[Feature] How teen feminism is changing school uniforms in South Korea
Published : Oct 21, 2018 - 17:58
Updated : Oct 22, 2018 - 12:32
When Jeong Ji-eun was in her high school, in the early 2000s, one of her close friends pierced her tongue. The friend, who had hated having to wear her school uniform all the time -- she especially found the stiff fabric of her blouse unbearable --, wore a red-color tongue ring, which almost looked like a candy in her mouth. “That’s what I first thought, too -- that she was having her candy,” Jeong, now a 32-year-old professional in Seoul, told The Korea Herald. “Until it was caught by our teacher during a class.”

Immediately after noticing what looked like a candy in her friends’ mouth, the teacher came up to her, and slapped her face. “Spit it out,” the teacher said. “I can’t,” Jeong’s friend replied. The teacher hit her once again. “No one should have any food while studying in class. What kind of a student are you? Spit it out,” he said.

Jeong’s friend paused for a second. She remembers seeing an almost mischievous glint in her friend’s eyes. “Mr. Kim, I literally can’t,” Jeong’s friend said, and then almost proudly stuck her pierced tongue out. 

An ad for school uniform sfor middle and high school girls in Seoul, featuring short skirts and tight shirts, starring slender-figured models. (Claire Lee/ The Korea Herald)

“My teacher looked terrified -- I think he had never seen a tongue ring before,” Jeong said. “He then walked out of the class and didn’t come back for a while. I remember my friend laughing. I think it was her way to rebel. We were slapped for not wearing our uniform properly -- even for having forgotten to wear a vest even if it was not too cold --, we were slapped for wearing an earring, and we were slapped for eating candies in our class. But teachers certainly weren’t prepared to deal with pierced tongues.

“At the time, being slapped for uniform or appearance-related reasons was, actually, normal. No one really questioned it, because as kids we didn’t know any other worlds,” she continued. “But I hope things are different for the younger generation. And as far as I know, they are already making changes for themselves.”

‘Lip tint pockets’ and teen feminists

Some 15 years have passed since Jeong’s high school years, and South Korea is now facing a public debate on school uniforms, especially the ones for young girls. In July, President Moon Jae-in ordered his staff to change the current uniform design -- similar to that of the European style naval uniforms typically consisting of a white shirt, plaid skirts and tight blazers -- to something more practical and comfortable, with items such as sweatshirts, hoodies and shorts for both boys and girls.

Behind the change is a new wave of teen feminism in South Korea, which has also been a driving force behind the MeToo movement at schools against teachers and fellow students. The teen feminists, many of whom were born when Jeong was a teenager in the early 2000s, have been actively participating in the so-called “free-corset” campaign, rejecting to wear make-up and protesting against lookism at school, filing complaints to the government calling for new, different uniforms.

For them, many commercial ads that promote school uniforms are problematic, as much as the oppressive school system that currently punishes them for uniform-related “misconducts,” such as wearing sweatpants even after the gym class is over, or girls wearing a blue tie instead of a red one, because blue is “not a suitable color for girls.” Often featuring slender-figured K-pop stars as models, the ads often show images of young women wearing short uniform skirts and tight, body-conscious blazers, they say.

High school students Yoo Jin-ah (far left), Kang Eun-ji (middle) and Kim Yoon-seo (far right) pose for a photo in their uniforms after an interview with The Korea Herald on Oct. 4. The names have been changed at their request. (Claire Lee/ The Korea Herald)

“At school, we are constantly told that we should ‘look like’ students, by never wearing make-up and earrings, not even just a lipstick, and wear our uniforms properly,” said Yoo Jin-ah, a 16-year-old high school student in Seoul Capital Area, who has recently filed her concerns over uniforms to the government.

“But when we turn to our uniform ads, there are ads that promote special blazers with ‘lip tint pockets.’ It’s an inside pocket made only for girls’ blazers, so that they can conveniently carry their lip gloss or lip tint (a cosmetic product similar to lipstick). I wonder why this pocket for girls had to be for lip tints in particular, (and not for mobile phones or pencils). And I find that ads for boys’ uniforms are mostly about how comfortable they are, or how easily they can walk and move in them.”

And it’s especially perplexing, the teenager said, to see such “lip tint pocket” uniform ads on streets when she and her friends are often punished for just bringing cosmetic products to school. Once, Yoo -- who says she still enjoys wearing make-up sometimes -- was caught while carrying her lip tint.  In the early 2000s, Jeong would‘ve been slapped in the face. In 2018, the punishment for Yoo was to write a “letter of apology.”

“I was told to write according to the five Ws and one H -- you know, who, when, where, why, what and how,” Yoo told The Korea Herald. “So my letter went like this: ‘Today, I was wearing my orange-color lip tint in front of the school cafeteria. I’m very sorry.’”

Ironically, Yoo said, being part of the “free-corset” movement -- and thereby not wearing make-up -- was giving what her teachers wanted -- “looking like a student.”

“What bothered me so much was that none of my teachers would say, ‘you don’t have to wear make-up if you don’t want to, because no woman should be pressured to look a certain way,’” Yoo told The Korea Herald.

“My teachers, including those who are women, would always say, ‘you’ll have to wear make-up every day once you grow older. Wearing make-up is a basic manner for adult women. You just have to look like students for now.’ And this is certainly not the reason why I chose to re-think about make-up and how I view my and others’ appearance in general.”

An online ad for a school uniform that contains a "lip tint pocket" for school girls. (Screen-captured from a uniform-making company)

Kang Min-jin, a youth rights activist, said Korean teenage girls are often oppressed in two different ways. “There’s this image that is expected from the school authority figures and their parents: diligent, sexually ‘innocent’ and hard working,” she told The Korea Herald. 

“And then there’s a very different expectation from the corporate and entertainment world, which often exploits teenage girls in a sexual way. And from there, young girls are expected to be attractive, sexual and pleasant. What’s important is to give the young women the option to choose what they want, free from all these expectations and pressures.”

Sexualization of uniforms

Earlier this month, Yoo Eun-jeong, a Korean Air flight attendant, testified at the parliamentary audit of the Ministry of Labor wearing a uniform consisting of a tight ivory skirt, a white blouse and a sky-blue blazer.

“I’m here to say our uniform -- too tight and too light in color -- is not suitable for the work that we do, which involves dealing with food and drinks on flights, and assisting our passengers with their luggage,” Yoo, 43, told legislators. 

Yoo Eun-jeong, a Korean Air flight attendant, attends a parliamentary audit of the Ministry of Labor at the National Assembly on Oct. 11. (Yonhap)

“When we put the passengers’ luggage in the overhead bin, our tight blouse often come untucked from our skirts and show our skin, or our blouse buttons often get unbuttoned as we move. And the color of our pants and skirts -- ivory -- are too light, while they are also too tight on the body. These skirts and pants show our panty lines. Whenever a female flight attendant has her period, one can even easily see that she is wearing a pad because of this.”

Yoo said the uniform sexualizes Korean Air’s women employees and makes them vulnerable to sexual harassment and even spycam crimes. According to Rep. Lee Sang-don of the minor Bareunmirae Party, there are many sexually explicit pictures of flight attendants in their uniforms circulating online, many of which have been taken secretly by passengers.

“We are also experiencing a number of health issues because of the tight uniforms,” Yoo said. “Some of us have had digestive problems while others had gynecological conditions.”

Yoo’s account, some experts and students say, shares striking similarities with the experiences of high school students. Kang Eun-ji, a high school student, said many of her friends had experienced digestive problems because of the tight uniforms.

“I think, in general, school uniforms for girls are often too small. We are often told that this is the ‘right’ size for girls, and that wearing clothes too loose is not ideal for students.”

In July, then Gender Minister Chung Hyun-back met with a number of high school girls and teachers to discuss the school uniform issue. A student at the meeting recounted how she tried to get a uniform blouse that was a size bigger.

“I told the salesperson that the ‘right-size’ blouse was too tight on me and I was very uncomfortable in it,” the student said.

“But she said that if I got a size bigger, then I wouldn’t look pretty and I wouldn’t look right. At my school, if a girl wants to wear pants instead of a skirt, then you have to have ‘special reasons,’ such as having a visible scar on your leg.”

Choi Yun-jeong, a senior researcher at the Korean Women’s Development Institute, said uniforms in Korea often exploit women, by forcing gender norms and limiting their mobility.

“We really have to think critically about whether it is ideal to force girls to swear skirts all the time,” Choi told The Korea Herald, adding that what is being experienced by female flight attendants is just an "adult version" of what's happening to high school girls with their uniforms.

“It makes them difficult to run. It makes them sit and behave in a certain way. But the purpose of a uniform is rather simple: it is to show who they are -- that they are students and flight attendants -- and help them do what they have to do in comfort. The current uniforms are not really doing the latter, but rather control their body and movement in a way that is not beneficial to them at all.” 

An uniform ad for school girls, featuring a short skirt, displayed in front of a shop in Seoul. (Claire Lee/ The Korea Herald)

And uniforms are often linked to body shaming and even bullying in classrooms.

A high school teacher, who was also present at the event with the ex-minister Chung, said she witnessed many school boys who make sexually explicit jokes about their female classmates’ appearance and their physical attractiveness -- or unattractiveness -- , especially the way they look in their school uniforms. 

Some boys would “evaluate” and “label” their female classmates according to their appearance, giving an A+ to the prettiest girl in the class, and giving an F to the “least attractive classmate,” the teacher added. 

“Once in my class, a female student said girls should be able to wear pants as their uniform, instead of skirts -- if that’s what they prefer,” the teacher said. “To this, a male student responded by saying: ‘(If no school girl is going to wear skirts), then what’s going to be left to entertain us?’”

Toward the future

In middle school, Yoo envisioned forming a feminist study group once she started high school. The dream, however, failed to materialize as teachers were against the idea.

“They told me that I can form such a group once I enroll in a university,” she told The Korea Herald. “They told me to focus on university entrance exams and academics instead.”

Yoo and Kang said they are not “too open” about being feminists at school, as not many of their classmates are aware of what feminism is, while some are very critical of it. Some teachers have told them that the kind of feminism that Korean women practice involves “hatred of men.”

Still, for Kim Yoon-seo, a classmate of Yoo and Kang, feminism has helped her with her self-esteem and her sense of self-worth. It also drove her to support the “corset-free” movement, while also calling for a new uniform that does not reinforce gender stereotypes.

Before discovering feminism through social media and her friends, Kim said she had been obsessed with makeup. “I would never show my face to anyone without makeup. I would not leave the house without it,” she said.

“Now I no longer feel the need to do that. I genuinely feel comfortable being without any makeup on my face. What feminism has taught me is that I don’t have to look a certain way that is expected by others, that it is OK to be myself, the way I am and the way I want to be. And that was a relief for me.”

By Claire Lee (