Swimsuits vs. Social Consciousness

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Swimsuits vs. Social Consciousness

It's Tuesday afternoon at the Yong-in Caribbean Bay, a recreational water park located in a congested suburb of Seoul. Women in plain cobalt-blue swimsuits, paired in groups of two or three, are loitering near a children's pool. As one woman, in large "Linda Kim" sunglasses, pretends to splash water on her companions, they automatically turn their heads away in order to avoid having their make-up smudged.

These are the contestants in the 2001 Miss Korea Beauty Pageant who recently passed the preliminary selection; the scene is from a promotional video clip of their training camp. The women look bored and fatigued while waiting for their photo shoot, but as the male camera crew nears, they quickly adjust their posture and return to their "I-am-having-a-great-time" poses.

Despite frequent complaints and threats of protests from women's groups and other social activists, the annual Miss Korea Beauty Pageant manages to survive and keep its prime-time slot on MBC television every May. Because social protests have failed to stop the beauty pageant, there is a new, alternative movement planned for this year. For example, EBS, a local educational channel, has agreed to run a short documentary on "Anti Miss Korea," an event to protest the treatment of the female body as a commodity. The documentary will be shown at the same time the Miss Korea pageant is being broadcast on MBC.

Anti Miss Korea began three years ago and is starting to get more attention in the mainstream media for its entertaining way of making a political statement. Organized by "If," a quarterly feminist publication, the Anti Miss Korea Festival has old and young, male and female contestants in an attempt to offer an alternative to the current standards of beauty, especially as they apply to women. The event introduces dynamic individuals and groups who challenge existing gender stereotypes. Some of the participants include a girl's soccer team from Sinchang Girl's High School, a female hip-hop dance group, a male nursing student and a mentally disabled woman. Last year, the festival included an emotional moment with the introduction of a former "comfort woman" from the World War II era.

Despite the organizers' attempts to deliver their message in a non-confrontational way, some parts of the media still tend to distort the context of Anti Miss Korea by referring to it as a bizarre gathering by women with negative images of their bodies, reflecting the local media's favorite stereotypes of feminists.

"Last year, one of the local publications deliberately printed a photograph of one of the participants in the festival next to a woman from the Miss Korea pageant," said Kwon Hyuk-ran, a member of the festival's promotional staff. It was an obvious attempt to illustrate a contrast between the two women, one of whom is seen as beautiful while the other is not.

"It turned out that the girl from our festival went to the same college as the Miss Korea candidate. This made their relationship very awkward," says Ms. Kwon. These are the kind of things individuals and activist groups who try to challenge the dominant groups in society have to endure.

Sponsored by Hankook Ilbo and broadcast by the influential MBC, the Miss Korea Pageant has always been an important event for women wanting to enter show business in Korea. It has produced numerous female actors including Oh Hyun-Kyong, better known for being the infamous Ms. Oh from one of the recent sex video flaps, and Ko Hyun-jeong, a former actress and wife of one of the Samsung Corporation heirs.

As a result of the promising future the event offers its candidates and their supporters, the beauty pageant has also become a power struggle among cosmetic companies and hair salons, who believe they have to be represented there. In 1993, the judging system of the pageant was brought into question as the police learned of alleged conspiracies between jury members and the candidates' corporate sponsors.

Corruption aside, one of the biggest concerns about the Miss Korea pageant is its obsessive emphasis on standards of physical beauty that reflect Western standards of beauty rather than Asian ones. According to a survey by the Korea Research Institute of Standards and Science, the minimum height among the Miss Korea contestants in the years from 1990 to 1996 jumped from 167 to 176 centimeters. The same research showed that only one in a thousand Korean women are 176 centimeters tall.

The screening procedure by the juries is also noteworthy. Slanted hips, muscular thighs and uneven breasts all result in lost points during judging. The other main way to lose the pageant is rebellious behavior during the contest period, such as contact with outsiders and leaving the premises where the contestants are boarding.

The debate about whether the government should ban the beauty pageant is out of place in a democratic society. As a cultural critic, Cho Hye-chung, points out on the homepage of the Anti Miss Korea group, the problem always comes down to an overemphasis on the event. Ms. Cho noted that what was problematic was "the pageant's scale and the country's cultural regression that it suggests."

The 2001 Anti Miss Korea Festival takes place at Chongdong A & C Theater on Saturday at 5 p.m. The Miss Korea pageant will be held in Sejong Center for the Performing Arts on May 27.

by Park Soo-mee

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