The XX Factor

Inside the Strange World of Korean Body Lines

A South Korean ad for beer

Stylish beer

I hate a bananas, unattainable beauty trend as much as the next person, but if I were trying to sell American beauty products, I would probably have shrines to thigh gap and bikini bridge all around my apartment. By that logic, the living spaces of the people who power the South Korean beauty industry are probably filled with big, shiny monuments to the letter S.

South Korea has been swept up in “alphabetization,” or the grouping of (mostly female) bodies into shapes based on letters from the Roman alphabet. There is the S-line—“ample breasts and buttocks when viewed from the side”—and the X-line—“long legs and arms connected by a narrow waist.” The face of a woman with slim cheeks and a pointed chin follows the V-line. Cleavage is described using a W-, Y-, or V-line.

Though most of the letters are aspirational—curvy S, delicate V, and slender X seem to be the most popular—some are simply descriptive. The U-line connotes the shape of a woman’s back when she wears a low-cut dress. A -line means a pregnant, or pregnant-looking, stomach. The B-line represents large boobs and a big belly, while the O-line stands for general obesity. Though men are mostly spared the indignity of having their bodies transformed into flesh hieroglyphs, they do get an M-line for six-pack abs and a gender-neutral standard called the 1/8 line: One’s head must not amount to more than one-eighth of one’s full height. (“If you’ve ever wondered why Korean girls pose with their fists or peace-sign hands in front of their faces, it’s because they’re trying to block their face from the picture. They want to create an illusion of having a smaller face or a sharper jaw line,” explains Sydney LeVan, a blogger who writes about Korean women’s issues and pop culture.)*

The letters saturate South Korean media. Pop stars discuss their body lines openly. Stylized marks that trace a model’s figure feature in spots for cosmetics, creams, diet powder, exercise equipment, plastic surgery, soda, clothing, lingerie, music, and even beer. Some of these ads insist that whatever product they’re selling will help you obtain the desired contour; others (like the beer ad) just traffic in the allure of the letter to make their product seem cool. Though the origins of the trend remain cloudy, one Korean magazine suggests that the X waist, at least, got its start in 2008, when Amore Pacific invented it to shill a line of weight-loss drinks. (Convenient!) And alphabetization is not confined to adults: An educational video encourages children to eat fermented bean paste because “it’s good for your S-lines and V-lines too!”

All of which maps quite neatly onto Western narratives about South Korea. The country has the highest plastic surgery rates in the world: We snickered at photographs of its national beauty pageant contestants in 2013 because they all looked so unnaturally similar. And we gawk as South Korean women seem to go to extreme lengths to reflect European and American beauty ideals: In South Korea, you can get an operation to lengthen and thin your nose, to augment your eyes with double lids, or to shave your jawbone down to Natalie Portman-esque slimness. I do think that the S- and V-lines resemble the Western “hourglass figure” and “heart-shaped face,” but I’m not convinced that alphabetization takes an obsession with women’s bodies any further than what we’re used to over here. (Let’s be clear: We all take it too far.) Americans have butts that look like fruits. South Koreans have boobs that look like the letter W.

That said, a Korean woman commenting on Turnbull’s blog makes an intriguing connection between body lines and the “right name idea,” a Confucian principle that seeks to erase the gap between word and thing. If the spirit is truly legible on the body—if the body is a symbol of the soul—then it makes sense for people to obsess over their appearances or even to regard their physiques as “letters” or “characters” to be deciphered. I just hope that someday the alphabetized women of Earth will line up to form an enormous message for all the drones to see. On that day, all of us—the D-lines and the S-lines, the U-lines and the O-lines—will join together, and we will spell it out: SEND BIBIMBOP. AND CHEESEBURGERS.

*Correction, Jan. 11, 2014: This post previously misattributed a quote by blogger Sydney LeVan to blogger James Turnbull.