In a reference to the famously common surname, a Korean quip goes: “Throw a rock in Seoul and you’ll hit a Kim.”
For sure. But it is now also feasible to say with equal accuracy: ‘Throw a rock in Seoul and you’ll hit a model.”
Millennial South Korea famously – or infamously – boasts some of the world’s most skilled and widely patronized plastic surgeons and is home to a surging cosmetics industry. In a society known for its ferocious competition, looks have become the latest spec to upgrade as part of one’s personal portfolio.
As a result, Seoul has an advanced baseline of beauty. Millions of Everywomen are capable make-up artists and stylists, and armed with one of the world’s highest adoption rates of digital devices, and surfing one of the world’s finest digital backbones, are equally adept online publicists.
Here in Beautyland, everybody wants to be a model, it seems. And the skillsets deployed by this legion of self-made fashionistas go far, far beyond those required for even the fanciest selfie.
Average Kims, non-average looks
A hashtag in very common use on Instagram amongst such aspirants is #일반인모델 – “general model” or “ordinary person model.”
This idea of “general” or “ordinary” is instructive.
In South Korea, the idea of everyman sits uneasily within the historical context of a harshly stratified social caste system that dominated pre-modern Korea culture, with the male yangban, or aristocratic literati, at the top of the food chain.
Of course, in a process that started in the late 19th century, the ancien regime and its rigid classes were swept away by the tsunami of colonialism, modernity, urbanization and finally globalization. Today’s South Korea is a broadly democratic space, but its modernity inevitably lies in the shadow of yesteryear.
While South Korea is most certainly a middle-class society, there is no question but that newer forms of aristocracy, as maintained through wealth transfer and the elite education it buys, have taken up the old positions of the yangban.
And as is the case from Bollywood to Hollywood, South Korea’s modern trend-setting elite is its media glitterati. Even in this physically small country, in which bumping into or catching glimpses of live stars is not that rare, stars breathe a more rarified air and occupy different social strata than the average Kim.
But a new wave of social aspirants is striving to climb into the spotlight. In that, they are enabled by the democratizing, leveling power of digital-recording technologies and social media.
The “ordinary people models” who embody this hashtag are in it for different reasons.
In fact, South Korea has a relatively long history of ordinary people in the pro modeling space. To understand what is going on today, one has to know what a “fitting model” is in South Korea. There are two levels to this idea, each defined by their own separate hashtags.
Fit for purpose
First, a “fitting model” has long been someone who models clothing in preparation for the top-end model, who rolls in later. Essentially, a rehearsal model, this allows the team to prep the real shoot – setting the scene, hanging the clothes.
Recently, the meaning has morphed.
Now, it denotes a cheaper, often not-attractive-enough-in-the-face-to-do-“real”-modeling model who poses for quick, cheap shoots used by the plethora of “internet shopping malls.” Those malls exploded in and around the early 2000s when the Korean internet was abuzz with the success of “$400,000 girl” Kim Ye-jin, who earned that much per year as the 19-year-old CEO of the online mall she founded.
Since about 2005, this supposed get-rich-quick scheme drove Everygirl and her best friend to become fashion entrepreneurs. It also drove sales of the first sub-$1,000 dSLRs – pro cameras that shot straight to digital that had previously clocked in at $10,000 or so, and which had, not coincidentally, hit the scene from around 2006.
As of then, Everygirl CEO’s best friend is a chum who is skinny enough, pretty enough – and most importantly – cheap or free. This person is the new “fitting model.”
Digitization, however, is cracking the privileged position that pro fashionistas once held in the sector. Now, “everyday people” can call themselves “models.” It is a socially daring act.
Meet the model
I first got to know Park Chae-eun in June this year through Instagram, as part of an ethnographic research project. I contacted her as a professional photographer and ethnographer, who was getting to know the community by offering fashion magazine-quality pictures in exchange for their time and interviews about their activities.
Despite her youth – she was still in high school – Chae-eun proved to be a consummate pro. In fact, she was more thoughtful and professional than many of the far more experienced models I had shot.
But what most impressed most was her social bravery.
Firstly, she was a high school girl in South Korea – a difficult and savagely stressful social status, given the huge importance of grades and college entrance. The confusing social messages and expectations facing this gender demographic are impossible to navigate, so the only choice is to just plunge through the experience and hope to end up safe on the other side.
Her watchwords were: “Be innocent (but hot)! Be coy (but sexy)! Study hard and sacrifice all (but get a boyfriend)! Be beautiful (but do it seemingly effortlessly and naturally)! Conform (but stand out)!”
Chae-eun navigated these impossibilities with aplomb.
Aspiring to major in design at university, she tailored her personalized approach to style and aesthetics by modeling on Instagram. And she did it despite not being in the desired height/weight zone of most of the fashion market.
Welcome to the revolution
And she was plunging into modeling at a time when social media and the impact of feminism was wresting visual control and the social disciplining of women’s bodies back into their own hands. Traditionally, men have regulated and punished women who stepped beyond male-set social and gender boundaries.
This ongoing process is massively significant, for Korean thought police have used visual imagery to punish those who crossed these boundaries.
One example is an infamous 1974 picture of a hapless “Miss Jang,” who, under arrest (!), is having her thighs measured by real, actual police to check that her skirt is the appropriate length. While that picture was taken during South Korea’s era of puritanical authoritarian governance, the practice has continued to the present.
In 2005, “dog poop girl” – who refused to clear up the mess after her pet defecated on the subway – was cyberbullied through pictures of the incident shared on the internet. Netizens figured out her name, citizen identification number, home address and even student ID, all of which were published online, causing her to experience “social death.”
Then, in 2007, “pink pajama girl,” a middle-school pupil, was badgered incessantly for doing the then-popular “sexy dance” on the Pandora video network.
More famously, a number of K-pop stars have taken their own lives after cyber-bullying – which often manifests as attacks on physical appearance or attire choices.
Against this backdrop, the act of using one’s body and style to make visual statements on Instagram requires true boldness. To do so while a high-school teen deserves a medal.
The good news is that Chae-eun is not alone. She is part of a swelling trend. She, and other “ordinary person models,” are swaggering online with supersized portions of chutzpah to assert their visual identifies.
This is more than noteworthy. It is a socially revolutionary, sociologically revelatory phenomenon.
As the existence of this hashtag indicates, much is changing in regards to gender, beauty and social identity in South Korean society. Now, women – and a few men – feel confident enough to assert the previously unassertable with unflappable confidence and panache.
This is the second installment in the series, “Kool Korea by hashtag.” The first can be viewed here.
A Seoul-based visual sociologist and fashion photographer, Michael Hurt (Instagram @kuraeji) lectures in Cultural Theory and Art History at the Korea National University of the Arts and Visual Sociology and Technomethodology at the Daegu Institute of Science and Technology.