by Abbie Sharp
Scrolling through the Instagram tag for #탈코 gives an insight into what one of the newest and fastest growing South Korean feminist movements is all about. 탈코 (tal-ko), short for 탈주 코르셋 (tal-ju co-reu-set) – ‘escape the corset’ in English – is a movement that seeks to allow women to free themselves from the strict patriarchal views dictating how Korean women should present themselves.
The movement was first brought to attention in South Korea in early 2018, and was popularised globally through a YouTube video titled ‘나는 예쁘지 않습니다.’ (‘I am not pretty.’) The woman behind the video, Lina Bae, is a prominent beauty influencer who decided to use her platform to share her experiences of the South Korean beauty standard. The video presents this in almost uncomfortable detail; it starts with Lina slowly putting on her makeup as word-for-word comments she’d received in the past appear and disappear around her. The phrases are shockingly cruel: ‘Can you even see with those squinty eyes? Your eyelids are so f*cking uneven.’ ‘It’s a pig wearing makeup.’ ‘I’d kill myself if I looked like you.’ She finishes her makeup, and forces a smile as the comments change. ‘Wow, you’re pretty!’ After a moment, the compliments fade, and there’s a pause. Her smile drops. She starts to remove her makeup. After she returns to her bare face, she smiles again; this time, however, it feels real. The text that features at the end of the video is a heartfelt and honest message to the women following her: ‘You’re special just the way you are. Nobody can hurt you. I will always support you.’
A short swipe through the aforementioned #탈코 Instagram tag displays more of this mindset. The tag is made up of posts by young Korean women, usually in their early-to-mid twenties, posting recent pictures alongside pictures from a year, two years, three years ago. In the vast majority of these ‘corseted’ pictures, these women have long hair, meticulously styled and sometimes dyed blonde or auburn or light brown; they’re wearing bright lipstick, pink blush in the apples of their cheeks, with straight eyebrows that match the current Korean beauty trends; sparkling eyeshadow and sharp, perfect eyeliner.
Then, a single scroll to the right reveals the current them – after they have escaped the corset, so to speak.
Many of these women have moved on from this careful grooming and make-up routine. In fact, most of them now have short, unbleached hair, cut in fashionable short styles; they wear glasses, and tend to skip makeup entirely, keeping their previously extensive skincare routine to something much more simple. Their clothes are no longer tight and hyper-feminine. Instead, they might lean towards baggy hoodies, loose shirts, wide-legged jeans, and switch heels for comfortable trainers.
Diving deeper into the tag, you find a surprising amount of posts about the musician Billie Eilish. Many of these posts use the same clip of her speaking in one specific interview, subtitled in Korean; in the interview, she speaks about the fact that she wears ‘boyish’, loose, baggy clothing to hide her body, since she is hyper-aware of the fact that men sexualise her, despite being a minor. The captions and comments on many of these posts agree with her. At the same time, many of these posts have comments limited or turned off entirely, with warnings that hate will be deleted.
At first, I didn’t quite ‘get’ the importance that the Free the Corset movement has on so many women in Korea. To me, a young woman lucky enough to grow up and discover myself in a country where self-expression was fairly accepted – where adulthood and moving from home certainly gave me the space that I needed to really figure out how I liked to be seen by others – I couldn’t understand where so many of these women were coming from. Why was it such a big deal for them to have short hair? Why was it a big deal for some of them to be what I considered as tomboys?
It took a lot of learning (and, to an extent, unlearning) to understand just how big the act of existing as a fairly ‘androgynous’ woman is in South Korea. In one of my classes, one girl went into detail surrounding a childhood of serious bullying due to the fact that she’d never been interested in presenting herself in a hyper-feminine way, even as a child. Because of this, she had been severely harassed by boys for ‘looking like a lesbian’, and bullied by girls who thought she was doing it for attention from men. A brief search on the ‘escape the corset’ movement includes endless news articles on the topic; one news article that gained huge traction in South Korean media surrounds Lim Hyeon-ju, a female news reporter, who made national headlines for being the first ever woman in Korean history to wear glasses on air. Others bring up the fact that all job applications in South Korea require a headshot alongside a CV, and candidates are based on how they look alongside their experience – costing some people their livelihoods if they don’t fit the tight standards of beauty.
The Free the Corset movement affords South Korean women the freedom and independence they aren’t provided when they’re forced to perform femininity in a way that they see as oppressive. It isn’t a comment on the choices that some women make when they wear make-up or feminine clothing; it’s a comment on a patriarchal, late capitalist society that forces so many women into a position that feels suffocating, and casts aside their own wants and needs. When not matching the societal standard can literally cost some women a place in society, it’s only natural that it comes to a breaking point. And, as we can see with the continuing success of the 탈코 movement, this breaking point has been a long time coming.
Study Abroad Columnist: Abbie Sharp, 3rd Year BA English Literature Undergraduate. Currently studying abroad at Seoul National University, Seoul.