Stop commercializing women

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Stop commercializing women


Emanuel Pastreich

The presentation of females in the Korean media has taken a turn for the worse over the last five years that deeply worries many women. Advertising in magazines, on billboards, on posters in the subway and on television increasingly feature women in suggestive poses that would have been considered soft pornography 20 years ago. It seems that there is no limit to the use of the physical appearance of women, and occasionally of men, to cloud the thinking of consumers, appeal to the most basic aspects of their psychology and reduce the natural attractiveness of people into a raw and instinctive drive for instant gratification and thoughtless consumption.

The result of this drive to reduce women to products has a terrible impact on women, especially young girls. They are overwhelmed by hidden messages from the media to which they are exposed that suggest that physical attraction is the most critical issue. Young girls assume these messages to be authoritative, thinking that a commercialized sexuality is a necessary condition for self-expression and social acceptance. Increasingly, interviewing for jobs is more about physical appearance than actual ability and the impact of education about this shift is extremely negative.

The ultimate result of promoting a dishonest idea of an attractive appearance as the condition for being modern and liberated is a stifling of women’s potential. Women who might otherwise express their creativity through the visual arts, literature, public service or other positive actions on behalf of society are encouraged rather to express themselves through cosmetics, sexually suggestive clothes, plastic surgery and a coquettish attitude. And the resulting obsession with appearances has a tremendous social cost. Women are pressured to present a perfect appearance at all costs and sacrifice natural empathy and concern for friends and family in the lonely pursuit of an unrealistic image of perfect beauty. That trend is made worse by the glorification of a cold and distant attitude in expressions of women in fashion magazines.

I have seen the groups of young women on the subway laughing together in intimate groups. They pretend to be absorbed in their conversations, but in fact they are obsessed with what they look like to others. The eyes of strangers become an ominous weight on them.

When I look at their eyes, I can see that they are not laughing at all. The laughter that they produce is a ritual and in many cases their eyes look distinctly sad. Tragically trapped within a world of surfaces, these girls can find no way to express their inner sadness.

The costs of this culture are tremendous, from suicide and alienation, to obsessive behavior patterns and an inability to enjoy a happy family life. Moreover, as women play an increasingly important role in Korean society, it is essential that we create a culture wherein ability and commitment, rather than appearance and manners, are the determining factor in our assessment of women.

First, and foremost, we must ban all sexually suggestive advertising in Korea without exception. We owe it to our daughters to protect them from such degrading images as they struggle to find their identity.

Sadly, a highly sexual image for women has been sold to the Korean public as a symbol of modernity and liberation. But nothing could be further from the truth. Women are most free when they are able to express themselves through their words and deeds and receive credit for their actual achievements.

The natural desire of women to express themselves and distinguish themselves is often limited to clothing, cosmetics and hairstyles. In fact even the ideal of the artist or bohemian has been reduced to a mere pose to be found in fashion magazines.

As long as Korean women feel pressured to appeal to the gaze of men, they will have trouble fulfilling their primary role: playing the role of active citizens in our society. That pressure to appear to be something other than what one is creates tremendous distortions in culture and a new cultural superficiality. When I studied in Japan in the 1990s, I was refreshingly pleased to see that Koreans were great readers and much more relaxed about their appearances and about status symbols than Japanese. Today, we find the opposite to be true with Koreans more obsessed with their appearances.

*The author is an associate professor at the College of International Studies, Kyung Hee University.

BY Emanuel Pastreich
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