On a Much Heavier Note: ‘200 Pounds Beauty’ and Our Obsession With Perfection
My first encounter with Korean culture came when I was nine years old (late, I know), vibing along to “Nobody” by Korean girl group Wonder Girls. Whoever you are and wherever you come from, you have to admit the melody of that song was infectious. Its viral music video featured a line-up of beautiful girls whose identical skin-tight dresses fit their equally identical figures like stockings.
Although Kim Yong-Hwa’s 200 Pounds Beauty came out in 2006, I only saw it in 2020 (late again, I know). And even though it’s been about 13 years since I saw that Wonder Girls video, the parallels were apparent, and suddenly I was 9 again being fed the same narrative, that society expected women to be effortless yet gorgeous. Furthermore, 13 years of media consumption had instilled in me that the accepted deviation from this rule was slim to none.
But upon closer inspection, 200 Pounds doesn’t enforce this narrative – it rebukes it. The film turned heads worldwide, capturing the attention of international audiences for its originality.
Coming from a culture for which cosmetic surgery has become a rite of passage of sorts, it further established South Korea’s position as the plastic surgery capital of the world. Yet we often overlook the undertones of social criticism behind its simplistic plot typical of the rom-com genre. Ryan Bishop, professor of Global Art and Politics at the University of Southampton in the UK, writes about comedy’s role as cultural commentary, ‘If tragedy is about the fact that people are mortal, then comedy is about the fools we make of ourselves on the way to the grave’.
The film uses the prevalence of plastic surgery to explore the pressure that society puts on individuals to conform to a certain standard of beauty. The main character, Kang Han-Na (Kim Ah-Joong) is a talented singer, but her appearance handicaps her – she’s a ghost singer for pop star Ammy (Ji Seo-Yun) by day and a phone sex operator by night.
She’s in love with Ammy’s producer Sang-Jun (Joo Jin-Mo), and after being painfully humiliated by him and Ammy at a birthday party, decides to go under the knife for a full-body transformation so that she can have a ‘chance at life’.
Despite the scene’s overall lighthearted and comedic tone, there’s a gravity when she pleads for the surgeon to operate on her, claiming it would be equal to saving her life. He eventually agrees, and she emerges with a pretty face and a slender body, rejoins society as Jenny, resigns with Sang-jun’s record company, this time with her taking centre-stage.
Han-Na effectively likens staying ugly to death. Her predicament highlights the ugly truth that society treats those who are considered attractive and those who don’t make the cut in unfairly disparate ways. Han-Na and Jenny lead two entirely different lives despite being the exact same person.
Han-Na is openly ridiculed: when she shows up to Sang-jun’s birthday party in an ill-fitting dress, by medical personnel unable to lift her into an ambulance, even by the medium she visits in the film’s opening scene. Jenny, on the other hand, effectively gets off scot-free with a traffic violation.
While these situations are exaggerated for dramatic effect, they’re also a caricature of the real world. Attractiveness is an advantage in any society – good-looking people are perceived to be smarter, more trustworthy, and are paid more attention.
As a result, they’re often better understood by others, making it easier for them to manoeuver social situations, assert dominance, be more well-liked, command higher salaries, find better spouses… and the list goes on. It’s unfortunate that we often shy away from speaking about this issue because it can be a sensitive one. 200 Pounds is an important film because it tells pretty privilege as it is.
The film depicts pretty privilege as something real and ugly through its antagonist, pop star Ammy. A successful singer at the beginning of the film, it’s quickly revealed that this recognition is completely undeserved – she is totally untalented and tragically tone-deaf. Comedy allows for such one-dimensional characters. She’s also nasty, conniving, with virtually no redeeming qualities. The only thing good about her is her appearance.
Malicious Ammy is thus a foil for innocent Han-Na. We’re reminded that our own worship of physical beauty has built a destructive system that often elevates people to a pedestal they don’t deserve while turning a blind eye to actual virtue when it doesn’t come in a pretty package.
The film seems to reward physical attractiveness at the beginning. Han-Na’s life as Jenny is a walk in the park, as we watch her finally get the recognition she deserves as a singer, finally catch the eye of Sang-Jun, the man of her dreams, and finally gain the acceptance of society at large. However, this comes at a price, as she’s alienated from everything that matters to her.
Things come to a breaking point when she is forced to pretend not to recognise her disabled father so as to protect her lie and keep her identity a secret. When she forgoes her father’s genuine love for a surface-level public acceptance that’s only based on her appearance, Han-Na’s character loses depth and substance. The film thus penalises blind conformity – she only finds peace when she stops being ashamed of her past identity and reveals it to the world. Ultimately, it tells us that no amount of plastic surgery will ever suffice if we don’t accept ourselves first.
While the film does employ some outdated techniques (romanticising a problematic producer-popstar relationship, the whole usage of the fat suit to make a pretty actress ‘unappealing enough’ etc), its core message has aged well.
Since 2006, the boom of social media has exposed us to an unprecedented level of perfection. We follow influencers and celebrities with the best plastic surgeons, the most skilled makeup artists, and the most sophisticated image manipulation software.
Bombarded by flawlessness every day, we unconsciously normalise such impossible standards. The pressure to look a certain way has never been more intense, and people of decreasing ages are opting for cosmetic surgery in hopes of meeting those expectations. 200 Pounds is more relevant today than when it was released over a decade ago.
A cautionary tale, 200 Pounds Beauty warns us of the dangers of letting others’ expectations define us. The film calls out the inherent ugliness of a world enamoured by a specific beauty ideal and decides that we deserve better than society’s acceptance. We deserve our own.
Stream 200 Pounds Beauty on Netflix.