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International Women's Day The South Korean feminists rejecting the limp ‘brand’ of liberal feminism

Jo Bartosch speaks to NAYOUNG KIM about how South Korean women have lit a fire of feminist activism by rejecting the confining ‘corset’ of sex role stereotypes

RADICAL change is coming for women, and it’s rising from the east.  

In South Korea a new feminist movement dubbed “Ditch the Corset” is tearing down the restrictions and expectations placed on women and girls.  

I spoke with Nayoung Kim, a 29-year-old radical feminist from Seoul. An attorney full of feminist fire, Nayoung told me more about the new generation turning their backs on the suffocating “corset” of femininity: “South Korea has always had feminists engaged in activism against male dominance but very few massive ‘waves.’ The most recent explosion of feminist sentiments and activism started happening around 2014 and has continued to grow.”

South Korea is the world’s fifth-largest market for cosmetics and, as elsewhere in the world, the pressure on women and girls to conform to a narrow ideal of feminine beauty is crushing.  

There is money to be made from manufacturing dissatisfaction with one’s body, and Nayoung notes that “entire industries feed off female consumers’ need to conform to the image of the ideal woman. This includes not only the cosmetics industry, but also the cosmetic surgery industry, the dieting industry, the fashion industry, the entertainment industry, etc.”

Hundreds of thousands of women have now joined the Ditch the Corset movement, and while actions vary, Nayoung explains that “in general they include cutting one’s hair short (two-block, undercut or even fully shaved off), choosing one’s clothes based only on practicality and comfort (as men in general have always been able to do), getting rid of all cosmetics and the everyday rituals that come with having a beauty regimen, not engaging in intimate relationships with men, and renouncing motherhood.”

Nayoung herself has a has a child and a male partner, though she is supportive of the emerging movement which also takes aim at traditional notions of the family: “Many Korean radical feminists would also include heterosexual romance, marriage, pregnancy, childbirth and child-rearing in the list of ‘corsets.’ 

“Of course, this situation is not so different in other societies. It’s patriarchy 101. What is different and unique in South Korea right now is that massive numbers of young women are waking up to this reality and aggressively resisting these ‘corsets’.”

She continues: “These ideas by themselves are not new. I knew many feminist women who practised Ditch the Corset before it became a huge movement, but they were marginalised and almost invisible in society. 

“Today’s Ditch the Corset is a cultural phenomenon. I think it’s excellent, I’ve cut my hair and thrown out what make-up and girdles I had. I met my life partner and made a baby with him before Ditch the Corset became so big, I probably would have done the same even if it had been a thing then, but it is heartening to see so many women and girls going to such lengths to resist patriarchal ideas of what it means to be female.”

It has often been said that if it doesn’t make men uncomfortable then it isn’t feminism. Indeed, Nayoung explains that “most men have responded to Ditch the Corset with ridicule, insult and contempt.”  

Perhaps it is to be expected, but not all women have been supportive either. Nayoung notes: “Quite a few women have reacted angrily. Maybe they feel personally attacked when some women criticise traditional notions of femininity.”

Coverage of Ditch the Corset from outside Korea has been broadly supportive. Nayoung posits that this is because “we don’t see such massive expressions of radical feminism elsewhere in the world right now.” 

Looking at what constitutes mainstream feminism in Britain and US it’s hard not to see Nayoung’s point. This year there seem to be more events in Britain to mark International Women’s Day than ever — it seems feminism is “on trend.”  

If you find yourself near Manchester you can join with a bondage session to celebrate women’s emancipation. If you’re in the capital you can be educated about women’s struggles in an exhibition of work by male artist Stephen Acosta, or if you don’t want to move from your laptop you can donate to charity by buying a Pandora bracelet.  

Ditch the Corset is a riposte to this limp “brand” of feminism. It is a bold rejection of not only of gender norms but of the patriarchal industries that feed from them. 

Asked about the future of Ditch the Corset, Nayoung says: “I think the long-term impact of this movement will be nationwide mass consciousness-raising and feminist action against sexual objectification. Once we have such a legacy for ourselves, we will always be able to rebuild and strengthen our resistance.”

“South Korea is a hub of radical feminism right now. The internet’s anonymity, expansiveness and speed greatly facilitated mass consciousness-raising for Korean women and girls. 

“Meanwhile, sex inequality and men’s violence against women have not ceased. Women have started a fire of feminist activism. Men keep providing fuel. So it seems this fire will keep burning.

“To women elsewhere in the world who are struggling to ‘Ditch the corset’: you are not alone in this struggle, sisters!”

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