Do We Really Need Filters? Afterthoughts on K-Drama ‘My ID is Gangnam Beauty’

“Why do we have to be like this? We are on a diet even though there’s no weight to lose. We throw up and have surgeries, as if we’d die if we didn’t get pretty.”

It’s a usual morning, I wake up and check Instagram. Yet another dolled-up face, nonchalant from the outside but begging for acceptance from behind that filter, greets me. Everywhere I go, whatever I do, there’s a common thread binding the feminine world. A thread that needs to be severed, and fast.

And no, wanting to look good is not the issue. It’s when you start doing it for others to notice you and love you is where we have a problem.

It is this very issue that is tackled by a Korean series I watched recently. Set in Seoul, South Korea, My ID is Gangnam Beauty follows the journey of Kang Mi-rae, a college student who decides to get plastic surgery after being bullied for her looks for years, and being called mean nicknames like ‘Orc’.

I wondered what the show was getting at when in the first episode, Mi-rae, after getting her face ‘fixed’, finally appears to be happy after almost a lifetime of bullying, so much so that she was nearly driven to suicide at one point. Surely the solution couldn’t be that simple, right? Thankfully, the show ended on a positive note while giving just the right message to its viewers.

Mi-rae enters her freshman year of college with a new face, and it’s like she gets a second chance in life – she immediately finds herself placed among the popular students. Initially it seems as if her dream of being ‘one of the pretty girls’ has come true. But then the truth comes out and she becomes the subject of gossip and jeers.

The pressure of being attractive is too much to take, and she’s labelled a ‘Gangnam Beauty’, which is a derogatory term for women who become attractive by getting plastic surgery. Gangnam is a place in South Korea known for its many plastic surgery clinics.

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As we root for Mi-rae to rediscover her self-esteem, and love herself despite everything, we learn that she’s far from the only one struggling with insecurity and issues of self-image. Even the ‘conventionally’ good looking people suffer a lot behind their masquerade. Her childhood best friend is on a diet because she wants a boyfriend, another girl is ashamed for not having a conventional hour glass figure, and another is picked on because she keeps her hair short. In a rather shocking discovery, one of the most popular girls in the class is found to be throwing up after every meal because she’s afraid of gaining weight and consequently losing her status.

What seems like a delightful, old school romance at first, with a generous sprinkling of humour and lightheartedness, delves deep into an issue everyone has dealt with at some point or the other, as is highlighted in some scenes that stood out.

One scene that comes to mind is that of three girls standing in a row, clearly looking uncomfortable in tight red blouses and short white skirts displaying their legs. Someone casually remarks that they always choose pretty girls to wait tables, as it attracts more guests. It hints towards a deep-rooted problem that is clearly not being talked about enough – that apparently if you don’t meet some baseless standards, you don’t deserve love.

Another moment that compelled viewers to take a step back and think was that of a certain character writing in her diary as a child:

“To be loved, I must be pretty and cute. At the same time, I mustn’t know that I’m pretty. I must be obedient, and I should never be too smart. I must always smile and agree with others. I must always be kind and friendly.”

It puts into perspective the poisonous idea that young girls are being fed.

The show ends with a line that sums up its message: “Who cares? Just do what you want.”

Watching Mi-rae get surprised and awkward every time someone praised her appearance, and looking at her literally rate the faces of everyone she met – on a scale of one to ten – made me wonder about a lot of things. The question that intrigued me the most was – is all the pain women put themselves through, just to look attractive, really worth it? Is this what being a girl is all about? Is this how we define femininity, after all those years of struggling just to make our voices heard?

Also read: The Joy of Watching K-Dramas With My Parents

What an empty existence this must be, I thought, every time a character belittled another or bemoaned their own selves over something they had no control over. It’s like their entire existence is devoted to being ‘pretty’, a concept that is completely subjective and has no particular definition. They deprive themselves from the simplest pleasures of life, such as a good meal, for something so trivial and fleeting. They don’t realise that there is so much more to them than a nice face.

And to what end? Eventually everything that they gave themselves away for will fade away. Even if they do find someone who wants to spend their lives with them, won’t they have to remove that mask sooner or later? If you really think about it, someone who isn’t willing to get to know their potential partner beyond a pretty face and body isn’t really worth all the effort. The notion that we have to be and look a certain way to be accepted, that we’re supposed to live life according to terms other than our own, is unacceptable. Doing things they are clearly uncomfortable with, trying to be a different person just so that someone will want them, is sad. It’s sad how much girls are taught to undervalue themselves, just to make people around them happy.

I remember looking at the mirror when I was 13, wishing I had a long ponytail like the other girls in my class. Why did I not begin to feel like a girl until I grew my hair out and finally got my arms waxed and eyebrows threaded for the first time? Why do I still get pressured to straighten out my curls? No matter how much we try to pull away, these standards of femininity find their way into us. It’s ingrained into all of us, whether we accept it or not. It’s alright if someone does it to make themselves happy. The problem arises when someone does it out of external pressures and the fear of being left out of the race.

Isn’t it time we stopped trying to turn young girls into dolls who nod and smile at everything, and just let them live their lives? We need to listen to ourselves for once. We are humans, not trophies. It’s high time we start putting ourselves first. We don’t need external validation to make us feel worthy, we are enough as we are.

Tanya Kainaat is a BA first year student at Aligarh Muslim University. Her interests include reading and writing. She is particularly interested in poetry and classics.

Featured image credit: Netflix