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South Korean cultural exports have become more popular around the world. Think K-pop K-drama and K-beauty. But in South Korea, some women are rebelling against them, saying these industries pressure them to look a certain way. NPR's Anthony Kuhn has more from Seoul.
ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: It's a Saturday afternoon, and I am in Seoul's fashionable Gangnam district checking out an exhibition at a gallery. Everyone in the black-and-white pictures lining the walls and everyone in the audience is a woman. Almost all of them have short hair and, as far as I can tell, none of them are wearing makeup. The photographer's name is Jeon Bora. She's part of a feminist movement in South Korea called escape the corset. The corset refers to standards and stereotypes of beauty in Korean society that women feel pressured to conform to. The look includes long hair, a porcelain complexion, plenty of makeup and form-fitting dresses. When speakers at the exhibition share their experiences, whoops of sisterly solidarity go up.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Foreign language spoken).
KUHN: In an interview at a cafe, Jeon describes using her camera lens to show her subjects as they really are instead of how society wants them to look.
JEON BORA: (Through interpreter) I wanted this exhibition to destroy the socially defined idea of a woman.
KUHN: She encouraged her photographic subjects to look at themselves without makeup or photo editing. And for many, she says, this was awkward at first.
JEON: (Through interpreter) They said they didn't have the confidence to look themselves in the eye. But after several viewings, they started to pick out the pictures they liked and find features that they like about themselves.
KUHN: There are no statistics yet about the size of the movement. It's been most visible on social media where women have posted defiant pictures of themselves smashing their cosmetics and shaving their heads. Yoon-Kim Ji-Young is a professor at the Institute of Body and Culture at Konkuk University in Seoul. She argues that in South Korea, women are up against a sprawling industrial complex, including cosmetics, plastic surgery and entertainment, which send women mutually reinforcing messages.
YOON-KIM JI-YOUNG: (Through interpreter) This huge mechanism unilaterally defines the ideal body image for young women as well as the direction and the size of their dreams.
KUHN: Traditionally, she says, Korean women are taught that beauty is their biggest asset, and by getting married, they can exchange that asset for social and economic status. For some women, Yoon-Kim says, rebelling against this whole social structure means boycotting sex, romance, marriage and childbirth.
YOON-KIM: (Through interpreter) Women are not simply looking to destroy the cosmetics industry by smashing makeup. Their aim is to subvert the huge male-centered matrix called the patriarchy.
KUHN: Some women who say they've escaped the corset say they've paid a high price. Attending the photo exhibit was a 20-year-old college fine arts major, surnamed Kim. She asked that we only use her family name out of concern for her own safety, following reports of a woman being physically assaulted for escaping the corset. She arrives for an interview dressed in dark, loose-fitting clothes and a watch cap. Kim said it all started when she cut her hair last summer simply because it was too hot.
KIM: (Through interpreter) When you get an undercut, men stare at you on the street. They look at you up and down. My parents asked me, why did you cut your hair? Have you gone out of your mind? They even asked me if I'm a lesbian.
KUHN: It was that reaction that turned her into a feminist. She started drawing cartoons about women escaping the corset and posting them online. One of the characters in her cartoon says how she feels about facing discrimination for the way she looks.
KIM: (Through interpreter) Keep your sorrow brief and your anger long. That anger will be your revolution and you're beginning. The harsher the backlash, the greater your relief will be.
KUHN: Kim says her escape from the corset has brought mixed results. On the one hand, she says, men treat her as an equal. On the other hand, they accept her as a man, not a woman. She says they invite her to go out for a smoke after classes just like one of the guys. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul.
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