Just a quick trigger warning first: I’m going to be mentioning extreme dieting and body dissatisfaction.
For as long as I can remember, I wanted glowing pale skin, a sharp nose, and big wide eyes. I looked to Western models like Blake Lively and Kylie Jenner as pinnacles of beauty, not knowing the lengths that these women have gone to look the way they do.
I vividly recall seeing Kristina Pimenova on my social media and hearing that she was dubbed “the most beautiful girl in the world.” Seeing all that she was, then looking in a mirror and seeing all I was not, made me feel like the antithesis of beauty. I have spent my required hours frowning at mirrors and picking at skin, attempting to peel away parts of myself until I reached a core that reflected the impossible standards it longed to emulate.
For many of the people around me, all of that changed when K-pop began its rise. In my first year of high school, my friends traded in their American movie posters for K-pop photocards, fawning over their new most beautiful people. For the vast majority of young girls I knew, girl groups like BLACKPINK, Twice, and Red Velvet provided inspiration for the people they wanted to be.
When people who looked a little more like me were gaining popularity, I wanted to believe that the beauty standard was finally diversifying. To a certain extent, I felt more accommodated by the shift in ideals. For example, Korean beauty standards heavily favor double eyelids. Many people undergo double eyelid surgery in order to look like their favorite K-pop stars, such as Red Velvet’s Irene or Momoland’s Yeon Woo.
The morals of their somewhat-cautionary tales are watered down by the fact that, at the end of the day, they achieved Korean beauty standards and were praised for it by audiences.
As someone who never paid much attention to my double eyelids, seeing so many people obsess over them and even getting specific compliments made me feel a bit more comfortable with the way I looked. However, for many people who don’t have double eyelids, their lack thereof is just another thing to be insecure about. After learning about the procedure, many of my friends with monolids told me that they contemplated whether or not they would get the procedure if given the opportunity.
In reality, the beauty standard being perpetuated by Korean idols, though certainly different from Western ones, is still manifesting in ways that are detrimental to the psyche of K-pop fans. Just as I once compared myself to Western celebrities like Selena Gomez, I saw my friends comparing themselves to Korean idols like TWICE’s Tzuyu. The feeling doesn’t change — we’re still comparing ourselves to an unrealistic standard, even if those standards differ from person to person.
What’s different about K-pop is the openness with which these idols discuss the lengths they go to become that beauty standard. The proliferation of plastic surgery and dieting in Korean culture bleeds heavily into K-pop, and people react very differently to these ideas.
Some of my friends are very cautious when comparing themselves to their Korean idols — they know how damaging it is to try and fit into beauty standards because they’ve seen the idols they love suffer firsthand. Many of the long-time K-pop fans I know admonish the industry and culture for allowing idols to do things like go on extreme diets. It sparks hope and inspiration to see my friends become vocal about social issues because their love for K-pop motivated them to learn and care more.
On the other hand, many of my friends still compare themselves to Korean idols despite knowing how unrealistic the comparison is. The vast majority of K-pop fans I know feed into the idea that the most attractive idols are the skinniest, palest, and most like the beauty standards.
Idols discuss their diets very openly, and they’re open, too, about the extreme ways they’ve achieved their “perfect” figures. However, the morals of their somewhat-cautionary tales are watered down by the fact that, at the end of the day, they achieved Korean beauty standards and were praised for it by audiences.
Many K-pop fans are aware of how potentially dangerous these diets may be, but still try them out of desperation. I know that desperation well. As someone who has struggled with my weight my whole life, seeing people openly go to these lengths opens a deep scar. I have always correlated my appearance to my worth, and seeing the tremendous value placed on appearance in the K-pop industry helped me understand how common that issue is. Ultimately, K-pop is an industry that, in many ways, equates success with physical beauty.
The transparency of K-pop idols in regard to their appearance is a double-edged sword. Unlike the vague guesswork required by the West, Korean beauty standards tell it to you straight: it is impossible for you to look like your idols unless you are willing to go as far as they did. But that sentiment can so easily get lost in translation. For many, it becomes a taunt: do this diet, buy that product, and you will become beautiful.
As a Filipina, I struggle with the idea that the shift to Korean beauty standards is supposed to mean progress. Filipino media has undoubtedly moved from White models to more Asian ones, but representation for actual Filipinos is severely lacking. We see this in other industries too: K-pop artists sell out stadiums, while OPM artists garner a fraction of those listens. Filipino cinema struggles for half of the attention that K-drama series garner.
The proliferation of slim K-pop idols in the media, particularly in Filipino media, has shown me that we have a long way to go before Filipinos learn to love their own skin instead of moving from one foreign obsession to the next.
However, I do believe that the shift to Korean beauty standards is pushing us in the right direction. We as a culture have been obsessed with Western celebrities for so long that even opening up the idea of diversifying those standards can pave the way for us to break them down. My only hope is that more Filipinos will be next on the list of celebrities we choose to put on billboards and screens.