The Korea Herald


[EYE] Author writes on her ‘right not to date’

Lee Jin-song talks about why lookism is deeply related to single-shaming in Korea

By Claire Lee

Published : July 29, 2016 - 18:37

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Throughout her 20s, Lee Jin-song has received unwanted advice on how to “improve” herself so she can enjoy dating.

The advice came from friends, both male and female, as well as acquaintances of different ages.

“Some told me to grow my hair longer (so I can look more feminine), some told me not to talk too much,” the 27-year-old author told The Korea Herald.

“Some even told me, ‘Make sure you look impressed when talking to a man -- use phrases like “Really?” “I had no idea!” Be sweet when you listen, and pretend you don’t know what he’s talking about even if you do.’”

Her latest book, “The Right Not to Date,” is a chronicle of her own experience as a young woman in South Korea, where, in her opinion, being single in one’s 20s and 30s is considered lazy, sad and even incompetent. 
Author Lee Jin-song poses for a photo after an interview with The Korea Herald on Monday. (Claire Lee/The Korea Herald) Author Lee Jin-song poses for a photo after an interview with The Korea Herald on Monday. (Claire Lee/The Korea Herald)

While arguing that being single should be respected as personal choice -- rather than something pitiable -- the book also claims such social pressure to date, and ultimately find the “right” spouse, is deeply linked to the nation’s prevalent lookism culture.

While there is no academic study or statistics on the specific issue, Lee is confident that almost all Korean women in their 20s and 30s have experienced single-shaming at least once.

This includes intrusive questions about their relationship status, such as “(Since you are not that attractive) you need to lower your standards to see someone” or “You should lose weight to find men.”

“I think there is this pressure for young women to look desirable to the opposite sex at all times,” she said. “For example, I was once told to always put on makeup, in case I meet ‘someone’ -- a potential future boyfriend -- on public transportation. But not every woman’s life priority is to date men, or to be noticed by potential romantic partners.”

Regardless of the social pressure, more Koreans are delaying marriage or deciding not to marry at all. The average age when Korean women have their first marriage rose from 23 in 1981 to 30 this year. For men, the age went from 26.4 to 32.

The proportion of single-person households in Seoul increased from 4.5 percent to 27 percent over the same period.

Lee said Korea is now seeing a new generation of women who desire neither marriage nor dating.

The “sweet home” fantasy is now gone among many young women here, yet the social pressure that opposes being “against the norm” -- choosing not to be someone’s girlfriend or a mother at a certain age -- still persists in today’s society, she said.

“There’s this rule on what you should be doing according to your age,” she said. “When you are a teenager, you should be studying. When you are in your 20s and 30s, you should be dating and get married. When you get married, you should have kids. This cycle never ends.”

Lee said she assumes about 60 percent of all shaming of body and appearance against women in Korea is associated with their relationship status and value in the dating scene.

There are countless ads that feature women’s clothing and beauty products marketed with taglines such as “lipstick that will get you men’s attention” or a “skirt that will net you a boyfriend,” she noted.

At the same time, female friendships between single women are often mocked and trivialized in popular culture. For example, female comedians Kim Sook and Song Eun-yi are often made fun of for being close friends -- both of them are single -- in comedy shows, receiving comments like “You guys are too close. This is why neither of you are dating!”

This oppresses women, regardless of being perceived as “attractive” or not, Lee said.

When those perceived as good-looking choose not to date, they are often considered cocky or odd. For example, people might think that something must be wrong with them, despite their looks. Meanwhile, single women who are perceived as unattractive are often assumed to be single due to lack of interest from men.

“Among many things, not ‘being popular’ among men often becomes a source of insult for many young women,” she writes in the book. “For example, feminists are insulted for being feminists by those who say, ‘They are into feminism because they were never liked by men.’ But popularity takes many different forms. People rarely get insulted for not being popular among children or among the elderly.”

For the latest edition of her quarterly magazine Holo Quarterly -- “holo” means being alone in Korean -- Lee interviewed a young woman who has been single for a number of years by choice. In the interview, the woman shared her experiences of single-shaming in Korea’s dating scene, where she was often perceived as “peculiar” for choosing not to date “in spite of her pretty looks.”

“When I turned down someone’s blind date offer, the person asked me, ‘Why do you waste your pretty face like that?’” she told Lee. “So does that mean my appearance is just solely for dating? If I’m not in a romantic relationship, am I ‘wasting’ myself? I personally like dressing up for my own satisfaction, but it seems that whatever efforts I make to look good are seen as efforts to appear desirable to men.”

Once, when she turned down a man who asked her out on a date, he became angry and told her, “You are too cocky. (You are pretty but) you are not pretty enough (to reject me).”

“So I guess in order to reject him, a woman has to be prettier than a certain degree,” the woman told Lee in the interview.

She said there were a number of times she encountered unpleasant experiences with male strangers, who would follow her in the street or ask for her number. She genuinely found such experiences uncomfortable and even unsafe, but most of her friends would accuse her of “bragging” whenever she talked about it.

“People would say, ‘Things like that only happens to good-looking people,’ or ‘You just want to brag, don’t you?’”

Even when she experienced dating abuse from one of her ex-boyfriends, an acquaintance told her, “I don’t know why you are enduring such treatment from your boyfriend when you are a pretty woman.”

“Being attractive and being a dating abuse victim are two different things,” the woman said. “So what does it mean? If a woman is not pretty, is it okay for her to be abused by romantic partners?”

In Lee’s experience, even her postgraduate degree was considered something undesirable in the dating scene. Currently a Ph.D. student in Korean literature, she would often be told, including by cab drivers, “Smart women are not popular among men.”

Lee also heard comments such as “Why do you study so hard? That’s going to make it harder for you to get married” and “That’s why men find you intimidating.”

“But I wasn’t born to be ‘popular’ among men. That’s not the sole purpose of my life,” she said. “So if your life goals and choices are unpopular among people of the opposite sex, do you have to give them up?”

Lee said ending single-shaming starts with accepting the diversity of human relationships, desires, tastes and choices. She said the current dating scene in Korea is strictly heterosexual-oriented, while women who are considered desirable are largely expected to look and behave in certain ways -- youthful, popular, attractive, smart -- but not "too" smart --  and nonaggressive. Yet not everyone wants to date and get married, and not everyone finds only a certain kind of person to be attractive, she said.

“There are many ways to live your life. Often, single people are considered lazy or as not having the willingness to find someone. But life is all about making choices. That person may have chosen to invest his or her time and efforts in something else. That does not mean she or he is an unfulfilled person,” she said.

“I think those who are single can be just as happy -- and unhappy -- as those who are in relationships. Just because you are married or in a relationship, it does not make you a superior person to someone who is single. One’s relationship status is not a symbol of success or failure. It’s just one of many choices you made in your life.”

By Claire Lee (