South Korea women's groups criticise lookism, call for more diversified clothing sizes

A shopping area in Myeong-dong in downtown Seoul, South Korea, on July 25, 2017. Women's rights groups in South Korea have criticised clothing companies for using mannequins idealising too-thin figures and making only limited sizes in clothing, which
A shopping area in Myeong-dong in downtown Seoul, South Korea, on July 25, 2017. Women's rights groups in South Korea have criticised clothing companies for using mannequins idealising too-thin figures and making only limited sizes in clothing, which they said solidifies an unrealistic beauty standard.PHOTO: EPA

SEOUL (THE KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - In the United States, South Korea's first plus-size model Kim Gee Yang was not even considered plus-sized. But in South Korea, people just see her as a "fat woman" unfit to be a fashion model.

"In Korean society, there are categories for only 'normal' or 'average' people. The rest don't belong anywhere and fat people are just mocked. They consider being fat as lazy, disgusting and unhealthy," Ms Kim said.

"It is not true and it is none of others' business," said Ms Kim, 31, who is a US size 14 and 1.65m tall. "It has been a long time since I've shopped in Korea because there are not many sizes here I can try on."

Ms Kim, who debuted as a model in the US in 2010, now owns magazine 66110. It runs articles on fashion issues for plus-size women and sells clothes for them as part of efforts to fight against the country's long-held beauty norm.

"Being fat is not a problem, just like being slim, having short or long hair isn't a problem," she said.

On Wednesday (July 26), an association of six women's rights groups criticised clothing companies for using mannequins idealising too-thin figures and making only limited sizes in clothing, which they said solidifies an unrealistic beauty standard.

According to the report by the Korea Women's Environmental Network on 31 clothing companies, including Forever21, H&M, Uniqulo and Mixxo, 74.2 per cent of them failed to offer various sizes - only retaining three sizes. Of those, 95.5 per cent were local brands.

Only 25 per cent of the surveyed retailers had an XS size and 30.1 per cent had an XL.

In terms of sleeveless shirts, only 11 of 31 brands had an XL size and only seven brands had an XS. As for short skirts, out of 26 brands, six retailers had an XS size or smaller, and only two brands had an XL size and bigger, it said.

They have called for varied body sizes of mannequins and clothing to be showcased by retailers, as well as an act demanding retailers to denote retouched images in their advertisements.

A standard mannequin in South Korea is 1.75m to 1.8m tall, has a waist measurement of 24 inches and a hip measurement of 35 inches. But the average woman aged 20 to 24 in the country is 1.6m tall and has a waist size of 28 inches and hip size of 36 inches, according to the Korea Agency for Technology and Standards in 2015.

"It is common to see women who say they could not find items available in their sizes, especially feminine items like skirts," Ms Ko Kum Sook from KWEN said. "Limited sizes not only spread a distorted standard for beauty, but also make women think that it is their fault to be too heavy."

She added: "Many women are constantly on a diet, suffering from mental distress and eating disorders. More sizes mean women's health rights better protected."

In a 2013 study by Samyook University in Seoul that surveyed 233 female university students, only 11.5 per cent said they were satisfied with their bodies. On the other hand, 93.5 per cent of 154 students who are in the normal range said that they were unhappy with their bodies.

"I used to think about losing weight all the time. When I saw women looking perfect in their clothes in advertising, I tried it on. But when I didn't look like it, I got disappointed," said Ms Kim Ah Yeong, a women's rights activist at Bulggot Femi Action.

Both women and men cannot avoid facing "lookism", but it places a heavier burden on women, she said.

"Many men also take interest in taking care of their appearance, but doing that is almost a must for women," said Ms Kim. "It seems like there are stereotypes for women's looks, such as thin arms and legs, muscular thighs and big breasts."

Though beauty standards vary all over the world, many other countries also place an emphasis on being skinny. But it is especially pronounced here, a scholar said.

"Limited options for sizes are linked to Korean society putting too much stress on having certain types of looks, which can be seen in many Koreans going under the knife," said Dr Seol Dong Hoon, a sociology professor at Jeonbuk University.

According to a survey on 459 men and women in their 20s by Univ 20 magazine and Banobagi Plastic Surgery in 2016, 46.4 per cent of them said they had received plastic surgery. Of them, 44.5 per cent said they had done so because they had been envious of others' looks.

In 2007, legislation was introduced in Korea to make it mandatory for clothing manufacturers to make various sizes including big ones, but failed to pass through the National Assembly.

In 2015, France enforced a law prohibiting unhealthy models on its runways and requiring advertisers to indicate in text in cases where images of models were digitally retouched. The United States proposed a similar bill this year.