K-Pop experienced a stellar breakthrough in the U.S during the 2010s, with such well-renowned groups as BTS and BLACKPINK entering the mainstream American pop scene. South Korean idols have amassed fans all over the world despite persistent language barriers; American fans know them well for their fun and catchy beats, sharp choreography and visually appealing aesthetic. Yet, much like Hollywood, behind K-Pop’s addicting beats and signature flashy choreography lies a much darker side that is rarely discussed: eating disorders.
While living in South Korea, I couldn’t help but notice the celebration of thin bodies everywhere. Pictures of female K-Pop idols showing off their pale legs and slim figures in advertisements for phones and soju were almost impossible to escape from. In fact, when looking at K-Pop idols in general, you can easily find this theme: extremely skinny, pale and almost inhumanely perfect features. This demographic, however, is extremely artificial — to be a K-Pop idol, aspiring artists must audition and sign a contract with an entertainment agency. These agencies train individuals on how to sing, dance and entertain. While all of this seems like a pretty great deal, there’s a more sinister reality behind the dazzling prospect of becoming a celebrity.
South Korean entertainment agencies have long been notorious for managing the appearances of their idols. Trainees are frequently given “controlled food portions” and banned from eating any sort of junk food. These idols’ rigorous (and extremely unhealthy) diets are well known amongst weight loss enthusiasts. One of the most popular (and infamous) portion control regimens is called the Paper Cup Diet, which involves only eating food you can fit into nine tiny paper cups. The “IU diet challenge,” coined after the famous South Korean singer IU, is another daily meal plan that consists only of one apple, two sweet potatoes and a protein drink. Unsurprisingly, the singer herself revealed her struggles with eating disorders such as bulimia.
This strict standard of beauty that demands thinness is not simply a trend amongst the K-Pop community — it is an absolute requirement. If female idols did not shape their bodies to be thin and fit the mold of societal beauty standards, they would simply be deemed unfit to be a celebrity.
Notably, in Sixteen, an audition show that had trainees compete for a spot in JYP’s new girl group Twice, Jihyo – one of the contestants – was fat-shamed publicly by a photographer. Her response? Silence. To be fair, silence was the only appropriate response a trainee could have; they were all actively trying to work in an industry that monetized not only their songs, but their bodies. If they wanted to succeed in the industry, they had no choice but to adhere to the demands of the company and their followers.
Although the world of K-Pop is still foreign to many of us, its entry into the U.S. opens up discussion of eating disorders within our own music industry. Fetishizing celebrity bodies isn’t new in the U.S. American consumers, especially the media, have a knack for commenting on celebrities’ bodies and acting as if their words don’t have any impact on the subject. Just look how the media exploded over Adele’s weight loss this past year.
The singer stated, “The worst part of the whole thing was that the most brutal conversations were being had by other women about my body.”
In realizing the toxicity within the K-Pop industry and Hollywood, we become one step closer to deconstructing the extremely detrimental effects of fatphobia. While the issue of body image is not exclusive to any particular region in the world, I find it imperative to focus on South Korea and its extremely harsh standard of beauty and thinness.
While body positivity and self love movements have been gaining momentum recently within the U.S, that attitude is not as common in South Korea. Not only are these nearly impossible beauty standards directly harming K-Pop idols and their health, but they also hurt the impressionable young audience that looks up to these celebrities. Although we must celebrate the fun and exciting world of K-Pop and the artistry it embodies, it is important for us to view the industry critically and spread awareness about the dangerous effects of fat-shaming it promotes.
Audrey Ahn is a sophomore in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. She can be reached at [email protected]