23 Korean Beauty Standards Weight on Society: Movie Analysis by Andrea Obaya
200 Pounds Beauty’s Weight on Today’s Entertainment Industry
Like religion, the entertainment industry varies in each country but like the gods in different religions, these celebrities in the industry are held to a “god-like” standard and placed onto a pedestal to worship, both expected to be “perfect.” The difference is that gods are considered perfect in all ways and are allowed to make mistakes without being judged while celebrities are meant to be “perfect” with no flaws to them and are not allowed to make mistakes as they are subject to civilization’s criticism that is the tabloids and the people themselves. Though each country has its variations of these “perfect, god-like” celebrities, filed under the codename “ideal types” or “beauty standards,” South Korea has one of the strictest molds to follow for its gods that go by the title “idols” –their female deities having the most scrutinizing perfection to achieve. Indirectly starting in 1997, K-pop (Korean pop music) was starting to become popular with groups such as Seo Taiji and the Boys and H.O.T, but S.E.S’s debut set the standard for the “visuals” in K-pop. When S.E.S debuted, their concept was very “fairy-like, youthful,” which became an aspect for future girl groups to have, and one member, Eugene, was known for her natural visuals in that she became known as the first “visual.” To this day, she is still recognized for her visuals. After S.E.S, many groups started following this concept and made it an official position in both boy and girl groups, designated to the “prettiest” member who was closest to meeting the Korean beauty standards. As time went by, this idea to be a visual applied to all members as they were all expected to be beautiful in the eyes of the Korean beauty standards and would become stricter over time, to the point that it was no longer about talent nor natural visuals, but molded and fabricated beauty through plastic surgery. It has become such a norm in South Korea to get plastic surgery in order to reach these Korean beauty standards or else one would have to face the criticism and judgment of Korean citizens (netizens) and though, Korea has been lowering its standards a bit in recent times, it is still very detailed and closed-minded to unrealistic levels that there have been articles, movies, songs, and dramas addressing this issue by focusing on loving oneself and accepting one’s own natural beauty -like the film 200 Pounds Beauty.
Based on Yumiko Suzuki’s manga Kanna’s Big Success!, 200 Pounds Beauty is a 2006 musical romantic comedy about an overweight woman named Hanna who is a phone sex worker and is also the singing voice for popular idol Ammy while in love with the director, Sangjun. After constant humiliation from Ammy and others and an interrupted suicide attempt, she decides to get plastic surgery and disappears for a year. When she returns as a “beautiful” woman, she auditions for her old job as Ammy’s singer and ends up getting signed as an artist. At the end, she realizes that looks are not what matters as it did not truly make a difference and made her a worse person, acknowledging she was beautiful all along and accepting who she was. This movie was commercially successful as it was not only entertaining, but also called out the industry for the beauty standards set on idols. Both the movie and soundtracks are considered classics as the main song, “Maria,” is still covered by idols today.
As mentioned earlier, the Korean beauty standards are very strict and detailed. Both men and women have their own, separate beauty standards set upon them, but the one for females is more excruciating than the one for men. Men, for the most part, are expected to be tall and in shape, and no judgment goes beyond that, but women are judged to the finest imperfections found on them. The general Korean beauty standard for women consists of an “overall innocent look: small face, big eyes, [and] slim body” 12 but it goes much more into detail. Besides having a very slim body with no curves and pale skin, most of the attention goes into the face as they highly regard small faces that give that youthful look: female idols are desired to have a pointy nose, plump lips, “v-shaped” jawline, straight eyebrows, and large eyes with double eyelids. For their skin and body type specifically, the skin needs to be white and flawless while the body needs to make an “S” shaped when in profile mode and “X” shape in frontal mode with a straight shoulder line and long legs 12 that usually should not be too muscular -a saying is that if an idol puts their feet together and straightens their legs, no parts of their legs should touch together or they would be considered to have too much muscle. Though no person could have 100% of these qualities, usually the “visuals” are those who naturally have most of these qualities or got plastic surgery to appeal to these standards more. As the industry is shifting towards having more “authentic” artists, more current idols are speaking out about these standards and spreading the message of loving oneself. Besides the common example of BTS with their “Love Yourself” album concept, artists like Hwasa from Mamamoo and Amber from f(x) have been known for speaking out against the beauty industry. Hwasa has been criticized by many for supposedly being fat and she has relayed the story of how she got harshly rejected by companies for being “fat” and how she was told she would never make it in the industry because of her looks. But she is a very popular idol now, and she uses her platform to spread the message of loving oneself. There is a video where a fan asks for her advice about dieting and she yells at them “Just eat!,” implying at them to not diet. A quote from her also says “If I don’t fit into this generation’s standard of beauty, then I will have to become a different standard.” 10 Amber also goes against the standards by having a tomboy appearance and she has always advocated for being herself, explaining that if she can be an inspiration for future generations, she wants to help make a positive change as there is so much negativity in the world and wants to make the world a better place for people. 10
Returning back to 200 Pounds Beauty, the character of Ammy is meant to embody these standards. Though she does not meet 100 percent of those standards, she meets the expectations of trying to match a somewhat Western-look, also embodying the saying that says “Visuals first, talent later.” This saying is commonly used as it is known to be said that talent can be taught, but visuals cannot, which is ironic, as idols usually get plastic surgery, and the visuals usually tend to have sub or lead vocal, dance, and rap positions (though there are exceptions). As mentioned in the plot summary of the movie, Hanna provides the singing voice for Ammy as Ammy can only dance and perform but cannot hold a tune and the reason she is the star and not Hanna is because Hanna is overweight and Ammy has the ideal body type. This is clearly seen throughout the first quarter of the film but is directly acknowledged in the bathroom scene after Hanna is humiliated by Ammy by tricking her into wearing a dress Ammy also wore to emphasize their different body types. In the bathroom, Sangjun reprimands Ammy for her joke but not for reasons of morality as he tells her that he wants to continue a lavish lifestyle but Ammy is messing that up by messing with Hanna. Unbeknown to them, Hanna is in the restroom listening. Sangjun admits that he does not really like her and is only nice to her because she will keep both his and Ammy’s career and lifestyle afloat, openly saying that Hanna should be the one to feel sorry for herself because she has talent but is ugly and fat while Ammy has no talent but is sexy and beautiful. 7
Hanna is repulsed and criticized for the first quarter of the film because of her weight and this is emphasized through the other characters, mostly through Ammy, and the camera shots. Before the bathroom scene mentioned earlier, when Hanna arrives at the little room in the club where Sangjun and others are at, as she makes her way to sit next to Sangjun, the other men in the room look at her and have a repulsed expression on their faces. The director also brings out Koreans’ true sentiment about body shaming in that bathroom scene as he shoots Ammy and Sangjun’s conversation from a level point of view as a way of emphasizing that they are acknowledging their thoughts in a straightforward manner. The scene of Hanna crying in the restroom after overhearing them is shot from above in a bird’s eye view, as if the camera represents Koreans looking down on her. Throughout the film, we see references of this Korean beauty standard through, not only Ammy’s constant reminders of how different they are, but also in other scenes where there are posters of CF’s with female idols that Hanna’s friend, Jungmin, points out as “treasures” for men while average women are “gifts” and then there are those like them called “rejects.” 7 Also, during one of her phone sex sessions, one of the male customers asks her what her body size is while he excites himself and she makes up the numbers by saying her bust is 34 inches, waist is 24 inches and hip is 36 inches, which excites him more and represents the ideal, average body size.7 Her overweightness is also brought out in “comedic” scenes that poke fun at Hanna’s weight such as the paramedic flashback scene where she has to roll herself over since the paramedics cannot move her and when she falls through the stage floor when dancing.7
Now, Korea is known for making plastic surgery a commodity and idols especially undergo plastic surgery, as mentioned earlier, to meet these specific beauty standards. Through the use of idols undergoing this procedure, it has become popularized by Koreans to get work done to look better and that life will be better if they are pretty as appearances do matter over there. This is seen through Hanna as she tries to commit suicide through carbon monoxide poisoning until she gets interrupted by one of her phone sex customers who happens to be a plastic surgeon7 -serving almost like an ad sent from heaven above (exhibited yet again by another bird’s-eye view shot) that says “Don’t kill yourself, the answer is in plastic surgery to make your life better.” When she meets with him to convince him to do major surgeries on her, she mentions how this will literally let her live a life as she felt she died the day she overheard Sangjun in the restroom. After agreeing, they are going over what facials she would want, emphasizing this idea of living up to these standards the industry and the nation have set while also idolizing Western culture as she mentions she wants Kate Moss’s nose.7 After she recovers a year later, she cries looking at herself as she feels happy and then goes out onto the street happily and buys the dress she had always wanted but could not because of her weight. She also goes by the alias “Jenny” as she becomes a new person.
The scene right after she gets plastic surgery is critical in showing the significance of these beauty standards to Koreans and how much impact it could have on a person. When she is walking down the street, a song that sings “I’m a beautiful girl” plays as everyone stares at her and when she goes to the mall and car dealership afterward, she accidentally makes a guy fall off his Vespa, is flattered by a car salesman and gets out of paying a ticket because of her beauty.7 The film’s message is showing that someone can get away with anything if they are pretty, as when the delivery guy falls in love with her and the man who she crashed into and the police officer both pardon her for the crash because she was pretty.13 The director also brings this out in his editing as any scene where the male gaze (not including Sangjun) is fixated on Hanna, it happens in slow motion with a glow around her as the brightness is increased around her, emphasizing the angelic beauty, thanks to her plastic surgery. Though the film does highlight the good aspects that come out of plastic surgery, as the message of the film is to love oneself, it also plays “devil’s advocate” and shows how one can lose themselves to their new identity. Sure, in the beginning of the film, it was a positive thing for Hanna to get plastic surgery as she is receiving the love and admiration of people that she never had, but as the film progresses, she denies her previous self and demonizes her as a monster, which is ironic, and starts losing the people around her through her actions. In the scene where Hanna is reprimanding Jungmin for falling for a guy, who is scamming her for money, Hanna indirectly insults Jungmin as she is considered ugly and knows he does not love her as she has suffered the same fate as well. Jungmin serves as the voice of reason for Hanna and reminds her in a scene that the women men consider “treasures” do look like her, but if they got plastic surgery to look like that, they are “monsters” and men will not want them. She is essentially telling her that she does not recommend telling Sangjun the truth, but if she feels so confident in her new look, to go for it, but he will not reciprocate as her beauty is a lie. At dinner with Sangjun afterwards, she does convince Sangjun to not demonize plastic surgery and see the positive effect it can do to someone, but he does acknowledge he would not want his girl to have work done, leading to Hanna not telling him the truth. At the end, after pushing away her father, losing Jungmin, and realizing Sangjun still only sees her as a product of the company, she learns that it did not matter if she looked better as Sangjun still did not love her and ended up losing her closest friend. The irony of it all is that after she signed as “Jenny” and the surgeons deemed her “too perfect,” Sangjun’s brother, who also runs the company, suggests she get plastic surgery to make her eyes a bit bigger and raise her nose up a bit, showing that society will never be satisfied and no one is perfect.7
The film concludes with Jenny’s concert, where she exposes her past self as a form of closure and wanting to be honest with her fans before Ammy exposes her truth. In return, the people chant “It’s okay” and encourage her to sing, admiring her bravery and consoling her for her past misfortunes. At last, she accepts her past self as she had a soul and embraces both Jenny and Hanna into her future.7 The film shows that no matter how much plastic surgery a person gets to look ideally as expected or how much one does to please someone, authenticity is preferred, as it is more real. As the K-pop genre is switching to a more authentic look, it validates the ending a bit. Sadly, though people want authenticity more now, the film does imply that even though there is a lesson to this film, plastic surgery is and will still be very heavily applied in Korean society as it is shown at the end of the post credit that the plastic surgeon’s office is filled with women who want work done on themselves like Hanna’s and the viewer sees Jungmin there asking to get plastic surgery everywhere like Hanna did. Jungmin being at the surgeon’s office represents society that even though society knows it is not real and it is better to be one’s true self; even the most moral of people are pressured into getting plastic surgery as a way of getting accepted into society. Even the scene where the audience tells Hanna that everything is okay, it is another way of saying society approves of her now as the shock and noises people made when they saw Hanna’s old self is repulsive and they tell her it is okay now as she is now approved by society and its standards.
Though this movie came out sixteen years ago, the message still lingers about plastic surgery and fabricated beauty vs natural beauty. Idols are coming out more with the truth on their plastic surgeries but most still hide it and play it off as natural. Though more people are now more accepting of beauty flaws or now see aspects of the beauty standards that were once not well received, such as monolids, “cat-like” eyes or round faces, the idea of plastic surgery is still prominent in Korea’s society, especially in the media. K-dramas (Korean dramas) such as “My ID Is Gangnam Beauty” and “True Beauty” both have an emphasis on women having to please society with their appearances and be accepted into it or be outcast by it. “My ID Is Gangnam Beauty” is a 2018 drama that centers around a college student who was bullied throughout middle and high school and decides to get plastic surgery before starting college. When she enters college, everyone is amazed by her beauty and is heavily admired and complimented, being admitted into society, just like Hanna was when she released herself from the hospital. Afterwards, people start to see her through her plastic surgery/natural beauty lie and she starts to get isolated from society that once accepted her because they now see her as a monster for getting plastic surgery, the same message Jungmin relays to Hanna when she wants to tell Sangjun the truth. The drama received praise as well for calling out Korea’s beauty standard and this weight society puts towards women and their appearances. Though “True Beauty” (2021) has a female protagonist who does NOT get plastic surgery, she is an outcast through bullying because of her looks and she learns how to do her makeup to give her a more beautiful appearance when she transfers schools. The only problem is that two of the boys there have seen her previous self and she has to hide her past in order to not be recognized or exposed for her “ugliness.” Again, this recurring theme of having to be beautiful for society is still prevalent in today’s time, showing how after sixteen years, society has not changed much and though in both dramas, she does end up with the male lead, ironically both played by Cha Eun-woo from Astro, who accepts her for who she is and for her past self, it is still shown that he would not have liked her or it implies that had she not gotten surgery, she would not have caught his attention before, as the audience did with Hanna when they accept her bravery and new look.
The idea of having the perfect body also still lingers in pop culture, but throughout music, more artists are expressing their opinions on how Korea needs to change. The film starts with the idea that Ammy is the star because she fits the standards and Hanna does not, but toward the end, Hanna normalizes the idea that idols are humans too and this is what society does to people as she felt forced to get plastic surgery in order to live life. An example of a song that brings out the standards in a misogynistic way is Park Jin Young (JYP)’s 2015 single, “Who’s Your Mama.” In the song, he starts off by asking a woman what her waist and hip size is while in the video, he is checking her out. The whole song then is basically JYP singing about if a woman does not have a beautiful, sexy body that fits the Korean standard, he would not look at her nor be interested in them. He is asking who their mom is as to ask how they raise a goddess of a daughter because her body is driving him crazy, all while having women shake their hips and butt for the choreography as he dances with them.6 Again, he is speaking of society’s thoughts that if one does not fit the Korean beauty standards, they will be shunned or not treated as equal to someone who does fit it.
Again, idols are speaking out more on this issue, mostly through their music. In a 2018 interview, when speaking on being in the industry for over a decade and what she would like to change, artist and Girls’ Generation member Tiffany Young mentions how she would want to normalize idols, saying how they are humans too and they laugh, cry, fight, have snot coming out of their noses once in a while, and are not perfect. Both Itzy’s 2020 hit “Wannabe” and (G)-Idle’s 2022 hit “Tomboy” are two examples of women in the industry exuding confidence and speaking out about the industry and wanting to break free of those standards. Both female groups sing about the freedom to be themselves. Itzy repeats “I don’t wanna be somebody. Just wanna be me, be me. I wanna be me, me, me,” “There’s no need to be something, I’m the best when I’m myself,” and for the people, they say “It’s none of your business. I do my own business,” 5 stating that they feel bad and selfish for being themselves but it should not concern anyone but themselves; while (G)-Idle sings about being a tomboy, which again goes against Korea’s beauty standards, and how they ask a boy (referring to society) if they “want a blond Barbie doll” to which she responds “It’s not here. I am not a doll.”1 Both songs exude confidence in who they are and go against prejudice with the visuals for the music video, showing Itzy doing what is not expected of them like letting loose, breaking plates, and walking a runway without shoes while (G)-Idle make dolls of themselves but not the typical Barbie dolls and they kill the Ken doll as a way of killing society’s prejudice over them. The Barbie reference also ties back to the film as Hanna is seen with a Barbie doll and how she wanted to be a Barbie to fit the beauty standards. When her dad hands her back the doll and she does not accept it, it is a moment of closure for the audience, as she did become a Barbie in the physical sense but is becoming hollow inside like the doll. When Jungmin asks her why she did not take the doll if it’s from her “biggest fan,” it is her rejecting herself, like (G)-Idle rejecting what the industry has done to them.3
In conclusion, the message of 200 Pounds Beauty still applies to today as the idea of being perfect idols still lingers in the industry, with plastic surgery still encouraged and society still condemning these artists for not fitting beauty standards or wanting to openly express themselves. While more artists do speak out more on this issue, some also become afraid to say anything due to society’s repercussions as they can get criticized more for it, leading to idols becoming traumatized and ending their life to end the hate. Two examples were Sulli and Hara, who were both idols and though they were considered visuals of their groups, they were both scrutinized by the public for their past mistakes and thoughts, especially Sulli who was very open minded and Koreans did not like the way she thought or expressed herself. Like Hanna attempted to do, they both ended up committing suicide within a month from each other, and that opened people’s eyes on the toxic nature of the industry and the internet. This film demonstrated how toxic these beauty standards could be and is a wakeup call to Koreans to stop expecting so much visually from their idols and focus more on the talent. The audience in the film was rooting for and making rich a person who got by with their looks while reprimanding the talent in an industry that requires talent: it subtly points out how society is blind as they never figured out that Ammy and Hanna/Jenny have the same voice. This film brings out what society does not see and wants them to be aware of the “gods” they are worshiping and making rich while also the pressure they are putting on people, especially their female deities of idols. It was a call to action for Korea to change their thoughts/perceptions and still is today a cry for help.
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