K-Pop’s Not-So-Secret Eating Disorder Problem

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Online spaces focused on eating disorders have been around since the ’90s. If you’re a digital native, chances are you were exposed to Tumblr’s “skinnycore” (which is arguably similar to Gen Z’s “coquette” and “waif” aesthetics) and other cultural spaces where people with both diagnosed and undiagnosed eating disorders post about their unhealthy relationships with food. According to several people who are familiar with it, K-pop eating disorder Twitter is a direct result of the Korean wave (also known as the Hallyu wave) of the last five or so years — the massive global rise in the popularity of South Korean cultural exports.

Lin T., a 23-year-old healthcare worker based in Los Angeles who has been a part of online eating disorder communities since 2013, said, “K-pop wasn’t really a big deal when I was on Tumblr way back when. I think it’s only [really] become associated with eating disorders since maybe [2018 or 2019]. I think it’s because K-pop as a whole grew during this time, at least in the States.” Now, it’s nearly impossible to scroll through K-pop Twitter and not stumble across an account that has a thin K-pop idol as the profile picture; posts eating disorder content; and identifies itself with signifiers like “edtwt,” “K-pop edtwt,” or declarations of goal BMI or weight in the bio, pinned tweets, and/or hashtags.

The seven members I spoke to agreed that the community has been growing bigger for years.

“I think the eating disorder K-pop community is so big because the behaviors that we do are so normalized by K-pop idols,” Lily said. “You realize the extreme ways these idols maintain their perfect images and you feel comforted. You see them talking about the insane diets they did and you want to do them too.”

According to Dawn, a 21-year-old college student and K-pop edtwt user, “K-pop edtwt is so big because of how easy it is to build community with others. … K-pop companies foster fandoms so oftentimes you already have that built-in community. And on top of that, for a really long time K-pop was seen as weird and you couldn’t really discuss it with people at school or home in the same way you could discuss Western pop culture, so now you had this community of people where you could really vent and [have] discussions about these two ‘shameful,’ secretive things.”

Other members of the K-pop edtwt community said they felt validated by how open K-pop stars are about their desire to be skinny and the restrictive habits they use to achieve their weight goals. K-pop is notorious for its grueling trainee-to-idol process, which is highly publicized, sometimes televised, and engages fans in idols’ careers even before they officially debut as artists. Selected trainees undergo up to 10 years of hardcore practice sessions, where it’s necessary to impress management companies to ultimately be chosen for your debut. Idol trainees can be expected to train in singing and dancing for over 12 hours a day, with regular weigh-ins in addition to their lessons. And there’s an international, digitally connected legion of fans hanging onto every comment they make and analyzing every slight physical change they see.

Ashley McHan, a psychologist and eating disorder therapist based in Atlantic Beach, Florida, said studies have shown that celebrity fandom and seeing images of celebrities are associated with negative body image. “Research has shown time and time again that the more we are exposed [to a thin, idealized image], the more our body dissatisfaction increases,” she said. “The higher the celebrity worship, the lower the body image. Those who value these K-pop superstars are already primed to have lower body image. Then you put in that the celebrities that they’re worshiping are [pro-anorexia] and it’s like gasoline on a fire.” According to the National Eating Disorders Association, “eating disorders have the second highest mortality rate of all mental health disorders, surpassed only by opioid addiction.”

For some fans with eating disorders, K-pop culture is a refreshing change from American media, which is increasingly embracing the body positivity movement on the surface while continuing to glorify thin, idealized bodies. The K-pop industry doesn’t hide its thin-centric culture. In fact, it’s entirely open about the strict beauty standards, which reflect what bodies are seen as ideal in South Korea; a study showed that South Koreans had the strongest bias for thin people over fat people out of people from 71 nations. Management companies are known for controlling stars’ portions and instructing members to lose weight. Fans, anti-fans, and the media alike keep close tabs on artists’ bodies in publicized rankings or as fan war fodder. In one YouTube video, an audience member on a talk show criticizes F(x) member Sulli, saying that she is fat and needs to lose weight. Sulli died by suicide in 2019 following years of intense media scrutiny.

While a few idols have spoken publicly about receiving eating disorder treatment — including singer IU, who revealed in 2013 that she was on an extreme crash diet, sparking a global trend called the “IU diet challenge,” and then explained in a 2014 talk show appearance that she had received treatment for bulimia — by and large K-pop culture venerates extremely restrictive eating behaviors.

“[K-pop idols will] often make comments on calories, losing weight, or tease other members for being ‘fat,’” Lily said. “It’s impossible to consume pretty much any K-pop media without coming across these types of things — V Lives [posts on an app where idols can livestream directly to fans], Instagram posts, Instagram stories, music video reactions, mukbangs, variety shows — they all mention it.”

In a Twice V Live often circulated on K-pop edtwt, Japanese member Momo revealed that during her trainee days she “was told that [she] had to lose [15 pounds] no matter what. That was the only way to be on the showcase.” She hesitated for a moment, asking her groupmates if it was OK to speak, then revealed she vomited to try to lose weight, in addition to overexercising and eating only ice cubes for a week, while her groupmates praised her ability to do so.

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