There’s a new label for women floating around on the Internet: bagel girls. A Konglish (Korean + English) combination of baby-faced and glamorous, the phrase started popping up about a year ago on websites dedicated to K-pop and South Korean celebrities. South Korean stars, especially actresses and singers, are praised as bagel girls for the contrast between what fans have called their youthful “baby faces” and “glamorous” bodies.
Actresses and singers like Shin Min Ah, UEE, and Shin Se Kyung have received a lot of attention from fans for this unrealistic mix of pre- and post-pubescent features. “Young” facial features include dimples and eye smiles, which according to a writer for the popular gossip site allkpop.com, “epitomize what Koreans deem a ‘youthful complexion.’”
As for the glamorous bodies, it’s all about the curves, of course. While their faces should remain girlish, their bodies are often singled out for having “S-lines.” What’s an S-line? It’s the South Korean equivalent of T&A and just one of many troubling “alphabet-lines” ubiquitous in South Korean pop culture. Other ridiculous examples include W-line (breasts), V-line (to describe one’s face or cleavage), M-line (men’s abs), and, perhaps worst of all, X-line, which is reserved for women with long limbs and tiny waists.
The X-line “body shape is quite literally impossible outside of Photoshop,” says James Turnbull, who writes about South Korea’s gender issues on his website, The Grand Narrative. Along with S-line and V-line, it pops up frequently on TV shows and in ads, giving the letter line practice much more in the way of staying power than the term “bagel girl.”
“However fleeting the popularity of the term ‘bagel girl’ may or may not prove to be, I find the fact that such an inane term has gained such traction in popular culture to very much epitomize the pervasive media objectification of women here [in South Korea],” Turnbull says.
Writing on her popular blog Dramabeans: Deconstructing Korean drama and kpop culture, javabeans calls the letter-line practice “a seemingly frivolous” trend that “belies much more pernicious trends in society at large, when you have celebrities vocally espousing their alphabet-lines and therefore actually objectifying themselves as a conglomeration of ‘perfect’ body parts rather than as whole, genuine people.”
Sexualizing young women for having childlike features sets off all kinds of alarms, regardless of whether or not they are over 18. The “bagel girl” label does more than infantilize women. It compartmentalizes them by applying two irreconcilable ideals: looking like a baby and a full-grown woman at the same time. It’s not enough to look youthful and beautiful anymore in industries that have a history of idealizing and objectifying women. Shin Se-Kyung, who was voted the top bagel girl, is just 21 years old.
It’s no surprise that this environment exists in a country that has one of the lowest (and, sometimes, the lowest) rates of females in the workforce in the O.E.C.D., an economic organization with 34 members concentrated in Europe and North America. South Korea is also the only country in the O.E.C.D. where women with degrees are less likely to work than those without a college education.
The good news is it looks like some members of the “bagel girls” don’t want to be in the club. When a reporter asked Shin Se-Kyung about her nickname, she reportedly responded, “I have a mature look, but I don’t have a baby face” before adding, “I like being called smart better than being called innocent or sexy.”
By Grace Duggan for BUST magazine
Photo: UEE from a-school.co.kr