Manga Monday

Manga Monday #19: Gangnam Beauty

“Gangnam Style” singer Psy has described Gangnam as South Korea’s version of Beverly Hills.  Although it’s true that Gangnam is the poshest part of Seoul–full of the rich and stylish–the real “Gangnam Style” of the Gangnam district is the Apgujeong Beauty Belt, blocks of clinics that specialize in every type of plastic surgery imaginable.

South Korea accounts for 24% of the worldwide market for plastic surgeons, and the Gangnam district alone is home to some 500 clinics.  The surgery of choice in Korea is double eyelid surgery or blepharoplasty.  This surgery creates a fold in the upper eyelid, a genetic trait that is absent in about half of the Asian population.  This sort of operation has become something of a cultural norm, often given as a high school graduation gift, a pre-requisite to entering university.

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Gangnam district advertising for cosmetic surgery–notice the before and afters poster.

Time and time again, everyday South Koreans have openly admitted to their belief that the prettier you are, the further you’ll get in life.  (Which, in a culture that requires that a headshot is included with job applications, you get where that ideology comes from.)  For some, this drive pushes them to undertake so much plastic surgery that they begin to look just like the advertisements that line the streets of Gangnam’s clinics.  They become what is know as a “Gangnam Beauty”.

Gangnam Beauty

My ID is Gangnam Beauty
Gi Meng-gi
78 chapters / 28 translated (ongoing)

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Kang Mirae is a girl who has worked hard to get what she wasn’t born with.  At first, she starved herself to lose her chubby exterior.  But, even noticeably thinner, even as much work as she tried to put into her appearance, Mirae was still incessantly bullied for her facial appearance.

Mirae’s parents refuse to pay for cosmetic surgery, so she works hard to have the procedures done on her own.  The story begins as she’s entering university, ready to start fresh.  Mirae hopes that with her newer, prettier face that she can avoid the horrific bullying that came with her previous one.

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Just as an educational sidenote, Mirae clearly has done so much more than double eyelid surgery.  Another common thing to do is to add aegyo sal, which are the fatty deposits under your eyes.  No, it’s not the bags under our eyes that we get when we’re exhausted (hello, me, all the time), aegyo sal actually only naturally occur in children.  It’s that exact fact that perpetuates the belief that, if you get them, you naturally look younger.  Which is why Mirae is drawn with that exact plumpness.

Another thing you’ll notice if you compare her before and after surgery is her distinctly different jawline.  A heart-shaped face is considered the most desirable in Korean beauty culture, and thus jaw shaving is another popular procedure to undergo.  Mirae’s one square jawline has clearly gone through this.

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A real-life and very Mirae-like example of a Gangnam Beauty post-op–jaw shaving, double eyelid, aegyo sal and all.

But, enough educating, back to Gangnam Beauty.  The meet-up for her chosen college major is, at first, more than Mirae could dream of.  People are kind to her, other girls compliment her, and very quickly a boy takes a liking to her and even asks for her number.  These are all things Mirae has dreamed of!

At the chemistry drinking party, however, Mirae is targeted by a fellow incoming freshman.  Sooah, quickly dubbed the crown jewel of the chemistry girls, sneakily begins drawing attention to the very obvious fact that Mirae has had work done–and not in a kind light.

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Mirae quickly realizes that, although people are a lot nicer upfront since she’s gone through extensive surgery, her days of being bullied are long from over.  Mirae finds herself being put through very similar bullying tactics for attempting to change what she was bullied for in the first place.

Gangnam Beauty shows the double-edged sword which Mirae has found herself confronted with.  On one end, she’s looked down on if her looks don’t meet certain standards.  On the other, even as she does everything she can to meet those standards, she’s either considered easy or otherwise dumb for doing so.  She can’t win.

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My ID is Gangnam Beauty takes a stern look at the beauty culture of Korea.  For the most part, plastic surgery isn’t something that you hide.  In fact, in South Korea it’s something to be congradulated on rather than something to be ashamed of.  It’s common and it’s really just a part of everyday life, especially for those who are in their 20s.

What’s interesting about Gangnam Beauty is that it looks at the many movements for beauty from several different angles.  Not only are we getting it from our protagonist, Mirae, a girl who has undergone quite the change thanks to plastic surgery, but we’re also seeing Sooah, a girl who relies entirely on her appearance, as well as Do Kyungsuk, a guy who essentially despises the cultural necessity for beauty (and who also happens to have known Mirae pre-surgery).

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Gangnam Beauty sparked my interest from the get-go.  Mirae, as a protagonist, is not only suitably lamentable in her situation, but she’s also someone who is clearly flawed all on her own.  There’s no Mary Sue here, each character in Gangnam is carefully structured around this insane standard of beauty that is present in South Korea’s society.

As pointed out by Kyungsuk, Mirae herself is entirely steeped in this cultural expectation.  She admits that as people would point out her flaws, she would search and grade others in comparison to hers.  Eventually, this constant comparison mode builds into a habit of grading other women’s faces based on their physical attributes.  When asked what she would give her post-surgery face, Mirae concedes she would give herself an eight… out of one-hundred.

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The sensitivity to the entire idea of changing ourselves in order to receive acceptance, love, or respect is powerful in Gangnam Beauty.  This is a topic that immediately gets me invested in something, manga or not because it’s so relatable.  Especially for women, and this idea rests heavily in the manga’s context, worth is determined by outward attractiveness.  An attractive woman is a wealthy woman, essentially.  All you need it the right looks and there’s just a silver platter waiting for you–at least, that’s the idea that we’re being force fed.

I think that one thing that Gangnam Beauty touches on that is incredibly sensitive because it’s so accurate is how this whole ideology set applies to men and their perception of women.  That is to say, the worth a woman has, where does is come from?  Where are we taught the worth of a woman comes from?  The manga breeches this subject gracefully with a poignant tone.

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How are we to feel any worth if we feel we aren’t up to societal standards?  Gangnam Beauty makes me wonder how anyone survives in Korean society.  Whether it’s weight, how big or small your eyes appear, or even the condition of your skin, all of these things affect the perception of both men and women in South Korea.  How are any of them functioning under this pressure, let alone all the other insane amounts of pressure they face as they enter adulthood?  It’s unnerving.

My ID is Gangnam Beauty is an excellent read and provides a lot of fodder to how much we question ourselves, especially physically.  The idea that looks trump things like personality, intelligence, or service is just… remarkably stupid.  But, as we all know, it’s far too often true.  Gangnam Beauty looks at the issue of beauty standards in a perfectly horrific way, in such grand stance that you just can’t stop reading.

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If you’re interested in reading up on Mirae’s post-surgery escapades into a shallow world, you can read My ID is Gangnam Beauty on Bato.to up to chapter 27.  The original Korean edition is already up to chapter 78, which you can read on Naver Webtoons.

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