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South Korean Women Are Fighting to Take Off Their ‘Corsets’

flickr/Aiena Zahira Daim

Women in South Korea are fighting back against unfair beauty standards, and getting rid of the things that constrain them.


I’m in panic

He wants to see my bare face

I really like him

Would it be okay to show it to him?

Oh, never (That’s right, that’s right)

Let’s keep what needs to be kept (Right, right)

Until you get all of his heart

Don’t ever forget this

I Got a Boy, SNSD

Beauty in South Korea does not come in all shapes and sizes. It comes with a V-shaped face, a slender body, double eyelids, and pale porcelain skin.

Cis Korean women are expected to go to any length to achieve this perfect look—and they certainly do. South Korea has the highest per capita plastic surgery procedures in the world, and its beauty industry is globally ranked as one of the largest. Every major street and subway station is littered with stores selling sheet masks, Jeju volcanic creams, and the promise of perfection.

But some South Korean women, mostly those in their late teens and twenties, are declaring it’s time to “take off their corsets.” These women do not literally wear corsets; the movement references the restrictive, harmful, and gender-essentialist nature of corsets. 탈코르셋, or Tal Corset (tal meaning to take off), inspires women to cut their hair drastically short, destroy their makeup, and get rid of uncomfortable clothes. Anything that restricts how women express themselves, or asks women to conform to certain beauty standards at the expense of their own desires, is a “corset.” And these women are claiming that it’s time to throw them out.

Anything that restricts how women express themselves, or asks women to conform to certain beauty standards at the expense of their own desires, is a 'corset.' Click To Tweet

Getting a short haircut and forsaking makeup and bras is radical in a nation like South Korea. Like other East Asian countries, South Korea is still heavily influenced by Confucian ideals, which explicitly qualify men as superior, and command women to be obedient to their fathers and brothers when young, then to their husbands, and later to their male children. Though women no longer exist for the sole purpose of bearing a male heir, they are still expected to be passive, soft-spoken, and utterly feminine.

As a result, women’s behavior and appearance is fastidiously scrutinized. In fact, it is often considered rude for Korean women to show their “bare” face in public. South Korea also has the lowest score of any OECD country in terms of the gender pay gap. According to the 2017 OECD report, “women hold only 17% of seats in the National Assembly […] and only 10.5% of management positions [in the private sector].” The patriarchal Hoju System, which by law placed men as the head of households, was not abolished until 2008.

To make matters worse, feminism is still very taboo in South Korea. Anything even slightly related to women’s empowerment is often met with extreme, and sometimes violent, backlash. Female K-Pop idols have faced public uproar and boycotts from male fans for shockingly radical actions like reading a feminist book or having a “girls can do anything” phone case.  Female game developers claim male players surveil their accounts for any feminist activity. If any semblance of feminism is found, they often complain and protest until the developers formally apologize or leave the company.

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Steady changes towards women’s rights have been happening for decades, but the efforts somewhat lacked movement. Then, in 2016, the horrifying Gangnam Murder shook the nation and awoke a feminist upheaval. On May 17, a man murdered a random woman in a public bathroom close to Gangnam Station. He reportedly did it because he had been scorned by women too many times. Enraged, thousands of women took to the streets, fed up with the violence of misogyny.

Feminism experienced another resurgence with the explosion of #MeToo, which has toppled down high-profile assaulters, including the aspiring (paywall) presidential candidate Ahn Hee Jung. There have also been widespread protests against spycam pornography, an issue South Korea has struggled with for years.

In the midst of all this, it is only natural for women to start pushing against other forms of oppression—namely, society’s patriarchal obsession with controlling how they act and look.

“I didn’t really get the whole concept of Tal Corset at first because I thought ‘corsets’ like makeup, long hair, and high heels were things you do for yourself […] but I got to understand the concept when I saw it as a society, not just from my point of view,” says Myungji Kim, a college student who writes feminist calligraphy.  

Her sentiments are shared by Fennie J*, a high school student. “When I first got to know about Tal Corset, there were so many things that I started to evaluate,” she says. “I wondered ‘is that also a corset?’ […] I finally realized that I had been pushing myself too much to meet female social standards by calling it ‘self-satisfaction.’”

According to these women, joining the movement has changed their lives for the better.

“I tried to lose weight until I almost fainted crossing the street […] as a result of an extreme diet I was on,” says 18-year old Sion Ji. “I have put myself into the tightest corset to meet society’s standards. I don’t do that anymore.”

Besides a healthier and more positive relationship with their bodies, women are also gaining a valuable resource: time.

Myungji Kim boasts that she went from spending an hour getting ready every day to just 15 minutes. And Sion Ji says, “I can now get enough sleep since I don’t need to wake up early to [get ready]. I can instead use that time to study more.”

Besides a healthier and more positive relationship with their bodies, women are also gaining a valuable resource: time. Click To Tweet

Despite the positive changes advocates of the movement exalt, not everyone agrees with its ideology. Most of the criticism comes from people claiming that telling women to not wear makeup or skirts is just trading one set of beauty standards for another. “[…]Are we taking off the corset or putting on another one? Calling yourself a radical feminist doesn’t justify criticizing people with a different opinion.” says @KIMBUNGEO on Twitter.

Yet others say that the movement is more about options. “By breaking off the concept of ‘feminine’ and wearing a [different] look […], I wanted to show [that] there are clearly more options for women,” says Myungji Kim.

Most of the women I spoke to said they felt supported by their family and friends. The public sphere, however, is a whole different beast.

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“I realized that male workers in the service industry treat me differently,” says Sion Ji. “Before, when talking to male workers as a customer, they used to talk to me with a smile on their face, but since I got my hair cut short, they are not like that anymore.” Others said they had had instances of people on the metro commenting loudly and disapprovingly on their masculine look.

For Myungji Kim, things have been more extreme. “I openly engage in feminist activities with my face and name out there. Sometimes my pictures end up on random websites and I get sexually harassed and cyberbullied,” she says. “Some people have left me. Living as a feminist in Korea is really not easy, [it] means you can get fired, your personal information might be posted up on the internet without your consent, and it’s likely to affect your chances of being hired.”

This is one of the reasons many of the women posting about the movement hide their faces online behind carefully chosen angles or cute stickers. Interestingly enough, this pattern seems mostly prevalent on Twitter rather than Instagram.

Sion Ji affirms that she hid her face because of fear. She cites an incident in which a female YouTuber received threats for mirroring, or copying the language men use to attack women to in turn attack men. One of the people who threatened to kill her did so as he filmed himself going to what he thought was her house (from an address provided by netizens).

Fennie J has different reasons for concealing her identity. “If I didn’t cover my face, people would try to find out ‘who from where’ instead of [listening] to the message I want to send,” she said. “People would score my look and see [me] as an object, not a subject.”

The haters may be hating, but it seems like feminism, and Tal Corset, are here to stay. The word is spreading, the world is watching, and women’s lives are changing. As Fennie J  puts it, “This movement is a chance for all women, including me, to have more dignity.”

*Name has been changed as per the source’s request.

**Interviews and texts were translated by Jung In Lee. Interviews have been edited for clarity.