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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.
For Youngmi and many others who subscribe to its basic premises, 4B, or “practicing bihon,” is the only path by which a Korean woman today can live autonomously. In their view, Korean men are essentially beyond redemption, and Korean culture, on the whole, is hopelessly patriarchal — often downright misogynistic. A 2016 survey by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family found the incidence of intimate-partner violence at 41.5 percent, significantly higher than the global average of 30 percent. While 4B’s adherents may hope to change society — through demonstrations and online activism, and by modeling an alternative lifestyle to other women — they are not trying to change the men whom they view as their oppressors. It is too soon to tell whether this movement can survive and thrive over the long haul. But its ideas and actions have already affected the country’s online discourse, its politics, and most of all, individual women’s lives.
“Practicing bihon means you’re eliminating the risks that come from heterosexual marriage or dating,” Yeowon, a 26-year-old office worker, told me on a café terrace in the seaside southern city of Busan. We talked over coffee and pastries, along with Yeowon’s girlfriend and another of their friends, all of them wearing wide black pants and black sweaters and sporting cropped short haircuts. Those risks Yeowon alluded to might seem familiar — trading career for child-rearing and housework, as well as the threat of physical violence — but in Korea, Yeowon said, marriage presents an existential threat.
There was a time when Minji, a 4B adherent in Daegu, had wanted to get married, “because, you know, everyone wants to get married.” Knowing what she knows now, however — like that domestic violence, as she puts it, is so common — “I don’t want to get married anymore.” Minji, 27, is probably heterosexual, she said, and has liked a few guys in the past, but they wanted her to “treat them like a king.” So she has no problem boycotting the men of her generation, who are little better than her selfish and abusive father.
Even young women who are not members of the movement echo that they could not imagine dating or marrying a Korean man. Sooyeon, a teacher in her early 30s, told me that talking to her male friends “made me always feel like, ‘Oh, maybe I can never find a Korean man’ … Even in my generation, some guys expect a really traditional role from their spouse.” As if to prove her point, a recent survey by a matchmaking company found that women were reluctant to marry because of the division of housework, while men hesitated because of “feminism.”
It is unclear how widespread or popular the 4B movement is given its fluid online and offline nature and its evolution over the years, beginning sometime around 2015 or 2016 when a simple “no-marriage” lifestyle grew to include a boycott of men and reproductive labor more broadly. One article estimated 50,000 adherents; others have put the movement’s numbers at under 5,000. Its origin story is similarly complex, though its contours can be traced.
Following years of financial crises in which young people faced growing housing costs and intense competition for university spots and jobs, the way women and men related to each other openly soured. Beginning in 2013, the rate of college enrollment among Korean women surpassed those of men; today, nearly three-fourths of women are enrolled in higher education, compared with less than two-thirds of men. Previously, women were expected to drop out of the labor force after marriage or parenthood. Now, young men see their female peers as competitors for increasingly scarce jobs. (Several academics I spoke with noted to me that Korea is largely ethnically and racially homogenous, making gender the default and central societal fault line.) In online forums and on social media, disgruntled men began labeling college-educated women kimchinyeo, or “kimchee women,” giving a name to “the stereotype of Korean women as selfish, vain, and obsessed with themselves while exploiting their partners,” wrote feminist scholar Euisol Jeong in her doctoral thesis on “troll feminism.”
Around 2014 and 2015, a virulently misogynistic and anti-feminist community called “Ilbe” grew in size and prominence. In its interpretation, women were demanding additional rights and privileges when they already benefited from avoiding the country’s compulsory military service. To the Ilbe community, the entire female populace is gold-digging and shallow. Female Korean internet users responded by latching onto misogynistic strategies like trolling, mockery, and abusive language. Members of Megalia, one of the more prominent feminist sites in this period, coined the term hannamchung, or “Korean male-bug,” which stereotyped Korean men as “ugly, sexist, and obsessed with buying sex,” wrote Jeong.
In 2016, a young man murdered a young woman in a Seoul public bathroom, telling police after that he killed her because women had always ignored him. Despite the perpetrator’s own statement, police refused to label the murder a hate crime. Furious, women flocked to online feminist message boards, communities, and chat forums. This wave of digital feminism attracted women from all backgrounds, including working-class women like Minji and Youngmi, making it different from traditional Korean feminism, which was largely confined to universities, NGOs that often received government support, and other elite spaces.
In December of that year, as Korea’s fertility rate hovered at 1.2 births per woman (it has since slid to 0.78, the lowest in the world), the Korean government launched an online “National Birth Map” that showed the number of women of reproductive age in each municipality, illustrating just what it expected of its female citizens. (South Korean president Yoon Suk-yeol won the election in March 2022 with a message that blamed feminism for Korea’s low birth rate, and a promise to abolish the country’s Ministry of Gender Equality and Family. ) Women were outraged by the map, observing that the government appeared to consider them “livestock”; one Twitter user reportedly created a mock map illustrating the concentration of Korean men with sexual dysfunction. Several of these digital feminists responded with a boycott to the reproductive labor expected by the state and decided that the surest way to avoid pregnancy was to avoid men altogether. It was through these online communities that 4B emerged as a slogan, and ultimately a movement.
The blowback and fear that 4B practitioners experience underscores their conviction that Korea is still a frightening place for women. Yeowon’s photo was posted on an Ilbe site after participating in a feminist protest, and she was harassed and sexually threatened online for weeks. Youngmi said men have tried to physically attack her on the street three or four times. She recalled an episode when she and some friends, who all had cropped haircuts, were dining at a Japanese restaurant in Daegu. Throughout the night, the restaurant owner and his friends made gagging and puking noises and gestures at them. When Minji and I met at a coffee shop near the city’s central train station, she told me she was worried that someone in the café might post a photo of her online because she had short hair and was speaking openly about feminism. Others I spoke with insisted on using pseudonyms for safety reasons.
There are other consequences to forgoing long-term partnerships with men. Korea has the largest gender pay gap in the rich world, with women earning 31 percent less than men, and women still face widespread discrimination in the labor market, something the movement recognizes. A widely circulated 2018 tweet encouraged 4B women to save the money they would have otherwise spent on “self-fashioning labor” to sustain an independent life instead of winding up “a penniless granny with a wardrobe full of clothes.”
Women who commit to 4B “just work hard, because they know they will not have a breadwinner man or husband,” said Jeong, the scholar who wrote her doctoral thesis on troll feminism, adding that some take two or three jobs. Youngmi and her girlfriend live together about an hour by subway outside of downtown Seoul where rent is more affordable. Yeowon said her small studio apartment, the best option she can afford right now, is in an unsafe neighborhood near a market where drunken men often congregate after the local bars close. Her partner, who works in IT, recently moved apartments because her last one had cockroaches.
Several 4B women I met in Seoul still lived with their parents. Yeowon’s partner lives by herself but still eats at her parents’ house several times a week, even though they are no longer emotionally close. Her mother’s cooking is excellent, she said, and it saves her time and money. “I treat it like a restaurant,” she added. Youngmi and her friends created a map of women-owned businesses in Daegu so they could ensure their dollars went to supporting other women. “The economy is a very important issue for us,” she told me. Other 4B groups host events with personal-finance experts to help women learn how to save and invest. A subgroup of an online community called “WITH” (which stands for “Women in the Hell,” Hell being a nickname for Korea) is specifically focused on economics; members post job listings, advice on which banks are offering the best interest rates, and other financial tips. Han, a math tutor who runs her own tutoring company in Daegu, said she believes as women’s collective economic power grows, so will their political power, something she sees playing out over the next 20 years. Their interest in finance is both about the pressing matter of living an economically viable life today and the longer-term possibility that women practicing 4B at scale will eventually weaken the patriarchy. “When women are more economically influential, then it’s possible that the political parties will listen to women as important voters,” Han added. “But until then, I feel like women will still be utilized — their bodies will be utilized to reproduce.”
But it’s not just political backlash and straightened economic circumstances that pose a threat to the long-term sustainability of 4B and its influence. Like any social movement, 4B has its own internal rifts and divisions: Can 4B women be friends with men? With women who still want to date men? Does lesbianism privatize relationships, destroy feminist solidarity, and resexualize women, or is it a necessary foundation for a world without men? Some 4B practitioners also were turned off by the movement’s focus on cisgender women to the exclusion of trans women; many of the online communities require verification with a photo ID attesting to the applicant’s sex, and Minji said that one of the feminist communities she joined asked her to submit a video of her Adam’s apple, ostensibly to ensure she wasn’t assigned male at birth. But regardless of where they stand on these questions, for the more than a dozen 4B practitioners I met in Korea, these were academic disagreements that had little impact on their own personal commitment to living apart from men.
For a movement born of rage, what happens when the rage mellows or when other concerns take priority? Yeowon said some of her friends are “selective feminists” who forgo makeup when they meet up with her, but are ultimately not ready to give up the advantages that come with being conventionally attractive. “They cannot let go of this power as women, of using femininity,” she said. “There are these feminists who say, ‘Oh, I’m a feminist, I hate men, but I also want to be, you know, consumable.’” She and her friends described videos on YouTube of ex-bihon women who told viewers that they’d seen the light and returned to heterosexuality, narratives that recall the profusion of #TradWife content online.
At least for now, it is clear that the message of 4B, regardless of how it is practiced, or however closely its followers identify with the label, has provided a refuge for Korean women. Taekyung, 24, is getting her master’s degree in German literature at Ewha University, an all-women’s university with a robust campus feminism movement and a respected gender-studies department. On a beautiful fall day, she proudly walked me around the campus, which dates from the 1880s, showing me the campus gift shop and the area where students socialize and sometimes take naps.
She has tried to avoid men since high school, after doing a research project on Ilbe that brought her to web pages where men had posted nude photos of their female family members and discussed how to get away with rape. She went to Sungshin Women’s University, another all-women’s university, for undergrad. She doesn’t believe in labels for her own sexual orientation and has little interest in dating other women, but she does believe in political lesbianism as a way for women to establish lives separate from men — with an emphasis on the “political” rather than the “lesbian.” “I don’t need to try being a lesbian, because in political lesbianism, I can just be a person, like a normal person — a human being. I can be in a safe place,” she told me as we drank sweet-potato lattes at a campus café. The most important thing, in her view, is the absence of men. “Always, when I use the word ‘safe place,’ it means the place for women.”
Reporting for this story was supported by the Pulitzer Center.