By Jonah Hicap
As headlines around the world usher in International Women's Day, a government ministry made headlines recently for its criticism of K-pop.
Last month, South Korea's Ministry of Gender Equality and Family issued gender equality guidelines to Korean media with the intention, among others, of diversifying the current "standard" image of K-pop stars presented to the public.
In seeking to break K-pop image stereotypes, the ministry pointed out that idol groups appearing on TV look too similar – while taking a swipe at their music talent, too.
"Are all of the singers who appear on television music programs twins? Most of the stars featured on music programs are from idol groups, whose musical stylings are just as limited as their appearances are," according to one guideline, reported the Korea JoongAng Daily.
This sparked a firestorm in South Korea. Several petitions were filed on the website of the office of President Moon Jae-in, seeking the abolition of the ministry and the resignation of its minister, Jin Sun-mee. Citizens criticised the guidelines as a form of authoritarianism harkening back to the country's military dictatorship era.
The ministry reversed course quickly, issuing a statement saying that the guidelines that caused the backlash would be corrected or removed, while denying that they were a form of censorship.
Pressure to be thin
Living the life of a K-pop star is hard. Whether in front of the camera or in the public eye, idols need to maintain their image: fair skin, slim bodies, doll-like faces, and costumes that are sexy, cute or both.
It's said to be common for group members, especially girl groups, to go on extreme diets to become thin before and during promotions for an album.
Apink's Chorong said on a TV show in 2017 that during their trainee days, they followed a strict diet. "We had to scale our weight once a week, and that's how I became obsessed with food," she said, according to The Korea Herald.
Female celebrities who are perceived as overweight by Korean social standards often find themselves the target of insults and ridicule.
Kyla, a member of girl group Pristin, became the target of severe and sustained criticism, including from the group's own fans, because they felt she had gained too much weight. Her agency later announced that Kyla would be taking a break from the group due to health issues. (Her current status with the group is unclear.)
Last December, Red Velvet members Wendy and Seulgi were guests on the Korean variety show "Dining Together". In one segment, Seulgi said they had to control their weight during promotions.
When asked about the worst method they tried to lose weight, Wendy described breakfast during their trainee days. "When I wake up, back then, the ground-up thing was really popular. You add black beans, a little bit of fat-free milk, you add cabbage and apples then grind them up," according to a translation on online streaming platform Viu.
"Then I jumped 10,000 times to digest that. I swell up easily so I had a packet of pumpkin juice as lunch and dinner. I couldn't do that after I debuted (as a singer)," Wendy added.
Enough is enough
But while most K-pop idols are conscious about their weight, singer Ailee (that's her at the top of this article) has decided to ignore the "standard" of constantly dieting to remain thin.
Ailee was a guest on the TV show "Hidden Singer" last August. During the program, she revealed that she was not happy when she underwent dieting.
"I was so sad that I had to go on a diet to be on stage, even though I'm a singer. I was really depressed because when I sang with a skinny body, I might have looked good, but I couldn't show 100 percent [of myself]," she said.
Once she decided it wasn't worth the struggle, she was able to focus more on her talent. "I'm so happy now. I think it's more important to be satisfied with my own singing, to love my own body."
Lee Jong-im, a researcher at Korea's Center for Culture & Society and author of Idol Trainees' Sweat and Tears, said female stars accept these extreme diets as part of being celebrities.
"Even though some of these diets border on 'abuse' in my opinion, female celebrities often shrug off their painful past while on TV and focus on the outcomes, such as having bought their parents cars or homes or having created a fandom," Lee told The Korea Herald.
She added that "it's not K-pop itself that is the problem, but agencies, the media and the public that expect their idols to look like they do in music videos all the time."
So while the Korean ministry's intention was to encourage more diversity in K-pop, it seems that the government "spoon-feeding" left a bad taste in the mouths of fans. This is an issue that can't be solved with new laws. It must be led by the fans themselves.
#BalanceforBetter is the theme of this year's International Women's Day, which takes aim at gender stereotypes and bias. If more K-fans around the world can come together to halt the bullying and body shaming and demand more diversity in the Kpop groups we love, the agencies and groups will follow.
It's in our hands, fam.