Monday, 26 August 2013

* The Hemline Index reveals more than just what is skin deep

Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer of The Korea Herald. He served as head of the Korea Overseas Information Service and held positions as adjunct professor at Hallym University and KAIST.
The dog days of 2013 have gone and the traditional calendar declares “cheoseo,” the withdrawal of heat, on Aug. 23. Koreans who struggled under record-high temperatures hovering near 40 degrees Celsius from the south coast to the DMZ now deserve to be able to relax in the cool air of the early morning and evening hours.

A little busier than others will be police, prosecutors and judges who now have to serve justice on the many people who have been arraigned for crimes related to the heat. Of course, there are nearly 40 members of the Korea Hydraulic and Nuclear Power Co. and other businesses who are accused of bribery over the purchase of substandard parts for reactors, the cause of the nuclear plant shutdowns. Then we had news reports of the arrest of hundreds at summer places for sexual harassment and other offenses.

Plain-clothed police, mingling with merrymakers in the crowded beaches of Haeundae, Gyeongpodae, Mallipo and others, were on the lookout for criminals in swimsuits who move about touching and groping female vacationers in the water and on the sand. The beach police also acted on numerous complaints from women who became the target of unwanted picture-taking.

Scenes of law enforcement often involved claims of racial discrimination. Despite the obviously small proportion of foreigners in the beach crowds, there was a sizeable number of expatriates in the daily catches of offenders. Were our police officers particularly harsh on foreigners in the execution of their duties?

But listen to this explanation: People from Southeast Asia and farther places stand out in the mass of humanity at beaches because of their different physical features. If any of them act queerly and wildly, they are more easily spotted. And it is easier to chase and capture these offenders compared to their Korean counterparts who can quickly hide in the throng of compatriots after committing any act of harassment. Chinese, Japanese and Mongolians may have a similar advantage.

Competitively equipped with high-performance mobile phones and digital cameras, people nowadays tend to be more and more inconspicuous in directing their lens to sights they find impressive. “Everyone is a photo artist here,” people say, watching others taking pictures of flowers in a pot, carps fluttering in a stream or tasty and eye-pleasing cuisine in restaurants. On the beach, they keep pressing shutter buttons at themselves and other beautiful objects.

Every man is a voyeur and every lady is an exhibitionist, we used to say in those days when miniskirts became vogue worldwide. Half a century later, women’s hemlines have reached the extreme level where no further cut is imaginable. Now the words voyeurism and exhibitionism should have different meanings or no meaning at all.

Attire that would have been categorized as indecent exposure a couple of decades ago (Do you remember the National Police Agency had once set the limit at 10 centimeters above the knee?) is worn by the overwhelming majority of young ladies in the street, on school campuses and in subway trains. Male passengers are uncomfortable about moving their eyes from one spot to another because shiny female legs are everywhere. They need tinted glasses not to cover their gaze, but because they have to protect themselves from being suspected of voyeurism.

On the beaches and in subway coaches, every male holder of a mobile phone becomes a potential sexual harassment suspect to schizophrenic women. Their concerns are justified because there actually are felons using sophisticated gadgets to take pictures for perverted purposes. Yet, male gazers of women, if with a degree of lewd sensation, are ready to claim the simple act of appreciating a beautiful sight does harm to no one. The vindication extends to picture taking.

There is the universally recognized concept of portrait right, which is protected against commercial exploitation or exposure of privacy. You can take the picture of a sports star, a president, a vendor on the sidewalk or anybody as long as he or she does not expressly object to it. And as far as an exposed unidentifiable part of body is concerned, can we expect a shutterbug to give deep thoughts to the illegality or immorality of his act before locking the lens on such a sight, the question of commercial purpose aside?

Girls who wear “short shorts” do so because it is fashionable, not only in hot summer but all year round. They would hate the pictures of their beautiful thighs to be uploaded on the Internet or shared among unknown people via Facebook. But it is the risk hundreds of thousands of young ladies take when they pick up those little pieces of clothes from their closet in the morning and hop on the train to offer their sprightly sights to male attention.

I may sound like a counsel defending the man from Southeast Asia who was caught directing his video camera at bikini-clad girls on Haeundae Beach or the office worker who was caught by subway police with pictures of female passengers stored in his mobile phone. Generous though I may be to them, I am worried that these young men, whether they have done so out of curiosity or for some sensual gratification, could next time engage in worse acts harmful to themselves and society. They need just enough punishment to teach them what they did was wrong.

The “hemline index” calculated by American researchers has it that women’s skirts get shorter in economic upswings and fall to the floor in a downturn; wise men on this side of the globe have made a completely reverse observation, pointing to the current state of the economy and fashion. Anyway, let’s just hope for the better, now that our ladies’ short skirts cannot get any shorter.

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