K-Pop idols suffer mental health issues, eating disorders after widespread industry mistreatment

December 5, 2019 — by Vicky Bai and Serena Li

On Nov. 24, Goo Hara, a former member of the K-Pop girl group Kara, was found dead in her room after committing suicide at age 28. Just one month prior, Sulli, a former member of the K-Pop girl group F(x), commited suicide in her house too. This crisis points out the serious problems facing the K-Pop industry. 

Since the start of her short career, Sulli had been a target for hate. She took a hiatus from performing in 2014 and eventually left the group a year later due to mental health issues. 

This kind of situation isn’t uncommon in the K-pop world. 

Idols are often seen breaking down on stage, fainting in airports, and taking frequent hiatuses. The unbearable pressure and physical and mental exhaustion that idols go through are the root causes of their declining health.

With over 300 K-Pop groups in the industry, only about 30 groups are considered famous or successful. All the idols face a certain level of ill-treatment despite their fame. 

In fact, the exploitation of idols begins long before their debuts. They undergo an intense training process as trainees. A YouTube video with over 3 million views by Channel News Asia Insider, titled ”How To Become A K-Pop Idol: Life As A Foreign Trainee” exposes the daily life of a trainee. 

The video displays rude behavior by the company’s managers to trainees. The trainees are forced to go into splits even when they are crying, yelled at for dancing the wrong moves and embarrassed with hurtful, personal insults.

Every trainee is also required to be under 110 pounds. Trainee Yanagi Mizuho consumed less than 300 calories per day in addition to having intense dance training. She even had signs of anemia because of extreme dieting. 

Like Mizuho, idols are expected to maintain an unhealthily low weight to look “presentable” on camera. If an idol appears to have gained weight, they receive backlash and are critiqued for having a lack of self-control. 

As a result of all the pressure and exhaustion in their lives, many idols develop severe health issues such as eating disorders, anxiety and depression. 

Mina, a member of the group Twice, had to step down from Twice’s tour and performances due to severe anxiety; Jonghyun of Shinee committed suicide in December 2017 due to severe depression; Lay of EXO fainted two times at an airport over the course of six months due to overworking. 

In 2015, the group Red Velvet was called Pig Velvet because one of their members, Wendy, gained weight. As a result, Wendy lost an extreme amount of weight during Red Velvet’s comeback in 2017. At the variety show “Raid at the Convenience Store,” she revealed that she feels nervous and anxious every time she eats and can only eat small amounts. 

In addition to the unreasonable weight requirements, K-pop idols follow strict rules enforced by their specific agencies to look “perfect” and “innocent” in front of the public. The members of K-pop group BLACKPINK are prohibited from driving, dating, smoking, getting cosmetic surgery and tattoos and drinking. 

The private life of idols is also constantly exposed by sites such as Dispatch, and exploited by “crazy” fans who stalk their idols’ homes. Privacy becomes a privilege for idols.

Any slight flaw unveiled by these sites can lead to hate comments or even death threats from netizens or boycotts of an idol group. Some idols have lasers pointed at their eyes during performances by angry anti-fans. 

There is no guarantee of success in the idol industry. With newer ones debuting frequently, idols are under pressure to maintain relevancy. Many groups disband within one year of their debut because of the lack of fame.

Sophomore Bella Lin has been an avid K-Pop fan since 2010. She expressed that popularity is key to success for idols. 

“If you’re not popular, it doesn’t even matter how talented you are because you won’t be noticed,” Lin added. 

Despite idols’ inhumane working conditions, the popularity of K-Pop is still rising exponentially. Idol groups such as BTS, EXO and BLACKPINK are amassing massive and loyal fanbases and becoming the spotlight of entertainment.

“If people started caring more, maybe the idols won’t have to suffer as much,” Lin said.

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