We’ve all seen it before: a netizen somehow comes across a pre-debut photo of an idol. Said netizen, whose intentions, be they benign or malicious, uploads the photo to the internet. Cue overblown reaction; suddenly, despite whatever else may be going on in the world, this is Major News That Everyone Should Know About. And soon enough, it seems as if pretty much everyone does know about it and has had their say.
Finding a pre-debut photo of your favorite idol — be it a graduation photo, a photo from their trainee days, or a childhood picture — is hardly difficult. A simple search on either Google or Naver will likely find what you are looking for. But I have always been rather fascinated — and a bit disgusted — by the fact that the discovery or addition of new pre-debut pictures is newsworthy (I also have qualms about the fact that idols taking and uploading selcas is newsworthy, but that is a topic for another time).
Of course, I can certainly understand why netizens and fans alike would want to see pre-debut photos of Korea’s brightest stars; when you are as devoted to your fandom as are many Korean idol-worshippers, curiosity and a desire to get to know more about their life is natural. Pre-debut photos offer a glitz-less glimpse into who idols were before they were famous. And for many, they can also be inspiring or encouraging reminders of the obvious fact that idols are people, too — people who may have once been overweight, people who may have once had braces, people who may have suffered from acne. To those who truly do idolize their idols, seeing their pre-debut photos (much like seeing their fresh face photos) can be a source of comfort, a means by which idols are made more human and approachable — and their transitions to their gorgeous selves more possible. Or the horrifically awkward teenager who once had braces and acne that lives somewhere inside thinks so, at any rate.
But the real baffling thing about the veritable online obsession with pre-debut photos is that, more often than not, fans and anti-fans simply see what they want to see. That plastic surgery is rampant in both South Korea and the idol world is not a secret, and pre-debut photos often reveal a face so different from the one we have come to know and love that it would be practically delusional to deny that it is the product of a doctor’s practiced hand — and yet, these photos are the recipient of many a comment from butthurt fans who are determined to believe that their oppas or unnies are actually just superior genetic specimens with naturally beautiful faces.
For the die-hards, pre-debut photos are an affirmation of their idols’ incontestable and unchanging natural beauty, no matter how unrealistic their transition may seem; for the anti-fans, they are an excuse to rip on the assumption that an idol’s present-day looks are probably largely manufactured. It is a game of tug-of-war that nobody really wins, because 9 times out of 10, idols remain mum on whether or not they went under the knife — although I’d say that Hyo-min once ripping up an old school photo revealed on a variety show at record speed speaks for itself. And so the cycle goes, and everyone argues in meaningless circles until another photo of a different celebrity is released, providing more fodder for “debate.”
What, then, is the point? Pre-debut photos ought to provide a healthy perspective about the idol industry, reminding us that nearly all of it is in some way manufactured; they could also serve as the opening to a productive societal dialogue about the realities of plastic surgery and body image in South Korea (and as I’m sure you’ve noticed by now, this is exactly what I would wish to happen). But alas — they seem to be contributing to an entirely different and completely unproductive dialogue that could actually be harmful to fans with low self-esteem.
Perhaps I’ve been influenced by Seoulbeats’ recent conversations about insane K-pop fangirls, but the delusion surrounding pre-debut photos is honestly perturbing. It is one thing to love your idols; it is another thing to buy the idea that a combination of losing baby fat and putting on some make-up magically produced dozens of girls (and guys — I see you, Jae-joong) with exceptionally large eyes, perfect double eyelids, high-bridged noses, perfect v-line jaws, and flawless figures. So what if a pre-debut photo indicates that your bias wasn’t once the perfect beauty he/she is today? Putting aside the many objections and controversies surrounding plastic surgery (and believe me, that really is a topic for another time), that an idol is revealed to be imperfect should not be cause for disappointment or disillusionment, nor should it make you like them any less. Why not rejoice in the fact that, after all, they really are just like the rest of us?