There’s a peculiar disconnect, a synaptic fissure in today’s society. The universal pursuit of perfection – and distaste for factors that challenge this obsession – is so loud that it drowns out our sense of right and wrong.
Raise your hand if you’ve ever scrutinized your reflection in the mirror, unable to shake off the merciless insecurities in your head after being dropped the F-bomb.
The word “fat” is undoubtedly one of the most loaded words in our culture. Body-shaming, the making of inappropriate negative statements towards another person’s weight or size, can come in all forms. Sometimes, it’s that insulting comment on your Instagram OOTD, or it’s that passing remark made by someone whose opinion shouldn’t matter. It can even be a comment made by you about someone else. More often than not, celebrities and public figures fall victim to it too, and it’s become so commonplace that we just take it as it comes. While it seems normal to scrutinize and comment on how celebrities look, is there perhaps a line to be drawn?
Recently, the youngest member of Pristin, Kyla Massie, has become the topic of a heated discussion concerning her body and weight. Yet another victim of body-shaming, the 16-year-old has been berated with so many hate comments – some even stated that she isn’t fit to be an idol if she can’t even take care of her figure – that it has caught the attention of her brother, who took it to Twitter to defend her.
PSA: Whatever seems like a harmless little joke can actually hurt someone more than you think. So always think before you say
— Luke (@LukeyMassie) May 3, 2017
While there are fans who oppose the malicious comments and believe that Kyla does not need to conform to K-pop’s unrealistic beauty standards, many also stand firmly by their belief that idols need to uphold a specific body type to stay in the good graces of the public. There were also speculations of fans becoming silent during Kyla’s parts in live performances and fan meets, but it’s not certain if a boycott really took place, or if it was to express their disaffection with her weight. What’s certain is that these days, any sign of body imperfection, particularly having extra body fat or flesh, can instigate the wrath of society. Fat hatred has become so pervasive that it is now part of the fabric of our language and interactions. At what point did it become a crime not to conform to the ideal body type set forth by the media?
Not just in K-pop, but rather the society at large has found humor and almost an inexplicable form of solace in degrading a human’s body, regardless of gender. This insidious epidemic has manifested the notion that a slender S-line figure and a well-sculpted body are what women and men should strive towards respectively, even for children and adolescents. This ideal body image distortion leads people into thinking that anything besides those traits is undesirable or unappreciated, or not normal even.
K-pop, especially, is an arena in which many are held to extreme beauty standards. South Korea seems big on striving towards perfection, which explains their beauty obsession and US$4.6 billion plastic surgery industry. Though the media is a conduit that fosters fraudulent beauty standards and body types, to point all fingers at them would be an act of oblivion on our end as we also have a part to play in pushing such standards. As consumers, we are influenced and compelled to adopt the products and practices marketed to us.
“Some patients bring photos of K-pop stars and request to look like them,” said Kevin Van Noortwyk, the international business development coordinator for JK Plastic Surgery Center in Seoul, to The Atlantic.
The moment you enter the K-pop sphere, you are not confined to just their music, but also bombarded by images of idols with impeccable bodies and pretty faces. They’ve been molded and marketed as business objects for the bottom line to appeal to people who are naturally attracted to good looks, then followed by talent, proving that the typical idol formula—pretty face, tall and godlike physique—works. You can be the most talented, but if you jiggle on stage or look even a tad bloated, get ready to be slammed.
Thus, this begs the question: why do people body-shame?
Generally, we love to talk and we’ll always find something to talk about. Positive or negative, we have opinions and we want to verbalize them, regardless of the weight of our words. It’s become a habit ingrained in us to aim our own insecurities at others, just to boost our morale and make ourselves feel triumphant. Yet, we often fail to realize the adverse consequences of such acts.
This casual and rampant body-shaming attitude is a barometer of how backward our society actually is. Kyla is also a minor and she’s most probably still in the phase where most teenagers are still undergoing puberty and facing issues with their bodies. During the transition to adulthood, teenagers are more prone to weight fluctuations, self-esteem issues and body dissatisfaction. Research has shown that the effect of media’s paradigm of physical beauty appears exceptionally robust with people, especially women of all ages, reporting greater feelings of inadequacy and body dissatisfaction. These are some factors that significantly result in restrictive eating behaviors and unhealthy weight-control methods, which can serve as a threat to one’s health, especially for teenagers who are still observing growth and changes with their bodies.
Something that we also need to take into consideration is the fact that Kyla is mixed. Being Korean-American, she’s more likely to have different features as the two ethnicities generally have different body builds and share different physical characteristics. Hence, it would be unfair to expect her to have the same East Asian frame as the others.
Additionally, not everyone is born with the body type that’s worshipped by the media and the public. To achieve such godlike figures, most idols engage in unhealthy diets that are notorious for their intensity and absurdity. Many idols are terrifyingly underweight – there are those who are naturally thin, but most still go on diets because they are told or pressurized to do so. Of course, it’s only natural to want to look good, but K-pop’s glorification of 22-inch ant waists and visible ribs projects a beauty and weight misperception to impressionable fans who view the idols as role models and believe that it’s acceptable to follow such “norms”.
I’m not saying that skinny-shaming is acceptable. In fact, it’s just as abhorrent. What I’m condemning is the general idea that being skinny is the only way to be deemed as beautiful. Even today, it’s rare to see individuals whose natural body shape doesn’t conform to the norm being celebrated or included in South Korea as many shops still only carry the “one size fits all” mindset.
Idols who are regular targets of body-shaming by the public include Red Velvet’s Joy and Wendy, DIA’s Chaeyeon, Twice’s Jihyo and Ailee. For her comeback, Ailee eventually succumbed to the pressure and lost 10 kg, which weakened her vocal power as a result. But her thinner look didn’t resonate well with the netizens either and she was urged to gain back the weight she’d lost.
She commented, “When I’m losing weight, people tell me to gain it back and when I gain weight, people tell me to lose it.”
Jihyo has also received tons of criticism about her body shape by JYP himself in Sixteen, netizens, public figures and even Twice’s own fans, allegedly akgae fans. During her appearance in MBC’s Mask King which requires guests to conceal their identities, the panelists made unpleasant remarks about her physique, such as “These days, idols are very thorough at taking care of their figure, but she seems to have the turtleneck syndrome,” and “I don’t think she’s an idol”.
Likewise, Wendy also lost a shocking amount of weight since her debut, but her current thin frame has also sparked concerns about eating disorders and psychological trauma. On a radio show, she revealed that she’s no longer on a diet and is losing weight naturally. However, she admitted that she’s very self-conscious and is afraid of becoming chubby, like her pre-debut self.
The lengths idols take to achieve unrealistic ideal figures are concerning and are often at the expense of their health. Oh My Girl’s JinE had to halt album promotions to receive treatment for anorexia, after starving herself for their comeback. Sistar’s Dasom revealed that she has a phobia of people commenting on her weight and would stop eating if someone told her that she has gained weight and Ladies Codes’ Sojung admitted that she didn’t have her menstrual period for a year due to extreme dieting.
However, it’s also instructive to note that female idols aren’t the only ones who bear the brunt of such backlash. Xiumin, EXO’s very own baozi, and BTS’ Jimin had undergone drastic weight loss after fans and netizens commented on their chubby physiques. From looking healthy, both male idols now appear too thin—almost emaciated—and tired, concerning many fans.
This mindset of reaching perfection has fostered a nauseating disease that cripples the mental and physical health of both celebrities and fans, especially the younger ones, who’d want to emulate their favorite idols. According to the 2015 Health at a Glance report, South Korea ranked the fourth lowest in terms of the obesity rate among girls. However, a study by Sahmyook University in 2013 revealed that almost 95 percent of 154 female university students within the normal body mass index (BMI) range of 18 to 23 expressed that they were unhappy with their bodies and more than 60 percent felt that they needed to lose weight.
Experts attribute this to the media, which glorifies skinny figures and deplores the slightest body imperfection. The Chosun Ilbo also reported that many teenage girls diet so excessively to look like their idols that they start to develop chronic eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia. These eating disorders during puberty can lead to stunted growth and leave teenagers physically weak. Furthermore, South Korea has not made many overt strides in addressing this issue or offer any educational programs on body image specifically for students.
In the case of dieting, many teenagers are also following diet fads reportedly used by female celebrities. An online study regarding teen health by the Korean Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention in 2014 found that 45.1 percent of teenage girls and 23.1 percent of boys are undergoing diets and 18.8 percent of girls have purchased weight-loss pills and laxatives, and resorted to extreme measures like vomiting and starvation to stay skinny.
Moreover, the prevalence of eating disorders is increasingly hitting the younger demographics as well. Eating disorders among children are increasing and more children as young as three years old are reported to have body image issues. Research by Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years in the United Kingdom revealed that almost one-third of educators have heard a child label themselves fat and some contributing factors include exposure to the media, namely TV stars, their peers and adults. While we frown upon this, are we actually encouraging this epidemic by attacking Kyla who has yet to hit adulthood?
It’s understandable if we’re talking about obesity, which can be life-threatening, and we’re concerned about their health. That should be the idea behind asking someone to take care of their body, and not just because they don’t conform to media’s paradigm of the ideal body. There is a distinctive line between being healthy and obese, and idols who are body-shamed are often far from being obese.
To want people to stop body-shaming or celebrities to stop their extreme diets and start promoting body positivity would be delusional, but I hope that we’d stop enforcing the idea of paper-doll idols and start embracing a healthier body image. Only a handful of idols have dared to step forward to promote body positivity. While Sistar prides themselves on embracing their healthy and fit bodies, Mamamoo’s Hwasa has also sparked a positive change to the general predisposition towards curvier figures.
In a segment of Idol Men of MBC’s Section TV, Lee Sang-min and Killagramz supported Kyla by saying that she looks pretty the way she is, despite the domestic and international criticism regarding her body shape. Though it wasn’t blown up in the media, we definitely need more public appreciation like this.
It's sad that female idol always get body shamed;;; Kyla is beautiful ♡♡♡ She deserves so much more than having all the hate about her body. pic.twitter.com/RvpJOAcCTA
— E (@aegig0m) May 29, 2017
Pop culture is one of the most prolific forms of media and an influential vehicle for spreading positivity regarding social norms and cultural concepts. The body-shaming pandemic has only aggravated and we have yet to liberate ourselves from society’s ruthless claws. Given the negative health consequences and high prevalence of body image distortion, we need more advocates who are brave to challenge social pressures and spearhead social change in K-pop. Only by continuing to raise our voices against such discrimination can we yearn for change.
My sister to you all: pic.twitter.com/tNpXJlfxl7
— Luke (@LukeyMassie) July 9, 2017
Though Kyla’s brother has posted a handwritten letter by the idol herself, Pledis has yet to release an official statement regarding this issue. Body-shaming has been said to be one of the most common forms of cyber-bullying and for a 16-year-old to be bashed for her body shape is simply ruthless and uncalled for. That said, there are two possible scenarios following this issue – either Kyla (or rather, Pledis) relents and sports a thinner look to satisfy the public for Pristin’s next comeback, or she continues to challenge K-pop’s beauty standards and become an advocate of body positivity.
Personally, I think Kyla looks healthy and beautiful and I’m glad that she has sparked this discussion. I’ll be more than glad if my favorite idols put on weight, if that meant that they’re eating well and not starving. Beauty isn’t size specific – big or small, perfect or not, it’s time for a positive change within the visually homogenous industry, don’t you agree?
(YouTube, Nate , Naver, Twitter  , GOOD, The Straits Times, The Chosun Ilbo, OECD, Telegraph, The Atlantic, Images via Pledis Entertainment, JYP Entertainment, SM Entertainment, Newsen, Mnet)