A new sense of freedom has been infused into lives of Korean women from the growing women’s rights movement. At the center of this spreading interest and discussion in Korea lies the idea of a ‘woman’s body’.
Until now, Korean society saw women’s exercise as a way to keep their body in shape so they could meet imposed beauty standards. Increasingly, this idea is no longer the norm, as more women are shown to be interested in independent and healthy lifestyles.
Yang Min-yeong, the author of Feminism Met in the Gym and owner of a social enterprise, Gym Buddies, says gyms are not women-friendly places. In Yang’s experience, the outer appearance of women was a casually discussed and assessed topic, especially for women who exercise there.
“I feel as though gyms are gender-discriminative places where female individuals are often excluded. Despite these feelings, the workouts and sports themselves were so much fun,” Yang said. “I thought it is such a shame that women give up this fun activity because of such external factors.”
Yang added that regardless of actual performance women are subjected to comments that express their surprise of being able to do the exercises despite being a woman.
A year after mentioning her wish of gyms to become free and open places for women in her book, Yang founded the social enterprise to provide a women-friendly gym environment.
“Unlike how others think of Gym Buddies as a quick realization of a dream, I see it as more like a start of an experiment,” Yang said.
“Though my book was about my personal record as an athlete, I thought to myself that I should go on this journey with many other women out there. The idea of solidarity with other female individuals motivated me the most to start initiative.”
Through sports and involving oneself in workouts, Yang believes that women can become active and independent and also protect themselves from other dangers.
“Strengthening one’s body can be related to the autonomy of women. To feel sense that you can protect yourself and that you exist as a very independent self, even without others. What you need to know the most is that you are not weak but strong,” Yang said.
Meanwhile, Lee Yun-joo, famously known as ‘Shark Coach’ on YouTube, is a renowned CrossFit athlete. She stands apart with her muscular physique that departs from the stereotypical female body shape associated in Korea. Lee, who encourages her audience to pursue active, healthy and independent lifestyles has amassed a vast following.
“Even though I reached the top tier level in CrossFit, I was still a stranger to the general audience. Through YouTube, I wanted to reach and let the general audience know that sport is not a painful duty but company to their joyful life.”
The pursuit of a muscular female body in contrast to slim or skinny, for Lee, is founded on what she feels is a natural process.
“The true purpose of athletics is making a strong and healthy body. The slim and skinny body that is socially thought of as the ideal female body seems to have zero interest in neither women’s health nor physical strength,” Lee said.
What seemed to attract most of her subscribers was its witty elements. Lee stated that she did her best to capture the moments of athletic women having fun as naturally as possible to show that fitness could also become an activity of women they have fun with.
Spreading the message that sports is not a painful duty that places pressure on women, but rather, according to Lee, is integral element to a joyful and healthy life. This stands in stark contrast to pursue sport for the sake of beauty.
“I wish to let female audiences know there is no such sport that they are not allowed to enjoy for the sake of beauty. Sports is an activity that we do as humans. And, there is no separate way for men and women in terms of being strong.”