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The Gender Politics of Smoking in South Korea: News Flash

( Source: Metro, Busan edition, 8 July 2010, p. 3 )

A quick newspaper report that caught my eye while preparing the next post in this series.

Of course, I was a little disappointed that it discussed “average” smoking rates for men and women, an essentially useless concept given the diversity within each gender, and also widely inaccurate for women because of chronic underreporting by them. But that is to be expected for a free daily, and for what it’s worth it was interesting to see that Korean men retained the dubious honor of having one of the highest rates in the world. It also takes a step in the right direction by pointing out that female teenagers tend to start smoking much earlier than males too, which will hopefully result in more attention being given to that group:

People Would Consider Quitting if Cigarettes Cost 8500 won a Packet

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Korean Sociological Image #44: Westerners, Nipples, and the Presentation of Sexuality in the Korean Media


( Source: Metro, July 8 2010, p. 7. Cropped slightly)

It’s amazing what pops up in Korean newspapers these days.

Yes, however difficult it may be for overseas readers to believe, that is the actually the first nipple my Korean wife, friends, and I have ever seen in a Korean advertisement. Moreover, it’s probably no coincidence that it belongs to a Caucasian model too, and one that looks like she’s about to get involved in a ménage à trois at that.

Focusing on the nipple first though (as one does), let me provide some context: with the important exception of ubiquitous single-sex bathhouses, Koreans are generally more conservative than Anglophones when it comes to public nudity. Topless males are extremely rare away from beaches, swimming pools, and concert stages for instance, and topless females unheard of, let alone full nudists of either sex (recall also that just 5-10 years ago, women even covered their swimsuits with t-shirts too). In addition, while female celebrities have been showing a lot of cleavage in recent years, this trend has yet to be adopted by ordinary women, whom can expect just as much unwanted attention if they accidentally leave home bra-less.

However, breast-feeding is generally fine if done discreetly, and indeed one of the first things I noticed in my first time in a Korean supermarket 10 years ago was a brand of milk (or soy milk) that prominently featured a large breast and a suckling baby on its packaging. Unfortunately I can’t remember the name to find an image, but I do also recall that it was by no means hidden away in any sense.

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Korean Sociological Image #42: Sunset for the Red She-Devils?

 

( Source: ROKetship. Reproduced with permission. )

Like Joe McPherson of ZenKimchi fame says of the above cartoon, either way, it’s a win for my gender, so I was surprised that this was the first time I’d ever really noticed this curious Korean social more.

For those of you still at a loss however, yahada (야하다) generally means “too revealing” if it’s about clothes, and “too sexual” if it’s about anything else, like a conversation topic; alternatively, nomu pa-ee-da (너무 파이다) could have been used instead, which literally means “dug too much”. So, it’s a commentary on the difference in what is considered revealing clothing by Koreans and Western expats, and something which of course expat women have long been well aware of(!), congratulating ROKetship artist Luke Martin for his astuteness in droves on his Facebook page. One of them, Kelly in Korea, wrote on her blog:

So true. Showing your shoulders or chest will definitely get you stares from the older crowd and young men, while lotsa leg is okay. That being said, I feel like I see more Korean girls showing shoulder this summer than last—is that just me? Regardless, now that the full heat of summer is upon us, I have stopped worrying so much about societal dress codes and just wear whatever keeps me from passing out in the midday sun.

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The Gender Politics of Smoking in South Korea: Part 3

( Korea is 4th from right; source )

Apparently, Korea is pretty unique in its huge difference in smoking rates between the sexes: up to 10 times more Korean men smoke than women. Or do they?

In short, probably not: considering that a 2007 Gallup Korea study found that 83.4% of Koreans thought that women should not smoke, then the accuracy of almost all figures are undermined by chronic underreporting by women. Moreover, it is misguided to speak of male or female smoking rates in the first place when those within each gender differ so widely by age, socioeconomic position, and/or marital status. Even unhelpful too, as low perceived rates for women overall have encouraged Korean medical authorities to almost exclusively focus on reducing smoking rates among men instead, overlooking rapidly rising rates among young women especially.

But for all their flaws, it is only natural to want to have some numbers to work with. And so, when I wrote Part 1, my original intention here was to pass on all those provided by 3 recent journal articles on the subject, hopefully providing readers with enough information to get at least a rough idea of the true numbers in the process. Numerous failed drafts later however, I now realize that that approach was a mistake, and should have paid much more attention to the following points by Lee et .al. (2009):

…the limited data available on female smoking prevalence and behaviour in South Korea must be urgently addressed. Data from the Korean National Health and Nutrition Survey (Table 2) suggests female smoking rates have fluctuated significantly between 1980 and 2003, with variations within age groups by year that are difficult to explain. There are also inconsistencies across different data sources which prevent clear understanding of smoking behaviour within specific cohorts by age, location, socio-economic group and other variables.

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The Hips Don’t Lie…

( But is she smart too? Source )

As long-term readers will be well aware, I’m a big fan of evolutionary psychology. And why not? It usually provides both simple and extremely compelling explanations for many universal cultural features and human behaviors, such as that of the evil stepmother or the fact that 95% of killers are males for instance. So when research in 2004 found that women with hourglass body shapes are 30% more likely to become pregnant than others, it was no great surprise that men worldwide have always tended to find this body type the most attractive.

But even congenitally blind men too?

Yes, it’s true, and while feminists have frequently pointed out the sexist assumptions to many of evolutionary psychologists’ conclusions, this latest news definitely definitely buttresses the “nature” rather than the “nurture” side of the debate:

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Exploring Male Anorexia

A bong is being passed around the art school dorm. Brett, a DJ, is talking. “It’s good to not eat for like three days. Then on the fourth day have a little meal. Then little meals from there.” Alex, a film major, listens. He stamps out a cigarette and lights another. “Sometimes I won’t eat for over a week, I lose count of the days.” he begins to pace.

There are a lot of us who are outspoken about unrealistic beauty standards. But there’s not a lot of talk about male beauty standards. But it’s there, staring at these guys from their computer screens: “add inches to your cock”, “6 pack abs fast”, “Lose weight now”.

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Korean Sociological Image #40: As Pretty as a Picture?

( Source )

As any visitor to the country soon becomes well aware, Korea seems to be a society obsessed with appearance. And once they’re over the initial surprise of ubiquitous cosmetic-surgery clinics, then this is something both natural and very easy to criticize too: after all, where else would one hear of people bothering to photoshop passport photos for instance, or even that it’s completely legal to do so?

But if we accept that obsession as a given, then whatever its pernicious effects on women (and of course, it does primarily affect women), we should not automatically view a woman who decides to get breast-enlargement surgery for instance, as simply suffering from something like gong-ju byeong (공주병), or “princess disease”; rather, she may well be making a very rational, informed choice that has a dramatic effect on her career opportunities, more than paying back the initial investment. And indeed, short of being a social pioneer, and a poor and frustrated one at that, what else is one to do when employers require photos with resumes?

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Hot Sweaty Korean Women

Why do I like this commercial so much?

No, not because the dancer is 29 year-old Park Ga-hee (박가희), by coincidence leader of the girl band After School (애프터스쿨) whose songs I am translating at the moment. And not because she is by no means just another manufactured K-pop idol either, once literally penniless on the streets of Seoul after running away from home. Hell, not even because of her great body.

Rather, it’s because she’s sweating.

Yes, sweating. Because as I first highlighted over 2 years ago, Korean women generally prefer passive means of losing weight to active ones like exercise. Indeed, even the ones that do attend gyms rarely seem to exert any actual effort while they’re there, and I’ve seen less than a handful dripping with sweat while on a treadmill.

A gross over-generalization? Actually, I very much hope so, and admittedly not having gone to a Korean gym myself since 2004, then I’d be happy to learn that things have changed since. But my post did seem to strike a chord with readers’ own experiences back in 2008, and in turn the underlying attitudes to exercise that they demonstrated were corroborated by one of the few English language studies of the subject: “Content Analysis of Diet Advertisements: A Cross-National Comparison of Korean and U.S. Women’s Magazines” (Clothing and Textiles Research Journal, October 2006), by Minjeong Kim and Sharron Lennon. With apologies to long-term readers for my frequent references to it, but it’s worth (re)highlighting some parts here to remind ourselves just how unique the Fat Down (팻다운) commercial really is:

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The Gender Politics of Smoking in South Korea: Part 2

 

With apologies for the poor quality of the scans, those are from an activity in the ESL activity book Decisionmaker: 14 Business Situations for Analysis and Discussion (1997) by David Evans, which I happened to be doing with my advanced students when a reader sent me the journal articles that inspired this series.  It seemed a pity not to mention the interesting coincidence!

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Gender Studies 101: How the media perpetuates negative body images

( Source )

Alas, I’m still taking a break from blogging for another week or so(!), so let me just quickly pass on a Korea Times article on “X-lines” and women’s body images that I’m quoted in today. New readers who want to learn more about them, please see:

  • Here for a quick summary of all the various “lines” used to describe women’s bodies at the moment
  • Here for a much longer analysis and a discussion of how and why they’ve developed from being mere fads to become enduring parts of Korean media culture
  • Here for the ways in which even prepubescent girls are socialized to develop a concern for achieving such lines in the future
  • Here for the deep roots this Alphabetization craze has in various Korean philosophical and linguistic traditions, rendering it qualitatively different to similar sounding name-assigning in English.
  • And finally here, here, and here for more on the fact that Korean women are the slimmest in the OECD, but still consume the most diet drugs.
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