FEMALE BODYBUILDERS CHALLENGE TRADITIONAL VIEWS OF FEMININITY IN SOUTH KOREA
The origins of female bodybuilding can be traced back to the days of vaudeville and early twentieth century freak shows. Standing somewhere amongst John Coffey-The Living Skeleton, Samuel Parks-The Fearless Frog Boy and Sidonia De Barcsy-The Bearded Lady, the world’s first female body builders (referred to as strong-women) were practicing their routines.
Freak shows were used to exhibit people who were thought to be physically unusual or deformed. The strong woman was a figure often seen in these shows because physical strength was a characteristic attributed only to men, thus establishing strong women as “freaks.”
It wasn’t until 1977 that female bodybuilding became recognized as a national competition, thanks to YMCA employee Henry McGhee. Controversy has since erupted over whether the sport should be feminized. Some men feel that women should be forced to wear high heels during the competition and be banned from using masculine poses on stage, such as clenching of the fists or the double biceps pose. Though female bodybuilders are often stigmatized, the sport continues to grow and attract women from all over the world.
Notably, female bodybuilding has become a growing movement in South Korea, a republic with strict views on what it means to be feminine. Defining womanhood in South Korea has led to troubling cultural and medical trends.
South Korea recently had a problem with the alphabetization of the female body. This refers to the practice of comparing women’s bodies to letters of the Roman alphabet. Letters S and X are desirable letters because the curves of S denote big breasts and large buttocks, while X is desirable because it denotes having long arms and legs connected by an almost nonexistent waistline. D, B and O are considered undesirable letters. D refers to the shape of a pregnant woman’s belly, B means having large breasts and a large stomach, and O signifies being fat and shapeless.
South Korean media has broadcasted the alphabetization of women’s bodies as a positive thing, even going as far as to suggest diet and exercise plans to achieve the S or X figure. This alphabetization encourages women to be slenderly built with sex appeal in all the right places. Another way South Korea promotes this body image is through the prevalence of plastic surgery clinics and an overly optimistic attitude towards cosmetic surgery.
Calf reduction is one of the most common cosmetic surgery procedures among South Koreans. Seoul TouchUp is a prevalent medical tourism agency that relays, “Compared to Caucasians, Asians have relatively short legs and muscled calves. In South Korea, plastic surgeons have mastered the skills to slim down these protruding calves.” Calf surgery may not be for everyone, but Seoul TouchUp believes that some people are better candidates than others. “You may be a good candidate if you avoid wearing skirts…slender smooth legs can help you look taller and allow you to confidently keep up to date with fashion trends as they happen.” Women with larger calves are often referred to in Korea as “radish legs.”
South Korea’s Gangnam District is also known as the Beauty Belt due to its large number of plastic surgery clinics. Between 2009 and 2013 the number of tourists visiting the district increased by five fold.
The focussed attention on femininity in South Korea is part of what makes the rise in Korean female bodybuilders especially interesting. Inspired by pictures of Madonna’s toned body, Jeong Yeon Soon went on to become one of Korea’s most successful and well known female bodybuilders. Soon hopes that South Korea will adopt a more health conscious beauty ideal in which procedures like whole body liposuction and calf reduction surgeries are traded out for regular exercise and nutritious eating habits.
Five times a day Soon eats boiled chicken and vegetables, which she mixes into a health shake. This strict diet combined with the rigorous workout routine and public scrutiny doesn’t leave her much time for friends. She’s described life as a female bodybuilder as lonely, but worth it, a bitter sweet sentiment felt by any pioneer.
WRITTEN BY DOMINIQUE TUREK