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LAce Posted Monday, September 15th, 2008
The Korean Female’s Photographic Gaze
Ellie Brown

Facts about female body image, both in eastern and western society are becoming well known. It has been well documented that attractive people are generally more successful in life, western beauty is considered the international standard, that a large desire across many ethnic groups to look ‘western’ (or homogeneous) exists and that plastic surgery has become massively widespread and socially accepted to erase ethnicity. This article is not to further articulate these facts, but to look at an offshoot effect of the need to look beautiful from a mirror and a self-portrait photographic standpoint. It is about the self-gaze and whom the women actually see when viewing their own image.

I have been living in South Korea, teaching design at a University for a ten-month position. In this time, I have photographed and observed some habits, primarily from females that don’t exist on such a grand scale in the United States. This is interesting to me because Koreans have their own distinct Confucian based group orientated culture but it is one that has absorbed much of western and primarily American culture into its own. This is easy to recognize in the clothing with American brands or slogans boldly printed across the chest, the chattering of American slang on the streets and the American music played in bars and restaurants. What is only slightly less obvious are the stores that heavily promote skin whitening cream, the huge amount of women who have undergone eyelid surgery at a young age and even the face rollers to promote a more narrow face sold in stores everywhere. There is a beauty obsession in South Korea and (and other parts of Asia) which is shown through the number of skin and makeup shops, advertisements with wide-eyed, pale skin women and the number of plastic surgery storefronts. What I find to be most intriguing is the need and maybe the reflex of young women to be constantly observing their own image to verify that all of the hair, makeup and beauty work has been perfected and remains intact.

In my classroom, I find many instances of the female turning her gaze onto herself with a pocket mirror. Most young women carry some sort of hand mirror or reflective device on them at all times. During many of my classes, I will observe my female (and sometimes male) students gazing at their image for many minutes, perhaps trying to move one lock of hair that provides a barely noticeable change. I see many variations of this act but they all come in the public space of an academic classroom rather than the privacy of a restroom. I wonder if the voice of their gaze is telling them words of personal dissatisfaction; that they just don’t look just right? Conversely, is that inner voice a voice of applause for a job well done whitening, coloring, extending, narrowing, etc.? It is my impression that women are imagining themselves as men will and would see them, so the gaze is not their own. It females are looking at themselves through the hypothetical eyes of men or at least for the benefit of men, do they exist for themselves?

It is no secret that many female college students attend the University to meet their future husbands. Students will actively tell their professors this fact. Because this is the case, it is crucial that when one places their gaze upon the female that she be in perfect viewing condition. The college-aged female is very aware of the pressure she is under to attract and be attractive. This awareness circles back to the extreme beautification acts Korean women endure. This could be an answer to modern Korea’s neo-Confucian attitudes of conformity and self-improvement that run mostly equally between the sexes.

Another part of the female self-gaze has to do with groups of young women and their cameras. These may be cell phone cameras or regular point and shoot digital cameras, but the act of photographing remains unchanged. I may be in a school building, restaurant, airport or on the street and I can count on seeing either a woman photographing herself or a group of females taking turns in front of the camera in dozens of poses. These images are immediately shared with the subject(s) and often reshoot for the ‘perfect’ posed capture of that particular moment. It feels almost like the female is not living in her present, but through the proof of the photographic images. She exists. She is attractive. She wants to share how good she looks with her self and her friends or boyfriend on an instant basis.

The constant photographing of one’s self may outwardly appear to be simple narcissism or it may be indicative of the larger social pressures females feel in Korean culture to ‘perform’ physically. It is at this point where the feminist in me feels conflicted with the photographer. How can I, a photographer of women, be critical of their desire to see their own photographic image? On the other hand, how can I, as a woman, watch female after female fall prey to Korean stringent beauty standards non-critically and not feel an intellectual or emotional kickback when the females are also looking for constant approval? It is a social and inner conundrum of cultural judgments and practices. It may be that Korean culture has evolved into one which values electronic instant gratification (i.e. text messaging, video phones, lighting fast internet speeds for downloading, etc.), contributing to the practice of photographing one’s self and sending then distributing the image instantly. It may also be possible that the female staring at herself wistfully and unashamed in public spaces is making a statement about her gaze and the power of that, reflected back onto the people returning the gaze to her.

As a western Caucasian woman, I too am gazing at the Korean female with my camera and my eyes. At times it makes me feel like I am imposing my western education and sensibilities onto these females. It becomes complicated when I understand that these are females influenced by western culture and media who are in many ways trying to copy this imperial idea of beauty but are doing it with their own Korean sensibilities and education. It’s not a cut and dry issue of me observing these women and saying ‘oh look what they’re doing; isn’t that terrible?’ It’s more of an issue of trying to decipher a very prominent behavior pattern in a very complex culture I am just beginning to understand. While trying not to be judgmental, I see females desperate to fit a beauty standard that is forever shifting underneath them and whom are doing what their culture tells them to do, which is to fit in. I understand the inner pressure these females may feel while observing their self-gaze, critically onto herself or not. It is something that I hope to continue to explore photographically and through talking to more females about their feelings regarding what they see in their gaze.

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    Comments [post a comment]

    Posted by Donna Levy [ donnachka@cox.net ] on Tuesday, September 16th, 2008 at 7:21 PM
    I found this story to be a sad commentary on that state of feminism in Korea. I hope Ellie Brown will be more than an observer, but go on to describe the natural beauty of Korean women without an overlay of western artifice. If Confucius were still around, he'd surely offer a pithy adage about beauty being more than a digital configuration or a round eye. Thanks for the enlightening story. Donna



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