This fitness ban for older women causes a scandal

In Incheon, South Korea, a gym decided to ban a category of the population, those pejoratively called ajummas.Image: Shutterstock

In South Korea, a gym only allows “cultured and elegant women.” This controversial ban actually hides a broader problem.

In Incheon, South Korea’s third city, a gym has been controversial for several days. It prohibits access to mature women and single people.

The affair exploded on social networks after a poster plastered on the door of the gym was shared. It is written:

“Only cultured and elegant women are allowed to enter”

The fitness boss was interviewed on condition of anonymity by local media, as reported by BBC, and he defends his position:

“Some of these women spent up to two hours in the locker rooms doing their laundry, stealing miscellaneous items like towels, soaps or hair dryers.”

He refers to the “Ajummas”. In South Korea, this derogatory term refers to middle-aged women and/or those who remain single and childless after the age of 35. The equivalent of old girl in French. And in addition to being single, they are poorly brought up. So old maids called Karen. If the Karen of the world are recognizable by their haircut, the Ajummas are often caricatured with one accessory in particular: a large visor.

Here is a caricature of an ajumma found on Instagram.

Here is a caricature of an ajumma found on Instagram.instagram

According to the fitness manager, ajummas tend to leave the taps running, abandon their waste and meet in small groups without doing sport. “They would sit in rows and comment and judge each other’s bodies,” he said, adding that some young women left the gym because of their derogatory comments.

There BBC adds that the ban received support from some people online who seemed to associate bad manners with older or middle-aged women.

Some Internet users described them as “territorial” while others described them as “insane”.

The elderly, the forgotten people of South Korea

This boss’s decision did not motivate other fitness centers to follow suit, but this controversy testifies to the growing intolerance, in a South Korea that is still fairly sexist and macho, towards certain groups of the population, notably people elderly.

As he wrote Slate in 2022, retirees are the forgotten people of South Korea. The majority of people over 65 live in precarious conditions. “According to many economists, the South Korean wage system pushes older people into precariousness. As they are too expensive, companies decide to get rid of them,” says an economist. They are becoming too old to find work and not old enough to benefit from retirement assistance at 65.

If you are ugly, become beautiful

It’s not just older women who are discriminated against. There are also “ugly” women. South Korean society is obsessed with appearance. South Korea is the third country behind the United States and Brazil to have the most cosmetic surgery, according to The world, 1.2 million procedures per year, with double eyelid surgery and rhinoplasty being the most requested.

“Being handsome is an advantage in finding a job and a good husband,” Jung Young-choon, director of a clinic in Seoul, told the newspaper. Many parents push their children to have cosmetic surgery for these reasons.”

And the beauty standards are ultra-rigid: a pale complexion, large, dark, shiny eyes, high, powdery cheekbones, a thin nose, a V-shaped chin and an oval face with long black hair. According to Ruth Holliday and Joanna Elfving-Hwang, sociology professors cited by The Inrocks, “the good face can be a determining criterion for hiring on the job market.” Especially since many companies require photos of applicants, or even their measurements, women and men combined. But researchers explain that this pressure is stronger for women.

“Many South Korean companies require applicants’ photos, or even their measurements”

And the ajummas in all this? Well, they embody everything that South Korean society doesn’t want to see.

In spite of themselves, they position themselves as the antithesis of the country’s misogynistic culture. A culture that the youngest want to explode. A feminist movement has been gaining more and more momentum since 2019 and is finding some resonance on TikTok. We call them the 4Bs.

These women choose to give up makeup and cut their hair short to defy the predominant beauty standards in the country. They demonstrate to move the lines and according to Reuters, the government has taken a series of measures to promote gender equality. Among them, improving the parental leave system and offering fertility treatments for couples and single women.

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