Sunny Xinyan Peng
Sunny is a PhD student of Anthropology at University of Virginia. Her current research applies a wide range of approaches including linguistics to studying mainland Chinese immigrants with the Protestant faith in the US. Her personal interests go with Korean popular culture and fashion.
My long time interest of studying the influence of Korean popular culture from the angle of female body and femininity was initially stimulated by a conversation with a Ghanaian American friend at college, about a Korean TV show titled Prosecutor Princess. This is a story of how Ma Hye-ri, a wealthy young Korean woman graduating from an elite law school, establishes her career as a prosecutor and finds her true love. Notwithstanding a cheesy plot, the drama portrays the heroine’s almost brutal process of losing weight and becoming slender. My friend narrated, “Everything was triggered by her realization that her crush in law school was in love with her best friend instead of her. She came back home, crying from morning to night, which made her mother decide to get her into a weight-loss mode by force. Hye-ri woke up in the next morning only to find herself in the basement and see a plate of salad vegetables slipped through under the window by her strong-minded and yet sympathetic mother. Then two strong soon-to-be trainers came in and together lifted her up to the treadmill. What follows is a series of snapshots of her running on the treadmill, eating salad. Eventually, there appears a slender girl, happily taking out all the beautiful clothes that she could not fit into before, puts on makeup, and walks outside of the basement to the streets.”
June, 2013, Taipei. I came for a fieldwork studying the influence of Korean fashion on female body with a gracious support from the University of Virginia. I intended to carry out participant observation in shopping centers filled with South Korean clothes and beauty-products as well as in-depth interviews with both store-owners and young Taiwanese female customers. After hearing what I was in Taipei for, almost everyone around recommended me to go to Wufenpu, a fashion landmark extolled by young Taiwanese as well as tourists and a place flooded with clothes imported from Seoul.
The manager of a store right at the entrance, a guy in his mid-twenties, wearing black T-shirt, a pair of tight jeans, and glasses with black frames, welcomed me inside. When I asked him to show some clothes of Korean fashion, he picked out one slim and plain white T-shirt and said,
Findings in popular fashion magazines featuring items from South Korea resonated with what I was told in Wufenpu. Yura, a host of an entertainment TV program in South Korea, was once interviewed by Vogue about the Korean fashion in Taipei during her first visit there. In an article published on VOGUE.com in June 2012, she showcased the following types of Korean looks that were popular in Taipei. During that interview with Vogue magazine, Yura expressed being very impressed by the fact that Korean clothes fashion dominated the street stores in the East District of Taipei. As a native South Korean and a fashion connoisseur, she interpreted the essence of Korean female clothes fashion to be “non-extravagant, comfortable, yet elegant.”
Korean fashion has gradually taken over the Japanese style of cuteness since 1990s, and the Korean influence is now closely tied to the buzzword “lightly-mature lady” (輕熟女qing shu nv) in Taipei. The category of “lightly mature ladies” — females from their mid-twenties to mid-thirties that are economically self-reliant and pursuing independence both in their professional and personal lives, has become a more and more pronounced category of femininity in Taipei. From my male informants, I got the impression that the Japanese style of cuteness appears to be more “feminine” because it is less threatening to male authority, whereas the Korean style helps create a female image that is more independent and has more agency.
Even though “less feminine” is often used by my informants to compare Korean style embodied by “lightly mature ladies” to the Japanese “cuteness,”I think the Korean style helps “lightly mature ladies” perform a particular type of femininity distinctively associated with sophistication, independence, and elegance.
With this recent gradual shift from once-popular Japanese to Korean female fashion, especially among “lightly mature ladies,” young Taiwanese females in Taipei now seem to have more choices to craft an attractive and beautiful image of themselves. This social trend influenced by transnational cultural flow coincides with the recent rise of individuality (個性gexing) not only in Taiwan but also in mainland China. According to David Harvey’s book A Brief History of Neoliberalism, in the era of neoliberal economic reform and opening up to the world economy in the late 1970s and early 1980s, mainland China underwent what Harvey calls “privatization with Chinese characteristics” which led to the development of a state-manipulated market economy. Scholars studying contemporary China such as Yan Yunxiang argue that the rise of individuals follows the neoliberal reform.
Despite its influence on the rise of individuality, the particular Korean fashion elements crafting a professional, sophisticated, and elegant “lightly mature ladies”, can at the same time be restricting.
Korean fashion crafting a professional and sophisticated “lightly mature ladies” can at the same time be restricting.
Although it has already been a norm of female beauty in Taipei, slenderness gets emphasized even more as Korean style prevails, because those clothes “made in Korea” or “designed in Korea” elicit the necessity of having a slenderer body. Young Taiwanese females that I talked to, no matter how slender they already were, desire to get even skinnier and therefore closer to the “perfect” body. They carefully calculate calories of different types of food, work out hard in gyms (especially after eating out), and getting all sorts of weight-loss products from Seven-Eleven stores all over the streets.
While they enjoy shopping for the Korean style clothes, young Taiwanese females are also striving to reach those “perfect” bodies that look attractive in those clothes. Do you want to look fashionable in a “Korean” way? You better get slender first.