It Was Just Our Body. It Was Just Underwear

Editor’s Note: In July, online media outlet Dotface uploaded an interview with an elementary school teacher, titled “My Teacher is a Feminist.” In the interview, the teacher said, “Have you seen the schoolyards at elementary schools? They don’t belong to girls. Those that play soccer and run are all boys.”

She criticized other teachers’ lack of awareness about gender stereotypes, and how social conditioning limited both boys and girls to the roles perceived to be acceptable for their genders. She argued that teaching feminism was vital at schools, and could cultivate students’ critical thinking. In short, South Korea needs feminist teachers.  

After the Dotface interview, this teacher was demonized on social media and criticized by many parents of her students for undermining the “equality of the sexes” (yangseong pyeongdeung). This backlash was unfair, but predictable, in a country where feminism is often called “feminazism.”

(We are withholding her name here for fear of prompting even more attacks against her.)

The teacher had organized a “Feminism Book Club” at her school to raise awareness about the way teachers inadvertently condition female and male students to accept gender stereotypes. 21 out of 58 teachers at her school, including the vice principal, attended the meetings. After the Dotface interview aired, the book club was disbanded.

The following op-ed is by the founder of Dotface, who participated in the subsequent online campaign to defend the teacher: #We_Need_Feminist_Teachers. The campaign, supported by over twenty feminist and human rights organizations, faces an uphill battle: protesting South Korea’s overwhelming prejudice against feminism and those who identify as feminists.

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It Was Just Our Body. It Was Just Underwear

In my high school, there were frequent inspections of our clothes. It was an all-girls high school, on top of a high hill. Summer uniforms were white short-sleeved shirts and navy skirts. Inspections were tense but tedious. Each time, we couldn’t wait for them to be over.

Teachers walked between the desks, scrutinizing us. If the color of the bra straps showing through the shirt was ‘too racy,’ they tapped us with wooden sticks as a warning. The skirts must not be too tight, they said.

When the uniforms got tighter because we gained weight, the teachers joked, the buttons on your shirts are going to pop because of your big breasts. Aren’t you being too sexy?

A male teacher called out the bra straps. A female teacher joked about our breasts. Then they inspected our outfits, insisting that students must be “decent and chaste.” We grew up being scolded for our bra straps and scolded for our fat breasts, which they said were racy. But that was just our body. That was just underwear.

We were told to be careful with our own bodies. We were scolded for not being chaste enough, because someone might see our bodies as racy. That was the reality of the school I went to.

A few years after I graduated, my younger brother got physically hurt while receiving military-esque punishment at his all-male high school. “Male bastards” should be able to endure this much, that was the thinking behind imposing punishment an average human being cannot endure. While I took him to the emergency room, I thought, our schools aren’t getting better. They’re hells of norm forged out of prejudice. That was where I grew up; that is where our younger siblings, children are growing up.

“Girls must be like this and that.” If a prejudice like this hardens, so too does the prejudice that “boys must be like such and such.”

Why is it mostly boys who use the schoolyard? Where are all the girls? This isn’t about the sexes fighting for possession of the schoolyard. Some boys do like soccer. Some girls like being indoors. Some people are like that. But some aren’t like that at all.

But isn’t it a question worth thinking about: why the schoolyard is used mostly by boys? I don’t think that one gender loves to sweat more than the other from birth.

One reason may be that boys get teased for staying inside a classroom “like a girl.” Another reason may be the whispers and harassment a girl endures when she runs, because her breasts shake like watermelons. It could also be that a woman who is good at soccer gets labelled in newspaper headlines as the “female Park Ji-sung” [famous in South Korea for having played for Manchester United] at best.

The reasons a boy who doesn’t like running takes to the school playground, and a girl who wants to run comes back into the classroom — those reasons are scattered all over our society. And those myriad reasons make our schoolyard look the way it does.

You can tell me, “I’m a girl, and I don’t want to go outside.” Or, “I’m a boy, and I love playing soccer.” I think that’s totally fine. Saying that we need feminism at school isn’t a battle cry to push all girls out into the soccer field. It’s simply to make it possible to talk without the premise that one should do this or that because of one’s gender. I want more teachers to recognize and pay attention to discrimination. I believe that our schools need feminism. No, I think feminism is something everyone needs. Because I want to live in a better world.

 

This piece was translated from Korean by Haeryun Kang. The original was posted on Facebook on Aug. 12.

Cover image: “It was just our body.” (Source: Via pxhere, CCO Public Domain)

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Sodam Cho, who also goes by the pen name Summer, is the founder of Dotface, an online media outlet in South Korea.