Crossing the Lines: The Trends Reshaping Women’s Bodies in Korea

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“There are a few things unsettling about the images, especially the ones in which the entire shape of the face is changed thanks to bone shaving. Somehow eyelids and nose cartilage still seem rather surface-level, whereas changing the shape of your skull just feels extreme and intense.
So wrote Dodai Stewart, in a recent article on Korean plastic surgery for the feminist website Jezebel. And who can blame her for the negative impression she leaves? Learning about what Koreans will do for that perfect ‘V-line’ jaw is enough to make anyone cringe.
What’s more, with Korea having the highest per-capita number of plastic surgery operations in the world, then it’s often in relation to Korea—not their home countries—that people first realize the lengths some will go to for the sake of their appearance. So, when they do, it’s only natural to process that new information by concluding that only Koreans take things to such crazy extremes.
Certainly, in one of only two countries in the OECD where it’s legal to demand photographs on resumes (the other is Japan), and the only one where young women are getting more underweight than obese, then no one can deny that appearance matters a great deal here. And it’s also true that this stress on it can manifest itself in many surprising and unnerving ways.

‘Expectations surrounding women’s bodies—in the West and Asia—that endure to this day, are all manifestations of the same, utterly utilitarian, reductionist view of women upon which modern consumerism relies.’


One of these is alphabetization, or the exhortation by Korean companies and the media to (overwhelmingly) push women to purchase products and services to help mold themselves into various ideal body-shapes, or ‘lines.’ Specifically, their company’s line(s), which many simply invent—or pluck from obscurity—for the sake of creating new consumer demand.

Consider some of those for women’s breasts for instance. Many plastic surgeons actually refer to those as V-lines, based on the (real) lines between them; others, as ‘Y-lines,’ for exactly the same reason (and I’m sure you can guess which versions the Venus and Yes lingerie companies promote). Moreover, adding to that confusion, one can get Y-line ‘lifts’ done to one’s jaw too, and the term has also been used to refer to —yes, really—vaginas, backs and shoulders, and buttocks.

No mere schoolboy slang, that’s just a small taste of the veritable alphabet soup that pervades Korean advertising and popular culture. What is most striking, though, is not how implausible and unnecessary the resulting terms are; rather, it’s that they’re contested at all.
Whereas companies in English-speaking markets are no less self-serving than their Korean counterparts, in general they do seem to be constrained to working with terms—e.g. ‘hourglass figure’—which the public are already very familiar with, rather than being free to invent their own.
In contrast, Korea provides a fascinating—and frightening—case of where those constraints have been removed. In addition to bone-shaving for V-lines for example, another ensuing extreme is the ‘X-line’ waist, which Amore Pacific invented in 2008 to sell its “V=B Program diet products, despite the inconvenient fact that X-lines are physically impossible (ads feature grotesque photoshopped waists, resembling those inflicted on women by 19th-century corsets).
One more, is the deeply misogynistic, almost pedophilic label ‘bagel girl’ heavily promoted in the media, the “bay referring to young, “baby faces, and the “gul referring to “glamour, which means large breasts in Korean.
Problematic just for the blatant objectification alone, what is particularly worrisome is that the term is used only for young women, rather than middle-aged ones for whom looking youthful might be considered a plus. Pause to consider what charming individuals would be attracted to busty 18-year-olds with childlike faces, and it’s difficult not to conclude that it’s the combination of developed bodies and implied childlike personalities that is the real attraction.
Flashback on the West
Surely, it’s tempting to think, such gross excesses would never occur in Western countries?
Think again. As explained by Jill Fields in An Intimate Affair: Women, lingerie, and sexuality (2007), there have actually been at least two alphabetization crazes in North American and European history.
The first, in the 1920s to the 1940s, when corsets were the most common female undergarment. Deserving their uncomfortable reputation, manufacturers had to rely on well-trained store clerks to sell them, recommending styles based on time-consuming measurements of customers and extensive knowledge of the necessarily wide product lines available. Much more desirable, from manufacturers’ perspectives, would be to produce a more limited number of lines and convince women that one of those would be appropriate for them.
And so they did, with a host of accompanying pseudo-scientific rationales, culminating in the notion that one’s choice should not necessarily be determined by how well they fit, but rather by how well they uncomfortably corrected ‘figure faults’ in the wearers themselves.
Unlike bra manufacturers that they increasingly competed against though, who agreed on an industry-wide standardization into cup sizes in the mid-1930s, different manufacturers promoted their own schema at the expense of others. Bon ton, for example, a prosaic ‘A-J’ one; Flexees Company, a more elegant one with terms like ‘Renaissance’ (full-hip), ‘Parisienne’ (full-bust), and ‘Egyptian’ (full-bust, straight-hip). Moreover, the media readily joined the fray, the December 25, 1939 issue of Time magazine, for instance, bemoaning that “only two million out of forty million women have ideal proportions.
The second example is the malleability of term “glamour in the late-1930s to the 1950s. Because, rather than being a humorous Korean mistranslation, in fact it did mean large breasts in English at that time, via busty film stars such as Lana Turner and Jane Russell (the former was called ‘Baby Glamour’ by a co-star in 1938; sound familiar?). Yet somehow, inexplicably, both the term and its eroticism would ultimately be transferred from their breasts to the sweaters they wore, sparking a fetishistic “sweater girls craze.
That Korean society today is now experiencing things that the West did over half a century ago though, does not imply that the former is merely catching-up, almost always a patronizing and anachronistic notion. Rather, the earlier cases sparked public discourses and expectations surrounding women’s bodies—in the West and Asia—that endure to this day, and all are manifestations of the same, utterly utilitarian, reductionist view of women upon which modern consumerism relies.
Please bear this in mind, the next time you’re tempted to only use cultural explanations for the Korean case. Let alone some of the stranger examples of it!

James Turnbull is a writer and public speaker on Korean feminism, sexuality and pop culture. He can be found at his blog thegrandnarrative.com


 

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