K-pop is to music what factory farming is to food. By sacrificing the needs and quality of life of K-pop stars for a higher guarantee on profits, K-pop has grown into an international goliath media industry the likes of which have never been replicated.
The main problem with the K-pop industry is that it takes the commodification of persona and celebrity to the absolute extreme. People are treated like literal products to be packaged neatly and sold with no regard for their health, safety, autonomy, creativity, or artistic rights. A kind of contractual enslavement allows for managers to control every facet of their trainee and stars lives.
By signing artists when they’re extremely young and impressionable, lured in by the promises of fame and wealth, the K-pop industry secures total obedience and control over their stars. A kind of grooming ensues from the very beginning that ensures perfection and uniformity among all a label’s prospective stars. Most contracts are for a minimum of seven years, which is very long for an artist to not have rights over their own output, especially when most stars age out of the industry by 30.
K-pop’s widespread marketability relies heavily on generating stars and storylines which appear innocent, devoid of much of the trashy culture we see in the West revolving around overt sexuality, drugs, and rebellious or taboo public behavior. You would never see a K-pop star marketed using the Cardi B or Nikki Minaj branding. And while it’s good to see stars who have the appearance of elegance, class, morality, and maturity about them, the lengths to which labels go to keep their stars unstained from misbehavior is suffocating. K-pop stars aren’t allowed to step out of line ever or they risk losing it all.
K-Pop Stars Are Held to Extreme Weight Standards
The regimented physical and mental training that K-pop stars endure is unlike anything we can possibly imagine here in the West. Stars have reported being forced to train for 18 hours a day until they pass out, sleep on wooden floors, and even explicitly forced to starve themselves.
The maximum weight for a K-pop star is 104lbs, regardless of height.
The intense scrutiny not only of managers and trainers but of the Korean public contributes to the harsh and harmful standards that K-pop stars must live up to. Weekly weigh-ins are common to make sure that stars are not gaining too much weight. If they are shown to have gained even a small amount, their food would be rationed.
The unbelievably strict weight standards are well known to be an obsession among all K-pop trainees and stars. The maximum weight for a K-pop star is 104lbs, regardless of height. This undernourishing of the stars’ bodies, coupled with the intense and overwhelming amount of physical training, results in poor overall mental and physical health.
Case in Point: Hwasa
There’s the case of Ahn Hye-jin, known by her stage name Hwasa, who has been ridiculed and harassed for being “fat” by fans and K-pop stans online. The most remarkable thing about this is that her actual weight is 96 pounds, which is tiny even considering her short stature of 5’4”. It seems that she just has wider hips than most K-pop stars, so by comparison to the common prepubescent frame of most women in the industry she appears large.
This to me is a perfect example of the insane beauty standards set for women in Korea. I’m all for women being encouraged to be healthy and fit, but here we see women being more encouraged to remain in a kind of perpetual girlhood. Hwasa looks like a woman. She has an hour-glass figure which is stunning and would be the envy of many Western women. Unfortunately, though, this is a mark of shame for her, and her womanly shape is used to deem her too fat to be a star.
Mental Health Is Also Ignored
When our bodies are starving, we’re more prone to depression, anxiety, and even an increased risk of suicide. This is worth mentioning when we think of cases like 27-year-old Kim Jong-hyun, who was one of the most beloved members of the band SHINee. He expressed his battle with depression in various interviews before sadly committing suicide.
It’s unclear if Kim succumbed to depression due to the harsh realities of fame and celebrity life, or if it was the harsh mental and physical condition of being K-pop famous, but it would be impossible to ignore the relationship between the abusive conditions stars must endure and outcomes like Kim’s.
Shockingly the K-pop industry decided to avoid commemorating Kim, as this kind of story is simply not good for business. If you were to walk through the SMTtown Museum, which honors the label’s most successful bands and artists, you would see no record of his death, almost as if it never happened.
Sexual Exploitation in the K-Pop Industry
On top of these unbelievably inhumane conditions, female K-pop stars are also at an increased risk of sexual violence and coerced prostitution. Back in 2019, the pristine veneer of virtuousness finally began to show signs of cracking when allegations surrounding sex trafficking, date rape, and spy camera recordings of women without their consent leaked from a Seoul nightclub called Burning Sun which is owned by one of the industries most popular stars, Seungri.
Female K-pop stars are also at an increased risk of sexual violence and coerced prostitution.
The scandal revealed that behind the scenes not only are K-pop stars mistreated in their training, but that they’re also a part of a much darker system of control by the most powerful people in the industry. Allegations of K-pop managers and producers pimping out young impressionable stars to the rich and powerful are only some of the heinous stories that have broken in the past few years.
Unfortunately, these stories have not so much changed the industry as they have acted as a warning to others who are tempted to use their power to prey on the vulnerable. Everyone knows that no level of fame or wealth would withstand a scandal like the one at Burning Sun. This seems to be deterrent enough for most.
Fans worldwide and some Korean women’s movements are the main advocates for change in the K-pop industry and continue to act as the voice of the stars they love who don’t have voices of their own. While fans love and adore the performances of their favorite stars, they more than anyone know the truth of the saying, “All that glitters is not gold.”
The façade has been exposed and most people see K-pop as an industry desperately in need of reform. Behind the perfectly synchronized dance routines, aesthetic fashion, and catchy beats, there are real human issues and actual exploitation that people are struggling with. For the sake of the idols still entrenched in K-pop’s rigid illusion of flawlessness, we must not forget that this form of entertainment not only has a dark side but is itself, quite dark.
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