No Makeup, No Bra: The Women Ta(l)king Back Their Bodies

The story of feminist documentaries Embrace and Bodytalk

Park Ju-yeon 2021-03-27

“Men and women are in this together! Let’s all just try to get along.”  Whenever I hear statements like these, there are a series of numbers that inadvertently come up in my mind. Signifiers of a persisting gender disparity, such as the fact that 98.4% of hidden cam recordings victims are women, or that only 8% of candidates in June 13th’s provincial elections were female. Another in this class of statistics is the fact that 90% of people living with eating disorders today are women.


Why is it that there are so many more women than men suffering from eating disorders?


If you look up the Korean hashtag that can roughly be translated to #the_corsets_students_experience, you will be presented with proof of the immense time and energy that girls as young as nine are putting into inspecting their faces and bodies as they strive to have a “a body with no flab and a pretty face wearing makeup”.


Passing off this issue with remarks like “isn’t this just girls wanting to look prettier?” is both unequitable and ineffective. We exist in a paradigm where comments like “are you sick?” directed towards a barefaced woman are considered polite. Femininity and “a woman’s beauty” are demanded of women in the classroom, workplace, and home.  


These social pressures have become particularly amplified amongst teenagers. While slogans like “you’ll become prettier and thinner in college” used to be used to get teenage girls to focus on academics, the situation has changed. So much so that the youth have taken to advocating for themselves, wielding #the_corsets_students_face.


The media manufactures female body image issues


▲ Brumfitt’s “before and after” photo has caused a sensation. Source: Embrace (2016)

In her documentary Embrace (Australia, 2016), director Taryn Brumfitt begins the film with the controversy that surrounded the release of her own “before and after” pictures. Unlike the “before and after” combo that many people may be imagining, Brumfitt’s “before” shows her body after a postpartum body shame-inflicted bodybuilding stint. Her “after” shows her current body.


After she was able to compete in a bodybuilding competition and accomplish her initial goal, Brumfitt reported feeling unhappy still. She had poured her heart, soul, and countless hours into making it to the competition. However, the moment she stood amongst other athletic, fit, and hardworking women and heard them say, “I’m still not pretty, I still have to lose some more here,” Brummfit began to sense that something was not right.


Stepping away from a life consumed by fitness, Brumfitt started to loosen up on food restrictions and unforgiving exercise schedules, proactively curating a more comfortable and happy lifestyle. The result of this shift was the body that would be shared as the “after” photo. Though some viewers reacted with hostility at this second photo, Brumfitt’s bravery ultimately inspired other women to begin sharing their own stories. Harnessing these countless comments, messages, and emails, Brumfitt began moving towards seeking an honest answer to why so many women today struggle with the way they look.  


In Australia, Brumfitt met Mia Freedman, an editor at Cosmopolitan magazine. Recalling her childhood, Freedman has said, “I always loved magazines that tell women’s stories, but also always believed that these women were inevitably different and better than me.” When she became an editor at Cosmo, Freedman decided to purge the pages of the old school diet mentality and featuring instead models of “diverse skin colors, bodies, and faces”.


Despite the boldness of Freedman’s move, designers refused to supply clothes for a shoot with a plus size model. They did not want their clothes to be seen as “plus size clothes”. Reputable photographers and makeup artists felt similarly.  They refused to be named on a spread with a plus size model.  


Australian “plus size” model Stefania Ferrario fits the average Australian woman’s size but is much taller than the average height. For this reason, Ferrario could only work as a plus size model, a label that initially barred her from the mainstream industry. Maybe it is surprising to some that an average woman can be packaged as “plus size”. However, for the women who are indiscriminately told that they are either “too much or too little,” such subjectivity and displacement is a living reality.


▲ Ferrario struts confidently on the streets. Source: Embrace (2016)

Professor Marika Tiggemann, who appears in Embrace, comments, “It was only after the dawn of television that the beauty standard for women changed from full-figured to skinny, and it was at that point that more women began to develop eating disorders.” Such histories, she points out, are clear indicators of the media’s power in manufacturing female body image.


So when this powerful media churns out K-pop idol groups in all their innocence, thinness, makeup, and short uniform skirts, or gives you the related search results for “diet” and “makeup” when you search “elementary schoolers” on YouTube, it is only inevitable that women begin to internalize this negative body image about themselves from a very young age.  


All this taboo around boobs... “They’re just boobs”


Body Talk (directed by Chen Shinging, Taiwan, 2018), another documentary released this year and screened at the Seoul International Women’s Film Festival, features 30 Taiwanese women. Through the lens, Chen captures these women talking freely about puberty, menstruation, pregnancy, diseases and disabilities, sexual objectification, and masturbation.


During the “Talk with the Director” that took place at the Seoul festival after the screening, Chen had a chance to answer to the question “What made you make this movie?” Chen replied, “I read a comic, and that was the start.” According to Chen, the comic was about a female protagonist who wakes up one morning to realize that her boobs have disappeared. Without them, no one, not even her family members, can recognize her. Just because she has lost her boobs. From this moment on, Chen “began to question the female body”.


Some of the interviews included in the movie also deal with boobs. One woman recounts how she liked to wear sleeveless shirts as a child, but at a certain point the people in her neighborhood started whispering things like, “Her mother doesn’t buy bras for her,” and then she could no longer wear sleeveless shirts.  Another says she had thought of herself as a boy, and hated it when her breasts began to grow.


Once the first hint of breasts can be seen—that is, once a body becomes visibly “female”—all sorts of limitations are imposed. A visible bra strap warrants comments about character (driving women to products like transparent straps), and the smallest show of cleavage leaves women at the receiving end of both judging and lustful eyes.


Recently, students used social media to protest a school decree banning students from wearing black bras. As such a case shows, not only are boobs subject to judgement, legislation, and hypersexualization, so too are bras, ready to be deemed part of the “sacred” yet “immodest” body.


On May 26th, a video of a “free the nipple” performance posted on Facebook by feminist group Fireworks Femi-Action was deleted without explanation. In protest of the deletion, Fireworks Femi-Action staged a second performance on June 2nd, this time in front of Facebook Korea’s headquarters. The police’s saying that the performance might constitute indecent exposure and stopping it by holding up blankets was strange, but the replies left on articles about the event were shocking, running the gamut from “how dare a woman show her breasts” to sexually harassing comments regarding the protestors’ boobs.


There is a scene in Embrace where Brumfitt talks about the “unforgettable experience” she had at a nude beach party. She recalls everyone lounging about on the beach when one woman stepped forward, to declare loud and proud, “There’s another woman there with only one boob like me,” and walked over to hug that person. One of these women ended up being interviewed in the final film. Turning 40 this year, she states in the interview that she decided to appear in the film because “it was a chance to embrace myself”. She also adds that a comment her husband made was a big help: “So what? It’s just a boob.”


And yes, therein lies the point. A body part that can change from being two to being one, boobs are just another part of our bodies. They are neither objects to be critiqued nor pornographic by default.


‘Remove the corset’, the starting point of diverse paths of liberation


▲ An interviewee in Body Talk (2018)

Although Body Talk features many different interviews, there is one interviewee who stays on the screen a little more than others. She is a beauty guru who runs a makeup channel. Due to her voluptuous form, she receives a range of responses from support to hate in her live videos. She also works as a nude model, and often subverts the male gaze, brazenly telling viewers that “fat bodies can also bring sexual desire,” and asking them to “hit her up if they want a good time”.


Although she proudly challenges the traditional gaze of society every day, she also confesses that “there is a monster inside of her, and it probably won’t ever go away”. And yet, while she is forthcoming about her emotional hurt, she remains confident and assured as ever about her personal subversion of mainstream body messaging: “A caterpillar doesn’t transform into a butterfly to become beautiful, right? It transforms in order to fly.” So does she fly? Has this beauty guru succeeded in leaving the “corset” behind, or does she fail to do so by going out in a full face of makeup?


Of course, it is important to put into practice things like the no makeup, no bra, and no diet movements. Since 2016, Alicia Keys has been performing without makeup. As more and more women grace flashy stages and award ceremonies without makeup, the act itself becomes normalized, telling mainstream viewers that it is okay for women to not wear makeup. In this sense, the “spectacle” nature of activism cannot be ignored in its potency.


When more people begin to adopt these practices, of course, the impact becomes greater. However, as important as the campaign is, the individual process of learning to love one’s self is also a crucial step in this cause.   


The movement that has come to be known as ‘remove the corset’ does not only include, or amount to, the no makeup, no bra, and no diet practices. Rather, the movement is a broader rejection of the rigid, socially-fashioned image of females and the female body, a call to arms for all women to forgo such boxes because we all have the right to live in our truest, happiest, and freest forms. Because a girl should be able to walk around in short hair, no makeup, and a loose t-shirt without being asked if she's a boy or a girl. Because a girl should be allowed to live exactly as she wants to.


▲ Surprisingly, Embrace is rated R on Netflix.

(Surprisingly, Embrace is rated R on Netflix. Is it because it shows a picture of vagina? Because a woman showed her single boob? Or is it because it showcases a diversity of female nudity? Either way, the “no youth permitted” rating is a negation of Brumfitt’s wish that her daughter not have to deal with the same body image problems she did.)


There is a never-ending list of things that need to be discussed about prejudice and expectations of face and body image. There is the idealization of the “perfect labia” through “pretty lady” vulva surgeries, or the more serious ongoing crisis of female genital mutilation (FGM). The socially-defined image of female workers is forced upon department store employees who are required to work standing up for hours on end in heels.


In response to a question about her interviewee’s responses to the finalized film, Body Talk director Chen recalled the cast’s group screening of the movie. She stated that many of the interviewees piped up throughout others’ clips, stating, “I wasn’t able to get that out,” or, “I really wanted to say that too”. She also noted that it was difficult to see so much of all the two- or three-hour individual interviews deleted from the final cut of the film.  


There is so much that women want to say. What we need is more spaces for women to tell their stories without limit or regulation. I hope that, by letting out and sharing our bitter thoughts and experiences with each other, we can develop the strength to support each other and take action against negative body image.


So what if we started today? Grab a friend or a family member and start your own “body talk”. We stand in front of the door that has been padlocked and made taboo by society, and we shout. We demand the keys, because otherwise we will break down the door ourselves. After all, we are the only ones who can govern our own beautiful bodies.


By Park Ju-yeon

Published June, 11, 2017

Translated by Susan Lee


* Original article:


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