.D. 668. One manifestation was Koreans’ primarily white clothing, earning them the moniker the “white-clad nation.” Because the Koreans continued to wear solely white clothing through the middle twentieth century, Western visitors would be captivated by the “enormous white waves sweeping the streets” (27).

(Korean War Museum and Memorial – Seoul 090501, by anja_johnson)

She then goes on and talks about how lighter skin/dark skin also corresponded to where you stood in the rigid neo-confucian hierarchies of Korean society. But basically, this shows how Koreans were pretty well “primed” to accept the White/Black dichotomy that was brought by its relations with the US/West.

So to wrap up and reiterate again, the Japanese did use racial ideologies but focused mainly on blood purity, the superior “blood race”, although I’m sure they also used other things to establish their superiority.

I really really recommend reading her book its pretty awesome.

Korean Sociological Image #28: Cosmetic Surgery Advertisements Featuring Caucasians


I’ve never done any systematic study of advertisements for Korean cosmetic surgery clinics. But still, I’d wager that the overwhelming majority do not feature Caucasians.

And why should they? Like frequent commenter Whatsonthemenu pointed out in an email to me, she has never seen a tanning product advertisement in North America, for instance, that used a model of African descent, and most models look European or possibly Hispanic. Similarly, advertisements for hair straightening products, generally aimed at Black women, always use Black models (usually light-skinned ones), never Caucasian or Asian.

One reason for this is that correlation does not imply causation, and that tanned Caucasians happen to look darker does not necessarily mean that they want to look like Africans. Rather, the consensus view of tanning’s origins is that it developed as a status symbol, implying the wealth to take vacations to warmer climes.

In the case of hair-straighteners however, let me pass on Whatsonthemenu’s comment that “the desire for straight hair almost certainly originates in the desire to look closer to Caucasians,” and that this stems from back when house slaves, who were more likely to have Caucasian fathers or grandfathers, had higher status than field slaves. Which leads one to ask what Caucasians’ absence in advertisements implies?

Perhaps that when it comes to something as personal as dramatically altering one’s body and/or appearance in particular, there is a universal tendency to deny one might be imitating some aspect of another culture, race and/or ethnicity? After all, not to implies acknowledging a (perceived) flaw with your own, unlikely to go down well with other members of it.

Which is what makes Koreas’ exception to the rules so interesting.

(Source: unknown)

Whatsonthemenu noticed this advertisement for the BeautyMe Clinic on The Chosun Ilbo’s website last weekend, clicking on which took you to their homepage above. The Caucasian woman you see there is featured quite prominently throughout the site, and, judging by the the single page discussing double-eyelid surgery for men also featuring a Caucasian man, the choice of her race is not due to mere laziness or accident on the web designer’s part.

So why?

One obvious answer is that some Korean cosmetic surgery patients genuinely do want to look more Caucasian. But I think that they’d be a very small minority, even among those getting only those procedures that ultimately have that effect. Meanwhile, probably the vast majority don’t have that goal, either explicitly or subconsciously, and would justifiably take great offense at the suggestion.

However, clearly the intended customers would have no problems with associating cosmetic surgery in general and/or specific operations with Caucasians, nor find the choice of the model’s ethnicity strange. If they did, then presumably the proprietor of BeautyMe Clinic and others with similar advertisements (see here and here) would have chosen a Korean woman instead, as most do.

Yet they didn’t, and that those (positive or neutral) associations presumably existed prior to exposure to the advertisement puts paid to any notion that “Caucasianness” has had absolutely no role in Koreans’ modern ideals of beauty. And, in turn, to the notion that Koreans finding light skins and double-eyelids and so on attractive today are merely continuations of unaltered historical Korean tastes that existed prior to contact with Caucasians. Indeed, like blogger Michael Hurt wrote in 2005, it’s high time to acknowledge:

…the big, fat, white elephant in the room that is America and the West. You have to consider how having white skin here in Korea is not simply a matter of lightness anymore, of being a sign that one doesn’t have to work outside in a field. The relative pallor of one’s skin is now inevitably linked to notions of civility and class that are also reflected against the very real presence of white people, who are not surprisingly, positively associated with notions of civility and class.

But, and I stress, to do so is not to deny a role – and probably a much greater role – for historical Korean beauty ideals (and definitely not to claim that Koreans just “want to look White”). For a sense of the weight of the respective roles of each, and their possible mechanisms, please see the debate in previous posts.

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

From Asian to Caucasian: Response From a Reader

Im Su-jung

Lest the last email from a reader featured here gives you the wrong first impression, Jacob Lee of California clearly put a lot of thought and attention into this one on the subject of Korean women’s body ideals, and has never ceased to be polite as he patiently waited almost 2 months(!) and many excuses from me before responding to it properly. Given the wait, he may be surprised to learn that I actually agree with most of the points he makes, although we draw very different conclusions from them.

For the sake of both making the email easier to read and distinguishing my interspersed comments from it, I’ve decided to preface the latter with pictures of myself, and, lacking a picture of Jake, one of popular Korean heart-throb Lee Seung-gi (이승기) to represent him. But no means do I mean to give the impression that I’m treating Jake’s email facetiously with that choice though, nor by the format that this was actually a two-way conversation. And I warn you: Jake’s email was over 2500 words long, and my response here brings that up to over 4300, so this post is definitely not for the faint-hearted!

Lee Seung-giJake: Hello, Mr. Turnbull.  I was browsing through your site the last few days when I came across your post, “From Asian to Caucasian,” at the end of which you wrote:

So although I’m always open to changing my mind, and think I have a pretty good record on this blog for admitting when I’ve been mistaken and/or changing my mind upon hearing new evidence, until someone actually addresses that point at all then I’ll continue to believe that “Caucasianness” is a very strong, albeit usually subconscious and/or indirect, influence on modern Korean women’s cosmetic surgery choices.

Well, hopefully, I can add a new, well… wrinkle to the topic of modern Korean women’s cosmetic surgery choices.

james-turnbull-pictureJames: For readers’ sakes, let me reiterate that point here, which was that arguments that modern Korean ideals of appearance are merely extensions of historical associations of light skin and so forth, must confront the:

…big, fat, white elephant in the room that is America and the West. You have to consider how having white skin here in Korea is not simply a matter of lightness anymore, of being a sign that one doesn’t have to work outside in a field. The relative pallor of one’s skin is now inevitably linked to notions of civility and class that are also reflected against the very real presence of white people, who are not surprisingly, positively associated with notions of civility and class.

As Michael Hurt wrote in 2005. And so readers know what to expect, my main critique of Jake’s email is that while he does indeed add a great deal of new information to the subject, the points he make are essentially ahistorical, and he certainly doesn’t address that issue above.

Lee Seung-giJake: First of all, let me just say that I do appreciate the work you are doing. I may not always agree with your conclusions, or the way you couch your arguments, but I do believe that for the most part, you are doing work that needs to be done, and saying things that need to be said as it pertains to Korean culture.

If you haven’t guessed already, I’m ethnically Korean.  I’m a 23 year old guy living in Southern California.  In the past few months especially, I’ve been interested in the question of Asians wanting to be Caucasians.  Rather, I’m interested in the perspective of Caucasians regarding this topic.  I suppose it wasn’t a really big surprise to learn that there are many Caucasians out there who firmly believe, as you do, that Asian women (in your case Korean women) are strongly influenced by “Caucasianness.”  And no matter how vehemently these Asian women deny wanting to look white, the response invariably seems to be, “Yes you do.  You just don’t know it b/c it’s subconscious, or you don’t want to admit it.”   From youtube videos, Tyra Banks, the racist website, the list seems interminable.

To you and other non Asians, it seems that because many Asian women want larger eyes and a straighter nose, this is very strong evidence for their wanting to be white since these are deemed to be white standards of beauty…

james-turnbull-pictureJames: Let me stop you there for a moment, as I think you’re careless with your choice of words here, unnecessarily and probably unintentionally generalizing myself and other Caucasians. Yes, I have indeed said that Korean women are strongly influenced by Caucasianness, but that’s not quite the same as saying that they subconsciously want to look White, and as far as I’m aware I’ve certainly never intentionally asserted such, either online or in person. I do agree that discussions on the subject by myself and others can certainly seem to have that dynamic you describe though, but in my own experience that’s frequently the result of either a misunderstanding or even a deliberate misrepresentation of non-Asians’ views.


Having said that, I do believe that the plethora of cosmetic surgery advertisements marketed towards Northeast-Asians but featuring Caucasians would suggest that – surely – some Koreans do indeed deliberately or subconsciously “want to look White.” But I’m not going to labor that point: it’s unnecessary. Rather, however cliched it is to do so, consider, say, that women wanting to look sexually aroused (and thereby more arousing) and men’s fondness for phallic symbols undoubtedly had big roles to play in origins of the modern habits of lipstick and tie-wearing respectively, but that doesn’t mean men and women deliberately or even subconsciously do so for those reasons now: instead, they are merely following cultural practices and/or norms surrounding them that have considerably evolved since. And in that vein, I’ll readily admit that the vast majority of Korean women that get lighten their skin and/or get cosmetic surgery operations that, to my eyes, make them look more Caucasian, actually do so to look more like Korean celebrities and/or merely follow Korean cultural norms. But while those certainly built on preexisting Korean ones, especially associations of light skins with an indoor, non-agricultural elite, they have also been heavily influenced by notions of class, civility and wealth literally embodied by Caucasians, as Michael Hurt pointed out.

That may all seem to be mere semantics, but because of the heated and often quite vitriolic debate this subject invariably seems to generate in the blogosphere, I want to remove that emotive element from any discussion immediately: I am not claiming here that Korean women simply want to look White, nor have I ever done so. With that out of the way then:

Lee Seung-giJake: …But in the last few months, I’ve found that there has been some significant research done, mostly by evolutionary psychologists, which seem to strongly support the idea that there is, generally speaking, no white standard of beauty, Asian standard of beauty, black standard of beauty, or Hispanic standard of beauty – there is only a universal standard of beauty that is innate, recognizable by most, and aspired to by many.

I highly recommend the book, Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty by Nancy Etcoff, a psychologist and faculty member of the Harvard Medical School and of Harvard University’s Mind/Brain/Behavior Initiative.

Here’s an excerpt:

Despite racism, misperceptions, and misunderstandings, people have always been attracted to people of other races. Today the world is a global community where international beauty competitions have enormous followings (although many complain that these contests favor Western ideals of beauty). There must be some general understanding of beauty, however vaguely defined, since even three-month-old infants prefer to gaze at faces that adults find attractive, including faces of people from races they had not previously been exposed to. In recent years scientists have taken a deep interest in the universality of beauty.

No Skinny Man Has an Ounce of Sex Appeal 1939It turns out that people in the same culture agree strongly about who is beautiful and who is not. In 1960 a London newspaper published pictures of twelve young women’s faces and asked its readers to rate their prettiness. There were over four thousand responses from all over Britain, from all social classes and from ages eight to eighty. This diverse group sent in remarkably consistent ratings. A similar study done five years later in the United States had ten thousand respondents who also showed a great deal of agreement in their ratings. The same result has emerged under more controlled conditions in psychologists’ laboratories. People firmly believe that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and then they jot down very similar judgments (image right: source).

Our age and sex have little influence on our beauty judgments. As we have seen, three-month-old babies gaze longer at faces that adults find attractive. Seven-year-olds, twelve-year-olds, seventeen-year-olds, and adults do not differ significantly in their ratings of the attractiveness of the faces of children and adults. Women agree with men about which women are beautiful. Although men think they cannot judge another man’s beauty, they agree among themselves and with women about which men are the handsomest.

Although the high level of agreement within cultures may simply reflect the success of Western media in disseminating particular ideals of beauty, cross-cultural research suggests that shared ideals of beauty are not dependent on media images. Perhaps the most far-reaching study on the influence of race and culture on judgments of beauty was conducted by anthropologists Douglas Jones and Kim Hill, who visited two relatively isolated tribes, the Hiwi Indians of Venezuela and the Ache Indians of Paraguay, as well as people in three Western cultures. The Ache and the Hiwi lived as hunters and gatherers until the 1960s and have met only a few Western missionaries and anthropologists. Neither tribe watches television, and they do not have contact with each other: the two cultures have been developing independently for thousands of years. Jones and Hill found that all five cultures had easily tapped local beauty standards. A Hiwi tribesman was as likely to agree with another tribesman about beauty as one American college student was with another. Whatever process leads to a consensus within a culture does not depend on dissemination of media images.

james-turnbull-pictureJames: Not that this detracts from either the points made in the book or in your email, and in fact I agree with all of those made in this *cough* rather lengthy excerpt, but let me point out here how I’m increasingly skeptical of the validity of any reports on the body and face preferences and so forth of isolated jungle tribes. Primarily, this is because of the way in which they are almost invariably used in the media, literally thrown into the discussion to support almost any hypothesis. Just this June for instance, Newsweek used some other South American tribes to argue the exact opposite, arguing that men’s ideals of women’s hip-to-waist ratios were heavily dependent on women’s economic position in their culture.

Cross-cultural studies have been done with people in Australia, Austria, England, China, India, Japan, Korea, Scotland, and the United States. All show that there is significant agreement among people of different races and different cultures about which faces they consider beautiful, although agreement is stronger for faces of the same race as the perceiver.

In the Jones and Hill study, people in Brazil, the United States, and Russia, as well as the Hiwi and Ache Indians, were presented a multiracial, multicultural set of faces (Indian, African-American, Asian-American, Caucasians, mixed-race Brazilian, and others). There was significant agreement among the five cultures in their beauty ratings and some differences. For example the Hiwi and the Ache agreed more with each other than they did with people in Western cultures. This is not because they share a culture – they don’t – but because they have similar facial features, and they are sensitive to the degree of similarity between their facial features and the features of the people in the photographs. For example, although the Ache had never met an Asian person, they were curious about the Asian-American faces, attracted to them, and aware of a similarity between these faces and their own. The Ache gave less favorable ratings overall to African-American faces, and they called the Caucasian anthropologists “pyta puku”, meaning longnose, behind their backs. One Caucasian anthropologist was given the nickname “anteater”.

Since the Hiwi and the Ache had never encountered Asians and Africans, had met only a few Caucasians, and were not accustomed to using the scientists rating scales, any level of agreement with the Western cultures is intriguing. Jones found a number of points of agreement. People in all five cultures were attracted to similar geometric proportions in the face. They liked female faces with small lower faces (delicate jaws and relatively small chins) and eyes that were large in relation to the length of the face. Jones called these “exaggerated markers of youthfulness”, and they are similar to the features mentioned in other cross-cultural studies of beauty. For example psychologist Michael Cunningham found that beautiful Asian, Hispanic, Afro-Caribbean, and Caucasian women had large, widely spaced eyes, high cheekbones, small chins and full lips.

People tend to agree about which faces are beautiful, and to find similar features attractive across ethnically diverse faces. The role of individual taste is far more insignificant than folk wisdom would have us believe.

Lee Seung-giKim Tae-hee Perfect FaceJake: And you can find the NYTimes book review here which offers some more insight (James: free registration required). Her book was even the basis for a discovery channel special which discussed the idea of a universal standard. Popseoul! (which I believe you are familiar with) even talks about it here.

No surprise that Kim Tae-hee (김태희) fits the standard perfectly, eh?  Well, it wasn’t for me at least.

Kim Tae-hee about to eat some meat(Source)

There might be the question, Do Caucasians fit the universal standard more than any other race?  It doesn’t appear so.  I can’t find the study anymore, but I’ll include it anyways just on the chance that you’ve come across similar studies or made comparable observations yourself, however informal.  This study (one that was unrelated to this idea of universal beauty) suggested that 3 out of 4 people, regardless of race, were deemed to be either plain or ugly by participants who, themselves, were from various racial backgrounds.  And only a very small percentage (less than one percent in each racial group if I recall correctly) was given the highest rating of beautiful.

My interpretation of this data is that since there are roughly 25% of people in each racial group who are considered somewhat attractive or beautiful, all racial groups have about the same proportion of people who fit the universal standard.  It’s just that when we miss these standards, we miss them in different ways, e.g., small eyes for Asian women and big noses for Caucasian females.

Since I don’t have the source for this study, I wouldn’t blame you for ignoring it.  But even if people want to believe that Caucasians fit the universal standard more than any other race, that still doesn’t change the fact (or at least what I believe to be a fact) that Asian women are trying to reach a universal ideal and not a white ideal.

james-turnbull-pictureJames: I don’t mind that you don’t have the source for the study – I trust your interpretation of it – and I definitely agree that there are many features of human’s bodies and faces that are universally preferred: worldwide, people find symmetrical faces more trustworthy for instance.

But with that last sentence especially, I really think that you begin to carry the notion of universalism too far, as it leaves little room for what can be very influential culturally-based ideals, however malleable. And who exactly said that Caucasians fit the “universal standard” more than any other race? I know I certainly haven’t, and I challenge you to provide sources. The only sense in which I’d regard them as a universal standard is because of people’s associations of class, civility and wealth with Caucasians as explained, but that’s very different from saying that people have preferences for Caucasian features and so on for innate, biological reasons.

Update: One important thing I should add is that if Caucasian women have noses bigger than the universal standard, one would expect that Caucasian women would be getting operations to have them reduced with the same alacrity that Korean women, say, get double-eyelid surgery. I have no figures at hand and am frankly not inclined to search them out, but I’d wager that that isn’t at all the case. This ties in with the next quote by Michael Hurt I give a little later also.

Lee Seung-giJake: So to paraphrase Nancy Etcoff, which is more likely? That a select group of men on Madison Ave. and in Hollywood determined what the ideal beauty should be and was able to influence countless billions of men and women over the next fifty years, even infants as young as one week old, even people living in the remotest parts of the world, such as the jungles of South America, people whom the only Caucasians they’ve seen were the few researchers who contacted them, researchers who were called “anteaters” behind their backs, but because of the stong influence of “Caucasianness,  these people from all around the world, consistently chose what you consider to be the white standard of beauty, as their ideal standard of beauty, and they didn’t have the awareness, nor the capabilities, nor the will to resist such an influence, even knowing, perhaps only on a subconscious level, that they will never be able to measure up.

qi-bi-shi-versus-marilyn-monroe(“Qi BaiShi vs. Marilyn Monroe”, by Zhang Wei, Oil on canvas 2006. Source)

Or, could there be a universal standard of beauty, a certain facial structure that the significant majority of the people from all races and cultures find attractive, something that we are all born with, something we’ve always had even before the “westernization” of the world, just like we’ve always had an innate universal preference for the taste of  fat and sugar, and a universal preference for certain sounds, rhythms and smells, and a universal enjoyment for the feeling of a soft fabric on bare skin, and a universal understanding of a smile and expressions of sadness and anger.  And perhaps these advertising people on Madison Ave. and in Hollywood were as influenced by these standards  as the rest of us?

Now I know that this is a gross simplification of a very complicated issue, and the “westernization” of the world is much more complicated and has many more facets including cultural, political, and economic imperialism, but at its core, the question that Nancy Etcoff poses needs at the very least to be considered….

james-turnbull-pictureJames: Sorry, but “a gross simplification” is putting it mildly. And what’s to consider? Nancy Etcoff would find no disagreement from me that there are universally appealing facial features and shapes and so on. I’d even concede that double-eyelids, for instance, may not be quite as “Caucasian” as I first thought, and that Korean women may get the operation simply to make their eyes look bigger (and thus more attractive, by universal standards or otherwise) and/or just out of cultural habit…Caucasian ideals be dammed. But there’s so much more to the Caucasianness of the cosmetic surgery choices of Korean women then mere eyelids. As Michael Hurt points out (yes, him again, but then his post would be a adequate critique of your email in itself):

Deference to white skin here is so alive and well [here], how can one deny that it plays any role in the decision to get one’s eyes cut larger, nose Romanized, old-school high cheekbones shaved down to size, breasts enlarged, asses and lips pumped full of silicone, and nerves in the calves snipped? One can say that plastic surgery in the States or the West is also in major effect these days, but the crucial difference is that Westerners aren’t getting their epicanthic fold removed, breasts reduced, cheekbones raised, nose bridges removed, or calves fattened up. Let’s get real here – cultural sadaejuui (사대주의; flunkyism, toadyism, deference) goes in one direction. That’s what makes the case so sad when it comes to one culture trying to attain a beauty standard set by another one.

Moreover, as he eloquently puts it, you’re simply ignoring the big, fat, White elephant in the room that is America and the West:

You have to consider how having white skin here in Korea is not simply a matter of lightness anymore, of being a sign that one doesn’t have to work outside in a field. The relative pallor of one’s skin is now inevitably linked to notions of civility and class that are also reflected against the very real presence of white people, who are not surprisingly, positively associated with notions of civility and class.

In particular, I fail to see how a preference for light skin, taken to such extremes here that Korean women have among the lowest Vitamin D levels in the world, is anything but culturally determined.

Lee Seung-giJake: To be sure she and her book are not without their critics, the most prominent being feminists (such as Naomi Wolf) and certain academics who have tried to downplay the importance of beauty for various reasons in the last few decades (James: see Popmatters for a recent feature article on this subject). But no one to my knowledge has been able to dismiss or discredit the significant amount of research she has included in her book.  And judging by your other posts and your references to and criticisms of scholarly or journalistic pieces of work, I’m sure this won’t dissuade you from trying, lol. This book came out ten years ago, and since that time much research has been done which have only strengthened her conclusions.  A couple of examples: first, from Psychology Today, and the BBC’s The Human Face documentary:

It is very Caucasian centric, but the conclusions Dr. Stephen Marquardt reaches parallels those of Dr. Escott in many ways.

Let me also say that I don’t want to give the impression that I believe “Caucasianness” had no influence on Korean women.  Clearly, there has been.  I think hair and eye colors are good examples of that.  These aren’t universalities, so the fact that Korean women started dying their hair en masse during the eighties and started wearing colored contacts in the 1990’s tell me they were strongly influenced by white standards in this regard.

the-korean-idealHowever, as Nancy Etcoff and others have pointed out, these culture specific standards (e.g. foot binding, lip plates, piercings, etc.) have a way of changing, sometimes very rapidly, to take on an altogether different meaning, such as what happened with the perception of a woman’s weight here in the U.S (source right: Scoubi).

In a similar way, I think the reasons why Korean women started dying their hair also changed along the way.  Now, I think they do it for the same reasons Caucasian women do it – simply because they believe it makes them look better and they just want to try a different look.  I also believe that they change the color of their hair to look more like Korean female celebrities.  I don’t have anything to base my conclusions on because as far as I know, there hasn’t been any studies done on this issue.  I’m only going by the word of the Korean women themselves and my understanding of how greatly Korean women admire the beauty of many Korean actresses.

And regarding colored contacts, that fad seems to be largely over.

james-turnbull-pictureJames: Well, you can’t have it both ways. You’ve certainly made your point that some aspects of women’s facial and/or body ideals are really innate and universal, but like you and Nancy Etcoff say, others can be culturally determined. The onus is now on you to provide a list of which is which, otherwise it’s difficult to continue the discussion.

I strongly suspect though, that most of the cosmetic surgery operations that Korean women undergo (that to my eye make them look more Caucasian) will be extremely difficult to explain in terms of adherence to a universal standard, and which is in itself probably very much open to interpretation. If you do admit that some choices are culturally determined though, then again you really need to address the question posed at the beginning of this post.

Lee Seung-giJake: In one of your posts, you wrote:

But I think the point that average Korean women are whitening their skins and undergoing cosmetic surgery because they want to look like rich and famous Korean women is, to be blunt, irrelevant: it merely changes the focus of our attention, but doesn’t answer the question of why rich and famous Korean women (rather than average Korean women) are doing so.

Well, to me, the answer is quite clear.

Anyways, I support what you are trying to do as it relates to women’s and children’s issues in Korea.  Even though I’ve lived most of my life in the U.S., I still feel a deep connection to the country of my birth, and I have a great amount of respect for what it has been able to accomplish in such a short amount of time, especially since I sense an earnest attempt to continually improve itself.  But that doesn’t blind me to its faults, and unfortunately, there are still too many.

Hope to hear from you soon concerning this topic.  Take care.


james-turnbull-pictureJames: Apologies if I ultimately seem a bit dismissive of all your efforts, but I do really appreciate all the time and effort you put into your email, which I learned a great deal from on. And I really hope to keep the discussion going with yourself and other readers, either in the comments or by email. Naturally my preference is for the former, to make it a real discussion and all, but if you or anyone else would like to send further emails to be published here on this subject (or anything else) then by all means please do so. Preferably ones at least *cough* 50% shorter than 2500 words though!

Update: This post at Ask a Korean! about the differences in beauty standards between Koreans and American gyopos (ethnic Koreans living overseas) is a healthy reminder to be more specific about exactly which groups of ethnic Koreans we are discussing in the future. For the record then, I’ve only ever been referring to Korean women in Korea.

Korean Gender Reader

Yoon Eun-hye Vivien's Summer Collection1. Korean Stars Exposing Themselves?

Or not as the case may be, for while Yoon Eun-hye’s (윤은혜) latest advertisements for lingerie company Vivian certainly made quite a splash in the Korean blogosphere last week, again the products she is supposedly advertising are conspicuous for their absence. And just like, say, restrictions that existed on showing couples in the same bed on television reveal a great deal about the (repressed) sexuality of Americans in the 1950s, that very few major Korean stars are prepared to wear lingerie in lingerie advertisements is noteworthy in a sociological sense.

True, perhaps my voyeuristic male gaze compels me to return to this subject more often than most, but lingerie advertisements are ubiquitous in Korea, and it’s a rare commute when I don’t have the slightly surreal experience of seeing advertisements featuring scantily clad Caucasians in one subway car, then seeing others with Koreans like this one of Eun-hye (source) in another when I transfer (sometimes, you can even see both in the same car). Seriously, it’s no exaggeration to say that Koreans’ convoluted and often contradictory notions of sexuality and race literally stare me in the face everyday, and in a form that means that I’m particularly likely to sit up and take notice.

As I’ve discussed previously, lingerie modeling’s associations with porn stars remains the most compelling explanation, especially as the same Korean stars that don’t deign to appear in lingerie advertisements have appeared in quite skimpy bikinis in films and on television. Indeed, how else but shame explains even unknown models at lingerie fashion shows feeling compelled to hide their faces (see #3 here)?

Yet via commenting on the contradictions between sexually explicit Western films recently allowed to be screened here, but a rather tame music video by a Korean singer being banned by broadcasters, Eric Strickland has recently reminded me of the false dichotomy many Koreans have between themselves and supposedly more provocatively-dressed and acting Caucasians, and hence that – herein lies his insight – in many ways standards and expectations for the latter have yet be transferred to the former. Moreover, it doesn’t logically follow from Korean models not appearing in lingerie advertisements that their replacements would overwhelmingly be Caucasians either.

Choi Shi-wonYes, the various institutions and individuals involved with censorship in Korea are hardly a monolithic bloc, and this points to the need for restraint *cough* when interpreting decisions like the above, or, indeed, individual advertisements or even collections of them like Eun-hye’s also.

Something to always bear in mind next time you hear that Korea is rapidly becoming a more (or less) liberal and democratic place over time – depending on the commentator’s perspective – not least from myself! And for me personally, it means that the jury’s still out on the clothed-Korean/unclothed-Caucasian phenomenon.

Meanwhile, other notable cases of stars strutting their stuff last week were Choi Shi-won (최시원) of Super Junior (슈퍼주니어) on the left (source), apparently “the first idol star” to appear on the cover of Men’s Health (Korea) magazine, and also Rain (비), who has recently signed a 2-year, 1.5 billion Korean Won modeling contract with cosmetic brand Nature Republic to be its exclusive model (see here and here).

2. Taiwan Sees Rise in Domestic Violence

For an excellent introduction to the subject, see here. And if you’re interested in that, then please also see here for a video introduction to domestic violence in Japan; here for the first post in my five-part series on domestic violence in Korea (which I hope to resume later this week); and finally here for information about a recent Korean movie exploring the subject.

3. Number of Newborns Falls for 13th Consecutive Month

I’ve written so much about this subject also, I’ll defer from commenting this time! Amongst all the otherwise depressing news in this Korea Times report though, was the fact that the:

…number of divorces totaled 10,600 in March, down 5.9 percent from a year ago, due mainly to a mandatory system under which couples are required to take a one- to three-month cooling off period. The scheme was introduced as part of government efforts to reduce divorces.

Call me old-fashioned, but I see that as a good thing. However:

The fragile economy also appears to have made disgruntled couples more reluctant to go their separate ways because of the costs associated with divorce.

Although I do think that the cooling-off period will still have a palpable effect in the long run. And, lest you think that it is too long, consider that in New Zealand it is 2 years!

4. Big Mama…Not So Big Anymore?

Big Mama Korean Group

Shame on me for not hearing about this group earlier! Apparently Big Mama (빅마마) are a very talented music group, but they haven’t gotten the attention they deserve in Korea because – as the name implies – they’re normal-sized neither thin nor young like the vast majority of popular female singers. Ironically Lee Young-hyun (이영현) though, third from the right above (source), was recently in the news for losing weight.

5. Historic LGBT Festivals to be Held Next Week

In the words of Korea Beat:

From June 5th through 7th in Busan will be held the “Stonewell Celebration” to protect the rights of sexual minorities.

Ahead of the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall riot, Korean gay rights organization Chingusai and others announced on the 26th that they will hold a Stonewall Celebration in Busan, Gwangju, and Daegu to call for protection of the rights of sexual minorities.

See the original post for more details. Unfortunately, browsing through the links in that post there appears to be little to no information available in English, and if you’re confident enough with your Korean ability to attend regardless…then you won’t need my Korean wife me to translate anything for you before you do!  But for any non-Korean speakers still interested in the subject of LGBT rights in Korea, then I recommend the Autumn 2005 Korea Journal article “Intersectionality Revealed: Sexual Politics in Post-IMF Korea” by Cho Ju-hyun as the most recent and comprehensive guide, available here. Among other things, it mentions that unfortunately lesbian activists have been restricted from membership from mainstream umbrella Korean Women’s organizations, thereby having to form their own from scratch.

In passing, here is information about two short Korean films that screened at the recent San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival.

Update: here and here are two more recent blog posts that are also good introductions to LGBT life in Korea.

Update 2: Lost among all the attention being given to the former president Roh Moo-hyun’s (노무현) suicide last week (belying a huge social problem in Korea), well-known transgender star Harisu (하리수) has set up a transgender performance cum support group.

Update 3: It’s two years old, and a translation of an article two years older still, but otherwise Korea Beat has an excellent (and surprisingly long) post about teen homosexuality in Korea here.

Jo Shin-ae Pre Wedding Pictures6. On Being A Princess in Korea

I was tempted to include this image (source) of Jo Shin-ae (조신애) in my “Korean Sociological Images” series, but then it really illustrates a cultural feature of Korea rather than a sociological phenomenon really, and that is the almost universal practice for engaged couples to hire photographers to take pictures of them in various outfits and locations before their wedding, then to prominently display those pictures at the event itself. And while I chose not to get them for my own wedding as I’ll explain, that is not the same as saying that they can’t be quite nice and/or classy, and I don’t think it’s patronizing or in any way a criticism to say that women probably enjoy having them taken more than men because of the fantasy/dress-up element to it either.

Personally though, after wandering through parks full of couples romantically looking into each other’s eyes at sunset…accompanied by a team of two photographers and four assistants, and perhaps 10m away from two other couples and their own photographers on either side of them (and so on, completely surrounding lakes and riversides!), or alternatively seeing couples taking pictures like these at Gwanganlli Beach in Busan (scroll down)…with my big, smelly, sweaty, and unshaven self quite possibly jogging less than 6m away from them at the time, then I found the whole concept too expensive superficial and cheesy to consider taking them for my own wedding.

Having said that, having spent most of my adult life in Korea then it’s Korean weddings that I’m most familiar with, and in fact I never actually attended any in New Zealand before I left when I was 24. Am I correct in assuming though, that most Western countries still lack this pre-wedding custom?

As for Shin-ae, she got married on Thursday (see here also), as did actors Seol Gyeong-gu (설경구) and Song Yoon-ah (송윤아) (see here for pictures).

Update: If anyone’s into that sort of thing – and judging by number of clicks on the links above, then a surprising number of you are – then here is some extra information about Shin-ae’s wedding dress!

7. Old, Heavily Censored Korean Movies…Censored Even More by EBS!

korean censorshipThis certainly puts what I wrote in #1 into some perspective, and deserves to be much better known. From Seen in Jeonju:

For many years I have enjoyed the late night Korean classic series that airs over the Educational Broadcasting Service on Sunday night. Through that I have gotten to see many old movies from the 50s, 60s, and 70s and for that I am forever grateful.  However, I now have a question for whomever is in charge of the show–please don’t think me disrespectful but I have to ask.  What the hell have you been doing?  For the last four weeks, whenever I watch the movies selected, I wind up turning it off in disgust. Why?  Because some idiot has decided to censor the films that are being shown!  Movies from the 60s and 70s were subject to enormous amounts of government interference and censorship.  Now some moralist over at EBS has decided to restrict these films even more! There was so much government control in the earlier decades that I didn’t  think there was anything left to censor.  Apparently I was wrong…

Read the rest here. While the re-censoring is restricted to blurring out knives and cigarettes (yes really, and all in movies playing late at night), there is perhaps no greater indictment of the Lee Myung-bak Administration’s moves to restrict media freedom than feeling the need to examine movies already censored by military dictatorships, let alone finding their efforts inadequate! The arbitrary nature and ineffectiveness of it are also annoying, and ultimately very worrying.

In related news, albeit slightly old, this post on a German English-language site about Asian movies discusses the differences between the international trailer and the tamer Korean trailer for the movie Thirst (박쥐).

censored Korean trailer for Thirst

8. “Working Wives and Incompetent Husbands” in North Korea

Part 4 of a series on “the ideal model of North Korean Housewife.” The site is a little difficult to navigate, so if you want to read more then Part 1, 2, and 3 are available here, here and here also.

9. International Marriage: Links

For a thorough introduction, see posts by Matt at Gusts of Popular Feeling here and here (for starters, and this is also interesting). Meanwhile:

10. Gender Equality Minister Byun Do-yoon

In a short and very readable interview for The Jakarta Post on Wednesday, with many interesting tidbits about the history of the ministry (여성부) and Korean feminism as a whole.

About PopMatters

PopMatters is an international magazine of cultural criticism. Our scope is broadly cast on all things pop culture, and our content is updated daily, Monday through Friday.  We provide intelligent reviews, engaging interviews, and in-depth essays on most cultural products and expressions in areas such as music, television, films, books, video games, sports, theatre, the visual arts, travel, and the Internet. Since 1999, PopMatters has been providing smart readers with sharp, entertaining writing on a wide range of topics in pop culture, offering a refuge from the usual hype and gossip.

PopMatters cultivates smart writers from the world-at-large. Our staff ranges from the multiple-degreed and/or well traveled, to young writers of high caliber, to ‘seasoned’ folks who punch the 9-5 clock, regardless of what type of degree, if any, they may hold. PopMatters recognizes that creative, compassionate intellectuals reside in all levels of society, in all types of societies, and we value their ability to provide intelligent, entertaining cultural criticism in the form of thoughtful, magazine-style essays. Many of our writers are called upon for their opinion by notable members of the media such as the BBC, NPR, MSNBC, Radio Australia, and VH1. Publications such as USA,, and regularly pick up links to PopMatters articles and post quotes from PopMatters writers.  Our articles are also indexed by all English language Google News sites and by NewsNow in the UK.

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The Illusion of Sex

The Illusion of Sex.

A description of the images above made by Harvard psychologist Richard Russell, who won third prize in the 5th Annual Illusion of the Year Contest for them:

In the Illusion of Sex, two faces are perceived as male and female. However, both faces are actually versions of the same androgynous face. One face was created by increasing the contrast of the androgynous face, while the other face was created by decreasing the contrast. The face with more contrast is perceived as female, while the face with less contrast is perceived as male. The Illusion of Sex demonstrates that contrast is an important cue for perceiving the sex of a face, with greater contrast appearing feminine, and lesser contrast appearing masculine.

I found the following explanation much more useful and interesting though:

What you’re looking at isn’t an optical illusion, but is a play on the basic expected traits of men and women’s faces. The flusher lips of the left pic coincide with our expectations for women’s faces, as does the fairer skin. And it’s not just the illusion of lipstick; even without lipstick, we expect women’s lips to be more red than men’s. The difference in skin tone also brings to mind a recent a study suggesting that, on the whole, men’s faces are more red complected, while women’s are more green. Thus, even in the B&W photo, we infer that the darker complected face has the deeper reddish tone of masculinity; the lighter, the paler, greenish tone of femininity.

Obviously there’s much that’s debatable in that, especially whether those “expected traits” are universal or culturally-determined, but in the meantime I can’t deny that contrast is an important cue for determining the sex of a face, and that this provides more evidence for Korean women’s mania for lightening their skins being influenced by much more than merely wanting to emulate the wealth and sophistication represented by Caucasians.

Update) There is an 11-page PDF about these images available here, and you can find out more about Richard Russel and his research interests here.

(Thanks very much to reader Nicolas for passing this on)