For the Herald
Inside the strange world of Korean body lines
I hate a bananas (1), unattainable beauty trend as much as the next person (2), but if I were trying to sell US beauty products, I would probably have shrines to thigh gap (*) and bikini bridge (*) all around my apartment. By that logic, the living spaces of the people who power the South Korean beauty industry are probably filled with big, shiny monuments to the letter S.
South Korea has been swept up in ‘alphabetization,’ or the grouping of (mostly female) bodies into shapes based on letters from the Roman alphabet. There is the S-line — ‘ample breasts and buttocks (3) when viewed from the side’ — and the X-line — ‘long legs and arms connected by a narrow waist (4).’ The face of a woman with slim cheeks and a pointed chin follows the V-line. Cleavage is described using a W-, Y-, or V-line.
Though most of the letters are aspirational — curvy S, delicate V, and slender X seem to be the most popular — some are simply descriptive. The U-line connotes the shape of a woman’s back when she wears a low-cut dress. A D-line means a pregnant, or pregnant-looking, stomach. The B-line represents large boobs and a big belly, while the O-line stands for general obesity. Men get an M-line for six-pack abs (5) and a gender-neutral standard called the 1/8 line: one’s head must not amount to more than one-eighth of one’s full height.
The letters saturate South Korean media. Pop stars discuss their body lines openly. Stylized marks that trace a model’s figure feature in spots for cosmetics, creams, diet powder, exercise equipment, plastic surgery, soda, clothing, lingerie, music and even beer. And alphabetization is not confined to adults: an educational video encourages children to eat fermented bean paste because ‘it’s good for your S-lines and V-lines too!‘
All of which maps quite neatly onto Western narratives about South Korea. The country has the highest plastic surgery rates in the world, and we gawk (6) as South Korean women seem to go to extreme lengths to reflect European and US beauty ideals. I do think that the S- and V-lines resemble the Western ‘hourglass figure (4)’ and ‘heart-shaped face,’ but I’m not convinced that alphabetization takes an obsession with women’s bodies any further than what we’re used to: US women have butts that look like fruits. South Koreans have boobs that look like the letter W.
Adapted from a story by Katy Waldman for Slate.
No, not the fruit here: when something is bananas it is crazy, bonkers, wacky, insane, demented – just plain weird.
The meaning of this expression is self-evident (“I like it like most people do”), but it is a beautiful example of similes, those often humorous phrases with the structure “as ... as ...” that the English language is full of. Start noticing and collecting them!
“Buttocks” is the “technical term” for... well, the part of the body that you sit on! The more informal “butt” is an abbreviation of this word.
The waist is the part of the body below the ribs (bones in the chest) and above the hips, often narrower than the areas above and below. “Hourglass figure” refers to the 90-60-90 female beauty standard of a large chest and broad hips with a narrow waist in the middle.
Six-pack abs (5)
Six-pack abs (or a six-pack) are toned abdominal muscles on a very thin people, which result in bumps similar to the cans in a six-pack of beer.
Remeber our recent reference to ways of doing things in English? Well, gawk is a way of looking, when you stare (look fixedly for a long time) at someone/something in a rude or stupid way. A similar word is “gape,” which usually implies that you stare with your mouth open because of shock and surprise.
(*) Thigh gap & bikini bridge
Two words that talk about the speed of language and the impact of new technologies and our cultural obsession with unhealthy female body image standards.
The two expressions are natives of the Internet. “Thigh gap” was born and gained notoriety in mid-2013. A thigh gap is when the thighs are so thin that there is a gap (open space) between them when you stand upright with your knees touching. As soon as someone coined the phrase and illustrated with an image, people from all over the world started posting their own thigh gap photos and a thigh gap became “the thing to have” - never mind that most doctors warned about the dangers of this trend!
“Bikini bridge” is more recent, and describes when a woman is so skinny her hip bones lift the front of her bikini up when she lies, making a “bridge” without touching the (non-existent) stomach. The catch is that “bikini bridge” is an invention of Internet message board 4chan, meant as a joke which has now taken a life of its own: “let's see how people react to this” became “people are posting their bikini bridge selfies and a bikini bridge is the new thing to have”.
To put a word from this article into practice, we have gone seriously bananas.