The Corset-free Movement, like a Girl

Conducting a Workshop on Appearance and Femininity with High School Seniors

Seo-yun | 기사입력 2021/12/02 [12:58]

The Corset-free Movement, like a Girl

Conducting a Workshop on Appearance and Femininity with High School Seniors

Seo-yun | 입력 : 2021/12/02 [12:58]

It’s fair to say that one of the terms representing feminism in 2018 was “corset-free”. The feminist women around me have been caught up in the fever – they go braless as a matter of course, and some also shave their heads simply because they want to. To people like us, cosmetics have long since become artifacts of a bygone era.


The appearances of the people I know have changed, as many women are cutting their hair short, throwing away their skirts, and choosing not to wear makeup, but in my university neighborhood and at my part-time job, I’m the only person going makeup-free and braless. Women’s “beauty labor strike” has looked on the outside like a direct and striking change, but it seems that it’s hard to give up doing the usual work on one’s appearance before a job interview, a day at work, or a formal event.


The “corsets” that most women have thrown off as a part of this movement are the twin giants of makeup and dieting, but modern constraints on women have grown so detailed that we now have to remember to do things like remove rough skin from our feet and perm our eyelashes. But we’re actually prohibited from doing those things when we’re school students, and then as soon as we graduate they are required of us as signs of femininity, and become things that we inevitably come to desire ourselves. 


As someone who has felt the effects of the corset-free movement with her whole body, and in this era of “feminism rebooted”, I’ve now gotten the chance to spend time with high school seniors. While conducting the “My appearance? What of it?” project (which problematizes lookism and oppressive gazes on the body, and works with teenagers to seek alternatives) with Fireworks Femi-Action - which I belong to - and the Women’s Environmental Alliance, I’ve been able to meet these students while giving workshops on the corset-free movement.


Right now, these students are coming off the university entrance exam, shaking off their stress and savoring their freedom. I’d been looking forward to finding out how different these students, who’ve come of age in the feminist boom of the past few years, are from students in my days. I was curious whether, in the midst of the beauty labor that permeates our entire society, the corset-free movement is an issue that interests them.


When I started making my lesson plan, I thought very deeply about how my story, as someone struggling against various corsets, would sound to teenagers, and I was very excited and nervous about the process of communing with the students in real time during the workshop. That’s how I went into my time with these high school seniors and third-year middle school students [equivalent to grade 9 students in the US].


▲ A Fireworks Femi-Action member giving a lecture on the corset-free movement to female high school seniors. ©Fireworks Femi-Action


The corset-free movement as seen in schools


My lecture explained the original corset and the Chinese practice of foot-binding before going into detail on the modern corsets of beauty labor. In order for the students to feel the ways these phenomena are closely related to their everyday lives, we discussed the corsets required of girls, students, and women. The students reacted positively to each slide and paid attention so well that I wanted to cry with gratitude. I was glad that I had prepared so carefully out of knowledge of how hard it is to concentrate on anything once you’ve finished the university entrance exam.


In one workshop, about half of the students were aware of the corset-free movement. They helped create a mood in the room with comments like, “How comfortable it must be to go braless!” “Wow, I hadn’t realized that that’s part of it too,” and “We don’t wear makeup anyway!”


There are limits to what listening to a lecture can do, so I had also prepared an activity in which the students thought up some corsets themselves and wrote them on sticky notes, and then took turns throwing them in the trash. I put them into small groups for this so that they could mull over social oppression fully with their classmates, and the result was a flood of sentences about many things.


“‘You don’t wear skirts?’” “‘You should cover your mouth when you laugh”, “‘You should run for Miss Korea’”, “‘You’re too fat to show your legs’”, “I think I’m being exploited by the beauty industry; I’m spending a lot of money on it”, “It seems like I have to learn to cook and become a housewife because I’m female”, “Career interruption”, “‘At least put on some lip tint like a normal human’”, “‘Why are you so rowdy? Be more well-behaved’”, and so on. The students’ pent-up frustrations burst forth to choruses of “Yeah! That’s right!” from their friends.


▲ From my workshop on the corset-free movement. ©Fireworks Femi-Action


What do students consider the most difficult corset to get rid of?


Once it looked like the students were ready to finish their condemnations, we moved on to an activity where each group chose corsets, from among those they had thought up, that they could get rid of. At first, there was a tendency to throw out those that were not very relevant to their current situation, such as “Career interruption”, “Cooking”, “Not acting rowdy”, “Not being allowed to play sports like soccer or basketball”. When we got down to the final corsets, the whole class agreed on why those were the last to go.


The last few were usually the concerns that girls of that age have about their bodies: “‘You have to lose weight,’” “‘You have to be softer,’” “‘You have to put on a bra before you go out,’” “Hair removal that only women have to do,” “‘A woman lives or dies by her skin,’” etc. These opinions were those of each group, and so they may have been different for each individual, but it did appear that it was hardest for the students to resist the corsets that were most closely related to their own lives. It would be hard to bring about changes through one workshop, but I was inwardly glad to see that it seemed to give them something to think about.


I wanted to instill a little more courage in them, so I informed them that I was braless at that very moment. “I’m not wearing a bra. But none of you realized that before I told you, did you? Winter is a good season to start going braless in. Give it a try!” The students were taken aback at first, but then some of them said that they also sometimes didn’t put on a bra in winter, and told everyone else about how comfortable it was to go braless.


I was wrapping up class with the points that the last corsets are difficult to get rid of not because they are precious and valuable but because there are powerful social structures supporting them, and that one day we will be able to throw even these last ones off, when one of the students asked a question.


“But sometimes women want to look pretty. Isn’t it sometimes possible to put on makeup because I want to?”


This is a topic that I’ve thought deeply about. I paused to consider how to respond. In truth, before the corset-free movement with its total rejection of makeup, the phrase “doing makeup for your own satisfaction” was mainstream on the Internet. I’d seen phrases like “no two shades of pink are alike” posted with photos of the variety of pink lipsticks on sale at a cosmetics store, or quotes like “I don’t put on makeup for the sake of men who would look at the four shades of eyeshadow I use on my eyes and call all of them ‘brown’”. These posts attracted comments that by-and-large agreed that makeup is done for self-satisfaction, not men’s attention.


After considering a few answers, I started with this: “The freedom to beautify yourself can only have power once the freedom not to do so exists.” I told them that I, too, sometimes want to put on makeup and I think that I don’t do it for men, but the problem is the discrimination and oppression that women suffer when they don’t do so. “When it feels natural for women to go to work, job interviews, and formal occasions without makeup, that’s when we’ll have the freedom to do makeup.”


▲ From a satisfaction survey on the workshop. ©Fireworks Femi-Action


More girls should try to escape the corsets!


That question stayed with me even after the workshop ended, and I thought about what else I’d like to say about it. I didn’t say this during the workshop, but I think that the issue of one’s appearance, which must be faced every day, is the most familiar and also the most difficult one for feminists in their teens, twenties, and thirties.


Actually, when I first started university, I wouldn’t leave my dorm without makeup. No matter whether it was finals week, no matter how late I was to class, putting on tinted sunblock and lipstick came first. I’d been hearing things like, “Dying your hair is for university students,” “You can start worrying about your appearance in university,” and “If you study hard now, you’ll land a husband with a better job,” for the first 18 years of my life, and so peach-tinted makeup and fluttery, feminine dresses came to symbolize my identity at 19.


The image that is considered to represent the word “woman [yeo-seong]” is the image (appearance) of a cis-gender, heterosexual, non-disabled woman in her twenties. This time of their lives may be the only one in which women are mistakenly believed to have power because of their gender. They do enjoy relatively more privilege at this age compared to their pasts being raised as “girl children”, their time in the working world when they will acutely feel barriers such as the glass ceiling and career interruptions, or when they become middle-aged women, married women, or old women. Perhaps resisting the sweet temptation of this age, the only one in our lives in which we receive attention and goodwill for being women, was as difficult for me as it is for very young children not to eat a marshmallow that is set in front of them. 


Even in the activities with the students, the corsets that are closest to us usually remained until the end. In the end, it isn’t that they can’t be thrown away, but that it’s difficult and troublesome to do so. All sorts of things, like social pressure, my socially-constructed desire to “beautify” myself, and the benefits of fitting the image of a woman in her twenties


▲ A still from Always’s #LikeAGirl campaign (source:


But I think I may have found a clue to the answer in the workshop satisfaction surveys. Many students listed Always’s #LikeAGirl advertisement as one of the most memorable parts of the workshop. In the advertisement, upon being told to “run like a girl”, adult men and women make exaggerated, stereoptypical movements. But when actual girls are given the same directions, they run with all their might.


One says that “running like a girl” means “running as fast as you can” to her. The interpretation of girlishness that these girls have must be protected. We need to make sure that they take it for granted that girls can do anything, and that whatever they choose to do, there is no behavior that is not “like a girl”.


It seems it’s especially important to actively promote the message that girls can try things that are not traditionally feminine, like learning tae kwon do, screaming at the top of your lungs, moving around with abandon, and cutting your hair short. This isn’t to say that liking the color pink, being delicate and gentle, or keeping your hair long can no longer be girlish activities. Instead, it means it’s important to support and encourage actions that have until now been seen as not compatible with femininity and to help women have courage. This could be things like writing comments such as “That’s so feminine” or “You’re a boss” under photos of women hammering nails or weightlifting instead of posing next to flowers.


I want to convey a more active message of support to those walking forbidden paths, those struggling on their own in the absence of role models. If I see those students again, I want to tell them, “Everything you do is ‘like a girl’.” I want to share the message that wearing a skirt, using their muscles, enjoying ballet, and using logic are all things that are natural for them and natural for girls. It would be especially good to speak out more loudly in support and encouragement of girls who are starting to try something that oppression has held them back from doing.


I support and encourage them in the hopes that, when they want to and are able to, they will get rid of those last few corsets, the ones that have been difficult to throw off before now because they’re so closely connected to the girls’ lives.


Published Jan. 5, 2019

Translated by Marilyn Hook

* Original article:


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