A World Without Men
The women of South Korea’s 4B movement aren’t fighting the patriarchy — they’re leaving it behind entirely.
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Definitely something to imagine!
Youngmi’s childhood was a difficult one. The 25-year-old nurse was born to a poor family in Daegu, South Korea, known for being one of the most conservative cities in the country. Youngmi’s mom left the home when Youngmi was young to escape her husband’s physical abuse, leaving her and her sister behind with him and their paternal grandmother. When she was 5, her 8-year-old sister started losing her hair from stress.
As she grew older, Youngmi found herself depressed, unsure of what her future held, and financially unstable.
In Korea’s patriarchal society — in which women are generally expected to defer to their fathers and to adhere to rigid beauty standards — she felt like a perpetual victim, obsessed by the wrongs done to her by her father and pressured into maintaining her appearance in order to please men. Despite her meager budget as a nursing student, she purchased new clothes each season, spending a lot of money on cheap, poor-quality clothes from H&M.
She wore makeup religiously. “I could not go outside without any makeup. I felt ashamed of my face,” she said. “I had this pressure of wanting to look beautiful and wanting to be desirable, physically or sexually.”
While scrolling through Twitter in 2018, Youngmi came across footage of protests taking place in the streets of Seoul. In South Korea, where cases of femicide, revenge porn, and dating violence are widespread, a surge in spy-cam sex crimes, overwhelmingly committed by men, had mostly resulted in fines and suspended jail sentences, if they were prosecuted at all. That was not the case, however, for one 25-year-old woman who had taken a nonconsensual photo of a nude male model at art school and posted it online; she was sentenced to ten months in prison and court-ordered sexual-violence counseling. The demonstrations were a reaction to the blatant hypocrisy.
Youngmi was moved by the solidarity she saw, but there was one thing she found perplexing: Many of the women at the protests shaved their heads on-camera. As she began to follow more feminist Twitter accounts, Youngmi understood this was a public act of rejection of those same aesthetic expectations imposed on Korean women that have made the country a leader in grooming products and plastic surgery. She began to realize that “you know, men do not do that — men do not feel the pressure to buy clothes every season or wear makeup.”
Soon, Youngmi shaved her head, too, and stopped wearing makeup, joining the so-called “escape the corset” movement happening among young women in South Korea. The movement, which first gained popularity in 2018, saw Korean women publicly turn away from societally imposed beauty standards by cutting their hair short and going barefaced. (Youngmi was not alone — in 2019, a survey found that 24 percent of women in their 20s reported cutting back their spending on beauty products in the previous year, with many saying they no longer felt they needed to put in the effort.) This eventually led Youngmi to “4B,” a smaller but growing movement among Korean women. 4B is shorthand for four Korean words that all start with bi-, or “no”: The first no, bihon, is the refusal of heterosexual marriage. Bichulsan is the refusal of childbirth, biyeonae is saying no to dating, and bisekseu is the rejection of heterosexual sexual relationships. It is both an ideological stance and a lifestyle, and many women I spoke to extend their boycott to nearly all the men in their lives, including distancing themselves from male friends.
Through open chat groups on KakaoTalk, Youngmi connected with other feminists in Daegu, where she lived with her mother while attending nursing school, soon meeting each other offline. (“It’s so easy to recognize each other with short hair,” she said.) She stopped seeing her friends from high school and middle school whose conversations still revolved around makeup, clothes, and boys. When we met last November at a café in Seoul, where she’s been living for the last two years, she was barefaced and dressed comfortably in loose jeans and a white fleece jacket. Her hair was long enough to be pulled back in a ponytail, as she’d grown tired of people asking about her short hair at her nursing job, but it was tucked into a white baseball cap. Feminism, she said, had helped her recognize that it was patriarchy that was the problem, not her — that “the bad things that happened in your life are not your fault,” she said.
4B is Shorthand:
bihon, is the refusal of heterosexual marriage. Bichulsan is the refusal of childbirth, biyeonae is saying no to dating, and bisekseu is the rejection of heterosexual sexual relationships.