Female Body Image and Gender Stereotypes in South Korea
“I want to fight.”
Those were C’s first words to us as she stepped into our gym for the first time sometime last summer. Her words were uttered with an assured certainty and fierce determination. Yet, there was a touch of raw edginess about her, something which I later discovered to be a profound dissatisfaction about her predicament then. She told us that she had quit her relatively well-paying job at a software firm just so that she could train Muay Thai full-time, an eyebrow-raising move in conservative South Korea.
C is urgent and desperate about fighting. “I am 27 years old this year. I don’t have much time left. I want to dedicate my remaining youth and vigor to Muay Thai.” Like most of her peers, C spent the better part of her life chasing paper qualifications in the academic pressure cooker of South Korea. She laments about having discovered Muay Thai late; she attended her first gym after completing her postgraduate degree at the age of twenty-four. C came to us from another gym in our city, disillusioned and bitter.
Her previous gym owner had refused to continue training her, telling her that she was too old for a female to win any more fights.
C does not believe in conforming to conventional standards of beauty and femininity. To her, beauty exists in myriad forms. She sports a short haircut with the sides of her head shaved, a dramatic style not easy to pass off in Korea.
Although her delicate facial features give her away, she can easily pass off as a man from the back. She is also considerably taller and more muscular than the average Korean woman. This works very well to her advantage, but her previous gym owner told her that he was unable to find suitable match-ups for her because she was “too big and heavy” for her opponents.
Fortunately, C has enough self-awareness about her body and health. She eats her meals regularly and heartily, and does not buy into the idea of women skipping meals or leaving their food unfinished under the guise of femininity. C says she has learnt to ignore the stares and hushed whispers. However, she still has trying moments in a society fixated on (conventional) beauty.
Getting her face cut up in a fight is not a concern for C. She says it would be an honor to wear her “battle scars” proudly. “I don’t think a facial scar would detract from a woman’s beauty,” she insists confidently. Her parents think otherwise – they disapprove of her choice of sport, and think it does not add value to her as a woman. “Why is it that only beauty is prized, but not strength? Isn’t the latter worthy to be pursued as well? Strength is beauty.” C muses.
C never fails to end off her training sessions with a comprehensive weights routine. She knows that conditioning is important to a Muay Thai fighter. Most of the women look at her with a mixture of fear and fascination. “Aren’t you afraid of getting bulkier? You have big enough muscles as it is,” they say. Koreans, like the Thais, have no qualms about commenting on the bodies of others to their faces. The men, on the other hand, scoff lightheartedly. “Why are you training so hard? You are not a man.”
Sometimes, they tell her to use the 2-pound pink dumbbells so that she will not “over strain herself”.
C brushes off these well-meaning but misinformed comments lightly, but I know that she is seething inside.
After her own training, C always watches from the sidelines. She is willing to hold pads for everyone, even the men. Initially, she was met with polite rejection from them. They would tell her to work with another female, saying that they did not want to injure her with their superior strength and physical power. They only began to acquiesce without protest when she beat them all during sparring sessions. “I can hold pads for even the biggest guys, no problem,” C says, a spark of defiance lighting up her eyes.
And indeed she can hold her own.
Out of curiosity, I ask C about her idea of the ideal female body. She shyly shows me the background picture on her cellphone. Her slight hesitation tells me that she has not received many positive responses about the muscular, athletic body of the female fighter on her phone display.
This is not surprising, because Korean society and media dictate that women should be petite, long haired, fair and skinny. The “S-line” and “V-line” are considered ideal and beautiful. “Why does no one say a thing when women do Muay Thai for weight loss, but all hell breaks loose when a female dons gloves professionally?” C baulks at the injustice.
C says she has no intention of getting married. She is also in two minds about the idea of having children. Right now, she just wants to train and fight as much as she can, and she thinks that singlehood is her best asset.
C knows that she is going against the extolled ideals of traditional Korean womanhood, which even has its own idiom, loosely translated as “virtuous wife and good mother”. She is a proponent of the abolishment of these age-old tenets, because she does not think it is fair for women to be identified and defined as “someone’s missus or mom”. Her opinions are considered alien and jarring in patriarchal South Korea, and she says she has earned derision and criticism on more than one occasion.
C is not bothered by the fact that her Facebook feed is flooded with news of her friends getting either engaged or married these days. Her parents are worried that she will become an “old unmarried virgin”, the epitome of an insult towards a Korean woman. They fret over the lack of a prospective husband and lament about her missing the “ideal baby-making age”.
C remains unfazed, because she does not think that marriage or motherhood is a definitive indicator of her femininity or personhood. She is a fighter, and she wants the world to know that.
“I feel the freest and happiest when I am training. In fact, I think I am prettiest when I have perspiration trickling down my face and hair plastered to my temples.”
C probably does not know it yet, but she is indeed a forerunner in the fight against patriarchy and sexism in South Korea’s Muay Thai scene.
Rachel Lee first came to South Korea in 2011, intending only to visit a Korean fighter she had met at a Muay Thai gym in Thailand earlier that year. With her month-long visit sprawling into a four-year sojourn, she has since gotten engaged to the Korean fighter, and is currently running a Muay Thai gym with him in Seoul. A traveler and explorer at heart, she frequently finds herself treading precariously between ambition and reality.