Korea has a well-known reputation for perpetuating unrealistic body ideals for women – and deservedly so. It has the highest per capita cosmetic surgery rate in the world. It is the only country where young women are getting thinner rather than more obese, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). It is one of only two countries in the OECD where employers have the right to demand resume photographs, which are routinely photoshopped.
Yet, a widespread body dysphoria is by no means uniquely Korean, and could just as easily be used to describe the US. But instead of noting these similarities, overseas reporting tends to conform to Orientalist stereotypes of Korean women as victims, shrouding the complexity of their attitudes towards their bodies and the demands placed upon them. It also undervalues the work of Korean body-image activists and organizations.
One such activist is Ewha Womans University student Min-ji Kim, who was inspired to start her (Korean) blog, Real Beauty Doesn’t Hurt, as a means of recovering from a distorted body-image-related eating disorder and to reach out to others.
I recognized that it wasn’t only me that was suffering, Min-ji explains, but when I was struggling with my disorder back in high school and college in the US, there just weren’t many resources out there, and I couldn’t get any support because awareness of it was very, very low. Even when I went to the hospital, the doctors didn’t really know about it, and I couldn’t even get any help from my family, who just thought I was being weird.
Unfortunately, awareness in Korea was even lower. This makes her blog play a crucial role for others seeking help.
As a body-image activist, I don’t have any tangible achievements [yet], but I can perhaps give myself some credit for giving support to people who didn’t have it before. For a lot of people, my blog provides a hopeful story. It shows them that they’re not alone, that they can overcome their eating disorders, and, crucially, that their disorders are not their fault. That’s my biggest accomplishment.
For a lot of people my blog provides a hopeful story. It shows them that they’re not alone, that they can overcome their eating disorders, and, crucially, that their disorders are not their fault.
It also led her to Operation Beautiful, a US-based website campaign, at the heart of which is the placing of post-it notes with body positive, self-affirmation messages (and links) in such places as bathroom mirrors or on ads that promote a very narrow range of and/or unrealistic beauty standards. Participants then take photographs of them and upload them to the website.
Min-ji places many of hers on Line 3 of the Seoul subway, which bombards commuters with promotions for cosmetic surgery clinics in Apgujeong. While simple-sounding, it’s a surprisingly effective method, now used by a number of organizations working on body-image issues.
These messages create solidarity among people whose issues may have seemed daunting, because they were struggling alone. But when people share their stories and start talking about them? Then immediately they feel less lonely and empowered by knowing that there are other people like them out there and that they do have a support system.
Another organization Min-ji collaborates with is Korea Womenlink, a women’s rights organization, which is currently driving a host of body-image campaigns involving university students. One example from last year is a Seoul subway ad campaign, which confronted the conformity of body-image demands on women by comparing them to a barcode. The text read:
Society tells me I must have the same body, the same face, as everyone, but I do not want to be like that. To do so, I conform to a standard made not by myself, but by others. The way I am now is the one and only true form for me. It is just fine for me, and fine for you, to just be the way we are.
Min-ji sees these campaigns as a definite spark, and welcomes the recent news that the Seoul Metropolitan Government is to limit the number of cosmetic surgery advertisements to no more than 20 percent of subway station ads, and to ban them completely from areas around schools. (It is common to receive cosmetic surgery as a graduation gift; some clinics also target middle schoolers.) However, she believes restrictions on online advertisements would be much more effective and that such measures do little to challenge the dynamic that drives women to make such huge sacrifices in the first place.
People’s freedom to choose cosmetic surgery should be respected, says Min-ji. Some people effectively have to do it for the sake of their jobs, their careers, or their families and shouldn’t be blamed for it.
As described by interviewees in Korean Womenlink’s recent book, Are You Sorry You’re Fat?, these pressures include doctors expecting nurses to be pretty and mothers viewing cosmetic surgery as beneficial for their daughters’ careers. I myself am quite skinny, Min-ji adds, but I too am regularly told to diet by classmates and friends, of both sexes.
Also, once while she was recovering in the hospital from a car accident, her doctors used the opportunity to offer her some additional cheap cosmetic surgery.
Ultimately, headlines in the foreign media do speak to some truth, Min-ji admits, and, identifying neither as Korean or American, is well placed to lament the big gap in mindset between Koreans and the expat community as well as the lack of dialogue. Likely, talking about rather than to Koreans is why all too many expats tend to stereotype Korean women as victims. Against that, Min-ji has a powerful, final take-away message to readers:
A US-based feminist I was having a dialogue with, who had never been to Korea, basically assumed that women in Korea were just oppressed, and that is just not the case. You know I live in Korea, I’m a woman, and I feel very empowered to be a woman. Korean women are very passionate, and I know so many women who are doing their best to develop their careers, to be good mothers, and women here thrive and flourish at both. I know that many people are still subject to discrimination and live in poverty, but there’s a great deal of activism, and a lot of policies are being implemented to improve that situation.
Things are not stagnant!