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Korea Sexy Models

Shaking the Model Taboo: More Korean Magazines Portraying Korean Women as Sexy

Women’s magazines for over a century have been one of the most powerful agents for changing women’s roles, and throughout that time—today more than ever—they have consistently glamorized whatever the economy, their advertisers, and during the wartime, the government, needed at that moment from women.’

Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth

‘So what if the magazine is based off an international publication started in the West? No wonder so many Asians aspire to Western standards of beauty (double-eyelid surgery, anyone?) because they are constantly bombarded with Western models, instead of being shown their own beauty.’

Miguksaram, Allkpop commenter, July 26 2013

This July, Allure Korea had its first ever Korean cover model for its tenth anniversary issue, as did Vogue Girl in February of last year. On both occasions, netizens wondered what took them so long, charging their owners and editors with racism and cultural imperialism.

What’s more, surveys during the 2000s found between 30 and over 50 percent of the models featured inside Korean women’s magazines (both international and domestic) were Caucasians. Those numbers are likely to have gone down in recent years, for reasons explained below, but still: that’s a whole lotta White women. If women’s magazines are as influential as Naomi Wolf suggests, then this whitewashing must surely be a powerful tool in perpetuating White privilege and beauty ideals in Korea.

International fashion magazines are undeniably the greatest offenders. Primarily, this is due to financial reasons. Whereas most came to Korea soon after market liberalization in 1999 (which allowed for 50 percent foreign ownership and joint ventures), and accounted for nearly half of the market within just four years, they still had much lower circulation than Korean competitors. Combined with lower cover prices, this ensured a much higher use of—and reliance on—advertisements ever since.

Most of which are internationally-sourced.

Of course, delivering consumers to multinational companies is a core component of their business model. But it’s one that dovetails nicely with a deliberate strategy of projecting an exotic, glamorous, Occidentalist appeal. In addition to using foreign cover models, this is also achieved by only accepting advertisements for foreign brands for the first few pages from the front and the back covers, and by focusing on fashionable, beauty-conscious, and increasingly global-minded 20-somethings (whereas most Korean women’s magazines focus on housewives). Add to the mix claims of higher quality paper, printing, covers, and advertising techniques, and international magazines are also able to justify higher ad rates.

This stigma is so strong that it often descends into farce, with fully clothed Korean models appearing on home shopping programs holding lingerie on hangers alongside Caucasian models wearing only the product.

However, young Korean women are not forced to buy them. Nor, in doing so, are they mere dupes that have internalized self-loathing and Caucasian beauty ideals. More likely, most choose them simply for their extensive local content, of which there is now often so much that Korean editions of overseas magazines resemble their originals in name, format, ‘spirit,’ and cover models only (and Vogue Girl, ironically, only the last two at that).

That is not to deny that there is wide variation between international magazines in Korea, and that all overseas partners of them generally exerted considerable oversight and attention to format, layout, and article subjects and tones as they nervously entered the Korean market. It is also true that local expertise and technological know-how was often lacking at first.

Yet, success has brought a considerable loosening of the reins, and a variety of localization strategies. For example, Elle, the first such magazine to hit the peninsula, relied on foreign editions for as much as 60 percent of its material in 1992, but this had been reduced to only 30 percent by 2005, and which became an industry norm. Moreover, far from being the source of decadent Western values as they were once widely perceived, translated articles are chosen carefully so as not to offend local sensibilities.

Also, this ‘lifted’ content only makes up about ten percent of the final product; Korean readers understandably not caring for Western subjects and personalities they know little about. Instead, the general subject may be the same (e.g., skincare), as well as the fonts and layout, but it will be written by and for Koreans, using Korean sources and recommending Korean products. In addition, Korean readers tend to prefer longer, more informative articles than their US counterparts, and international magazines have adapted accordingly.

Ultimately then, most of the lifted material proves to be visuals. However, simple copying and pasting cannot explain all the Caucasians. Nor, crucially, why domestic Korean magazines have almost as many of them, or why a disproportionate number are lingerie models.

In 2008, The Sports Chosun revealed all. In 1999, some celebrity Korean nude models caused a stir by also modeling lingerie on home shopping programs. Strangely uncomfortable with the attention, they soon disappeared from view, but not before attaching such a stigma to it that only foreigners could be hired in the future.

This stigma is so strong that it often descends into farce, with fully clothed Korean models appearing on home shopping programs holding lingerie on hangers alongside Caucasian models wearing only the product. Also, rare Korean models on the catwalk have literally hidden themselves under large sunglasses and hats, and Korean models featured in online lingerie stores—but strangely not equally revealing swimwear ones—likewise hide their faces.

Things have changed a great deal in the last three years. Especially with K-pop management companies taking advantage of lingerie endorsements as both a much-needed source of funds and a means of sexing-up girl-group members’ images, but still the stigma remains. For if you look closely, as one does, many of the celebrities in lingerie you see are actually in magazine photo shoots, not ads. Most notoriously, last year Core Contents Media turned down a lucrative lingerie-modeling contract for soon to debut girl-group Gangkiz as it wouldn’t fit [their] musical color and image—despite reports on that ‘news’ being accompanied by one member in a very see-through mesh top lying seductively on a bed, bra clearly visible.

Be that as it may, a stigma doesn’t explain why non-Caucasian foreign models are very rarely used, and accordingly, pre-existing racial and sexual stereotypes also play a factor here, with Caucasians frequently being used for Korea’s most risqué advertisements. The first erect nipple, for example, appeared on a Caucasian model in 2006 (and indeed the second—in 2010), and expats may be shocked to hear some Koreans’ explanations of why you only ever see Caucasians in their underwear (White people are more sexual anyone?). In turn, expats and foreign journalists often look at all the ads (especially for cosmetic surgery clinics) and make the mistake of assuming that Korean women just want to look White, an assumption this naïve author also held —right up until he actually asked Korean women about it.

With the success of Hallyu, ironically Korean celebrities are now regularly used as cover models across East Asia, and likewise are both a cause and symptom of Korean beauty ideas now spreading across the region. Looking past the covers, ads, and other visuals though, one suspects that most of the content isn’t translated Korean editorials. But to be certain, those magazines would need to actually be read, something which monolingual expats and both foreign and Korean netizens would be well advised to take heed of. For when it comes to women’s magazines at least, apparently pictures do NOT tell a thousand words!

(Note: Most of the information and statistics about the Korean magazine industry in the first half of the article comes from Glocalization of International Women’s Magazines in Korea: Global-local nexus in the production process by Oh Hyun-sook in Korean Journalism Reivew, Volume 3, Number 3, Summer 2009, pages 74-95)

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

Cover photo from Woman Story’Is



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