Time to Stop Skirting the Issue: Sexualization of School Uniforms in South Korea

“3D bodyline.” “A tulip body-line to turn men’s heads.” “A skirt that really brings out those lines.” “Freely adjustable length.”

Guess what kind of product this ad is promoting. 

It’s an ad for girls’ school uniforms. One Twitter user recently uploaded a photo of the poster, criticizing it for sensational and misogynistic content: 

Why do female students’ skirts have to target men? Why do we demand that they act like students, then turn them into sexual products when they put on uniforms? 

The tweeter, who didn’t name the company behind the uniform ad, was highlighting an old issue in South Korean education and culture. What are the “permissible” boundaries of sexuality when it comes to student uniforms? Should they be completely asexual, or can a little liberty be allowed?

One well-known recent scandal involving school uniforms came in 2015. Park Jin-young, CEO of one of South Korea’s biggest entertainment agencies, appeared in a school uniform campaign with Twice, his newest girl group at the time.

This wasn’t anything out of the ordinary: Prominent uniform companies and K-pop agencies often team up for promotions. But this particular ad, by Skoolooks — one of South Korea’s biggest school uniform brands — promoted skin-tight skirts and “corset” jackets while using the highly controversial slogan: “Let’s See Who Looks Skinnier!”

“Let’s see who looks skinnier!” Talk about promoting unhealthy body images for teenagers. (Source: Skoolooks)

The ad was taken down soon after its launch, following outcries from teachers. “The uniforms accentuate the sex appeal of the female body,” said Park Yu-sun, a middle school teacher. “The models don’t look like middle or high school girls. They’re more like employees of room salons or bars that fetishize school uniforms.”

The ad was certainly problematic, but the outcry almost seemed unreasonable, given the popularity of school uniforms as costumes for both male and female K-pop idols. The Lolita-ization of the latter often goes uncriticized in South Korea. And the body images the Skoolooks ad promoted, especially regarding the female body, didn’t appear to differ much from many of its other commercials — skinny, beautiful K-pop idols wearing tight jackets and short skirts. What made this one stand out was its more explicit ad slogan. The producers were shamelessly and tactlessly open about the kind of body images they wanted students to associate with their products, and to aspire to. 

Tighter uniforms have been popular among boys and girls for years. A recent survey of over 9,000 teenagers showed that students from elementary to high school generally preferred uniforms that were slightly tighter and shorter. In the debate surrounding the sexualization of teen uniforms, the voices of teenagers themselves is conspicuously absent. 

 

Cover Image: The now-deleted ad by Skoolooks in 2015, featuring Park Jin-young and Twice of JYP Entertainment. (Source: Skoolooks)

Haeryun Kang wrote this radar report.

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