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

“I think the eating disorder K-pop community is so big because the behaviors that we do are so normalized by K-pop idols.”

Note: This article contains extreme triggers for disordered eating and anorexia.

In 2019, when Lily was 16, she had a stan account for Blackpink and Red Velvet, two of the biggest K-pop girl groups at the time. (Interviewees declined to provide surnames, to protect their privacy.) One day, she saw a mutual follower retweet a photo of one of Red Velvet’s wildly popular main performers Seulgi, along with her height and weight, which they tagged as “thinspo.” Lily, who lives in France, had always struggled with her body image. Upon recognizing that she and Seulgi were the same height, she scoured the internet for diets and workouts Seulgi might have done.

She immediately found a community of young people on Twitter, who seemed to be predominantly girls ages 15 to 19, with two shared passions: K-pop and thinness. There were threads with titles like “K-pop stars eating so you don’t have to” and “K-pop idols disordered eating habits,” featuring photos and videos of K-pop idols (the term for K-pop artists who undergo yearslong preparation for superstardom under the strict control of management companies) curated by people with restrictive eating disorders. There were also diet and workout tips purportedly followed by idols, and portion sizes snagged from their vlogs and Instagram photos. The posting and viewing of eating disorder content is intended to trigger users into engaging in disordered behaviors with the end goal of becoming skinnier, or to simply provide a forum for offloading obsessive thoughts about body image. A majority of accounts in the community are for “venting” — users posting obsessive stream-of-consciousness thoughts about their bodies, inspired by the stars they want to emulate — but some “thinspo” accounts have tens of thousands of followers and post daily. Within a year of that first search, Lily had started a K-pop eating disorder Twitter (or K-pop edtwt) account of her own.

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.

“It’s so clearly facilitated by a media industry that promotes these ideals.”

“It’s very much sanctioned by the industry,” said Bertha Chin, a fan studies scholar and lecturer at Swinburne University in Melbourne, Australia. “If you’re going to go on variety shows and talk about your diet and eating habits, it’s so clearly facilitated by a media industry that promotes these ideals. [K-pop stars] can go on official platforms to talk about these things, and I think when fans see that, they will see it as confirmation that this is not the wrong thing to do because people talk about it very openly.”

There’s no pretense that K-pop is effortless — the “struggle” is deeply ingrained in the culture, as well as the fandom. Being an idol performer means sacrifice and micromanagement. As Dawn puts it, “You feel like you're in the struggle together with them because no one’s implying that it’s inherent or accidental like you see in the West. It’s purposeful and it’s difficult.”

While they manage their illnesses, members of K-pop edtwt try to mitigate any potential harm by attempting to protect users without eating disorders and children from being exposed to triggering material — in fact, many tried to discourage me from writing this piece, out of fear it would bring non-disordered people to this content, as well as unwanted attention from outsiders. The users who spoke with me, however, thought talking about it publicly would shed light on an extremely important topic. But they were very careful to remind me not to post explicit photos, specific threads, or material that could expose a young, impressionable person to unhealthy behaviors.

There are also many recovery accounts documenting users’ experiences entering inpatient treatment and trying to unlearn their harmful habits. When they pursue recovery, many delete or ignore their accounts. Many also relapse and make new accounts during the recovery process. According to Koji, a 17-year-old from Texas who was forced into recovery by his parents and eventually relapsed, “K-pop edtwt definitely hinders the recovery process when you are being surrounded with idol thinspo pictures, fancams, body checks, comparisons...”

According to McHan, “The more time someone spends looking at the content, the more they’re affected. I do consider [consuming eating disorder Twitter] an eating disorder behavior. It’s a way in which a person is self-punishing and self-harming. And so the more you do it, the more you are likely to be in a state of regression and not forward movement in eating disorder recovery. Any moment where they have bad body image and they want to regress, they just pick up their phone.”

Lily told me that she was forced into inpatient treatment in an experience she called “traumatic.” While in the hospital, she kept in touch with the K-pop edtwt community to chat with friends about new releases. She has since relapsed and said she currently doesn’t have the support to recover. But when she does, she wants to cut off the K-pop edtwt community and all online K-pop communities. “[In my opinion] it's impossible to be in this community whilst fully recovered,” she said.

When I ask Lily if she feels like K-pop stars have a duty to be more aware of how their actions might affect their fans, she answers that they do. “They are so influential, and anyone who has that much influence over people needs to be careful with what they encourage their fans to do,” she said. The majority of K-pop idols have never acknowledged their fans with body image issues, with one exception: AleXa, a new-generation idol born in Oklahoma, who took to Bubble (a paid idol-to-fan messaging app) to tell fans not to use her as “thinspo,” saying, “[Eating disorders] are not a joke.”

But the members of K-pop edtwt who shared their stories with me understand that they have been failed in many ways, and that their idols have experienced those same failures. “I would hope non-disordered folks would understand how severely eating disorders can affect someone and their interests,” Koji said. “This … brings up a good opportunity to have more open, in-depth discussions about K-pop and its diet culture.”

Lin, however, puts it more bluntly. “Don't strive to look like an idol,” she said. “They aren't healthy.” ●

If you’re dealing with an eating disorder and need someone to talk to, the National Eating Disorders Association helpline is 1-800-931-2237; for 24/7 crisis support, text “NEDA” to 741741.

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