8.30.2012

Queer Corner: Gendered Beauty Standards


A colleague shot over an article my way recently discussing something near and dear to my heart: Korean beauty standards

In a brief summary, the article by Epstein and Joo discusses the expectations of women in Korean media to maintain a beautiful, slim pair of legs, and for men to keep up a bulky, muscular physique with a six-pack as the seemingly standard measure of male beauty. The author traces the growth of the trend over the last ten years as Korea has really captured the world's attention and continues to face mounting pressure on the world stage to maintain expectations of exported South Korean beauty. They also discuss possible causes and shifts beyond simply the extra attention

Quite a long article, but interesting. I've noticed a lot of the same tendencies and shifts, having had awareness of Korea and what-not for about 6 years. The pressures that men are put under to conform to these ideals is often understated and quite often understated or overlooked entirely- it all goes back to that false concept of 'effortlessness' in its creation, and ambivalence towards its reception.

"The men convey the impression that posing before their reflections offers them visceral pleasure and that they care little whether they are being observed but will accept admiration as natural and deserved. Unlike the representations of female pop-stars, manhood, it seems, doesn’t require an external gaze, just self-satisfied awareness of physical prowess."

You see, while women seem to typically be lauded for their efforts in losing weight or growing more attractive, for men, the expectation is that it comes as naturally and easily as possible,
"The current popularity of the built male body highlights essential differences between male and female physiques, and demonstrates the seemingly natural strength of men over women."

and often any acknowledgement of the efforts that men take are looked upon as both unseemly and as a betrayal. The whole idea of make-up is a very real microcosm of this dichotomy- whereas everyone encourages and demands women paint themselves silly with all varieties of products, male celebrities seem incapable of discussing their own extensive use of the products despite the obviousness of it in all of their public appearances.

As always, this trickles down into the masses as well. There has been a greater push for men to conform to beauty standards than ever and it is no longer considered unusual for men- straight men, even, GOD FORBID- to wear make-up in preparation for interviews, photography sessions, or even weddings. After attending three different 'Gangnam style' (shudder) weddings, I saw that not only did the bride plaster herself up every whitening substance available, the men did as well- and even the father of the bride wore visible makeup at one of the weddings, matched right along with his Gucci tuxedo.

The standards discussed in the article are, as always, an example of the complex relationship between media presentations and the society that both worships and produces them. In gay culture, this is even more true because typically competition among gay male populations is ever more intense- not to mention the dangerous and mentally damaging idea that a man should get all of the gay out of his system in the course of his early twenties before he takes up his duty and marries a woman (a philosophy that was, and is, often condescendingly explained to me by gay Koreans I speak to).

After spending an (unfortunately) extensive time right in the middle of the gay culture of Seoul, this strange dichotomy of women's legs and men's abs was reflected clearly across the lines of sexual positions (성향, 'tendency' as discussed in a previous post). Whereas the top, or penetrator, followed Korean cultural norms of needing a six-pack, bulging muscles and all the rest, bottoms had different expectations- pretty, often make-up plastered faces, slender and feminine figures accented by incredibly tight clothing, dyed hair, colored contacts, and often minor plastic surgery, usually paid for by an older boyfriend.

Many people currently aware or participating in the 'scene' may disagree, but I stand by those observations, especially having spent extensive time outside of the notorious Itaewon and venturing into the 'old city' where streets are lined by bars secretly catering to gays and hold, to this day, underground gay host bars where young, possibly homeless male prostitutes sell themselves to older, often married men.

Of course, among younger (and less desperate) generations, the lines blur, but anyone who spends a night out climbing the infamous 'Homo Hill' of Itaewon will see, if they look carefully, the exact picture I've painted here. As the pressure on the gay community lessens and minds across society slowly open up, however, I predict this dichotomy between 성향 will continue to slowly erode as men of all shapes and sizes grow a little more comfortable in their own skin.

That said, though, just as in America articles like "Why The Gays Hate Their Bodies" are still regularly coming out, I certainly do not predict or expect all societal pressures for the male body to disappear. I imagine that over time the pressures will continue to mount and more and more men- straight or gay, top and bottom- will only be more likely to hate their bodies and struggle to conform to those impossible-to-attain physical standards as established by the media.
Though I did enjoy the article, I also really question whether or not growing displays of the male physique is the result of an increasingly active base of sexually-hungry female consumers.

"In presenting such images, however, men are also now reminded that they have to “work harder” to sell themselves as commodities to women who are postponing marriage or foregoing it altogether in greater numbers: the muscularity can suggest a position of both strength and vulnerability."

While I suppose it is one theory, something about it just rubs me the wrong way, but perhaps that is just the rainbow glasses fogging my worldview. Anyone else in the world have a thought or opinion?
-Enzo

References:

Stephen J. Epstein and Rachael M. Joo, "Multiple Exposures: Korean Bodies and the Transnational Imagination," The Asia-Pacific Journal, Volume 10, Issue 33, No. 1, August 13, 2012.

HommeMaker, Why the Gays Hate Their Bodies, http://hommemaker.com/2012/08/20/why-the-gays-hate-their-bodies/