Wonyoungism, K-pop & TikTok: a Convo with Steffi Cao

Wonyoungism, K-pop & TikTok: a Convo with Steffi Cao

In April, the Daily Beast published an article titled "TikTok's Latest Wellness Trend: Starving Yourself in the Name f K-pop."

"Pastel pink and soft vignette filters, images featuring thin girls with long eyelashes, and good grades and skin-care products: These are all manifestations in the world of “Wonyoungism,” a wellness trend growing rapidly online among K-pop fans that, amidst the milky images of bows and strawberries, has faced criticism for promoting eating disorders," wrote Cao in the piece. "The term Wonyoungism itself derives from the K-pop idol Jang Won-young, a member of the girl group IVE.
At 19 years old, Jang has more than 11 million followers on Instagram, and has become something of a platonic ideal for fans online. Jang is confident, smart, pretty, sophisticated, according to those following her; so much so that she has evolved past typical celebrity into a quasi-religious figure, known simply as “Wonyoung.” Using phrases like “The Wonyoung Effect” and “Wonyoung Motivation,” evangelical fans online promote a message of self-improvement centered around the singer, telling one another that by making specific lifestyle changes, they can look and, more importantly, feel as seemingly confident as Jang."

In general, I love how writer Steffi Cao always has her fingers on Internet Trends and explores them throughout her work. So after I kept thinking about that article for weeks, I asked Cao to join me in a conversation about Wonyoungism, K-pop, TikTok, and a variety of other related topics for Notes on K-pop.

Read our conversation below.

Tamar Herman: What got you interested initially in writing about eating disorders (ED) and K-pop? What inspired you to report on it? And what was your first encounter with it? If you remember.

Steffi Cao: I think when you stan groups, body image is a huge factor of what K-pop pedals out. It's one, the idea of a visual. And then also this idea of dieting and weight loss. We all know and it's accepted that it's a part of their training process. Which obviously has very huge adverse effects on viewers, who are oftentimes quite young. Which is not to say that it can can't be positive. I think it's just... It tends to be that when you're marketing a certain body ideal to someone whose brain is not fully developed, it's a very slippery slope into something that can be very harmful for their health.

And when we see that with, you know, the IU diet that went viral in 2013, that was, you know, regardless of its intentions, ended up having horrible effects for young people. And with Wonyoungism now it's as I found in my reporting, very much being peddled out by people who are underage to people who are underage, and while that can create a sense of community, it can also really breed this idea that body image is one narrow thing.

When I was at Buzzfeed interviewing idols and past trainees, it definitely made me think more [about all this while] watching the fandom, and inspired me to write about it.


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♬ original sound - ivy.🎀 ⋆ ̊ ⋆୨♡୧⋆ ̊ ⋆

When did you begin to see a lot of it in fandom? I know I'm not the biggest TikTok scroller, but I was shocked at how expansive Wonyoungism is, and not just in K-pop fandom spaces.
I think it's so hard to say if there's a specific time because, again, body image is such a big part of K-pop that it's always kind of hard to tell when things get more popular and not. I think as specific idols gain fame and traction, especially for their looks, you tend to see more of a galvanization around their body image, and how to attain that and achieve that specific look, which is what we saw with IU, and I think what we see now with Wonyoung. Wonyoung is known, of course, for her performance and her participation in the group, but huge part of it is her looks. And how to get that, plump, boosting hydration glow vibe of Wonyoung.

And obviously a lot of that plays into larger cultural factors. Like the 2010s were really about that thick Kim K BBL. Now, of course, that sort of waifish, Y2k... Heroin chic, that's what it was called then, look is becoming more popular as we see even Kim Kardashian start to slim back down. [A/N: Read more about the problematic term]

You can say it's Western versus Korea. But I think at this point it's such a globalized online culture that you know, I think the there's a lot of overlap and interaction between the two [audiences]. So yeah, I think that's why you start to see certain trends kick off now, especially with Wonyoungism.


wonyoung diet and workout progress results on day 6! #wonyoung #workout #kpop #kpopworkout #pilates #ive #fyp

♬ Either Way - IVE

Why do you think it is specifically "Wonyoungism," not "K-popism" or "idolism" that the trend took off? Obviously, it's because she's one of the most popular right now, the most deified, but what about her in particular has led to this sort of apparent lifestyle emulation?

I think it's interesting cause part of it can be the idol. But a part of it is also the fandom applying [certain] connotations to this idol. So I think, Wonyoung herself, from what I've seen in her vlogs, dresses very girly. Which feels very on-brand for right now, and it's almost exacerbated by the fact that she is an idol, and so she's already on this pedestal of someone who is supposedly more talented than others, or someone who's like, beat the system. To become someone famous someone who is prettier than others can game the system of training to become this superior person, which is what they want. That's what the marketing is effectively, right?

But the narrative of fans is is not necessarily the entire story. I think the the fan application of what she can be as an idol... The idol image is very sanitized, very manufactured and premeditated as to what gets out to the public. So for Wonyoung fans watching, it is very easy to apply characteristics to this person. Who already feels like she has characteristics applied to her by the nature of her industry. So you see like pink and strawberries, and therefore she's like a clean girl. She has perfect skin and nails and hair and all these things, and she does this by studying hard and getting enough sleep and stretching two times a day. That's when you start to have this idea of a person become so much larger than itself, and that you develop these core tenets around like how you can become that.

As you're talking about the aesthetics, the first thing that pops in my brain is Tradwives and how the traditional idea of femininity as defined by patriarchy as it takes off online, on Tiktok, is that it should look effortless. But you really are putting your all into it to emulate this beautiful, mostly white. It's like the counter side of the same coin as Wonyoungism, where she's seen as the ideal feminine character, and very young.

Yes, very young. I think even in the nature of Korean beauty standards a lot of it is appealing to a very specific feminine, hyperfeminine, docile sort of wifey look. Which is very much reflected in it's idols. And you see how that plays out when one of them deviates from that. You see the backlash, like Hwasa simply for her face, or like when Jeongyeon from TWICE started to begin some weight [due to health issues].You saw the backlash towards that. The truth of the beauty standards is not always in what is idolized, but also in what becomes vilified if one deviates from that. And, of course, there's so much coverage about the oppressive nature and the all encompassing nature of Korean beauty standards in the country.251

Do you think that Wonyoung debuting so young has anything to do with her appeal to this audience that is like invested in Wonyoungism?

I think there is a marketable appeal for idols to be young because their audience is also young. When you look at the fandom of Wonyoungism, it's often girls who are younger than her, so she's at the sweet spot of basically what a tween idol is, like someone who is slightly older. And so that could be you in the near future. But she's not so old that she's like feels out of touch or out of reach.


part 2? #wonyoung #kpoptiktok #kpopforyou #fyp #zyxbca @IVE.official

♬ My World - Clvssified

With Wonyoungism, It's people who see her through the lens of growing up in the spotlight as someone who was entrenched and surrounded by this pink-center vision. Like this glowy pink aura of having been in I*ZONE, and now with IVE. When I see fans posting, a lot of the content is the goals of wanting, or primarily to get good grades, or get your parents to let you have crushes or go out more, which feel very young. They don't apply to women who can buy their own shit, who do whatever they want.


Posting my face again cuz im flopping🥰🥰 #softswonyy #wonyoung #kbeauty #school #skincare #aesthetic #kpopfyp #wonyoungism #asian #grwm

♬ 888 - 𝐶𝐴𝑆𝐻 メ𝟶

The crushes thing is so funny to me because if she were to ever date it'll come crashing down because to some degree part of the appeal of a female K-pop idol is that she should be all of ours, she shouldn't be datable. I often think we're beyond that era of K-pop, but then we see something like that backlash with Karina.

Yea, I mean the idol system is very much is predicated on the idea that this person is for the public. This is your boyfriend. This is your girlfriend. This is your bestie, this is your sister, this is your, you know, gay little monkey. Because they belong to you in some way. I think within Wonyoungism part of her marketable appeal is that you can reach reach the same kind of like sanitized ideal that she feels to you.

Going back to her marketability perhaps being tied into how young she was, and how successful she was from the get-go through winning No. 1 ub Produce 48 and all her groups hitting it big. And is that part of the appeal? That this is a girl who has come onto the scene and never missed? [A/N: Produce 48's results were ultimately revealed to be rigged, but Wonyoung's top spot was never disputed.]

100%. I think that's the big appeal. And I think this is where the stress comes from in Wonyoungism. The idea is constantly to be perfect, no matter what. So you see these accounts posting things like, "Oh, I had a bad day today. That makes me worried that I can't be a Wonyoungism account because I didn't wake up at 5am. I didn't clear skin. I didn't eat cucumbers and water for dinner." Just generally, "I didn't do these things."


toxic wonyoungism is not hot!!💓🎀 #jangwonyoung #edit #foryoupage #toxic #wonyoungism #aesthetic #fyp #viral

♬ original sound - acidprincessstan

And of course you start to see this division happening in the accounts of people who are still online. And so they see the body positive movement. They see the sort of K-pop fans mobilizing with morals. And all of these things that have happened over the past couple of years that are very much part of our cultural zeitgeist. But no one is a professional. So they're all kind of like saying things to each other like, "That's not real one Wonyoungism. Real Wonyoungism is that she would want you to have a bad day. She would want you to have one bad day, then get back at it." But the end goal is always that you come "get on stage" and hit 100, like Wonyoung herself.


#WONYOUNG | hope everyone listens to ger advice and takes it to mind 🫶🏼🌷 | video from- @🦢

♬ original sound - wony🎀

It's kind of funny that you brought up people giving this example of how she would want you to have a bad day, because she has never, to my knowledge, ever reinforced this. "You should diet. You should try to look pretty like." I've never heard of anyone having an an interaction with her where she's even remotely commenting on anything habitual or superficial for her. In fact it's the opposite. None of this comes directly from her it seems.
Yes, a hundred percent. I mean, she's even been on a live like, "I discourage my fans from dieting, especially those who are minors, especially students. It's bad for you." Which makes me think that there is at the very least a peripheral understanding of her effect on fans, or they're telling her directly.

With the K-pop industry there's so much hearsay, and so much of what we understand of behind the scenes is so reliant on hearsay that people are very quick to make assumptions and pontificate upon what could really be going on behind the scenes? And when things like the Fifty Fifty case come out into public, it becomes this huge, shocking deal, because there isn't any understanding of what these stars are going through. And if the fandom is primarily comprised of, if not underarge people but at least very young people who grew up online, everything feels massive and weighty. Things like these sort of legal scandals happen all the time in Western media, but I think there's a better understanding of this being a major corporate corporate industry. I think it's more accepted. But it feels there's so much hearsay and so much rumor among K-pop, and so much fervor around like trying to be like the idols that it's easy to sort of ideate and create ideas of what things are like by connecting the dots behind the person and the star that they become.

One thing that I keep coming back to is the idea that this is something that should supposedly be easy, and it should come to these people naturally. They should just wake up and be beautiful, and be able to do it all easily. But she is not only paid to do this, she probably spends tons of money on upkeep. This is her job, this is not a generic lifestyle. I'm sure fans know that but is it part of the conversation at all? That she is making her living, making bank, off of this in a way that we, an average person, is just not typically going to be able to emulate.

When you look at Wonyoungism fans, the defense of it always relates back to the idol, but the perpetuation of it is so far removed from the idol. It's like, well, "anyway, it's good to wake up at 5am." Or anyways, waking up early and wanting and getting good grades are good things. And that's when I think you start to see what the real root of it is. It's not in wanting to become an idol. But this idea that you have to be this constant self-improving project. Body dysmorphia is from a multitude of things, and often a dissatisfaction with some parts of your life that come from very real immediate triggers. Which have nothing really to do with K--pop, or Wonyoung or anything. But then the defense of it is easy to place all those hopes and dreams onto an idol and then sort of create that relationship there. Create the expectations for yourself through this person as a vessel.

It's frustrating because I think the K-pop industry, all entertainment industries, should be very open about the fact that this is a business which I think is so great to see, especially with young Western pop girls like Sabrina Carpenter, Renee Rapp, or Rachel Zeigler. They're very open about the fact this is a job. I think there's something especially in Western industries. And as these two industries become very intertwined I think it'll be interesting to see how that trickles over to the K-pop industry. Particularly with more international stars debuting through these companies.


i love getting ready for school <3 #wonyoung #wonyoungive #wonyoungism #pink #girl #fyp #foryou #grwm #foryoupage #korean #korea #kpopfypシ #koreangirl #relatable #repost #motivation #wonyoungmotivation #thewizardliz #pilates #koreanskincare #sanrio #schoolroutine

♬ original sound - 🎶_INTXRFLY_🎶

Talking about western pop girlies versus K-pop idols, I want to ask how the ideal of an idol, specifically in K-pop, influences things. Because you used the term "vessel," which I think is interesting since obviously the term "idol" actually is a religious one, referring to physical vessels or statues meant to emulate a higher level of inhuman godliness. And I feel like that's, perhaps unwittingly, such an important aspect of Wonyoungism.
I agree. I think there's a reason we delineate in our heads what is a musician, and who is an idol, a pop girl, a mother. They provide something for you personally, and sometimes it eclipses the very art that they make. And so when I the delineation of a musician versus an idol, it's very much do with what they stand for, their looks, what what I, as a consumer, want out of their life. And obviously it's not just K-pop that does this. But if you look at like an Ariana Grande who I would argue her idol encompasses her work, and sometimes even fuels the marketing of her work in a lot of ways. Who she dates, what she's doing often sells, informs her work, and it gets people to look at her lyrics and buy her things to see what is it about her person that we can extract from this work. As opposed to someone like Laufey who is very much currently defined by what she's doing in the genre of the space. And obviously those two are not the same cause.

We definitely see [idoldom] in all pop music, which I think is what K-pop lends on a lot from when it was first beginning. We see this idea with the Spice Girls who at the time their characters really eclipsed the art that they made, and that's what made them marketable and worshippable and followable. Same with One Direction. It's pop music, but what made them so special and made people want to follow them was this idea of this combination of personalities, this right mix of people in the group, and what they had to offer, and you know who they were dating. And so all of this made them more, I think, idol than artists in a lot of ways.

Which isn't to say you can't be both, as if you can't make good music and be an idol. But I think in terms of when you put industry into it, how do you market to people? Is it through your product, or is it through the packaging of it?

Would you even say that people who are follow like devout followers of Wonyoungism? Are they even Wonyoung fans necessarily? Or are they more fans of this ideal lifestyle?
I think so. I think you would start off as an IVE fan, and then quickly become a Wonyoungism fan. But I do think the two are distinct because, at least in the people that I spoke to for the piece, a lot of them are, you know, multi girl group fans. They stan a couple of groups. TWICE, Kiss of Life, Purple Kiss. But Wonyoungism is something that they found online. And it's something that they feel relates very personally to them, and is a kind of participation, a community in a very different way. So I think the two very much have become distinct identities.

That's so wild but also understandable like. It's just so immense of an idea, what Wonyoungism has become to so many people that the disconnect between the community and the the actual person is so intense in a kind of heartbreaking way. Not heartbreaking, maybe, but the idea that this community idealizes someone who is so deified it's impossible for her to live up to the standards. Nobody can.

It's so interesting to see it happen. Cause I think it also has a lot to do with the fact that a lot of lifestyle trends on TikTok need some kind of name. It's kind of like SEO mining where you can't just say, "Wake up early." It needs to be like, you're That girl. It's That girl routine. There's so many. Coquette core. Stay at home girlfriend vibes. It's can't just be that you drank a glass of water. I saw "tomboy femme aesthetic" the other day but like. You're jeans, my love. That's it. What does tomboy femme mean? I think it's just one of those things where it's so fun to label things. And that's what goes viral nowadays. And it's not like some of these things are inherently bad. But when you start to have people who are just making content to make content then they start to peddle out things into the world about your individual body? That don't work for everyone. And that also can trigger people in really negative ways. That's when it becomes very dangerous. Particularly people who are still growing up and don't know what their bodies are even gonna look like yet.

You mentioned coquette core. Isn't that Wonyoungism? I'm not super sure what the basic differentiation because Wonyoung feels so coquette-ish to me. Is it just different because it's among K-pop fans? Or are people separating it from K-pop spaces, and Wonyoungism spaces online are now different from K-pop spaces?

Yeah, they're similar. Pink and frilly, and you eat strawberries. All the people I know of who are into Wonyoungism are K-pop fans. I think lifestyle extraction of K-pop has always been its own subsector. I think, and you can speak to this too. That the lifestyle part of it has been always been its own subsection of the wider K-pop fandom of people who are really devoted to figuring out how these idols live. especially for bigger acts. I definitely think that in terms of Wonyoungism I'm not seeing it so much outside of the realm of people who have an understanding of how K-pop works as a fandom structure. So I can't really speak to that. But I definitely think there's even a subsection of K-pop fans, and especially the people who basically only stan boy groups, who might not even be aware of all this going on. People are very aware of it if they hit that target market of what the algorithm can identify you as being interested in. I got it organically on my feed, but first I got the criticisms of it, of people being like this is ED. That's how I first encountered it. And then you start to see the the videos are often like, wake up early, stretch. Eat ice cubes as a snack. Work out every single day.

The girls that I interviewed for the piece are between 14 and 22. I'm 25. So I think, just for context, that's how I got it. As a 25-year-old Asian woman who is into K-pop. But my younger sister, whose a teen and very coquette girlie, she gets the ground floor of Wonyoungism. She won't get the criticism first, she'll get the lifestyle itself. She's the target audience.

That makes sense. I don't really use TikTok that often, but my feed is very different. I feel like there's a generational disconnect between us, even though I think we're only a few years apart. I don't really do lifestyle content, so I wonder if it'd ever find its way naturally to my feed. I don't know if you know Elise Hu, who wrote the book Flawless? But she wrote an article recently about how her tween daughters are getting Sephora marketing. All this stuff about like selling youth to actual youth is kind of crazy to me.

TikTok trending "types" feel like magazine culture used to feel like, throwing it back to your heroin chic comment. Magazines used to come up with brands to sell certain styles, certain stars. And now hashtags do that. All this stuff feels really familiar and it's just sad that we haven't like learned anything. But also it definitely feels like a lot of these trends now are a bit more intense in recent years than maybe five or ten years ago. There were certainly friends I had when younger who I was very aware of their eating disorders and what I now recognize as body dysmorphia, but it feels kind of like not something people have talked about as much until recently. It feels kind of... Not new, but a return to the old after a break in a way, where workout culture reigned rather than diet culture did. Though those are, of course, very, very, related.

Yeah. Because I came of age during that 2010s period, I think it was just different. I think it was less focus on your overall weight, and very much so on trying to do as many squats in a day as I physically could. Cause all you could do was try and get a booty like that. That's what it was all about. It was everything. And now I don't think I've done a squat... That's probably not good, but I haven't done a squat in like a while. But yes, the point was to have a butt and gain weight in your behind, specifically. So I don't know if it was that it skipped generation. I think it just felt very different in terms of what the body ideals were. It's probably good that people weren't as focused on starving themselves. But was it good? People were like also trying to shape, contort their bodies in a different way. And then you get the point of it being being very blatantly, just like.. Looting from black culture. I feel like everything kind of appropriates from black culture. But like especially that period in time, people weren't even trying to remix it a little bit. It's like they didn't even try to change the answer to the homework. It was just ripping it right off.

Back to this era, you mentioned earlier that the idea of Wonyoungism is that it's self improvement. But is it even self improvement? Do these people actually think that it will actually be attainable in the long run? I knw they're young, and I really have to credit their idealism, and their fast metabolism but like... are they tracking what they're doing and aiming for goals? Is this not just aspirational, but something that they can achieve? Or are they just doing it for Tiktok? I guess that's my real question.

If you go and ask a 13-year-old, you're never gonna get a straight answer out of them right? I spoke to these girls, and they were saying, "Oh, it works because my metabolism got faster." However they could measure that. And when I press on how they measure, they say it's because they lost weight. They don't get sick anymore. Their grades get better. Their skin clears up. So I think if you eat fruit and vegetables, and exercise regularly then yeah, your mood is probably gonna be better and you probably will feel, you know, certain level of productivity or achievement over like having done this thing that you set out to do.

I spoke to a lot of therapists for this piece, and what they said was that what we see with young girls oftentimes is they don't flat out say they have an eating disorder. They say, "I feel stressed if I don't work out 5 times a day." I have to maintain this thing, because eating disorders... As much as it comes out through the body, it's not really about the body. It's about a sense of control and about a sense of feeling as though you have some control over you know the world around you. And that's oftentimes where eating disorder stems from. And so they usually use a lot of euphemisms. And now there's so many euphemisms online for what is effectively weight loss and promoting ED like. Now, it's a lot of like this will get your metabolism. Work out like this, and you'll be snatched. All these things are effectively euphemisms for what people don't want to say, which is thin. Thin, weight loss. That's effectively what it is. Because there's a understanding now that openly desiring to be thin might be bad for you, it's a problematic thing. This is, I think, a more peripheral social understanding, particularly online, after the waves of cancellation for fatphobia, and things like that. So now there's instead a bunch of euphemisms for it. So I think that's what I tend to see in Wonyoungism content, which I think is why it's so dangerous.


I do think it is funny, as someone who is older, seeing, I think, effectively what is like people, young girls, responding to all this concern and criticism and backlash towards their content. I saw this Tiktok while I was doing research for this piece, this girl was saying, "Oh, I'm working on myself. I'm 13. My skin is so clear .I lost weight. I can only imagine how good 16 is gonna be." So it's like, Oh. Good luck, girl.

But also that's that's kind of heartbreaking. That the criticism isn't just like towards the trend. It's towards young people. It's older people, I'm sure. Not only older people, I'm sure some young people also are critics of it, but the idea that, older people are talking down to these people who think that they're improving their lives by following in the footsteps of their goddess. And they're saying, "Don't fuck up your body forever because of this." But it's not as simple as that, and it just kind of is a little cruel.

I think that's what is so frustrating about the Internet at large. And ultimately, too, about the K-pop industry. There's no clarity and transparency around everything. On the Internet there is so little transparency about where things come from
that things just like kind of waffle i into like a into a beast of their own, without any real understanding of where these concepts of things like fatphobia, or how ED arises in teen girls. There's no clarity around it, because it just kind of begins to float around online as like, "Oh, you're cancelled for saying that", or "it's bad." And so, of course, young girls who see these critics like this, it must be so frustrating to see older people be like, or other people just be like, "Oh, well, you're promoting something so unhealthy." Because to them they're imbuing what what they know, and especially if they are achieving what they set out to do, it must feel very frustrating to to hear that you know what they're doing isn't right.

I can only imagine how tough it is to grow up in the age of of TikTok. Basically, most of your content is either grassroots anonymous content, or it is sponcon peddled to you from a corporation. And there's that's it. Basically.

We could talk for ages about this, but I'm conscious of your time so I think that's a good stopping point. Where should everyone look you up, and read you and follow you?

I'm a culture writer based in Brooklyn. I've written for The Atlantic, CNN. Buzzfeed. You could find me at Instagram or Twitter or TikTok.
I misheard and thought you said you could buy me, and I was just like, wow. What are you selling?
I am for purchase, editors! I can be bought, editors and newsrooms! I can absolutely be bought.

This has been edited slightly for readability, but I wanted to keep the flow of our conversation as natural as possible. If there are any grammar errors, they're probably intentional. Please @ me if you think anything is really egregious.

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