After Debuting as a Singer, I Stopped Eating

“Eating Disorders and Women’s Bodies” Series: Where Is My Stage?

Barbara | 기사입력 2024/02/19 [17:19]

After Debuting as a Singer, I Stopped Eating

“Eating Disorders and Women’s Bodies” Series: Where Is My Stage?

Barbara | 입력 : 2024/02/19 [17:19]

※ Editor’s Note: The “Eating Disorders and Women’s Bodies” series does not treat an eating disorder as a personal matter but as a social issue, and takes diverse approaches to it from a gender-sensitive perspective.


▲ I performed onstage as an artist who personally experienced an eating disorder on the third day of Korea’s first-ever Eating Disorder Awareness Week, which lasted from February 24th to March 2nd. ⓒBarbara

“This stage is a place to share your story”


It all started a year ago. An interview clip on social media about a book titled Swallowing Practice prompted me to buy and read the book. I was half excited because someone finally published a book on such a matter in a country like Korea, but also half curious about the author who had the courage to open up in detail about her own experience of having an eating disorder, which can be a sensitive subject. After a few exchanges of Twitter mentions, the writer, Bak Jini, and I became Twitter friends.


A few months ago, Bak said she had been planning to hold Korea’s first-ever event related to eating disorders and asked me if I could participate by singing and sharing my own experiences. The performance was going to take place at a small bookstore in Seoul.


Her offer was extremely inviting, but I was scared. My story? Where would I begin? What if somebody criticized me after listening to my story? Wasn’t I too fat to be on the stage? What if someone threw shade at me for being too fat and ugly? I hesitated.


The mere consideration of performing onstage gave me a nightmare that night. Anxiety was still lingering even after I opened my eyes. My psychiatrist suggested I should not take the offer if it gave me that much anxiety and fear. The doctor said now was the time to take care of myself and that I should turn down the offer. I agreed.


However, something at the corner of my mind was holding me back, similar to the feeling of some small hand slightly pulling my sleeves. “This is the stage that needs you. You always have dreamed about that. It is an opportunity to tell your story in front of people who want to hear it. The thoughts that have run wild countless times—as a musician, where is my stage? Maybe this is it.” Those thoughts seized my mind. I had to go up on that stage!


I was to perform on Sunday night in the last week of February during Eating Disorder Awareness Week, which meant I had about two months before the performance. That was enough time, but time flew without me practicing much because I had to prepare my students for audition-based college entrance exams. I did practice whenever I got time, but the singing practice was not the most important thing. What I was thinking about was which experiences related to my eating disorder I could share. I felt burdened and lacking in courage. Even worse, I suffered on quite a few days from the pain of reliving my trauma, while my anxiety intensified each day.


Finally, the day came. Feeling a little bit worn out, I had a meal and drank coffee with Bak and Baek Eunseon, a poet who was to perform with me on the stage. We hit it off very well even though we had never met before, and that relaxed me a bit. After rehearsal—standby, ready, go!—the performance began. Although I had thought about this moment a lot, I had not actually decided what to say. So naturally, my mind went blank. After the singing performance, I rambled, thinking, “Where should I begin?” But to my great relief, people laughed often and gave much attention to my story with their eyes sparkling.


My days as a singer: beaming outside but bleeding inside


Sixteen. That was my age when I got into music, and I felt upbeat every single day. I began as a Daehakro-based musician in a school uniform, running around Hyehwa-dong like a puppy in the park, singing, practicing, collapsing in despair, crying, laughing, and talking... I felt liberated by music. Now as I think back while writing this, I was too optimistic and naïve without knowing what kinds of ordeals (?) were in store.


After turning nineteen, I was lost after failing to get into college, but then I unexpectedly managed to become a trainee at an entertainment company by passing an audition I had just tagged along with my friend to. Small companies are always running out of time, and opportunities come up without notice—so all you can do is usher yourself into the world, prepared or not. Wondering, “What if I was prepared better?” is meaningless. Being prepared is equivalent to having courage. Once you feel brave enough to do it, you should dive into it. That is how you get better. But in my twenties, I was timid and heavily wounded inside.


Everyone else in the small company were older men, which made me cower more and feel wrong about myself. Like other female would-be singers, I had to push through the training period in the face of being told every second that I was ugly, fat, too shy, glum, and not acting cute enough. Now I can see that maybe they just wanted me to work on being more social and active. But to twenty-year-old me, everything seemed aggressive and terrifying.


▲ Me in 2011, when I was busy performing as a solo artist after releasing my first song, “Leave Me Alone.” ⓒBarbara

My company “at least” was one that wanted to draw attention from the public more for the music than my face or appearance, so I was able to learn a lot. Then luckily, I made my broadcast debut on Yu Hee-yeol’s Sketchbook [a popular music/interview program in Korea]. For a year after the debut, my calendar was packed with events. If I describe how I was doing, anybody would think I was very successful, but in fact, I was failing. I got more sheepish and cowed day by day. I was not aware that I had started bleeding inside.


Criticisms, like that I was too fat and ugly, blotted out my daily life, and the company’s chief executive even began to show disgust about me eating in front of him. Whenever the staff had a meal together, I had to eat vegetables I brought from home in the corner of the practice room. I stopped eating cooked food for about two years. I guess I wanted to dispel my anxiety by sticking to a principle like this. Boiled sweet potatoes and the like were the only cooked food I ate for the next few years.


I did yoga in the morning, boxing in the afternoon, and gym workouts at night. I dropped to 50-something kilograms and stayed there. I feared people who criticized me, and even my view of myself began to become severely distorted. Even though I was 170 centimeters tall and weighed 53 kilograms, I considered myself too fat, directing endless curses and hatred toward myself every day.


Diet pills and alcohol… the worst daily routine.


My golden days as a singer did not last long. After a busy year, performing here and there, the chief executive of my company suddenly passed away from a heart attack. I was lost and fell into a habit of drinking until they started a new company and I released a new album and even performed in Japan. Those who suffer from an eating disorder are vulnerable to addiction because of their weakened willpower and destructive behavioral patterns. I had no clue how I could ease the hunger that I had been bearing since I was a trainee. No one tried to take care of me, and it never hit me that I needed medical help. As a result, I just stealthily gave up on myself, drinking and taking and pills. I fell into bad relationships or mixed alcohol with a maximum dose of the diet pills that I had been on even before my debut.


DIET PILLS. I cannot go on without mentioning what they did to me. What I most desperately wanted at that time was to lose weight and stop eating. “In a healthy way” was not an option. It was lucky(?) that I happened to find a hospital that would prescribe me the maximum dose of the pills without much care. Nobody was there to save me, but instead, everybody seemed to want me to drown—so I did, dragging myself down in an infinite cycle of pills and alcohol. A strong diet pill makes you feel nauseous all day and gives you a headache, trembling hands, a faster heartbeat, and cold sweat. You cannot eat something even if you try. So I drank at night, and at dawn, I threw up everything I had managed to eat while drunk. It was the worst daily routine.


I was overwhelmed by fear in those days. I feared the mere possibility of getting fat, eating food, and not being loved. I lived through a daily nightmare of believing that wrong affection is what love is, when nobody actually loved me. But I dreamed of going up on the stage again with help from the new company. And thanks to its support, I was able to continue singing in Japan.


My twenties and my singing career ended at the same time. My side job as a vocal trainer turned into my main one. In addition, I went to see a psychiatrist for the first time because my body was one step away from breakdown because of alcohol and pills. The doctor said, “The pills you mentioned are really bad for your heart muscles. How on earth could you take them for eight years? Wasn’t that hard on you?” Furthermore, I was heavily dependent on alcohol, so I decided to set to work quitting the consumption of both alcohol and diet pills.


At that time, symptoms of my trauma, like panic attacks and anxiety, constantly disrupted my daily life. Breakages in your health inevitably leave cracks [even after ‘recovery’]. My health, having been put through the ordeal of dangerous weight loss practices in my twenties, took revenge on me in my thirties. The revenge(?) of my own body I have gone through is as follows: a rib broken by coughing; a hemoglobin level that dropped to 5.5 (g/dl) and required transfusion; torn ligaments and a broken bone—twice—from twisting my ankle in one misstep on the stairs; eight medications every night to get sleep.


For someone who is living through nightmares alone


“Our World of Possibility”, the event on the third day of Korea’s first Eating Disorder Awareness Week, finished in a pleasant mood. I had been extremely nervous, but the audience said they had needed our stories and found comfort in my song. I went home, lay on my bed, and I thought. It’s not easy to talk and sing in front of people as one who experienced an eating disorder. The more publicly I tell my story, the higher my level of anxiety about protecting myself becomes, followed by never-ending self-censoring doubts. What if I was manipulating my narrative in my favor of myself? Was I exaggerating the facts? And that is why I cannot finish this article easily, just like when I make a speech, because I am worried about whether I have been wrong at some point. That lack of belief in myself constantly haunts me.


Nevertheless, I have squeezed my eyes shut, scraped together all the courage left in my heart, and come this far. To share my story takes a lot of nerve, but I wanted to do this. An eating disorder is an unspeakable nightmare and lonely disease. So with belief in my gathered-up courage, I am writing, even if it's not perfect, to reach out to those who must have been suffering in nightmares.


▲ I gathered my courage to share my story with those who must have been suffering from the nightmare of an eating disorder. ⓒBarbara

Five years of psychiatric medication. Four years of psychotherapy. I am still with the Night Child every day. My Night Child still wants to eat food and throw up, to end my life, and to drown me in despair. There were days I ignored and hated the Night Child. My resentment was fierce, but I did not want to know why. All I wanted was to find a solution and get better. But at one psychotherapy session, I was given an insight that the Night Child might exist to protect me. Really? This inner side is destroying me to save me? Surprising, but I could understand it somehow. Now I have enough strength to sit beside the Night Child. We sit together, holding hands, taking time for each other.


When can I move on from my twenties? Now I am in my second year of being sober, going all out for psychiatric treatment, but when will I be able to embrace the Night Child tighter until I finally accept it? I still relive the nightmare-like memories. But I still hold on to music, and it is why I endure those days: to sing. It has been nine years since I started teaching people how to sing. I used to think this job was just a way to get away from my past as a singer. But I’ve truly changed a lot by meeting various people [through it].


Many stories, many hearts. I meet these people, and we better our singing together, which gives me strength in the process. Moving forward and being with them, I have been able to grow up, at least a little bit. I have made countless mistakes, and there is a long way ahead, but I wish to teach them with precision and positivity. Furthermore, I want to release what I want to say through my music and go up on the stage once again.


The eating disorder will stick with me for a long time. I will suffer from it for a long time. I will have to go through this dreadful and lonely war against myself. But I will endeavor not to abandon myself, not to hate myself, but to survive today and tomorrow. I want to pull myself out from there, that past.


※Barbara’s performance of Demi Lovato’s “Anyone” at the event during Eating Disorder Awareness Week (with subtitles). #jinbubooks


Barbara made her debut in 2011 with her song “Leave Me Alone.” She performed as a singer in Korea and Japan, and now she is working on her new album even while working as a vocal trainer. 


Translated by Jun Jihai

Published: March 10, 2023

*Original article:


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