“Every time I see him I feel like the sun is shining on my face.”
L. Gissele has three emotional support K-pop boys: Kim Namjoon aka RM from BTS, Bang Chan from Stray Kids, and Johnny Suh from NCT 127.
“[Namjoon’s] words speak to me and he motivates me to always do better and to aim big. To always challenge myself,” the 18-year-old Panamanian told Mashable via DM. “[Chan] has been there for me at my lowest point in life. He makes me remember that depression does not define me and that I can get through everything.”
And Johnny? “Seeing him smile makes me happy.”
Feeling a strong attachment to or drawing strength from a specific idol isn’t unusual in K-pop fandom. Commonly called “emotional support K-pop boys,” these artists inspire and reassure people through their music, livestreams, and even just their general personalities, encouraging fans and offering comfort through difficult times. Such positive influences can improve fans’ psychological wellbeing, especially when comfort is difficult to find elsewhere.
For 16-year-old Yasmine Leon, this support is provided by ATEEZ’s main dancer Song Mingi, who she strongly believes helps her mental health. “Mingi helps me have a better mindset about my personality,” said the Arizona teen. “He inspires me to think more positively… And [reassures me] that being weird is okay.”
For Regan from Florida, NewKidd’s Jo Mingyu, or Hwi, is “a safe space” who “makes [her] feel loved.” “He also works incredibly hard and is an inspiration when I feel like I’m not able to do something.”
And for 25-year-old Pennsylvanian Zee, it’s BTS’ Min Yoongi, who uses the stage names Suga and Agust D. “He knows life is hard. He knows reality. Since he struggled himself to get where he is at now. I can relate to that attitude a lot.”
The original emotional support K-pop boy
A variation of a Tumblr meme about emotional support animals, the concept struck a chord with K-pop fans and quickly spread, jumping from Twitter to other websites such as Tumblr and Reddit. Some even adapted it to emotional support K-pop girls and J-pop boys, though K-pop boys remain its most popular subject.
Now, over a year later, the phrase “emotional support K-pop boy” is a staple of K-pop fandom lexicon, easily understood shorthand for a common shared experience.
Image: @romiosini / twitter
“My friends think it’s hilarious, how big this thing has gotten,” romiosini aka Len told Mashable via DM. Like most fans we spoke to, she preferred not to give her full name for privacy reasons. “I think it’s funny that a tweet I posted because I saw a Tumblr post that went, ‘sir, that’s my emotional support tapeworm’ (I wish I was making this up!) ended up having such an impact, but mostly I’m really happy it seemed to resonate with so many people.”
Though it has now been applied to numerous idols, the 26-year-old Canadian resident actually had a specific K-pop boy in mind when composing that fateful tweet: Seventeen’s lead dancer Wen Junhui, stage name Jun.
“For Jun in particular it’s that he’s such a bright, kind person, that he works very hard, but also that there is a visible fragility to his person,” said Len. “It makes him very human in a way that’s particularly touching to me.”
Len also relates to her favourite idol because of their similarities. Like the Chinese-born idol, she too moved to a foreign country as a teen and had to navigate an unfamiliar new language and environment.
“I have a tendency to bias foreign idols in the groups I stan and it’s always about this shared experience of displacement,” she said. “And so the ‘emotional support’ comes partly at least from being able to see yourself in someone else, your struggles and your qualities and also who you want to be.”
How do K-pop boys give support?
Those outside K-pop fandom typically perceive a fan’s admiration of a K-pop boy as a crush, particularly if the fan is female. In actuality, there is frequently no romantic or sexual attraction involved. Having an emotional support K-pop boy is merely about mental support, encouragement, and a deep appreciation of the artist as a person.
Psychologist Derek Laffan doesn’t have an emotional support K-pop boy, but says he resonates with BTS’ Jung Hoseok, aka J-Hope. “I love his hopeful and positive messages and upbeat personality,” Laffan told Mashable via email. “It’s uplifting to watch his performances and interviews.”
Laffan is from the National Anti Bullying Center at Dublin City University, and specialises in cyberpsychology — the study of how the internet, technology, and social media impact our minds. He currently has a paper on the positive psychological effects of K-pop fandom awaiting peer review, and stresses that emotional support K-pop boys should be examined in a “balanced and non-scare mongering way.”
“There isn’t a lot of psychological research done on emotionally supportive K-pop boys and it’s very much so needed,” said Laffan. “An extent of emotional attachment to an idol can be fairly healthy.”
Of course, like all things, having an emotional support K-pop boy requires balance. Intense obsession and getting sucked into stan culture can damage your mental health if taken too far. However, when stanned responsibly, following K-pop idols can be beneficial to a person’s psychological wellbeing.
“I would say in most cases, idol emotional attachment is fairly benign and fulfilling,” said Laffan.
Nurul Safithri, a student at Tarumanagara University in Jakarta who published a research paper on quality of life in adolescent K-pop fans, agrees. She holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology and has been a fan of BTS since high school, but only began turning to them for emotional support when later going through a difficult time.
“I had this period of my life when I felt so down but I couldn’t talk about my problems with anyone, including my family or my friends,” said Safithri in an email to Mashable. “I felt so lonely and worthless until I started to pay more attention to BTS’ lyrics. Their lyrics are so positive and help me to forget my problems.”
Many fans have drawn solace from the empowering, positive messages in K-pop, which Laffan noted are “different to many Western pop artists’ messages that just ‘make you feel special.’” Songs such as Stray Kids’ “My Pace” encourage listeners to stop comparing themselves to others, while “The Last” shares Yoongi’s real, relatable struggles with mental health.
K-pop fan recalled being comforted by BTS’ music after finding out Brett Kavanaugh had been confirmed to the Supreme Court in the parking lot of their Citi Field concert. Following the MeToo movement had already taken a toll on her mental health, so this news was a particularly hard blow.
“I felt so broken,” the 30-year-old Brooklynite told Mashable via DM. “However that night I remember during the ‘Epiphany’ performance just being reduced to tears and being overwhelmed by the 40,000+ crowd of mostly women singing ‘I am the one I should love.’ It felt powerful. It made me feel like these were the kinds of guys I wished more guys would act like.”
SEE ALSO: The never-ending rise of K-pop megastars BTS
It isn’t just an idol’s songs that endear them to their fans though. While some Western performers also sing about mental health, K-pop artists stand out due to their comparatively constant presence, messaging, and approachable demeanours, all of which are facilitated by their skillful use of social media. For fans, a large part of an emotional support K-pop boy’s appeal is their personality and what they do outside of their music.
“To me ‘emotional support K-pop boy’ means someone you look up to when you are feeling down or when you need motives to keep going,” said Gissele. “Someone that makes you feel less of a burden with their words.”
In addition to their musical performances, K-pop stars help fans feel closer to them by interacting through social media, meetup events, and livestreams. This content is typically lighthearted, though some idols also use their platform to discuss topics such as anxiety and depression, and offer encouraging advice to people who are struggling.
“It’s hard to love yourself,” said BTS’ Kim Seokjin aka Jin in an English-subtitled 2018 livestream, sharing his own struggles with his self-worth. “I tried to love myself, trying so hard, I’m full of self-esteem… You can build up self-esteem with efforts. So, have the mindset that you love yourself and give compliments to yourself.”
“Whenever you guys are having a hard time, feel depressed, or you’ve got a lot on your mind, I just want to say that it’s always it’s okay to come to us,” said Bang Chan in a livestream last year. Stray Kids’ leader has become known for his soothing livestreams and comforting advice, even outside his group’s fandom. “We will listen to you guys and no matter what, we will try to help out with what you’re going through.”
Such openness and emotional vulnerability has fostered a supportive culture of understanding concerning mental health in K-pop fandom, further helping fans experiencing hard times.
While research suggests people who follow celebrities in an intense, personal manner have poorer mental health than others, Laffan cautioned that celebrity worship as conceived by these studies may not apply to K-pop idols, who engage with fandom and the internet in a different way. Building large online fanbases of digitally savvy fans is vital to K-pop’s popularity, with idols actively using social media to cultivate their approachable persona and interact with fans on a regular basis.
More research still needs to be done, though both Safithri and Laffan believe having an emotional support K-pop boy can help fulfill people’s needs for social connections and self-esteem — particularly if these needs aren’t being met by those around them.
“A perspective in psychology is that we can achieve our wellbeing when we satisfy the basic needs we have,” said Laffan. “K-pop idols, and K-pop as a whole, can be a source for some of these needs.”
Identifying as a K-pop fan, Laffan said, also helps people categorise themselves into a specific social group, giving them a sense of identity and belonging — a sentiment fans echoed.
“Within a fandom you are surrounded by like-minded people who feel the same level of attachment, and therefore you can feel free to love and show affection intensely and fangirl/boy without judgment,” said Lynn. For her, K-pop is a safe outlet to express herself “without the limitations of ‘maturity’ or ‘professionalism.’”
“All of this gives fans that validation and a stronger sense of social connection they may not be getting elsewhere,” said Laffan. “These things are generally very important for positive mental health.”
“The unbreakable bond between a lesbian and her K-pop boy”
One of the most difficult aspects of K-pop fandom to explain to those outside it is the wholesome lack of sexual attraction many fans feel for their favourite idol. Though there are “hard stans” who prefer their K-pop boy’s more sexual side, “soft stans” are decidedly platonic in their affections.
“I’m a lesbian and there is no sexual or romantic attraction involved in my feelings for men I stan, but it’s hard to convey that,” Len told Mashable. “Stan culture has its own language. I often jokingly caption pictures ‘I’m in love with him,’ and it’s an understood code between gay fans, but it’s not that clear to outsiders. Someone once called it ‘the unbreakable bond between a lesbian and her K-pop boy,’ that’s the essence of the ‘emotional support K-pop boy’ phrase too.”
Len confessed she sometimes feels frustrated when non-lesbian fans use the term, and wants people to understand the “very specific feeling of platonic adoration” it was intended to convey. The reason her original tweet was posted to her general Twitter account rather than her account dedicated to K-pop was specifically to communicate this dynamic to K-pop outsiders.
However, Len acknowledges that people can feel sexual attraction to their K-pop boy while simultaneously receiving emotional support. “I guess I wish everyone was aware of where it came from… but it’s not like it’s a slur — it would be laughable for me to try to control who can say it.”
Even so, fans widely consider “emotional support K-pop boy” to be a non-sexual term regardless of the user’s sexuality. Urban Dictionary defines it as “used to combat compuslory [sic] heterosexuality as well as the notion that we can’t be Kpop boy-group fans without being attracted to them.”
“Something about positivity and just happiness without sexuality or seduction being constantly the main focus is reassuring,” said Lynn. “Having an emotional support K-pop boy is not about being physically attracted to them, but rather having a safe space to express intense emotions and attachment without the pressure you would feel in real life.”
“It’s definitely a bond that goes beyond physical,” agreed Gissele. “It’s more like a best friends type of relationship. Def not something sexual or romantic. It’s a safe place.”
You get a K-pop boy, and you get a K-pop boy
“Honestly just cute pictures of [Namjoon] or any of BTS smiling can brighten my day,” Lynn told Mashable. “And I have no way of explaining how or why this works.”
K-pop fans are generally unconcerned with the psychology behind why they love their K-pop boys. Their emotional support K-pop boys make them happy, and provide comfort, inspiration, and distraction. For them, it’s as simple as that.
“Their ability to articulate very complex but universal emotions in such clear and poetic ways really drew me to them,” said Lynn, referring to BTS’ emotional intelligence and positivity. “I can legit sit and watch any vlog or speech of theirs and come away feeling inspired and empowered to become as emotionally aware.”
K-pop idols primarily communicate in Korean, but this isn’t an issue for fans who don’t understand the language. A lot of content is subtitled, whether by entertainment companies or by other fans, and the optimistic, caring environment K-pop boys foster requires no translation.
“It’s about what they make you feel,” said Gissele, whose native language is Spanish. “Feelings are universal, there is no barrier.”
“It sounds silly put into words sometimes but seeing [Jun] makes me happy,” said Len. “And there are days where everything is terrible, and the human instinct there is to seek distraction, something to make you smile, and for me often it’s gonna be Seventeen content.”
“The world is pretty dark and depressing and has been for a while,” agreed Lynn. “K-pop idols offer an escapism world that is filled with positivity and maybe even a chance to dream and hope.”
Who supports the emotional support boys?
Intense positive feelings toward a K-pop idol can have a beneficial psychological effect for fans, and may even inspire them to donate to charity in the idol’s name. However, Safithri noted that such attachment can also cause fans to disparage people who have differing opinions, and can lead to attacks upon idols themselves.
“Having many people look up to and rely on them I think can worsen this ‘have to be a perfect star’ perception,” said Safithri. “Because once they do something wrong, the criticism will come inevitably and destroy that perfect image of them.”
a reminder that your emotional support kpop boy’s actual job is to be a singer and performer, not to make you, personally, happy
— ˗ˏˋ(• ─ •)ˊˎ˗ (@filet_jignon) October 14, 2019
Idols don’t even need to have done anything wrong for people to turn on them either. In January, upset fans of boy group Exo demanded singer Chen leave simply because he had gotten engaged. Such severe online criticism combined with impossible expectations, loss of privacy, lack of freedom, and loneliness can be incredibly damaging to K-pop stars’ mental health — sometimes leading to dire consequences.
“Idols face other industry pressures as well as their own personal issues that can affect their wellbeing,” said Laffan. “I think the fans are generally considerate of this, but it can sometimes get lost when we don’t take a ‘step back’ and remind ourselves that idols have other worries too.”
Laffan further expressed concern about idols’ lack of easy access to mental health services, noting the negative stigma surrounding such issues in Korea. While some Korean entertainment companies are better than others at providing support, Laffan stated professional mental health care for idols is “largely absent,” and that he would like to see these companies do more.
“At a very basic level, idols need to be heard and listened to as well,” said Laffan. “Too many idols have not been listened to and it has resulted in too many tragic outcomes.”
Mistakes were made
Despite mainstream perception of K-pop fans as blindly fanatical, the majority are well aware their idols are fallible humans. In fact, many consider their K-pop boy’s imperfection just another element worthy of admiration.
“The fact that [Yoongi] is so human and flawed, yet bravely faces those flaws, apologizes, and grows from it is inspirational,” Lynn told Mashable.
Lynn admitted she was disappointed when Yoongi’s solo track “What Do You Think?” sampled a speech by cult leader Jim Jones, particularly as a Black fan. However, the rapper’s swift apology and efforts to educate himself reassured her, and she felt she knew enough about his character to be confident it hadn’t been done with malice.
If we’re supposed to be role models why would we only show our best moments? What kind of example does that set? That something’s wrong with someone if they aren’t okay all the time? I don’t believe in that. I want to show you me, as a real person, so you know you aren’t alone.
— Day6 Jae (@Jae_Day6) July 27, 2020
“Very often in the West we assign malicious intent to actions that actually simply reflect the general social outlook someone is used to,” said Len, noting that most K-pop idols have a different cultural context to their Western audience. While this doesn’t make their hurtful actions permissible or preclude them from criticism, Len believes idols’ missteps should be handled with more nuance. “I don’t think [unequivocally] declaring someone a Bad Person or flooding them with demands for apologies without context helps.”
Gissele acknowledged there are limits to this philosophy, specifically referencing Big Bang’s Seungri and the Burning Sun sex scandal, and both Zee and Len agreed not everything can be forgiven. However, fans largely see idols’ missteps as a learning opportunity for both the singers and their followers.
“They have been exposed to the world since they were young and a lot of them didn’t have a proper adolescence, they are bound to make mistakes from time to time,” said Gissele. “They just need to acknowledge it and learn from it. Just as they help me grow I’ll try to help them too.”
*Not a licensed therapist
Safithri relied on BTS’ music to help manage her mental health for a few years, but eventually sought counselling from a professional psychologist.
“I realized that using them as emotional support can be useful for me but it didn’t give me the solution to solve my problem,” said Safithri. “Now I still love their music and use it as a way to comfort myself when I’m sad or stressed, but I also learn how to solve my problem and not ‘run away’ from it.”
Both she and Laffan agreed that while having an emotional support K-pop boy can be comforting and beneficial, it is not a substitute for a trained mental health professional and shouldn’t be treated as such.
“Idols are not qualified to give evidence-based and compassionate mental health advice or treatment,” said Laffan, noting that relying on idols for counselling also burdens them with responsibilities they are not equipped to handle. Unlike K-pop idols, licensed psychologists can help people work through their problems and develop ways to address them.
”Speaking from my experience, I also feel so relieved that I can finally talk about my problems to other people,” said Safithri. “I know it’s not easy, but it’s still worth trying!”
Still, for day-to-day comfort and inspiration, the empowering message and presence of an emotional support K-pop boy can lend fans the strength to push forward in hard times.
“Namjoon and Yoongi’s lyrics and speeches helped me open up finally and talk to my friends and family about me getting professional help,” said Lynn, referencing BTS’ song “Paradise” in particular. “Actually listening to their lyrics made me realize that a lot of what I was feeling was okay and very common and that strangely gave me comfort and hope that I could be helped.”
“I hit one of the lowest points in my life roughly at the same moment where I really got into Seventeen,” said Len. “And for that year, [Jun] was a beacon of light to me. I wouldn’t say he saved my life, but he kept me sane, and I really wish I could thank him. I think he should know that he has brought me so much joy by simply being himself.”
Interviews have been lightly edited for clarity and grammar.
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