The KPOP Weight Issue: Media Pressure, Personal Choice, International Expectations or a National Obsession?


So perhaps the title is misleading – I think the answer lays within them all, and in yet more contributing factors. But we’ll get to that.

First of all, fans of the genre will know that KPOP is an acronym used for Korean Popular Music and Popular Culture, though the predominant genre within that is pop, not so closely followed by hip-hop and R&B. Predominantly the genre is saturated with the sort of overly sugary cuteness that aspires to be sexy through the lavish use of hot pants and swishy hair.

An issue almost as important as the music itself has always been the image that came with it. The mere term ‘KPOP’ walks hand-in-hand with the term “idol”, and the face of an attractive young Korean – who is, almost without fail, stick thin. That is, at least where the girls are concerned. The guys often go for the overly muscular, 6 pack and pecks of steel image, if they are not trying for the androgynous, waif-like feminine figure favoured by those boys unable to achieve the so-called “chocolate abs”.

For some time now there have been concerns about the image these girls and boys (for few of them could really be called women and men) are presenting to the public, not to mention the impact it must be having on their own bodies.

The age range of an “idol” can be anywhere between 12, as demonstrated by GP Basic, to over 30, as can be seen with After Schools Kahi and Brown Eyed Girls Narsha and Jea. They average out in their early 20s, though training for the profession can begin in their early teens. Making it into a band, recording an album and finally being shown to the general public through release of an EP and performances on variety and music shows, is known as “debuting”. It is frequently referred to in terms of, “back in their rookie days”, or, “when they first debuted”…

In this way Asia runs their music industry in a completely different fashion to the West. For sure, Asia does have a thriving underground and Indie music scene, it just isn’t really paid all that much attention to in terms of media coverage. You really have to search to find people.

This stands in total contrast to here, where the club singer is king and the underdog the champion. Take newcomer-turned-superstar Ed Sheeran. Here we see a 21-year-old man who has worked himself from the guitar strings up, travelling to America with nothing more than the clothes on his back and the lyrics on his lips, hoping to catch a break (which he did – thank you Jamie Foxx!). Less than two years on and he has millions of YouTube views, a platinum selling No. 1 album, a string of hit singles, sold out concert dates, a world record and a Brit Award!

Stories like that just aren’t really heard of in the South Pacific.

This is just one of countless examples of how the two sides of the globe handle the music industry entirely differently.

In Asia, there is an incessant pressure to maintain a certain, very specific image. One may not be blamed for sometimes thinking, especially when it comes to girls, that if you’ve seen one big eyed, contact lensed, glossy haired selca taken from a flatteringly high angle – you’ve seen them all. If you’ve seen one girl doing a puffer fish faced peace signing pose, you are just as likely to look at the girl next to her and see her doing the exact same.

And what do all these lovely ladies have in common?

They are all further homogenised by their pale complexions and severely malnourished bodies.

Asian people are a naturally smaller, fitter, thinner group of people than, for example, the deep-fried-mars-bar loving Scots, or the quadruple McCheese Burger, quadruple by-pass Americans. It all comes down to staple diet and environment. They just live healthier in terms of their eating more fish and rice and vegetables, meat being eaten only sparingly.

Yet that does not excuse nor account for their bizarre and utterly inexplicable obsession with weight loss!

They seem completely obsessed with how thin girls are. To them, a girl we would deem slim, or athletic, would be a large girl, fat. A girl we would deem skinny may be lucky enough to only be bordering on fat, but is still likely to make it in to their plus size equivalent. This is not a healthy attitude to have.

Many companies and record labels have taken to monopolising the diets of their artists so as to maintain their “milky” complexions and super skinny frames.

I am ashamed to say it, but SM Entertainment, label of SHINee, Super Junior, TVXQ, Girls Generation and F(x), amongst others, is one of the most publically guilty of this.

Following scandals involving a court case with three ex-members of TVXQ, several nasty details of the way it often treats its artists were revealed. While the boys of that ill-fated court battle seemed to suffer the worst in terms of a “slave labour” contract, the girls certainly did not escape the evil hand of the KPOP diet enforcer.

Girls Generation, or SNSD as they are often known, are thought of as being amongAsia’s most beautiful women. The nine strong supergroup was formed in 2007 by SM Entertainment and have become one of the most successful and influential bands the continent has ever seen.

But.

This fame has come at something of a price with regards to their image. Following extensive plastic surgery to enhance the already naturally beautiful girls, as well as a strict exercise and eating regime, a new look was created.

In conjunction with the popularity of their music, the national obsession with their “look” began. Specifically, it was not their clothes which captivated people, nor was it their exquisitely crafted faces (plastic surgery is so common in Asia that it caused little more of a stir than is paid to any other plasticised celebrity). Oh no, it was an obsession with their painfully skinny bodies.

Except that they do not see anything wrong with them being so tiny. In fact, they practically worship them as glamour goddesses, queens of fashion and with figures of the most perfect and highly enviable status.

When I first saw them, I just about made it through their music video for “Gee” before I had to turn away in disgust.

Every one of those poor girls’ looks like an eating disorder help add. Serene, smiling faces, photo-shopped, flawless skin, glazed, glossy eyes, all features of faces that are 50% natural bone structure, 40% plastic and 10% computer generated. All on a head attached to a pole thin, torso, thread skinny arms and skeletal legs.

Their waif-like appearances prompted extreme dieting in order to achieve SNSDs’ “perfect” legs, and yet there is not ever, ever, one single mention of them being anorexic in any magazine or web article you care to look at. The closest you will get is a comment at the bottom of a page, quickly swamped with fans claiming otherwise, drowning out any protests.

Why, you ask?

Because none of their “look” has been their personal choice. While they were obviously determined to succeed and willing to work extremely hard to get to the top of the KPOP ladder, their company sought to turn them into the greatest beauties the industry had to offer, whatever the cost.

They were rumoured to have been forced to survive in only 900 calories a day, coupled with an intense work out. For the hours of training Korean performers are usually expected to do – sometimes up to 12 or even 14 hours continuously, some claiming without a break or water – this is clearly not nearly enough.

For their music video for “Hoot” the boots they wore are said to have been custom-made. The official line is that it was to fit the style of the video and give it a haute couture finish. But it is more likely that the girls’ legs were too thin to fit a normal sized boot.

For someone to be that unhealthily thin there is clearly a real problem. Last year, one of the girls, Yuri, known as “the fat one” due to the fact that her thighs were not invisible from the side, went on an exercising binge, reportedly eating only vegetables in vast quantities. She dropped to a weight reportedly somewhat under 6 stone. With her height, that placed her in the category of “dangerously underweight/at risk of death”. No joke, that is the medical term for it.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ruQVIJ5ZFkY Here is a video of her performing in that condition.

The images split fans, some in favour of the drastic diet, those who had clearly not lost their minds realising that this was completely insane and that that poor girl was damn near killing herself in an effort to be the thinnest-and-therefore-prettiest girl in KPOP. Thankfully, she soon after put back on a little of the weight, though not enough to be considered “the fat one” anymore. Was she proving a point or bowing to the insensible will of a warped cultural and professional pressure?

Now, I may be sounding a little harsh here. This is not to say that the girls are not all very pretty. They are, in fact, very beautiful. I just do not like my second thought after seeing a beautiful young woman to be – but my god is that girl ever so skinny!

SM Entertainment denied they had ever mistreated their employees and artists in this way and then started the obligatory round of interviews, with the girls talking about how their calorie intake was 1600 or 1100 or whatever it was when they were on a diet and if it went under that number it was self-imposed. Yes, because when all nine of you decide to weigh in at around 6 and a half stone, we are totally going to believe you did that to yourself. Obviously.

As recently as the end of 2011/start of 2012 they issued statements and televised interviews claiming that, actually, they ate whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted and showed footage of them backstage after performances, tucking into crisps and sweets and cake. Guesses on how long they starved for after that footage was broadcast… Especially since soon after they gave details, along with two other girl groups famed for their fat-free physiques, regarding their strict, portion controlled, content planned diet. Of course, ladies, you are totally not misleading your fans or hiding anything.

And they are not even the only culprits. The guilty parties can be seen across the board. Most of the girls you look at are the kind that needs a good McDonald’s shoved down their necks, if anything to make you feel better about doing the same to yourself!

They must not have any real kind of freedom! They are being pushed into a professionally regulated black hole of anorexia and depression. As if working under those conditions was not hard enough, they are not being allowed enough nutrients to even form correct hormones to deal with the pressure!

This national obsession is a disgusting mar on the collective psyche of a wonderful country. It is like a female version of their mandatory military service for men. All women must at some point suffer from Body Dismorphia and industry fuelled peer pressure and go on an insane diet that will leave you a cocktail stick sized sliver of your former self.

It may seem that I have a hatred of KPOP. This is absolutely no the case. In fact I have a mild obsession with it – for some reason. But I do have an issue with this. The way they often treat people is horrendous, even by the standards of an industry that is tough no matter what country you’re from. I will gladly document some of the happier stories, but with young women in Seoul starving themselves for glamour and North Korean people just thirty mile away too poor to eat, I just felt that this was an important issue.

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