A beauty ideal keeps getting youngerKim Yun-hye’s success is something most models can only dream of ― a debut on the cover of a major fashion magazine, followed by music videos, magazine commercials and a TV show. And she hasn’t even started high school yet.
At 11, she appeared on the cover of the Korean edition of Vogue Girl, a teen fashion magazine. By 12, she had starred in music videos, magazine commercials and TV variety shows for children. At 13, Yun-hye is known as Korea’s “Amuro Namie,” the exotic Japanese pop singer whom the young model resembles.
Her age has already been the subject of controversy. as Dodo Cosmetics recently selected Yun-hye for a commercial, its youngest model ever.
Yun-hye reflects the beauty ideals of a Korean society that is increasingly developing a taste for fragile, prepubescent images, particularly when it comes to girls.
The pop star BoA made a glamorous debut in Japan in 2000 at the age of 13, backed by a major entertainment agency, SM Entertainment, which had groomed her since she was 10. Soon names of female teenage celebrities were the top searches at local Internet search engines.
This phenomenon was fueled by the sudden influx of licensed teenage magazines in Korea that paraded young local models desperately wanting to be the next BoA.
Since earlier this year, Yun-hye has been taking Japanese lessons twice a week, just like BoA did. She also takes a dancing class and singing lessons to prepare for her upcoming first album, which will be released by the year’s end, according to her management.
Her agent, Lee Dae-hee of Gap Entertainment, indicated that Yun-hye’s modeling career would help a potential audience to be more accepting of such a young singer.
“Korea is a conservative society,” Mr. Lee says. “It won’t be an easy task to enter the market, because Yun-hye is so young. Image-making will be extremely important. That’s one of the reasons why she recently shot a magazine commercial for a high school uniform even though she is only in the first year of middle school.”
But already some are voicing concerns about the way the media treat children as a subject of adult entertainment.
In a board screening earlier this month, the Korea Broadcasting System voted in favor of banning a music video that included scenes of a 6-year-old girl crying with her makeup on.
The story’s concept, according to singer Lee Su-young, was to depict a young girl who captured the spirit of a woman longing for her lost lover. But the KBS board said the video objectified children, “turning them into a mere commodity.” After Yiga Entertainment agreed to cut certain scenes, KBS approved the video for airing next week.
Certainly, young girls have long been the object of desire among men, with “the Lolita syndrome” a common theme of many books, plays and art. Photographer Oh Hein-kuhn looks at this fascination with young females in “Girl’s Act,” an exhibition at the Ilmin Museum of Art in Seoul.
The show, which opened over the weekend, features a series of full-body shots of Korean schoolgirls in high school uniforms. The images, photographed in black and white and tinted in gray, depict teenage girls in various provocative poses, subtly making underlying references to women from Japanese animation, which fetishizes schoolgirls.
Their shirts are noticeably tight; the skirts are slightly short, revealing their slender knees. Each of the girl’s names is printed next to their age, ranging from 15 to 18.
It’s hard to tell from the photographs alone whether these images are meant to criticize pedophilia in Korean culture or to simply satisfy the middle-aged man’s secret lust.
Mr. Oh admits that these photographs are positioned somewhere between fascination and cultural criticism.
“The audience’s reactions to this work vary dramatically depending on their cultural experience,” Mr. Oh says. “I didn’t want to overwhelm the viewers with social connotations about girls in school uniforms. I don’t deny the connotations are there, but that wasn’t my prime motive when I produced the work.”
Yet the photographs’ context gets even more complicated when the viewer finds out that the girls are actually teenage models from acting schools hired by the photographer. Mr. Oh said his original attempt to shoot ordinary high school girls on the street was impossible because photographing minors without their parents’ consent is illegal.
In Hollywood or Japan, the idea of hiring teenage stars for films for a mature audience is much more common than in Korea. American actresses such as Shirley Temple, Jodie Foster and Brooke Shields entered the entertainment industry well before their teenage years.
Still, some Koreans are disturbed by the declining ages of the country’s newest stars. In a country where more than 17,200 children a year are sexually abused, according to statistics by the National Center for the Prevention of Child Abuse, experts say this entertainment phenomenon is a dangerous sign that could lead to the rise of sexual violence against minors.
“It’s an extreme example of how we now view children as a sexual commodity,” says Kim Hye-suk, a professor of social psychology at Ajou University in Suwon.
“We are viewing girls just as we do women, allowing girls to take part in activities or possession that were only available for adults in the past. It’s a sign that social taboos and the ethics to protect children are being broken.
“On the other hand, it’s an expression of what has always been prevalent in our society. It candidly reflects male desire and fantasy for young girls,” she said.
But Choi Sae-rom, a spokeswoman for Dodo Cosmetics, says Yun-hye matches the product’s brand.
“There was no intention of hiring a young model,” Ms. Choi says. “Our major clients are young females. We were looking for someone who could penetrate that market. Yun-hye was qualified in every way.”
by Park Soo-mee
More in Features
Sculptor Joo Hoo-sik finds inspiration in the Year of the Cow
Nothing's fair in love and Covid
Top culture stories of the year
[ZOOM KOREA] The pipe organ master with plans for a uniquely Korean instrument
ENFJ-LMNOPQ what does the MBTI say about you?