It’s a well-known fact that K-Pop idols are more than just singers. They’re entertainers who need to be not only incredibly talented, but also good-looking. In fact, good looks are often deemed more important than talent within the industry. Most idols are street-cast these days, which means that they were selected to be idols based solely on their looks. The mentality of industry bigwigs is that if one is good-looking enough, then they are worth investing in. SM Entertainment’s ominous motto “talent can be taught” reflects this wholeheartedly. The vast majority of idols have had some form of surgical enhancements, and their looks come under public scrutiny almost every day of their working lives.
South Korea is one the world’s most competitive societies, academically and socially. The country has both the highest plastic surgery and the highest suicide rate in the entire world. K-Pop represents South Korea to the rest of the world, and within the country, idols are hailed as national treasures. Therefore, many watchful eyes model their behaviour. According to South Korean beauty standards, one should aim to be thin. Therefore, idols reflect that and are thin with perfectly sculpted bodies. However, they are often unhealthily thin and go to extreme measures in order to maintain their figures. The ideal that they represent is distorted. It’s not real, nor is it desirable. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being skinny or having a good body. However, there definitely needs to be a line, and idol culture has yet to find it.
My first introduction to K-Pop was a show called “K-Pop Star Hunt,” a survival show dedicated to helping young Asians seeking K-Pop stardom. The contestants trained at the Cube Entertainment centre, where they underwent vigorous training. One scene that was particularly shocking for me was when the contestants received fitness training and were informed of just how their bodies should be if they wanted to succeed in the industry. The participants were all weighed as the instructor frowned at the numbers on the scale. “You’re underweight,” he tutted as a seventeen-year-old boy stepped off the scales. “You’re way too fat,” he told another girl. Shortly after the contestants were weighed, a trainee with perfectly chiseled abs was paraded around the room. “If your body doesn’t look at least like this,” the instructor told them coldly, “you will never succeed as a singer.” Back then, I barely understood a thing about K-Pop or idol culture, and I was truly taken aback. However, that alarming scene only scratches the surface.
Years later, Produce 101 emerged, and I was delighted in watching trainees and learning more and more about the way the industry worked behind the scenes. However, my amusement quickly came to a halt when various healthy looking girls were chosen to be put on a strict diet. Numerous girls were regularly called out for being “overweight” and repeatedly had to defend their dietary decisions. One of these girls, Kang Mina, became an IOI member and repeatedly experienced fat-shaming, even after her début.
Kang Mina is proof that popular idols are not immune to body-shaming, and there are countless others who have undergone the same mistreatment. Another example is Twice’s Jihyo. Jihyo was first introduced via the MNET reality show “Sixteen.” Her weight was brought up in the show’s second episode, where the contestants had to participate in a photo shoot. The photographer repeatedly made remarks about Jihyo’s weight, and the singer’s confidence during the challenge took a hit. After completing the mission, Jihyo’s individual photo was exceptional, and head judge JYP commended her for it, stating that she should be moved up. However, the photographer insisted that Jihyo was simply too fat, and therefore she was moved down. After her eventual début with Twice, Jihyo was repeatedly criticised for her weight, and only after she lost weight was she validated by the public.
PRISTIN’s Kyla has also come into the spotlight recently after netizens began to fat shame the fifteen-year-old. Despite her young age, people relentlessly threw insults at the teenage rapper. It eventually became so bad that even her brother was forced to intervene.
Fat-shaming can have dire consequences on juvenile minds, and the unrealistic expectations placed upon idols can even result in mental illness. There are numerous idols who have succumbed to illnesses like Anorexia, such as Oh My Girl’s JinE.
There are various ominous photos and videos that allude to the strict diets that idols are subjected to and the tight supervision that they are placed under. In one episode of Kim Taeyeon’s reality show, she and Red Velvet members Seulgi and Wendy went on an outing in which they ate ice cream. Halfway through eating, Wendy paused and laughed nervously, “Our manager is watching us.” Taeyeon whirled around to face their manager and said, “They can’t relax because of you! Eating what they want for one day shouldn’t be a problem!” There are also a number of popular internet gifs of DIA’s Jung Chaeyeon pouting as her fan-gifted food is repeatedly confiscated by her manager.
A number of entertainment companies are also said to conduct regular weight-checks, particularly for girl group members. Along with having to bear the expectations of society, idols also have to face the additional pressure from their management. Sometimes it feels as though idols aren’t even in control of their own bodies which is a real problem.
At the end of the day, there is a multitude of problems with K-Pop body culture. Idols are under an immense amount of pressure to have perfect bodies, and when they don’t, they face malicious comments and dire consequences. Whether the pressure stems from fellow idols, fans, society or their management, it’s impossible to escape. Photo-shopped, contoured and starved bodies are flaunted to the public, which promotes unhealthy and unrealistic ideals to vulnerable youth. Overall, there are clear issues that need to be addressed by both the K-Pop industry and South Korean society as a whole.