K-Pop Caused My Identity Crisis

By confronting me with East Asian femininity I could never attain

(Photo: Getty Images)

The sinking feeling had been building for months, but it came to a head while I was watching a live show of K-pop girl group Twice performing “Likey.” It was late, I was eating a bag of chips and lying on my stomach in bed, staring at my smudged laptop screen with dead eyes—watching the nine young members skipping around the stage in their mini-skirts, singing about lipstick, BB cream and being pretty. You could hear hoards of men with deep voices cheering for them in the audience, enthusiastically waving light sticks in the air as they devoured this almost ritualistic, performative display of hyperfemininity. I was disturbed, but I was also entranced. By the time the video was over, I had finally recognized the sinking feeling that I’d been having on and off for months. I honestly wanted to be just like them. And that realization terrified me.

I had gotten into K-pop through BTS, one of the world’s most popular boy bands. For a while, I insisted I wasn’t a fan of K-pop itself, just this one group, but YouTube’s suggestion algorithm (which has surely ruined many a life) began to suggest other videos from girl groups like Twice. I’d seen girl groups and women K-pop stars onstage and in the audience with BTS at awards shows, standing upright on stage with impeccable posture or sitting primly in the audience with their knees locked together. When they smiled or laughed, they covered their mouths with stretched hands, as if letting people see their faces crinkled in a smile was somehow wrong. They seemed like these eerily pale, beautiful ghosts—and they freaked me out a bit.

At some point I gave in and clicked on a music video on my suggested list by the girl group Red Velvet. Then I watched another one. Then another. The next thing I knew, I was watching videos from other women K-pop artists like Twice and IU, even adding their music on Spotify. And not to sound dramatic, but *flips hair* the very way I conceptualized myself started to break down. Their music was so often cutesy and saccharine, the visuals even more so, and as much as I enjoyed the catchiness and brightness of it all, it was fucking with my head. I started questioning fundamental parts of myself—namely, my femininity and my East Asianness—and I spiralled into what can only be described as a full-on identity crisis at the ripe age of 20.

East Asian hyperfemininity is next-level

Most people who don’t know much about K-pop think of it as factory-made, mechanical and soulless, which isn’t really accurate. The term “K-pop” is usually assigned to literally any Korean music, including R&B, ballads and even rock. It’s not a genre. That said, despite the variation, there’s definitely a mainstream version of it that leans toward meticulously polished production and presentation. And that mainstream version tends to peddle a specific type of East Asian hyperfemininity, especially through its women “idols,” the term used for all K-pop stars.

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Michelle Cho, an assistant professor of popular culture at the University of Toronto’s East Asian Studies department, explains that the kind of femininity prevalent in K-pop is both behavioural and visual. Women idols are extremely thin and conventionally attractive, with “doll-like features” and pale skin. When it comes to their behaviour, they have “cute” personalities and are “exceedingly polite, well-mannered, entertaining and responsive to their fans and the public.”

Women idols’ adherence to that kind of femininity tends to fall somewhere on a spectrum. A good example of a less girly group might be the super popular BLACKPINK, whose music is more techno-influenced but whose members still exhibit the physical tropes of K-pop idols described by Cho. On the other hand, you have groups like Twice, whose music and overall presentation is so adorable that it’s practically infantile, embodying that stereotypical K-pop hyperfemininity to a tee.

What’s important to recognize is that the hyperfemininity of K-pop is unique to East Asia. While certain conventionally feminine traits like being thin and compliant exist elsewhere, the hyperfemininity we see in the West, at least, isn’t the same. Cho says that in East Asia, while hyperfemininity can be a performance geared toward straight men, that’s not always the case. “Girl culture” is designed to appeal exclusively to young girls and women, and it’s prominent in K-pop, manga and anime. There “simply isn’t an equivalent cultural form in the West,” says Cho.

My relationship with East Asia is…complicated

Being a Chinese adoptee raised by a white mom, my connection to East Asia is different than those of other East Asians who were born here in North America, or who moved here at a young age with their birth families. The issues that almost certainly led to my adoption (including a one-child policy that drove families to give up their daughters) make it only natural for me to both resent China and long to be part of it. I feel a jarring disconnect from and simultaneous pull toward not just my birth country but East Asia as a whole. Because of that, I always struggle to process how I feel about East Asian pop culture and media.

While K-pop is just mainstream youth culture in East Asia, Cho says it’s more meaningful for diasporic East Asians (and non-East Asian people of colour) because it makes them feel represented. Asians are rarely seen in mainstream pop culture here, and they’re usually stereotyped if they are. “Some diasporic Asian fans, especially Korean-North-Americans, feel that K-pop offers them an entry point to learn more about Korean history, culture and society, as a way of discovering their roots,” she says. “But, even for non-Koreans, East Asian popular culture can offer diasporic Asians a sense of normalcy and a boost to self-esteem.”

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I found some of that was true, but women K-pop idols also represented tons of upsetting things to me. Yes, one of those things was a version of femininity and East Asianness that I didn’t measure up to, but I also saw in idols a version of myself that might’ve been in another life, had things turned out differently. An alternate universe where I grew up in a more fortunate Chinese family that could have kept me, where I could fit snugly within the lines of the popular ideal of East Asian femininity and didn’t feel inferior or alien within my own ethnicity.

I already had issues with being “feminine enough”

I’ve never been a “girly girl,” and I tend to be outspoken and sometimes brash or loud. As I consumed more content from women idols, seeing how they acted in interviews or appeared in music videos, I began to feel…clunky. I wasn’t feminine enough—definitely not by the East Asian standards that Cho talks about, but maybe not by Western standards either. And the more I thought about that, the more I felt like I wanted to change.

Being “strong” or stubborn as a woman can lead people to treat you with less care or sympathy than if you were more traditionally feminine or delicate. Because of that, there was something about the softness with which K-pop girl groups existed that drew me in. I even recognized their behaviour and appearance in many of the international East Asian students at the University of Toronto, real-world examples of K-pop-esque femininity that prevented me from pretending idols only existed in a bubble far away. I imagined that if I acted and looked more like them, I could give myself a break from being treated as “tough” and make people see a gentler side of me that they rarely did. And maybe that would bring me closer to feeling like I belonged.

When my behaviour started to change, it felt wrong

I never made a conscious choice to change how I presented myself, but I started acting more feminine in little ways without meaning to. I’d gently tuck my hair behind my ear in a cute way, scurry daintily across the street or catch myself with the same wide-eyed, sort of surprised look on my face that I saw on women idols. I wore more dresses and starting shopping for mini-skirts, and I even taught myself a bunch of Twice’s dances. (It’s common for K-pop fans to learn the dances to their favourite songs.) I’d gleefully practice them in front of the mirror and think about growing out my bobbed haircut.

As I noticed these changes in myself, I worried that I was somehow being inauthentic. Was I just performing the dominant version of East Asian womanhood that I was seeing? And who was I actually performing for? When you lack any natural family ties to your ethnicity, it’s easy to feel fraudulent when interacting with your culture—and I still don’t feel like I can even call East Asian culture “mine.”

It took a long time to realize that I didn’t need to feel guilty about any of the changes in my behaviour or how I presented myself. It wasn’t as if the idols or other East Asian women I saw were hyperfeminine from birth. They were conditioned and influenced by media and the society around them, and so was I, albeit second-hand.

“I’m truly fine”

As I slowly became accustomed to these new behaviours and inclinations, it helped to see that many women idols were tweaking femininity to fit themselves. Women idols challenging the status quo is nothing new—look no further than 2NE1 and LOONA—but Red Velvet’s “Peek-A-Boo” video was the first time I saw a girl group breaking out of the hyperfeminine mold without leaving it behind entirely.

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In the video, the members lure a white pizza delivery boy to their creepy mansion and chase him around, wielding crossbows, guns and axes. An ending shot of his uniform in a trophy case implies they kill him (or fuck him). I loved it—they were still girly, but there were undertones of more independent sexuality and power, and it was a change in pace to see a bunch of young East Asian women, usually the ones being fetishized by non-East Asian straight men, luring an unsuspecting white guy to his demise.

Cho doesn’t think women idols will be less conventionally feminine anytime soon, but she says that groups like Twice and BLACKPINK are starting to aim for non-Asian audiences by being a little less girly. “Even within very conventional-seeming girl groups [like Twice], you see some pushback against the notion that the idols are trying to just appeal to straight male audiences. I think things are shifting with K-pop’s global popularity, especially since fans outside of the Asian region have perhaps different feminine ideals.”

Though my issues with East Asian identity and femininity have been there all along, K-pop forced me to confront them. With time, being more feminine didn’t feel like an act anymore, but rather a legitimate part of who I was. I still feel pangs of self-consciousness and ugliness on the street when I see a thin, delicate-looking East Asian woman, and maybe that pain will always be there, but at least I understand where it comes from now.

In my absolute favourite K-pop song, “Palette” by IU, the lyrics are about the singer turning 25 and finally starting to figure herself out. While the music video and IU herself are still operating very much within that East Asian hyperfeminine space, they strike a balance between softness and strength, helplessness and power. IU appears small and childlike in some shots wearing a babydoll dress and long hair, but she looks grown-up in others in a dark blazer and glasses.

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The song is ultimately about how IU has found a sweet spot in her life. She’s in the midst of growth, still discovering new things about herself and the little ways she doesn’t quite “fit in.” (Like me, she prefers bobbed hair over long.) But she’s also confident enough to be at peace with herself and the person she’s becoming, knowing she’ll be OK. The best part is the chorus, where she sings in a breathy falsetto, “I got this, I’m truly fine. / I think now I know who I am a little.” And honestly, same.