화려하고 맛있는 대한민국.

“Do Only White People Wear Underwear in Korea?”

In #1 -- Sexual Minorities in the Korean Fashion Industry, OhMyNews on July 1, 2011 at 10:55 pm

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[Originally published at OhmyNews!]

One thing I learned quickly when I first came to Korea is that only white people wear underwear here. Well, Koreans tell me, it’s because underwear looks better on Western models, for the standard reasons: whites supposedly have the desired longer legs, bigger chests, better features. But this got me to thinking — what kind of psychological sign is it that you literally can’t imagine seeing one’s own people in underwear? Do white models inherently simply look “better?”

I think Korean readers know the answer to this rhetorical question. I won’t get into a long conversation about beauty standards, influence from the West, etc. I think we know where the beauty standards come from. What I’d rather talk about here is the suggestion that maybe Korean aesthetics have a charm of their own.

Of course, there is the reality that there are thousands of plastic surgery clinics across Seoul, that Korea is actually a center of “medical tourism” for facial procedures, that if you watch Korean TV, eyes have gotten much bigger than when I first started coming to Korea in the early 1990’s. People are also concerned about both the length and width of their legs, the length of their torsos, size of their breasts, and even how big their heads are. Now, I have become used to seeing men wearing makeup on the streets of Seoul. For better or worse, Koreans are very concerned about appearance. Photoshop has become an accepted way of life, even on official ID pictures.

I won’t get into a long conversation about how Koreans should have Korean standards, go away from Western ones, etc. Rather, I’d merely suggest trying to forget about set standards at all. For example, bigger eyes are not always better, not just because smaller ones are “Korean” or eastern, but because they naturally, aesthetically match other features on a person’s face. You’ve seen examples of this — one woman might have no fold in her eyelid at all, and her eyes are small. Even with plastic surgery, her new eyes look forced, unnatural, fake. On another person, that same eye job might look natural, and sure, large eyes do fall within the range of nature, even for Koreans.

I don’t think plastic surgery is all bad, or good. I’m not trying to preach that standard sermon. What I’m trying to say is that people have gotten so used to taking the quick and easy path of artificial enhancements and just thinking in terms of a single standard for something that it leaves little room for actual, normal people.

You know, some petite women who use that in their style simply look great. Not everyone with a small head looks better, but look awkward and disproportional. Just because you are tall doesn’t mean you look like a model. I still see, despite the plastic surgery, many beautiful eyes that don’t have folds in the eyelid. And you know what, as a Westerner who is used to a lot of sizes, not all breasts are better because they are bigger.

And yes, I think a lot of Korean woman would look just fine in an underwear ad, like the one a model once told me she wanted to do, since she liked the style she had seen in magazines. She didn’t have a large cup size, her torso is long, like many Korean women, and no, there wasn’t any Photoshop used to change her shape. Beauty is not just about changing and alteration, but about presentation and context. In this particular picture, the side lighting, placement of the hair, camera angle, her expression, and the choice to crop below the underwear line made her look great. And yes, she is naturally an attractive young lady, but trust me when I say that many such women don’t look good in pictures. And it’s not about plastic surgery, but about self-confidence and presentation.

What would make Korea a better place to live, with more aesthetic room for everyone? A big, sexy woman, with big legs that are curvy and she’s not afraid to show off. Beyonce does, for example, and I’ve seen these girls on the street. But why don’t I see them on TV? How about short, petite girls who use that to look a way that tall girls can’t — prim and cute? How about a makeup style that isn’t afraid to show off eastern features, instead of awkwardly trying to “hide” them, which makes things look worse, anyway? I seriously see nice pairs of legs on the street that aren’t straight, aren’t long.

Maybe it’s because I come from a culture that actually appreciates variety. We have different standards, which influence one another. This is not to say that Americans don’t get plastic surgery, but it’s usually more of a personal aesthetic choice. Black women have learned to appreciate themselves after the 1960’s in the “black is beautiful” movement. We didn’t have to put down the dominant white standard by saying “white is ugly,” but simply remind ourselves of what we had forgotten about the beauty of ourselves. And now, you have some non-black women adding fat to their buttocks because they want more bounce on the dance floor. Yes, most black women still straighten their hair, but that can be seen as a small thing. No longer is it acceptable to hate oneself for the color of one’s skin, which even many black people did. Now, even a woman as light as Halle Berry or as dark as Grace Jones can be considered beautiful. But before others do, they must consider THEMSELVES beautiful, first.

And that’s the trick — appreciate what you have and try to value those things on their own merits. Create an aesthetic system where more than only one thing can be “pretty.” There’s a lot more beauty to discover in Korea, if only people would be open to it. Non-Korean men find Korean women very attractive, and in more ways than many Koreans do. Sometimes, Koreans remark when they see a Korean woman who doesn’t fit the Korean norms of beauty with a western man, and make the comment that we don’t know what a true Korean beauty is. But are you so sure we’re the one who is missing something?

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  1. Great points and I agree with ur “Korean is beautiful” argument. But you can’t seriously be suggesting that the main reason Koreans don’t do underwear ads is because lack of confidence and insecurity about their appearance! Undies ads, to borrow a word from ur blog, are Yahae! To strip down to the skin and shamelessly bare it all, well that’s something suitable for foreigners. Go look through a BYC store or website, look for any underwear that’s modest like longjohns or kids jammies and there are Korean models aplenty. Now look through the sections showing the “risque” stuff: zero Koreans. Does that mean Koreans are ashamed of their bodies and don’t want to show skin? A walk through Seoul will answer that question, but let’s stick with ads. When it’s fashionable or acceptable, you see many Koreans ‘baring all’ in advertisements. Look at the soju ads of chicks in the half-tops and short-shorts. Foreigners, cuz they look so much better? Nope, Korean girls baring all. Look at any of the Water Park ads where women pose in bikinis as tiny as any bra and panty set. Are they all foreigners cuz Koreans are so insecure and lacking in confidence? Nope, they are all without exception Korean models. So why is that? Cuz it’s socially acceptable to strip down to a bikini at a water-park and appearing in ads in your undies isn’t. Bikinis are wholesome “fun” and “sexy” but posing in a state of undress offends propriety, and that my friend is a job for foreigners.

  2. “Maybe it’s because I come from a culture that actually appreciates variety. We have different standards, which influence one another. This is not to say that Americans don’t get plastic surgery, but it’s usually more of a personal aesthetic choice. Black women have learned to appreciate themselves after the 1960’s in the “black is beautiful” movement. We didn’t have to put down the dominant white standard by saying “white is ugly,” but simply remind ourselves of what we had forgotten about the beauty of ourselves. And now, you have some non-black women adding fat to their buttocks because they want more bounce on the dance floor. Yes, most black women still straighten their hair, but that can be seen as a small thing. No longer is it acceptable to hate oneself for the color of one’s skin, which even many black people did. Now, even a woman as light as Halle Berry or as dark as Grace Jones can be considered beautiful. But before others do, they must consider THEMSELVES beautiful, first.”

    The author is sadly mistaken if he thinks America promotes a variety of looks. It’s about being blond, tanned, and big breasted for the most part. Are other types of women considered attractive? Sure. But to say that there is no favored ideal in American society is dishonest. Americans get plastic surgery for way more reasons than “personal aesthetic choice”. Watch “Extreme Makeover” or talk to some plastic surgery patients. A lot of American women get surgery because of insecurity JUST LIKE IN KOREA. Hair straightening is not a “small thing” as the author would like to suggest. It was a very big social movement in the 60’s to go natural and is still a very big “lightening rod” in the black community if you speak to black women and watch Chris Rock’s documentary. Hair is not considered a small thing in the black community with some mothers chemically and painfully treating their young daughters’ hair with relaxer. Do you think it would be acceptable for an African American woman to go natural in corporate America? I don’t think so. And despite the author’s claims of racial progress, there are still MANY black women who hate themselves and how they look hence the light skin/dark skin controversy WITHIN the black community. Halle Berry is considered attractive, but she is not considered the ideal like some blond and white actresses.

    “Non-Korean men find Korean women very attractive, and in more ways than many Koreans do. Sometimes, Koreans remark when they see a Korean woman who doesn’t fit the Korean norms of beauty with a western man, and make the comment that we don’t know what a true Korean beauty is. But are you so sure we’re the one who is missing something?”

    The Korean media may only recognize certain types of beauty, but to say that Koreans cannot appreciate the beauty of their own in the “enlightened” way that westerners can reeks of a neo-colonialist mentality. “We are so much more enlightened than you Koreans are because we are able to see the greater beauty in Korean women.” To suggest that Westerners do not have their own distinct preferences in Korean women is patently false. There are certain types of Korean women that are highly sought after by the Western man in Korea.

    This whole article is just a way for the author to “legitimize” his views on the superiority of Western aesthetic standards over Korean ones under the guise of “objective” social commentary.

  3. great article and awesome response by K. In Korean society being a model itself is viewed upon as somewhat lowclass or as the saying s 얼굴팔다 / selling face and as such being an underwear model is the worst thing one could think of doing.

    The obsession with looking like a Caucasian or white is not a Korean obsession. Japanese have created animes showing tall blonde blue eyed characters as the ideal beauties and

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