studying the city (Annette Koh)

Public space, the right to the city, and civic engagement. How can we improve equity and access through participatory urbanism? Ph.D. student in Urban & Regional Planning at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. Former resident of Seoul & San Francisco.
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Posts tagged "femininity"

다르니까 아름답다. "Difference is Beautiful" would be the direct translation but 한국여성민우희 (Korean Womenlink) calls the campaign “Diversity Now” in English. As part of this project, Womenlink is publishing a book titled “I’m sorry I’m fat” (top image) that is based on the stories of 22 women’s experiences with plastic surgery and dieting. Today — Tuesday June 3rd — is the book launch here in Seoul, at Sogang University’s Gabriel Hall from 7:30-9:30pm.

I found out about the book because of Womenlink’s related poster campaign in the Seoul subway that directly talks back to all the plastic surgery clinic ads that plaster the subway cars and subway stations.

The poster reads “Korea’s standard code for women?” and references the V line, bust-waist-hip ratio, and S line that all the plastic surgery ads exhort viewers to achieve.

There are many (99?) things I adore about Korea and living in Korea, but the seemingly mandatory performance of femininity is definitely not one. I blathered a bit about this back in 2011 in “Being a Korean girl (you’re doing it wrong)

When I rummage through my wardrobe in the morning I am not merely faced with a choice what to wear. I am faced with a choice of images: the difference between a smart suit and pair of overalls, a leather skirt and a cotton dress, is not just one of fabric and style, but one of identity. You know perfectly well that you will be seen differently for the whole day, depending on what you put on; you will appear as a particular kind of woman with one particular identity which excludes others. The black leather skirt rather rules out girlish innocence, oily overalls tend to exclude sophistication, ditto smart suit and radical feminism. Often I have wished I could put them all on together, or appear simultaneously in every possible outfit, just to say, Fuck you, for thinking any one of these is me. But also, See, I can be all of them.
Judith Williamson (1986) ‘A piece of the action: images of “woman” in the photography of Cindy Sherman’, in J.Williamson, Consuming Passions

Walking downstairs in heels is easier if you have a boyfriend for balance

As a rule, Korean American women of my acquaintance have shorter stints in Korea than Korean American men. Not only are we bad at being Korean in Korea, we’re also bad at being women in Korea. Every day is a series of reminders that you’re doing it wrong. Maybe you speak Korean like a gangster or a grandma instead of a bubbly TV host. Maybe you wear gyopo makeup or no makeup at all. Or maybe your tank top is scandalous (I didn’t know spaghetti strap tanks hadn’t made it to Seoul in 1995) or your skirt is unfashionable (look, micro-minis are for teenagers with legs impervious to cold). Maybe you’re over 30 and unmarried. 

A Korean American friend had to practically write a treatise on why she wanted to buy Ugg boots (2 years out of style) during the dead of a Seoul winter. And once her Korean shopping partner stopped trying to foist stiletto boots on her, they still had to convince the saleswoman that it was morally acceptable to sell untrendy boots.

I’m not troubled by doing femininity wrong in America. There’s more variety for one (indie vs. glam, San Francisco pigtails vs. Los Angeles coif). And visible effort like plastic surgery or a 1-hour morning makeup regimen is still not normal (I think?). But I figure the main reason I’m untroubled by my intermittent obedience to accepted norms of American womanhood is that I have absolutely no desire to resemble any actress on any magazine cover. Being Asian has given me inborn immunity via marginalization.* 

But I take it personally in Korea. 

Someone in Korea once drunkenly asked me “why don’t you make friends with the pretty girls?” Offense was taken by many. In retrospect, the underlying problem was that I took personal offense every time I saw a college girl running up the hill to class in her stiletto boots. Or a 15-person girl band that apparently had shared the same plastic surgeon, resulting in everyone having identically shaped noses. What seemed far away and irrelevant in America suddenly became very very personal in Korea.

* For the record, I picked my bridesmaid dress because it was worn by an Asian model and seemed “most like me.”