The Gilded Cage of the “EyeBody” Trend?

My students teach me to reevaluate Korea’s latest dieting trend. Is motivation dependent on selfies necessarily a bad thing, when 20-somethings already feel constantly overexposed?

Estimated reading time: 9 minutes. Photo by @thiszun from Pexels

Before the pandemic, I’d routinely request to take photos of my students in the second class of the semester. No, that wasn’t creepy at all.

It was the only way to learn the names and keep track of the progress of all 120 of them, whom I’d only meet for one class a week. Originally, when I started teaching at my university in 2010, I’d ask them for passport photos, which they’d supply without a second thought. Due to the requirement for resumes and job applications, which still exist today, Korean 20-somethings especially were used to providing passport photos for all sorts of documents, and typically had many stored at home.

Gluing all those photos onto name cards however, was a thankless task. Once in possession of my first smartphone then, I’d eagerly explain that it would be much more convenient to just quickly go around the class with it, taking shots of each group at their desks. Most instantly saw the logic, and seemed to appreciate my making the effort.

Occasionally, the odd female student—never male—would initially be a little nervous. Yet once I made it absolutely clear that they would only be for my own use, and how unethical and unprofessional it would be for me to upload them to social media, they soon relaxed. Generally, taking the pictures would turn into a brief ice-breaking activity, with most students happily posing or just goofing around with their classmates for the camera. The next class, they’d all have a good laugh at my printouts of the photos while attaching their names to them, and that would be that.

A mild example of the photoshopping done to resume photographs. Source: entomol10.

But by 2019, it was no longer a laughing matter. Increasing numbers of female students would be covering their faces as I took their shots, literally wailing. Many would be on the verge of tears, so daunting and so overwhelming was the prospect of an unedited, unfiltered image of them getting out there, no matter how remote.

I am not exaggerating.

So to their great relief, I starting asking everyone to just send me picture files instead. Again, a much more laborious and time-consuming process from my perspective, with many of the ensuing photos being so altered as to render the students unrecognizable. But I’d learned my lesson. When offline classes resume, I will never be asking to take pictures of my students again.

I’m not judging them. I’m not a woman, and I didn’t reach adulthood in the midst of a massive spycam epidemic. I don’t have to bring “specs” like my filtered, digital appearance to play in a desperate competition for jobs with other 20-somethings either. Nor do I mean to imply that young Koreans are any more sensitive on this issue than zoomers in other countries.

Merely, this is the context I bring to the “EyeBody” trend (눈바디/noonbadi) I recently learned of. Here’s a definition from the Naver blog Styler Life:

눈바디란 눈(Eyes)와 인바디(Inbody)의 합성어. 체중계의 숫자보다 ‘눈으로 보이는 몸의 라인이나 근력 상태가 더 의미 있는 변화다’라는 취지에서 나온 단어다. 즉 체중에 연연해하지 말아야 더 건강한 몸을 만들 수 있다는 의미. 눈바디를 이용한 다이어트 방법은 매우 간단하다. 매일매일 자신의 전신 사진을 찍어 기록하는 것. 많은 헬스타그래머가 이 방법을 이용하고 있으며 후기에는 효과를 보았다는 내용이 대다수를 이룬다.

The term “EyeBody” is a compound word of “Eyes” and “InBody.”* It means that a visible change to your body form or muscle strength is a much more meaningful sign of health and fitness than a number on the scales. In other words, it means that you can make a healthier body if you don’t get too attached to your weight alone.

The EyeBody method is very simple. Take a full body picture of yourself every day and record it. Many health-focused Instagrammers use this method, and the majority say that it has been effective in later periods of their training [after big fat losses have already been achieved—James].

*(Initially a sophisticated test of one’s body conditions pioneered by the company BioSpace, the term became so well-known and generic that the company changed its name to it.)

Again, but for the name, the trend is hardly confined to Korea, and you can probably anticipate potential problems. For example, Seoul Economic Daily explains:

체성분이 좋은 방향으로 변화하고 체중이 줄었어도, 거울에 비친 다이어트한 모습에 불만족할 때는 다이어트나 운동의 효과가 없다고 여길 정도로 눈바디의 기준이 절대적이다. 불특정 다수에게 자신의 다이어트 과정을 노출해 동기부여 장치로 활용하면서 생긴 현상이지만 보여주기만 신경 쓰다 보면 자신의 건강을 오히려 해치는 결과를 낳을 수 있다.

Even if one’s body composition changes in a healthy direction and weight is reduced, following the EyeBody practice places exacting standards on you. When you feel that despite your efforts, no changes are visible in the mirror, yet at the same time you rely heavily on displaying changes to a wider audience to gain the motivation you need, you may end up harming your own health in order to seek those changes required.

Yet I was a gym junkie myself once, and constantly wore tank-tops to make sure everyone knew it; it’s difficult to criticize something I would undoubtedly do myself if I were in my early-20s again. Plus, I have several Facebook friends who seem to post nothing but updates on their runs, crossfit routines, healthy meals, and/or selfies of their glorious bodies. Clearly with much healthier habits than myself, their feeds don’t strike me as raising too many issues, provided their goals continue to center around healthy body weights.

Moreover, this exhibitionist approach may in fact be one of the most effective methods, as the Chosun Ilbo explains:

…정씨는 “주로 아침 공복 상태에서 휴대폰으로 사진을 찍어 인스타그램(Instagram) 개인 계정에 기록하고 있다”며 “운동 시작 전 신체와 이후의 신체 변화를 기록하는 게 다이어트에 도움이 될 거라고 생각했고 무엇보다 남들과 비교하는 것보다 내가 남긴 사진들을 보며 더 자극이 됐다”고 말했다.

[Jeong Ah-yeong (30), an office worker from Gyeonggi-do] said, “Mainly, I take pictures with my mobile phone in the morning on an empty stomach, and record them in my personal Instagram. Really, it’s much more stimulating to see those pictures that I left myself than to compare my body with other people’s.”

서울 여의도에서 일하는 직장인 장주은(31·가명)씨도 인스타그램 개인 계정에 식단과 운동 습관을 기록하며 다이어트에 열을 올리고 있다. 장씨는 20대 때부터 ‘1일 1식’, ‘삼시 세끼 닭가슴살만 먹기’ 등 다소 극단적인 다이어트를 시도해왔다. 하지만 체중이 빠졌다 금세 돌아오는 요요 현상(yo-yo effect)을 겪었다.

Jang Joo-eun (31, pseudonym), an office worker in Yeouido, Seoul, is also heating up her approach to her diet by recording her daily habits in her personal Instagram account. In her 20s, she said, she tried rather extreme diets, such as the “one meal a day” one or the “three o’clock, three meals of chicken breasts.” However, while she did lose weight with these, it always quickly returned due to the yo-yo effect.

…장씨는 “연예인들이 한다고 알려진 다이어트는 직장인이 시도하기엔 비현실적인 방법”이라며 “행동과 습관을 바꾸는 다이어트를 시작하면서 변화는 느린듯 하지만 매일 기록하면서 보람을 느끼고 있다”고 말했다.

이들은 걸그룹 아이돌의 극단적인 식단과 같은 무리한 다이어트가 아닌 꾸준히 실천하는 을 택한 셈이다.

…Jang said, “The diets promoted by celebrities are unrealistic for office workers.” Rather, she prefers a straightforward method to the excessive, extreme ones of girl-group idols. “Although the changes are slow with my current diet, which focuses on changing behavior and habits, I feel rewarded as I record my small improvements every day.”

Photo by Scott Webb on Unsplash

Of course I do still maintain some reservations. In her Instagram photos featured in the article, Jeong looks unhealthily thin, but I concede may naturally be skinny. Also, Jo Min-yeong, quoted next, heads a dieting and liposuction clinic notorious for its comical fat and body-shaming commercials. And yet her explanation of the rationale behind the EyeBody method, while vague, may make some sense:

요즘 유행처럼 번지는 SNS에 자신의 식단과 운동 사진을 올리는 것 역시 다이어트 비법 중 하나다. 이는 실제 의학적으로는 ‘행동수정요법’으로 분류된다. 식습관, 운동량, 활동량 등 평소 행동 중 비만의 원인이 되는 요소가 있는지 살펴보고 이를 건강한 행동, 즉 다이어트를 위한 행동으로 고치는 방식이다.

‘매일 거울 보기’, ‘다이어트 자극용 사진 보기’ 등도 시각적인 자극을 통해 다이어트 동기를 부여하는 행동수정요법에 해당한다.

One of the secrets to successfully dieting is to upload photos of your dieting and exercising on social media. Known as “behavioral modification therapy,” it is a way to identify and correct what aspects of your life might be causing obesity, such as your eating habits, amount of exercise, and amount of activity. ‘Daily mirror viewing’ and ‘Viewing pictures for diet motivation’ are also considered behavior modification therapy that motivates you to diet through visual stimulation. (Right: “Picture of Dream Body as Smartphone Wallpaper Helps Weight Loss.”)

조민영 비만클리닉 365mc 천호점 대표원장은 “행동수정요법은 체중 감량을 위해 먹고 싶은 것을 참고 억지로 운동하는 것을 말하는 것이 아니라 생활습관을 바꿔 스스로 건강한 음식을 찾고 운동을 즐길 수 있도록 돕는 것”이라고 설명했다.

Cho Min-yeong, CEO of Obesity Clinic 365mc explained, “Behavioral modification therapy is not so much about forcing yourself to eat and exercise to the weight level you desire, but more about encouraging yourself to change your lifestyle and help yourself find healthy food and enjoy exercise.”

조 원장은 “시각적인 자극은 빈도가 높아질수록 더욱 강해지는데 매일 거울을 본다면 자극을 주는 횟수가 늘어나 다이어트 동기 부여가 배가 된다”며 “닮고 싶은 몸매 사진을 자주 보는 것도 비슷한 효과를 낸다”고 말했다.

Cho continued, “The more frequent the visual stimulation, the stronger the motivation. So, if you look at the mirror every day, the number of stimulations increases.” Also, “Seeing pictures of the body you want to resemble often has a similar effect.”

So why “gilded cage”?

Consider where I first heard of EyeBody, which was in a short fan-engagement video by Korean lingerie company Qmomo, as one does. The subject was all the tricks you can use to achieve that perfect EyeBody selfie:

Blink and you’ll miss them though, I recommend watching this longer video by 이지은 다이어트/Jiny diet. The English CC, which I think she writes herself, provide a good translation:

I agree, those are all excellent selfie tips. Assuming that is, you share the body ideals of the YouTubers, which I don’t—I find the model more attractive in the “before” photos in the first video, and have never understood the Korean obsession with small heads expressed in the second.

But that’s not the point.

Normally, I would be very dismissive of a trend like EyeBody. But a book I recently read about sexuality in Japan challenged long-held preconceptions on that subject, which I didn’t realize I had. Still in the same contemplative frame of mind while putting pen to paper for this post, I recalled the dramatic changes to my students’ attitudes to body image and digital media over the last 11 years. So, I looked at EyeBody practitioners in a new light. I saw the agency, confidence, and potential they saw in their bodies, which mirrored my own once. I read too, about why men especially might be drawn to posting muscular selfies in a time of austerity. Maybe, in an environment in which 20-somethings already feel constantly overexposed, why not take control of that for your own advantage? May EyeBody—dare I say it—actually work?

(My own commitment to writing here every Monday in 2021, after all, has already necessitated a radical transformation to my own habits—but, crucially, only because I made it public.)

But those videos. I get it—selfies, in themselves, can be a source of empowerment too. But EyeBody feels a little deeper. Selfies and likes as the method, not the goal per se. Why diminish it? Or, in reality, do its practitioners easily fall prey to the temptations of selfie tricks? Thereby fatally undermining the authenticity that distinguishes EyeBody from other dieting trends?

Until next week.

Related Posts:

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

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