Skin Is in Again, and Not Barely

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Skin Is in Again, and Not Barely

A recent study by local clothing companies showed that the slower the Korean economy, the more female skin is exposed on the streets.

The same study indicated that the level of skin exposure dictated by fashion was at its highest during summer of 1998, when clothes such as the micro miniskirts, hot pants, halter tops and sleeveless blouses were some of the most popular items in window displays in downtown Seoul. Ironically, this was also the time when Korea was at the height of its devastating economic crisis. Perhaps it was their determination to survive in a competitive capitalistic environment that led people, especially women, to expose their bodies and present themselves as "commodities."

Three years later, as the country's economy begins to falter once again, the phenomenon is recurring. However, this time, the fixation with skin pertains not only to the fashion industry, but to popular culture in general, including Korean television commercials and social clubs that encourage the exposure of naked skin.

Curiously, a sort of opposite trend exists in the United States, at least according to popular myth. When Wall Street is enjoying boom times, women's hemlines seem to go up. During tough financial periods in America, skirt lengths supposedly go down.

A series of notable incidents over the last few months has prompted questions about the social meaning of the body. The story of Lee Young-ja, a 34-year-old female comedian who made the front pages when the secret cosmetic surgery behind her apparently "natural," spectacular weight loss was revealed, poignantly showed how "public" a public figure can be when it comes to her private life.

Around the same time, a high school art teacher was arrested for posting nude photos of his wife and himself on his home page for artists. He was eventually asked to leave the school at which he taught, leaving the art world to struggle again with outmoded questions of art versus pornography, innocence versus lewdness.

This skin fetishism, which has become almost a "national syndrome," is now being quickly taken up by netizens. Daum Communication, for example, the most popular local Internet portal company, hosts 51 members sites that contain the word "nude" somewhere in their titles. Among them are a few New Age groups that claim to approach the subject more seriously. The organizers of these sites are often self-styled "naturalists," and assert on their sites that the establishment of these sites serves the "practice of ecological living." It is difficult to gauge the level of intellectual familiarity the organizers have toward their subjects; only very few of these sites are sincere and have resisted turning their spaces into, say, a "Panties and Photos Exchange," like one of the community sites listed in Daum.

In fact, a lot of these community sites that present themselves as dedicated to "naturalists" or "nudists" tend simply to borrow the term as a cheap way to profit from public voyeurism. Frequent links to commercial pornography sites and messages in the guestbooks filled with gossip about celebrity sex videotapes prove that many are simply not prepared to discuss nudity in a mature manner.

Lee Min-jae, 47, is the head organizer of Freechal's "Nude Club."

"The number of members of our 'Nude Club' has grown exponentially since the club opened last April, but a lot of them are visitors who simply sign up to see obscene images or read dirty stories," he said.

Because most information on the site is open only to members, for confidential reasons, frequently visitors sign up and don't return after they find out that the club serves a different purpose.

"I haven't told my children about my involvement with the group yet, largely because of the conservative social environment. But whenever my 13-year-old daughter looks too shy to stick up a GOD poster on her bedroom wall in front of me, I always tell her, 'Your father is much liberal than you think,'" he said.

Though advertisers using nudity to sell products is not a new idea, images of nakedness in commercials have changed somewhat from those used in previous years. Previously, images of "perfect" bodies were positioned as ideals. Nowadays, such "perfect" nudity is presented as ordinary or average, to be aspired to by the multitudes of consumers. Sometimes, the models are even slightly "flawed." This "natural" concept goes hand in hand with the New Age movement sweeping other sectors of Korean society, such as music and religion.

It is also interesting to note that more and more images, whether television commercials or Internet Web sites, use male nudes to promote their products. As female spending power rises, advertisements focusing on the male body specifically targeting female viewers are becoming more common. An award-winning advertising campaign for a soju product depicting a group of naked males drinking the soju is one example.

As displays of skin become more widespread in Korea, questions of who "owns" these bodies have been raised in the media. The Lee Young-ja incident typically illustrated how the public intereferes with a person's body - clothed or unclothed - when that body is put out for a public display.



by Park Soo-mee

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