Femininity and Identity in Korea
By: Vanessa Phillips
June 19, 2018
I feel myself questioning the meaning of femininity lately. Am I comfortable with my own? Or with that of others? I pride myself on being accepting of all women, however they choose to express their identities. But I am also curious to what extent the way individuals expresses their femininity is impacted by their society. Like people in the United States, Korean people are constantly flooded with the images of the ideal person. To some extent, I would say the problem is worsened by the homogeneity of the Korean society. The United States has its own problems with representation that are quite different because the population is very diverse and the size of the country is huge. In Korea, meanwhile, the country is relatively small and there is a very low level of diversity. According to government data in 2016, only 3.4 percent of the total population is “foreign.”
So, while the United States struggles with ensuring that minorities and people of different body shapes are represented, these presences are still far more present for Americans than for Koreans. When I walk around Seoul I do see women of all ages with individual styles and haircuts. However, there is a certain standard that everyone meets. There is an unspoken rule about how put together one should look despite the differing styles of the people. Additionally, regarding women there many ideals left over from the Neo-Confucian society that was the Joseon Era.
Under Neo-Confucianism, women were essentially expected to behave according to their male partners’ wishes. Primarily confined to their households to take care of their families, women also needed to uphold their beauty and delicateness. Of course, society in Korea has modernized and women have stepped out of the household and into the workforce. Nonetheless, there is a feeling of needing to behave in a certain manner here if you are female. Whether this manifests in behavior or, most blatantly, in the way many dress.
Personally, I have seen this in the gym. In the United States, the gym culture I have experienced is quite aggressive. Both men and women will push themselves fairly hard. Although there is often a discrepancy in gender at the weight lifting racks, there isn’t when it comes to cardio. When I came to Korea, I felt it would be important to maintain my activeness so I joined Yonsei University’s gym. I was excited for a familiar type of environment that joining the gym would give me. Of course, it is in many ways like Yates or any other gym. However, the culture is distinctly different. The types of exercise that my fellow female gym-goers focus on is lighter than I would expect in the United States. Furthermore, the way which women dress for the gym is often much more conservative. To be clear, there is nothing wrong with these things. If a person wants to do lighter exercise and dress conservatively that is their right. My issues with this arise when I feel these decisions are not made out of autonomous desires but social conditioning. It is because I, too, as a female who is a boxer, have experienced the questions such as: “Should a female be doing this? Isn’t this too much for a girl?”
As a woman, expressing ambition, dressing in a less feminine way, or even something as seemingly simple as pushing yourself while working out can be questioned. The questioning is a result of the stereotypes placed on the female gender. This is a problem in the United States and many other countries as well, but I feel it acutely in Korea. As more women seek advancement in their companies and more young couples de-prioritize the traditional Neo-Confucian ideas of a family with children, I am curious how the gender roles and stereotypes surrounding being a woman in Korea will evolve.