The Seoul Metropolitan Council, led by Councilor Kim Gyu-Nam, is finally taking measures to protect K-pop trainees’ mental and physical health amid the industry’s harsh beauty standards.
In a plenary session last year, Councilor Kim proposed the Ordinance on the Protection and Support of the Rights of Youth Cultural and Artistic Persons in Seoul. The ordinance, passed last December, aims to uphold K-pop trainees’ rights against undergoing forced weight loss and plastic surgery. It also offers other career opportunities to former trainees who’ve parted ways with their management. This act of legal support towards idols has been long overdue, especially since they’ve spent years under scrutiny for their physical appearance.
In addition, the protective framework urges entertainment agencies and managers to handle their talents responsibly. Councilor Kim emphasized that artists have been left solely in charge of their own health when they shouldn’t be. “While K-pop gains global recognition, the risks and uncertainties faced by young trainees until they mature into idols are the personal responsibility of these young individuals.”
K-pop stans took to social media to share their takes on the new policy. Their reactions ranged from “It’s about time” to “You know this isn’t gonna work, right?” The need for the ordinance has been apparent for quite a while now (given the detriment to idols’ health), but fans aren’t confident towards its enforcement.
Anyone interested in K-pop, K-dramas, and the Hallyu wave in general knows how often idols, actors, and models use the term “visual” to describe the physical charms that complement their skills. Being debut-ready means willingly transforming into a quadruple threat—singing, dancing, rapping, and being conventionally attractive. Rigid Korean beauty standards, which judge details from skin tones to facial features, are used to determine the success of idols, too.
In an industry that values visual appeal as much as talent, the journey towards achieving a near perfect image is severely distressing and mentally taxing. The more idols abide by these almost impossible rules on their looks (on top of maintaining grueling training routines), the more harm these norms pose onto trainees who have yet to debut. Most of these idol aspirants are still children, and companies have already propagated the idea that they must look a certain way, follow strict diets, and undergo cosmetic procedures to keep their chances at stardom.
A few older K-pop stars have already used their platforms to speak up against the toxic physical standards they endured throughout their careers. But fans continue to pick up on drastic changes in younger idols’ and trainees’ bodies. So even though Seoul’s new law requires labels to take action and strive for healthier trainee lifestyles, we can’t help but wonder why the act wasn’t proposed sooner. Plus, it’s a city-wide policy tackling a global issue. With the increasing number of foreign trainees debuting, why limit its benefits to performers in Seoul?
The Seoul Metropolitan Council’s concrete efforts to support idols’ and trainees’ welfare are commendable. But are they enough to dispel the deeply ingrained beauty norms that idols conform to? While the enacted policy strives to defend and empathize with performers’ well-being, it does little to ultimately get rid of the inhumane body standards instilled in the K-pop community. They still exist despite the law, which leaves fans questioning what else should be done to combat their prevalence.
Saying that idols and trainees don’t receive appropriate legal support is an understatement. The newly enacted law is a step in the right direction, but it barely scratches the surface of injustices and tragedies that K-pop artists, both established and forthcoming, have grappled with through the years.
What about the malicious comments towards idols’ relationships and personal lives? What about the looming dangers of harassment and invasions of privacy, which have taken great tolls on idols’ mental health? Who will protect them from those hardships?
Idols and trainees have made countless sacrifices to pursue their dream careers, no matter how demanding and competitive the industry’s training terms get. As their supporters, we can only hope that the Seoul Metropolitan Council’s new law urges the K-pop industry as a whole to treat their artists with the respect they deserve. They’re human beings too, after all.