Thursday, August 23, 2007

Weight loss + tv + superjunior fans = suicide?

More than two months ago in the Korea Times, an article mentioned the most searched for keyword for the week of June 3 - 10:
TV talent show StarKing topped the nation's No.1 search engine Naver's most searched keyword list as a participant on the show killed herself due to depression.
Actually, entering the participant's name into the search bar at gave you more than a dozen options, made up of word combinations others had previously searched for:

In it, people search for her school, her homepage, photos of her, her suicide, her weight loss, etc. Several articles in the English language media appeared at the time:

Korea Times:
Guest on TV Show Kills Herself

Donga Ilbo:
A Lesson Learned From a High School Girl’s Death

Chosun Ilbo
Weight Loss Star Commits Suicide

Criticism mount over verbal attacks on cyberspace

The Korea Times gives us the facts:
According to police, [a] 16-year-old girl, Lee Eun-ji, hung herself in her room at her home in Daejeon early Tuesday morning [June 5]. Her mother was the first to find her. Early last month [actually, April 28], the girl appeared on an SBS television show titled "StarKing,'' where ordinary citizens with extraordinary abilities or stories compete for an award.

Lee drew public attention to her loss of 40 kilograms, bringing her weight from 87 to 47 kilograms in three months. She said she did so in order to please her late grandmother who used to worry about her being overweight.
The Donga Ilbo tells us
Her mother said, “On the previous evening, I found my daughter feeding her nephew, skipping her meal to reduce her weight, and I reprimanded her for not eating. Then she entered and locked her room.”
The Korea Times continues:
There was a written will on her desk. It read, "I'm sad to have been scolded. Father and mother, I'm sorry for having worried you. I'm sorry for having given you pain.''
While this may be beginning to sound like the story from months ago about 'sudden', spur-of-the-moment suicides by children, the Times reveals more.
Although her mother said Lee had suffered from depression over the stress of weight control, many Internet users are blaming fans of boy band Super Junior for Lee's death.
The Donga Ilbo continues:
Her school friends revealed, “She took a picture of herself with a member of “S”, a famous singing group, who was one of the program’s panel members, which was the major reason for her becoming a subject of personal attacks.” She posted the picture on her own website.
One classmate said, “After the picture was spread online, she was badly frightened after she received about a dozen threatening phone calls and text messages a day from fans of the group.” Another friend said, “She received those phone calls even at home.” In relation to this, some netizens criticized the fan club of “S” group for bombarding her with the hate messages that may have eventually driven her to end her own life.
This article continued:
Lee's mother said in a TV interview that the high school student suffered depression due to the negative press and threatening e-mails that she tried to defend herself against by answering all the messages posted online.
Oddly enough, 'StarKing' is pronounced 'stalking' in Korean. Now perhaps this is starting to sound like another case of online harrassment, which the media first commented on in the wake of the Dog Poop Girl incident in 2005, when they dubbed it 'cyber terror' (one legislative result of the media furor of two years ago became law on July 27 when the use of 'real names' became necessary to post comments on 35 popular websites). Back in January, the media blamed online harrassment by netizens for the suicide of singer Unee (an opinion the Metropolitician certainly disagreed with), and the Hankyoreh certainly saw this case from that angle:
Concerns about the impact of malicious internet comments took center stage again this week after a high-school girl killed herself apparently due to verbal attacks from net users.
Of course, when dealing with Superjunior fans, you have lots of ammunition to use in supporting the 'they're obnoxious in packs and should be avoided at all costs' theory, which goes well beyond the internet, as this article about fans gathering outside Superjunior's house relates:
The flock of fans annoying local residents is on the spot around the clock. Usually there are more than 20 girls waiting near the building and on weekends more than 100 join the queue. [When] the fans, middle and high school girls, were screaming and singing songs for more than 10 hours, and neighbors asked them to be quiet, they simply ignored the request.
In another article about such fans, they're asked
“Would you keep loving them even if they didn’t return your love?”
“Of course ― until the day I die!”
which should remind us that we're dealing with adolescent girls who lack perspective or experience and who may be willing to verbally (or otherwise) trample those who would stand in the way of them and their idols. The article ends with a 15 year old girl being asked her future plans:
“I want to become a singer, just like BoA. Even though I’m plump now, I’ll go on a diet and lose weight.”
Losing weight didn't work so well for Lee Eun-ji, unfortunately. The Korea Times mentions that a few fans had realized that hounding a girl in comments on her homepage, in emails, and on the phone for taking a photo with one of their idols was maybe a tad over the top:
A fan of the pop group also posted a written apology on a portal site. She said she and other fans recognized their comments could have led to Lee's suicide and apologized, adding they were regretful for having been jealous of the picture.
One comment on a naver blog read "Lee Eun-ji, I'm sorry, in heaven meet your grandmother and be happy." It's nice to see that some of the fans felt sorry for venting an incredible amount of hostility and negativity at a fellow fan who got the chance to pose in a picture with a member of their favourite 'music' group. Perhaps Lee Eun-ji would have forgiven them, if she wasn't, y'know, dead.

Anyone hoping that such fans would learn something about respecting other people's feelings and would refrain from selfishly trampling upon them in the future were likely disappointed when, presented with the accusation that figure skater Kim Yuna slighted a Superjunior member on July 31, they lined up to leave 2000 comments worth of seething negativity on her Cyworld homepage. As it turned out, this was a lie concocted by a Superjunior member on a radio broadcast to draw attention to himself, and considering the past behavior of his fans, he was either a complete moron not to expect the response it got, or a complete asshole for ignoring its possibility (actually, as a media figure who lied just to get attention, he's already most certainly an asshole; knowing that there was a strong possibility that his fans would respond the way they did allows him to descend to a special category of asshole, say, a Super-asshole). After he apologized for this, many fans defended him, saying, "At least he apologized." Yeah, that means so much, doesn't it, just like when his fans apologized over their harassment of Lee Eun-ji and then continued where they left off a few months later with a new target. On an unrelated note, half of Korea's pre-schoolers are on-line.

The last few links have been from Popseoul, who covered Lee Eun-ji's death in a way that was far less superficial than the simple excuses the media offered of online harrassment:
[W]hat angers me most is that Lee Eun Ji’s cyworld post back in May clearly demonstrated that she was suffering from depression, but Elves [fans] just continued to torture the poor girl.

Lee Eun Ji mentioned that she went up to her attic several times because she thought that it was better to end her life than to continue with her rigorous diet (she starved herself for three months, drinking only one or two cups of milk daily). She also cried her heart out saying it’s very difficult to deal with all the crap she’s currently going through. Before her weight loss, people treated her like a pig and after her weight-loss people are treating her like a liar (some were accusing her of losing weight via plastic surgery and/or diet pills). Any sensible person would’ve realized that this girl is suffering a lot and that she’s in fragile condition, but Elves ignored her plead and continued to attack her, which apparently pushed Lee Eun Ji over the edge.

Unfortunately, the Superjunior fans weren't the only ones attacking her. While according to the Donga Ilbo, "She was treated as a celebrity at school, among friends, and even on the Internet since then, and she often said to her friends that she wanted to become a singer later," the Korea Times paints another picture:
Another friend said not only the star's fans but also Lee's classmates posted hurtful comments on her blog, with one of the comments saying, "Are you happy to have lost that much weight and to be on TV? I bet you underwent liposuction.''
While it may often be true that doing well and standing out above the crowd at school doesn't go over so well, there are other factors to consider. This article started to cut through some of the 'harrassment' hype -
The girl is said to have almost refused to eat anything for the past three months, which contributed to the depression that made herself vulnerable to netizens' accusations.
- while the
Donga Ilbo article is clearer:
[T]he police are now investigating the alleged relationship between the possible motives behind her killing herself: the hate messages, rumors, and possible side effects from the extreme diet she went on. [Emphasis added]
Let's make this clear - according to her, she lost 40 kg (going from 87 to 47 kgs) in three months. To put it another way, she lost 88 pounds in about 90 days - one pound a day. There are so many things that could be talked about regarding her perceived need to undergo such a diet - the rejection she felt being overweight, the pressure from whatever source (the media, classmates, teachers, 'her grandmother') to be thin, the severity of the diet, her mental state after losing so much weight - but it's much easier for the media to focus on cyber harrassment, so any consideration of why she felt compelled to follow such a severe diet is left unmentioned during discussions of the need for proper 'netiquette' or more surveillance.

Since the reason for her diet was never a topic for discussion, little discussion was made in the media of how similar the effect of her diet was to the change in Kim Ah-jung's appearance in the movie 200 Pound Beauty (which was released on Dec 14, 2006, four and a half months before her appearance on StarKing). I have no idea if the film influenced her; while some thought it encouraged plastic surgery, I thought it questioned some of the attitudes surrounding it.

It might not be entirely obvious, but StarKing seemed to see the similarities between the movie and the girl's weight loss. For those unfamiliar with the movie, here's the music video for a song from the movie.

Another song from the film is here, just in case you're not acquainted with it. The reason for being concerned with the songs is that you might find them familiar if you watch this clip of her appearance on StarKing (taken from a file I found on emule).

You'll notice that both songs are played during her appearance on the show. The first was likely played in the studio, as we see her dancing to it. The timing of the second song would make me think it was added later, as the singing of the song ('Maria') is the character's first triumph in the film, and plays while Lee Eun-ji describes her rejection by 7 boys when she was overweight, but her assertion that she's better than them now and that she'll be luckier next time. Visually, there are several moments on the show designed to associate Lee with 200 Pound Beauty. Having the life-sized cardboard cutout of her 'former' self allowed for the comparison I made above, while the inclusion of her old pants allowed for several more associations with the movie:

The photo above of singer Younha putting both legs in one pant-leg is right out of the film as well. One unasked question is why Lee felt the need to appear on tv in the first place; you have to wonder if the show itself was everything she expected it would be. What appeared on air was about two or so minutes of her speaking (not even half of the clip) with the rest of the time involving antics with the pants and self-aggrandizement by the host.

Did she want to do that little dance at the beginning of the clip, or was it encouraged/mandated by the producers? The show did everything it could to compare her experience to a movie (and blogs that commented on the show afterwards dutifully called her "a real-life 200 Pound Beauty") and, while there was no malicious humor directed at her, by making an issue of the size of her pants and showing that they could hide behind her cut-out, they were, I thought, making fun of who she "used to be", as if there could be no connection between the two (which seemed to miss the entire point of the film, wherein the main character misses the person she once was). Nowhere on the show is the wisdom of her radical diet questioned - perhaps the means justified the end.

A girl most likely influenced heavily by the images of women omnipresent in the media goes on an extreme diet in order to compete with those images and appears on a television program where her ordeal is only superficially referred to and is compared to a movie all for the sake of entertainment and ratings, after which a member of a media-created group poses for a photo with her which then provokes his jealous fans to use every medium at their disposal to harrass her. What got lost in this media collision was that this wasn't someone who used special effects in a popular movie to appear to lose weight - she actually did it, but her reasons for wanting this, and the way in which she did it were never questioned. Who knows why this person chose to commit suicide, but it seems many people involved in the last weeks of her life - from the StarKing producers who wanted to compare her to a movie to the Superjunior fans who were enraged by a photo on a website - found it hard to see beyond pixels and text, which are as insubstantial as the ashes her family was left with.


Anonymous said...

Very sad story. I've blogged about it and have linked back to you.

Mark Russell said...

Strange... If some young girl lost 40kg in three months, I would think there would be a lot of loose, hanging skin. Maybe one must lose even more weight before skin elasticity becomes an issue.

But certainly the media's handling of all the issues you brought up has been puddle deep. What causes depression, the insane fans of pop groups, extreme dieting... all issues that need to be understood better than they are.

Max said...

It is physiologically impossible to lose as much weight as that girl did within the period of tme claimed. But that's aside the point, the whole situation is incredibly sad.

Shreeree said...

I think the point is being missed. First everyone is giving an individual a hard time on being fat and then when you did it, no matter how you do it. It becomes a big deal on how it was done. If she had been this popular while alive she probably wouldn't have felt so lonely and on the outside looking in that death was an option.
The one thing she and others don't know when you are heavy and losing weight, you need to work on the inside as much as the outside.
There is always this Cinderella syndrom that once the weight is gone all will be right with the world. Suddenly you will be popular with the popular girls, suddenly the boys will come calling and all your problems will be gone.
Nope, if you don't have that confidence that causes you to be pupilar at any size and date at any size, you're just a thin person deal with the same problems you had before you lost the weight, only now all your dreams that things would be different are gone.
Actually thin girls are harder on themselves and others then overweight girls, because they rely on their beauty and bodies to get them everything they want.
So work on the inside no matter what size you are and one you got that confidence no to bored to live fans of any pop group can say or do anything that would make you give a s***.


Anonymous said...

That's a terrible story. I dorm with two girls who think they need to diet (One is Korean, the other isn't) and right now, I think the one is already 41kg. It's rediculous! I can't help but feel this has something to do with America and it's obsessive desire for skinny girls!

seizetheday4eva said...

I just came across this website by accident and if i'm honest the first thing i noticed was Lee Eun-ji's picture, so beautiful.... Then i started reading her story, i'm not usually an emotional guy but tears hit my chest like bullets.

Humans can be so cruel, she must have felt so hated to have put a rope around her neck. I hope she rests in peace and the Angels turn her tears of fear into smiles of hope and laughter and that those evil enough to have emailed her hate mail and to have called her with frets, that God has mercy on your soul because her blood is on your hands and personally i'd rather be with her in heaven then to live with the shame of knowing i had a part in her death.

Lee Eun-ji, i never knew you but when you were lost in the dark and couldn't see and had nowhere to go.....i wish i could have been that light for you.

I'm so sorry.

SherwinJTB said...

Wow, media attention can be cruel sometimes. Maybe she thought ending her life would make everyone happy. No one should be worth more than your own life!