This article is a transcription of a speech given by Park Hyejung on 27 August 2022 at the launch of the Japanese translation of Beauty and Misogyny by Sheila Jeffreys. Park is a radical feminist who has long been involved in abolitionist activism in South Korea. In this speech, she describes the anti-beauty movement (tal-corset=take off corset) in Korea, and the impact of Beauty and Misogyny in Korea when it was published in translation in 2018.
Hello. My name is Park Hyejung. I have participated in many publication projects of radical feminist works in South Korea. Today, I’d like to talk about the ‘tal-corset’ movement and the book Beauty and Misogyny’s influence on it.
As many of you know, a radical feminist movement emerged in South Korea in 2015. It was an online-based mass movement among young Korean women. These young women opposed prostitution, transgenderism, and beauty practices. As a long-time abolitionist campaigner, in 2017, I was getting frustrated with many feminists and queer activists leaning toward the ‘sex work’ ideology, so I was thrilled when I discovered these new online feminists’ radical politics. These feminists criticized famous feminist scholars’ opinions on prostitution and sexual exploitation on Facebook. I was a voracious reader of Sheila Jeffrey’s work at the time, and I wanted to let these feminists know that there is a radical feminist scholar who has critically analyzed prostitution and transgenderism. I contacted one of them, Kuk Jihye, who later became the director of Yeolda Books, and sent her my Korean translation of a chapter in Gender Hurts by Sheila Jeffreys. Jihye was very impressed with the book, and we concluded that we needed to publish Jeffreys’ works in Korea. This is how we came to set up a feminist publisher.
Beauty and Misogyny was the first book we wanted to publish in Korea because there were serious discussions and debates about the tal-corset movement at the time. But apart from online materials produced from online discussions among women, there were no books or academic articles to support or provide theories for the debates. By publishing Beauty and Misogyny, we wanted to let readers know that we are not alone in fighting against beauty practices, and there are theories and academic works that advocate radical feminist politics.
Korean translation of Beauty and Misogyny came out in July 2018 when the unprecedented women-only rallies against male violence occurred in Seoul. Thousands of women poured into the streets to voice their anger toward male violence. And at the head-shave performances at the protest, many participants talked about how beauty practice is related to the sexual objectification of women and why they are joining the tal-corset movement. Here, let me briefly explain how the tal-corset movement developed.
The emergence of the radical feminist movement, often represented by the website ‘Megalia,’ was influenced by the existence of large-scale women-only online groups formed in the early 2000s. Women started setting up women-only online groups because of the women-hating online culture. Ironically, in the beginning, these online spaces were focused on sharing beauty tips among women. But subsequent conflicts with male online groups over several incidents involving celebrities’ sexist comments or behaviors led these online groups to become feminist. In these women-only online spaces, women freely expressed their criticism of misogynistic culture and gave emotional support to one another. In this safe environment, women also mocked men’s outrageous behaviors through humor and satire.
This experience was linked to the parody tactics of ‘Megalia’ that emerged in 2015, and with the advent of ‘Megalia,’ more serious criticism of misogynistic culture and feminist consciousness developed among women. This opened a space where women could share their personal lives and analyze their experiences together from a feminist perspective, and this environment facilitated collective online consciousness-raising. When discussing personal lives as a woman, beauty practice was one of the central topics from the beginning.
The word ‘corset’ was adopted to examine patriarchal, oppressive norms. The word ‘tal’ in ‘tal-corset’ means taking off clothes or breaking away from something. After online discussions, women concluded that femininity as a norm is a marker of women’s inferior social status and beauty practice is the mechanism that renders women dolls, turning women into things and commodities, serving sexual objectification of women. Women decided we needed to reject femininity as a norm by altogether casting off beauty practices. Tal-corset practice generally rejects beauty practices such as makeup, dieting, wearing skirts, or long hair.
However, it was not easy for many women to throw away what they had become accustomed to after years of daily beauty practice. What prompted them to reject beauty practices in their everyday life was the belief that they could reinforce younger generations’ beauty practices. A sense of duty to set a new model of female appearance free of beauty practices was shared among many women. The large-scale women-only rallies in 2018 were a timely boost to the movement because they gave women opportunities to meet feminists practicing tal-corset face-to-face. When the six rallies brought tens of thousands of women to the streets that year, most newly emergent online feminists were deeply touched when they saw some women at the rallies who had abandoned beauty practices, and it made them braver about their t al-corset practice.
I conducted in-depth interviews with 12 tal-corset participants for my thesis, and, except for one woman who had to work on weekends, all women have been to the rallies at least once. This experience also gave women a sense of belonging and solidarity as a feminist practicing tal-corset. Through the tal-corset movement, rejecting beauty practices gained meaning as a collective effort to enhance women’s social status and to end oppressive beauty norms. This feminist cause gave women the strength to continue practicing tal-corset despite social pressure. They were practicing tal-corset not just for freedom and convenience but for all the women’s rights, including future generations.
However, like all social movements, the tal-corset movement started losing momentum. Since meeting other radical feminists face-to-face was important for women to continue their tal-corset practice, the Covid-19 pandemic was a severe blow to the movement. Now, it feels like the movement stopped growing because social media postings and discussions on tal-corset have decreased since 2020.
But I still see social media postings with the hashtag ‘tal-corset’ and their stories. In women’s online communities, the general consensus is that tal-corset serves to advance women’s rights and that beauty practices harm women. I believe that the most significant achievement of the tal-corset movement is that beauty practice is now recognized as a women’s social issue and a political matter instead of a matter of individual preference. For example, when An San, a female archer, won three gold medals at the 2020 summer Olympics, Korean men accused her of being a radical feminist because of her short hair and the fact she was attending a women’s university. These attacks from men triggered a hashtag campaign in women’s online communities to advocate for women’s short hair.
Published amidst the progress of the tal-corset movement, Jeffreys’ Beauty and Misogyny provided the movement with theoretical context and historical background. While Korean academia did not give much attention to the radical politics of the movement or even disparaged it, the book offered academic vindication of why rejecting beauty practice is critical in achieving women’s liberation.
The Korean publisher of Beauty and Misogyny knew the book’s importance in relation to the tal-corset movement, so she included two of Jeffreys’s pictures in the book: one taken when she was young and had long hair, and the other recently taken with short hair. And there was a caption saying, “the author took off the corset” It shows that radical Korean feminists wanted to link the book with the ongoing tal-corset movement. The Korean book resulted from Korean feminists’ efforts to find radical feminist theories that support the tal-corset movement.
Unlike Korean academia, female readers welcomed the publication of the book. Many book clubs of radical feminists chose this book to read and discuss. The author shared our enthusiasm about the tal-corset movement. When she came to Korea for a book tour of Gender Hurts in 2019 and gave lectures, she was moved to see the audience full of women with short hair and no makeup. She said it reminded her of the women’s liberation movement in the UK in the 1970s. At the time, many British women, including the author, abandoned beauty practices as a result of consciousness-raising. I am glad this book is published in Japan because I am confident that the book will give Japanese women the inspirations to think about the harms of beauty practices.