South Korea’s ‘take off the corset’ movement should inspire feminists everywhere towards radical action

A before-and-after transformation picture captioned, “I became a human after ditching the regime of looking sexy or fragile.”

The #MeToo movement has reached countless women around the world, morphing into various campaigns specific to what women are experiencing under local forms of patriarchy. In April, The Telegraph reported on a growing movement against “cultural violence against women” in South Korea, which rose up in response to the fact that women in the nation were undergoing more plastic surgery than anywhere else in the world. Emanuel Pastreich, head of the Asia Institute, told Julian Ryall:

“Korean society has become completely distorted by this rush to undergo surgery and, speaking personally, I believe it is very sad that it has shifted to the point that women are seen merely as sex objects that have to undergo the scalpel to be perfect.”

This movement had success in November 2017 when Seoul Metro, which runs trains and buses in the world’s most populous city, banned cosmetic surgery ads in its stations.

Beauty practices are enforced more strictly for South Korean women than perhaps any female population on earth. Women’s ability to flourish and live autonomously, in a political, economic, and social context, is kept in check through intense pressure to get plastic surgery, to diet after graduation in order to compete in the job market, and to spend money on skin treatments, hair styling, and body hair removal treatments. Even for underage Korean girls the regime is fundamentalist: it’s hard to find a girl not wearing makeup by sixth grade, and some middle school uniforms for girls come with inner pockets for lip gloss. Female students in secondary schools are told not wearing makeup is socially impolite.

Under this regime, the beauty and personal care industries are extremely profitable, and whole sectors of the economy are dominated by cosmetics, dieting, and fashion. One extreme plastic surgery procedure popularized by K-pop stars is called “V-line surgery,” and involves shaving the jawline to create a V-shaped face. The Verge reports, “Technically called ‘corrective jaw surgery,’ it’s a procedure that requires the jaw to be wired shut for six weeks and can result in permanent numbness or death.”

For a movement against beauty practices to have emerged in South Korea, as it did in 2018, therefore, is a feat of feminist organizing so unlikely we might wonder how our sisters did it.

The campaign began when young Korean women — calling themselves “beauty resisters” — began posting before-and-after selfies showing the results of throwing off beauty practices and images of destroyed beauty, cosmetic, and dieting products online. Others women joined in, discontinuing regimes of beauty in their personal lives as a strategy of political liberation for women as a whole.

A beauty resister posted this photograph of destroyed beauty products on Twitter with the “take off the corset” hashtag, captioned, “It took me so long to realize that I had been denying my own face.”

The campaign attracted criticism from liberal feminists who argued that beauty practices cannot be assessed as oppressive to all women, as they might feel empowering to some individuals. These critiques, though, have not dissuaded young Korean women, who have been buying up feminist books about beauty practices in Korean bookshops. Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth appeared in Korean translation in 2016, and an edited collection of Sheila Jeffreys’ translated journal articles on a range of topics, including beauty practices, was published in Korean in 2018, under the title, Radical Feminism, selling 3000 copies.

“Radical Feminism” (Yeolda Books, 2018), a translated collection of journal articles by Sheila Jeffreys and translated by a group of five South Korean radical feminists.

The issues explored in Radical Feminism caused debate among women involved in Korea’s online feminist movement, including on the topic of beauty practices. The feminist framing of beauty practices as “up-up,” a term used by Korean cross-dressers to describe their efforts to dress up as “women” and perform femininity, was among the most controversial. Liberal feminists framed “up-up,” practiced by men, as subversive and liberating, and argued that, when practiced by trans-identifed males, beauty practices cannot be considered misogynist. But transwomen and cross-dressers are not the only ones “dressing up” as women — females are pressured to put on a costume of “woman” as well. Femininity is not “empowering” either way.

These arguments demonstrate the way in which queer politics have taken hold in Korean feminist circles. Radical lesbian feminist Hyejung Park returned to Seoul from Denmark in 2015 after some years away, and found feminists newly unwelcoming of challenges to prostitution (despite South Korea having a version of the Nordic Model since 2004), enthusiastic about butch-femme role-playing, and identifying as “queer,” not lesbian. To counter this declining trend, Park began privately passing around translated chapters from Sheila Jeffreys’ book, Gender Hurts: A Feminist Analysis of the Politics of Transgenderism, provoking anger from fellow feminist activists, even within the abolitionist movement, because Jeffreys critiques men’s cross-dressing and performance of femininity as “transwomen,” arguing this practice is sexist and reinforces gender stereotypes.

The publication of Radical Feminism, though, came during a new political context: feminist protests over the Gangnam train station bathroom murder emerged in Seoul in May 2016, and South Korea’s Candlelight Revolution toppled the government a year later. This radicalized environment allowed gender critical feminists calling themselves “Womad” to escalate their organizing. They began campaigning against beauty practices across a range of social media platforms.

Womad’s anti-beauty campaigning got a further boost this year with the publication of Rootless Feminism: From Megalia to Womad. The book, which includes essays by Womad women, including Jihye Kook and Ikmyeong Kim, defines beauty practices in political terms:

“… Practices discriminatorily expected of women or women’s conformity to the oppression resulting from being accustomed to misogyny and sexism. It can sometimes mean the women themselves who carry out such practices…conform to the[ir own] oppression. Makeup, dieting, cosmetic surgeries, and other similar practices constitute ‘beauty corsets,’ while ‘moral corsets’ [refer] to the expectation that women always be kind and caring, to always follow the rules and do what’s right. When one takes off her ‘corsets,’ she walks away from these oppressive practices and standards, resisting the social pressure.”

Corsets were never an item of female clothing in Korea, but the anti-beauty campaign is waged under the rhetorical banner “take off the corset” to highlight the oppressiveness of beauty practices of all kinds for women. As a result of this campaign and the feminist books produced alongside it, beauty resisters have become an internet phenomenon, and their activities are beginning to spill over into the public realm. Yeolda Books’ radical feminist publisher Jihye Kuk describes some of them:

“They are cutting their long hair short or completely shaving their heads. They are burning skirts and high heels. They are abandoning bras. Students are discarding skirts as uniforms and instead wearing pants that are more functional. And they are uploading their pictures on Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and Facebook — basically everywhere on the internet, encouraging other sisters to follow suit. A few beauty YouTubers who had been giving makeup and cosmetic surgery tips on their channels publicly announced that they are taking off their [metaphorical] corsets and have repented for their roles in [metaphorically] tying up the corsets of other women.”

The campaign is no longer confined to the internet, and has surfaced at the molka rallies against spy-cams, which have been held every month in Seoul since May. At the June molka rally, five women with waist-length hair had their heads shaved on stage; activists roared in celebration as their hair fell to the ground. “I was afraid of shaving my head,” one woman said, “but I asked myself where that fear came from, and realized there was no reason not to shave other than fear.” The slogan adopted at this demonstration was, “The courage to be uncomfortable changes the world.”

Liberal feminist resistance to the anti-beauty campaign sustained a setback at that demonstration in June, when a young woman who later identified herself as an “Instagram star” attended the event. It was her first time attending one of the molka rallies, and the power of the event apparently caused her to dramatically reconsider her stance on beauty practices. After the rally, she apologized online (though remained anonymous) for having attended the event dressed in an intentionally feminized way, in makeup and sexualized clothing, and acknowledged that her actions could be harmful, and result in discouraging women from throwing off beauty practices:

“To be honest, I wore a tight off-the-shoulder top and hotpants on purpose to the rally. It had been just a month since I’d become a feminist, and people always say that only ugly, fat women become feminists, so I wanted to show the world that wasn’t true. But after participating in the rally, I had a chance to think more deeply about ‘corset’ ideas, and I suddenly felt ashamed of myself and sorry for my sisters. I’m worried that sisters might have felt discouraged in taking off their corsets because of me or felt angry or disappointed in me. I am very sorry. The fact that I thought I was being cool by being a ‘dressed-up’ feminist now embarrasses me. You know, I used to be an ‘Instagram star’ posting beauty tips, but when I look through those pictures of me now, I look like a ridiculous doll on a shelf and it even feels disgusting to see the way I look in degrading poses and stupid dresses and makeup. If we have another rally soon, I will put on a comfortable t-shirt and pants, I swear. I am grateful for everyone who cut their hair short and said women are human and don’t have to look pretty.”

Liberal opposition to the beauty resisters sustained a further blow in July when Jeffreys’ 2005 book, Beauty and Misogyny, was published in Korean as, Corset: Beauty and Misogyny. Poignantly, this book was published in English the year of Jeffreys’ first visit to Seoul in 2005 to speak at the Women’s Worlds conference. (She has since traveled to South Korea twice to speak at abolitionist events.)

Cover of Sheila Jeffreys’ book, “Beauty and Misogyny” (2005), translated in Korean by Yu Hyedam as, “Corset: Beauty and Misogyny” (2018) by Yeolda Books.

But arguments against beauty practices waged by Korean radical feminists today go even further than those advanced in Beauty and Misogyny. Beauty regimes in contemporary South Korea are more extreme than even Jeffreys could have imagined, and their harms go beyond breast implants and labiaplasty. In her introduction to the Korean translation of Beauty and Misogyny, Jihye Kuk writes about  the case of a well-known male “broadcast jockey,” (Korean’s version of YouTubers), BJ Namsoon, who produced a widely-viewed video (which he has since taken down) about visiting a body waxing salon. In the video, he sexually objectified the woman managing the salon as a “hot chick” who had given him a “boner.” He then specified that the salon was in a “secluded neighbourhood,” and even mentioned its exact address. This woman was eventually murdered by one of Namsoon’s online fans.

Since the publication of Beauty and Misogyny, the sex industry has become even more linked to the cosmetic surgery sector, as loan sharks working for pimps ensnare young women in debt by pushing high interest loans on them so they can get cosmetic surgeries, which they are then made to pay off through prostitution. These brokers capitalize on pervasive and entrenched self-hatred among South Korea’s local female population in order to solve the problem of procurement, as pimps need a continuous stream of young, new women to sell. Victims are lured through advertisements on job search websites that promise applicants can “make money and become beautiful at the same time.” Sex traffickers, plastic surgeons, and loan sharks operate this way in rackets. The proliferation of these so-called “cosmetic surgery loans” explains why Seoul’s inner-city Gangnam district now brims with both outcall prostitution businesses and cosmetic surgery clinics.

These ever-diversifying industry links are addressed in the campaign against Korea’s beauty industry, which is increasingly overlapping with feminist activism against other female exploitation industries.

Feminist activists are also aware that South Korea exports its harmful beauty practices to countries like China and Vietnam on the back of Hallyu, the Korean pop-culture wave. This export sector profits from the physical and mental harm caused by the beauty practices pushed on Asian women abroad, as well as through inbound visits made to Korean plastic surgery clinics that often operate without licenses and result in women’s deaths. These activists therefore see their resistance to beauty practices as a struggle carried out in the interests of local women and girls, but also for the sake of this huge female population abroad.

This resistance movement was inspired by radical feminist critiques of beauty practices coming from the West, but today, Korean radical feminist campaigning from within one of the beauty industry’s global strongholds serves as a galvanizing force for feminists everywhere, who are seeing their sisters reduced to empty shells who aim only to be beautiful in the eyes of men.

Heyjung Park is a lesbian feminist and a freelance translator living in Seoul.

Jihye Kuk is the director of the feminist book publisher Yeolda Books and a feminst campaigner against male violence.

Caroline Norma is a feminist abolitionist and an academic at RMIT University. Her new book, Comfort Women and Post-Occupation Corporate Japan, will be available in October 2018, published by Routledge.

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