Paper-dols and how K-pop (and K-pop fans) normalise impossible body ideals

Recently, Dispatch released yet another borderline horrifying article titled “As light as a feather: 9 ‘paper doll’ idols”(part of its ongoing list series “Girl Story” which focus on idols and often, specifically, their diets like this one) about several female idols and their less than 45kg bodies.

One of the comments on the first article says ‘Krystal isn’t as skinny as I thought’ because Krystal weighs over 42kg. At around 5’4”, I would hope Krystal weighs more than that, since in order for that weight to be a normal BMI as an adult woman you’d need to be approximately 4’2”. So when I say ‘borderline horrifying’, I mean that without the ‘borderline’.

To make matters worse, in the second article linked we have some inspirational quotations idols talking about how it feels to diet. Hani says ‘I ate only so much as so I didn’t die’.

I ate only until I wasn't going to die. - Hani

I ate only until I wasn’t going to die. – Hani

 

It’s not a secret that idols starve themselves. Hell, Luna starved herself before comeback, filmed it and put it on YouTube. The episode is called girl group maintenance. This is a massive thing in the industry; bodies and appearances are talked about in terms of ‘management’ a lot in Korea. Losing weight is part of body management, and not appearing bare-faced would be part of appearance management for example.

This isn’t to suggest that it’s only girl groups who do this. Monsta X’s Jooheon openly talked about starving himself before a comeback in order to get abs. We all know they do this. We all know this is expected of them.

 

Image management in K-Pop is a big deal, not least because being good-looking according to popular standards is literally a skill in K-Pop (this is what the ‘visual’ is for). Image management isn’t covert at all – it’s very real, very loud, and very important in creating the fantasy K-Pop environment.

Take, for example, the comments on Luna’s video about her comeback starvation diet. The overwhelming themes are:

  • Not talking about her comeback diet at all.
  • Saying her diet is fine if that’s the kind of result she wants (and no talk of her wanting those results as an extension of what we expect K-Pop idols to look like).
  • Saying that her diet is fine because it means she didn’t change the way she looks through plastic surgery, which would obviously be worse than starving herself.

So how has this become so normal?

The best way to think about it in this case is to understand how we come up with something called ‘common-sense knowledge’. Basically, when we don’t have an objective, singular correct way of ‘knowing’ something we just end up making one and getting used to it.

This is how we normalise something, and we do it in three parts. Because we’re talking about the ideal body type within K-Pop, it’s important to ask who this is ideal for, who decided it was ideal, and so on.

So, to normalise these incredible standards we do three things:

Externalisation: This is where we see the ideal types, the fact that they’re touted as ‘ideal’ and consider them legitimate.

Objectivation: This is where we take the subjective ‘ideal’ and make it concrete by assigning certain things to it. In this case, we assign things like thinness, long legs etc with ‘ideal’ so we can point to the ideal type when we talk about it.

Internalisation: This is where we essentially accept this as the ideal type.

In short, an ideal type is presented, an ideal type is described, and then we get used to it without necessarily accepting it. Regardless of whether you think Krystal being regarded as the ideal type is correct, or that Luna starving herself to be this ideal type is correct, you can point to them as an example of what the ideal type being described is.

There are endless examples of talk about the ‘ideal’ idol body – whether it be about a single idol body, or a comparison of two different ones. For example, this translation of a Pann post about Red Velvet’s Seulgi talks about how her proportions are amazing and ideal…except she’s too short. That’s it. She’s just too short, so she can’t be ideal even though her body is praised. She fits what we know as the type, but that doesn’t seem to matter. No idol can ever be the ideal ideal.

img_5494

All the pictures are from behind because short people secretly hide their shortness from the front.

It’s clear that the idea of idols starving themselves to meet some kind of ideal is not okay. There’s also no way of getting around the fact that Krystal and Luna are underweight. This is not a moral judgement, but rather a statement of concern. Luna in particular clearly meets this ideal through unhealthy means, so there’s little room for arguments that it’s alright for her in some way.

As if this isn’t dangerous enough, it affects people outside of the industry as well. Whether fans accept the ‘ideal’ or not, constantly hearing about it can take a toll. The Dispatch article linked above both feature comments, jokingly or otherwise, saying things like ‘I should just kill myself now’. The ideal feels so unattainable because it is, and this affects people by making them think they’ll never be ‘good’ enough. Of course, the reality is nobody ever will be, because this is such an unhealthy image to begin with that it makes people do awful things to themselves to meet it.

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Helen

Production journalist, sociology grad and video games enthusiast. I really love Epik High. Tweeting at @hm_worthed