Twenty-seven-year-old IT worker Jung was scrolling down his Instagram feed and was surprised to see an unlikely sight: his coworker scantily clad, flexing his toned body in a professional photoshoot.
“I had heard of the trend, but I was a bit shocked at first to see someone around me actually post something like that,” he said.
Such glamour shots, dubbed “body profiles,” were once considered to be exclusive to professional models or body builders — to literally present a profile of their bodies to casting agencies. But over the past few years and especially in the 2020s along with the Covid-19 pandemic, body profile photoshoots have become increasingly common among ordinary people.
According to a survey last year by research company M-Brain Trend Monitor, 84.7 percent of respondents said body profiles have become common culture, not just for celebrities, and 78.9 percent replied they’ve seen an increase of body profiles uploaded on their Instagram feeds. The trend is mainly within younger generations; 47.2 percent of respondents in their 20s and 46 percent in their 30s said they were willing to shoot a body profile in the future.
As of early March, there were over 4.3 million posts on Instagram with the Korean hashtag “body profile,” doubling in the past two years.
Why have Koreans come to love flaunting their professionally-photographed, picture-perfect bodies?
How it all started
Mentions of body profiles among the general public started surfacing in the late 2010s and visibly took off in the 2020s. Searches for the keyword “body profile” on Korea’s largest search engine Naver increased by 72 percent between May 2020 and May 2021.
“I first started having clients who said they wanted to work out for a body profile photoshoot around 2018,” said Moon Ji-wan, a 31-year old fitness trainer at a gym in southern Seoul’s Gangnam District. “When body profiles really took off a little later, it happened to coincide with the Covid-19 pandemic, so we’ve been seeing a ton of those posts on social media.”
The late 2010s was also when fitness culture and weight training became an increasingly popular hobby among the Korean public — as seen in the popularization of slang terms like helchang (fitness-obsessed person) or hellini (someone who just started working out).
The heightened attention naturally brought many fitness influencers on YouTube and social media into the limelight. Fitness YouTubers and influencers often upload their body profiles for self-promotion, making their followers familiar with such photoshoots.
“Nowadays, about 30 to 40 percent of my clients are preparing to take body profiles in the future,” Moon said. “With increased interest and demand, gyms are also actively using images of body profiles to promote their business, attracting clients with the motivation that they can also achieve a body like that.”
Increased time indoors and less physical activities due to the Covid-19 pandemic may have also played a role. Thirty-year-old metro worker Kang Hye-seong shot his body profile in December 2020 and said pandemic-induced weight gain played big factor in his decision.
“After the pandemic broke out, I mainly stayed indoors and ate a lot of delivery food, which made me gain a lot of weight,” he said. “I already had a trainer at my gym, so he put me on a restricted diet to lose weight. Then, my trainer suggested that if I put in a little extra effort, I could challenge myself to a body profile photoshoot.”
The concept first seemed foreign to him, but Kang says he gained courage as more people around him started joining the trend.
“I had only seen celebrities or Instagram influencers upload body profiles and thought it was cool, but I had never thought I’d be the one taking it,” he said. “Then, more acquaintances around me started posting theirs, so I decided it would be a good opportunity for me too.”
What makes it worth it?
Preparations to shoot a body profile takes significant investments of time, effort and finances. It is a long journey that lasts at the very least a few months, during which one must dedicate themselves to rigorous workouts and an extremely restrictive diet.
The routine roughly consists of months of personal training, dieting, supplements like protein powder, booking a studio and photographer, outfits and makeup for the photoshoot, tanning, waxing and more. The budget can vary greatly depending on how long the preparation period is or how luxurious the photoshoot is. Most reviews say they spent at least a few million won throughout the journey for a picture-perfect body.
So why are ordinary Koreans deciding to embark on such a costly challenge?
“I got a great sense of satisfaction that I succeeded in achieving my ideal body and had a visible record of it,” said Kang, who spent about 3,500,000 won ($2,670) over the span of five months for his body profile.
“Today is my youngest day, so I wanted to capture the youngest, most shining moment of my life,” said a 34-year-old civil servant who took her body profile last year, spending a little over 2,500,000 won.
“The thought of ‘before I get any older’ was what really pushed my decision,” she continued. “Reserving a studio and setting a date for the photoshoot also helped me not slack off, compared to exercising without a clear goal.”
All about Instagram?
The decision to take a body profile may be driven by various personal motivations, but the experience usually includes one commonality: social media. Whether it is chronicling one’s progress or simply sharing the end results, posting on social media seems to be an essential part of the body profile experience. Uploading the final cuts of the glamour shots are considered to mark the completion of one’s fitness journey.
Some say the body profile trend is a product of today’s Instagram-driven culture, as young Koreans’ social media of choice are photo-centered platforms.
“When body profiles first started surfacing among ordinary people around 2018, that’s also when Instagram started getting big in Korea,” said trainer Moon. “Everything fell in place; our society places great emphasis on external appearance, and we Koreans are known to be quick in temper. The current body profile trend satisfies both; getting in shape relatively quickly and showing off your best physique to others on social media.”
Showing off to seek validation from others is perhaps an innate human desire. And although preparing for a body profile takes hard work, it is also “one of the easiest things to flaunt visually,” says cultural studies professor Alex Taek-gwang Lee of Kyung Hee University.
“The essence of social media culture is about receiving compliments and attention,” Prof. Lee said. “You can post something good about yourself and easily have other people validate you. It’s harder to visually display how well-educated you are, how many books you’ve read, and what not. On the other hand, you can dramatically change your body by working out intensely for a few months, then show it off visibly through a body profile.
“People see others get compliments for their body profiles,” he continued. “That makes them think, ‘If I post something like that, I can get validated too,’ because who doesn’t like being complimented? It’s why social media is so popular in the first place.”
As the trend became widespread, the Korean Army and Air Force issued a ban last year on military personnel uploading revealing body profiles on social media while in uniform — concerned that it may damage the “dignity of the uniform.” The Navy also addressed the issue last year with a statement regarding “military discipline in the cyber space.”
Even though sharing on social media is considered part of the package, many say body profiles are fundamentally more about challenging oneself.
“I did post my final results on Instagram, but it had little to do with my motivation to take one [body profile],” said Kang. “I did feel comfortable posting because I had already seen many acquaintances do so, and it seemed like a customary thing to do. So there was that influence, but it had little to do with my decision [to shoot a body profile] itself.”
After training and dieting for as little as as three to six months, achieving the ideal body and capturing it on camera may seem to be the end of the fitness journey. But behind the body profile trend, there may lie long-term consequences.
“I got my body to reach its absolute best-looking condition,” said a 36-year-old mother of two, who decided to get back in shape after childbirth and took a body profile last year. “I’m currently striving not to gain the weight I lost back, and it’s hard. Realistically, how long can I maintain this peak condition that took so much effort to reach? I could never do it again!”
Critics of the body profile trend say the picture-perfect bodies, only possible to last for a brief photoshoot, can instill unrealistic images of a maintainable body.
On search engines, “regret” is one of the top related keywords that show up alongside body profiles, with numerous comments reading they’ve been left with side effects such as eating disorders, quickly regaining weight (known as the ‘yo-yo’ effect), hair loss, anemia and even physical injuries.
Experts warn that efforts aimed at serious weight loss over a short period of time can lead to nutritional imbalances and a myriad of side effects. Skin aging faster, low blood pressure causing dizziness and cognitive functions slowing down are just some of the possible results, according to Dr. Lee Ji-won of Severance Hospital’s Department of Family Medicine.
“We also see many cases of people exercising too much in order to avoid losing muscle or regaining weight,” she said.
“Excessive exercise without sufficient breaks can lead to fatigue, which then speeds up the body’s aging process. If you’re also heavily restricting your diet at the same time as intense exercise, it can lead to hormone imbalances affecting fertility in both genders, as well as menstrual issues and osteoporosis among women.”
“Many are also prone to consuming excessive amounts of protein in an attempt to lose fat and gain muscles,” Dr. Lee added. “But excessive protein intake, especially without balancing it with carbs and fat, can cause damage to the kidney and liver.”
BY HALEY YANG [firstname.lastname@example.org]