By: Pang Ji Xuan
In South Korea, there exists fierce debates around the topic of beauty standards. Some argue that the pressure to maintain one’s appearances is an unavoidable aspect of human superficiality, while others say pervasive lookism leads to worrying consequences in mental health. Park Sang Un, in The Myth and Ritual of Dieting in Korean Society, states “In a social atmosphere represented by so-called “lookism,” those who have a body shape that falls short of the social ideal do or may suffer discrimination or prejudice because of their appearances” (Park, 2007, p. 51 ). The comic Sweet Home (2017) weighs in on the topic through its unique concept of monsterisation in an apocalypse. Sweet Home is a sci-fi neo-apocalyptic comic where individuals turn into grotesque caricatures of their desires. For example, a model turns into an deformed entity repeating “Do I look good?”. Through plot devices and choice of illustration, Sweet Home implicitly makes the point that the pursuit of beauty becomes an obsessive force.
The paper analyses this at a deeper level through the lens of the theory of the Self and Other. Proposed by Sigmund Freud, it posits that individuals organize their perceptions of the world through two entities – the Self and the Other. The Self — an abstract notion of “me”, and the Other is an entity that is rejected by society, separate from the Self. In Sweet Home, the Monsters are the Other, shown through their vile appearance and humans’ discrimination towards them. In other words, the Self and the Other are separate, and exist on opposite ends of a spectrum. However, the comic Sweet Home problematizes this separation of the Self and Other. Instead of showing a clear distinction, the text shows a co-existence of the human soul and the monster sharing the same physical vessel. This poses an interesting question on how to account for Sweet Home’s hybridity. Through this lens of monsterisation, the pursuit of beauty (of the Self) directly leads to the creation of a grotesque monster (the Other), which is a direct contradiction. Monsterisation leads to the Othering of the Self, where the Self becomes the very entity it seeks to avoid. Hence, one can observe that chasing perfection leads to imperfection, making perfection impossible to achieve. I contend that Sweet Home reflects how the pursuit of beauty standards are impossible to achieve, where the pressure to pursue it in South Korea is damaging the individual’s self-perception.
The Harsh Contradiction and Flawed Solution
Read through Freud’s lens, monsters are intuitively the Other: the antithesis of the ideal Self. The monsters are illustrated to be physically repulsive: deformed, disfigured and reptilian. Their ghastly appearance (shown above), coupled with their distorted vocal cords make the sight extremely foul to humans. Survivors react with extreme great shock and horror, elcucidating how the human Self tries to separate itself from the gruesome Other. Yet, despite the obvious boundary between the two entities, Sweet Home presents a grim dilemma where the Self is unable to divorce itself the Other.
Freud’s theory is problematised here due to Sweet Home’s unique process of monsterisation. To explain this, monsterisation is a psychological process, where characters’ desires are exploited. Characters succumb to deepest desires (for example beauty), turning them into monsters. Monsterisation engenders a split of the Self: after monsterisation, the character exists in the subconscious part of their mind living out all their desires of beauty; while giving rise to a vile Other (the monster). This allows the characters to “achieve” beauty; by becoming ugly. To achieve perfection — is to arrive at a contradiction.
In the process of becoming a monster, the characters blur the boundaries between the Self and the Other by embodying these monstrous qualities. Monsters are portrayed as a grotesque exact manifestation of characters’ desires. A starving singer – idol trainee’s desire to eat turns her into a deranged abomination munching on a bloody kitten. Through the use of stylistic illustration, the monster’s physical appearance is drawn to match their desires, like a gaping jaw representing insatiable hunger. The accent of muted grey and purple shades in the background underscores the foul atmosphere, reinforcing the monster’s haggard appearance.
“Damn, I gained some weight … How long do I have to starve? The talent agent said it wouldn’t be this hard … [To her kitten] … While your owner starves, you get to eat whatever you want, huh? I envy you.” (Sweet Home, 2017).
The physical appearance of the grotesque monster accurately mirrors the character’s insatiable desire to eat. Through the illustration of the monsterised form, the pursuit of beauty is distorted, becoming ugly instead as reflected in the mangled form of the monster. Through monsterisation, the search for beauty leads to ugliness, presenting an irreconcilable contradiction.
Mental Breakdown due to Dissatisfaction with One’s Body
This contradiction acts as a critique against South Korea’s culture of beauty. In response to the twisted version of beauty, Sweet Home elucidates how the true value of life is distorted by “lookism” — prejudice or discrimination on the grounds of a person’s appearance. Park states how Korean women must undergo harsh dieting to have bodies deemed as “normal and socially acceptable” (Park, 2007, p. 63). The contradiction between the harshness of the diet to be “normal” undermines the meaning of “normal”, instead reinforcing the unnatural behaviour of dieting to look socially desirable. In Sweet Home, the struggle of achieving a perfect body is visually shown through the split in the Self to the vile Other, as a metaphor for the impossibility of achieving true, “natural”, socially acceptable beauty. The struggle faced by Koreans shows how they physically and mentally struggle with their self perception. Park states how “women’s dissatisfaction with their own bodies often leads to dissatisfaction with their very existence (within such bodies)” (Park, 2007, p 51). This struggle to fit into the narrow margins of Korea’s artificial “natural” beauty standards creates unbearable pressure. The pressure to pursue such artificial standards of beauty eventually leads to mental breakdown, underscoring the damaging effects of the pursuit of beauty.
South Korea’s beauty standard is presented to be nearly impossible, where women have no natural means of achieving. This is conveyed in the idol – singer trainee’s monologue “Damn, I gained some weight … How long do I have to starve?” Her distaste with her body triggers a response of palpable disappointment in her. This reveals the degenerative effects of such self-loathing thoughts, basing her self-worth on the numbers on the scale.
Sweet Home presents a singular solution to reconcile the differences between her ideal and the actual body, by succumbing to monsterisation. However, this makes it so that the only way she becomes beautiful is to Other herself. Monsterisation offers her an opportunity to “achieve” beauty in her subconscious, but it comes with the cost of the transformation of her physical self to the Other — a nauseatingly sickly figure with discoloured limbs and sharp claws. This reinforces the author’s point that the only way to achieve beauty; or perfection is to arrive at a contradiction. In other words, it is impossible. The pursuit is meaningless as it only brings about irreconcilable psychological damage to the individual in the process.
Reductiveness and The Public Gaze — Insecurity and Ugliness
Sweet Home takes the negative impacts of self-Othering a step further, showing how it causes an obsession that has reductive properties on the Self, causing psychological anxiety in individuals in Korean society. The reductive effect on individuals is explored in the intrusion of the public gaze. In Multiple Exposures: Korean Bodies and the Transnational Imagination, Epstein and Joo explain about the ideal Korean man’s “highly prescriptive regimes of the body” . (Epstein and Joo, 2017, p. 17)
A “muscular nude torso, featuring well-oiled skin that is smooth and firm, bulging pectorals, highly defined abdominal muscles, and chiseled arms” (Epstein and Joo, 2017, p. 4) as well as the commodification of the body best illustrated by Korea’s “momgap” (price of men’s body) — are used to denominate their value.
Here, reductiveness is indicated by the stringent set of physical criteria to be considered as ideal under others’ gazes. The public gaze now becomes a weapon against individuals, subjecting them to unnecessary scrutiny and commodification. The male model Ryu is paradigmatic of this. During monsterisation, Ryu looked into the mirror, but the shock from the ugly Other was so great that his monsterisation symptoms receded temporarily. This is significant in highlighting the physical revulsion that the Self harbours towards Other, revealing the potency of judgement, even from one’s gaze. This revulsion intensified his psychological need to look desirable to others, manifested in his monstrous Other’s incessant questioning, repeating “Do I look good?” The dependence on society to prove his self-worth, exposes that he is unable to function without validation. This reveals how the intrusiveness of the public gaze leads to crippling societal pressure which damages the male figure.
Monsteristaion and Surgery: Extreme Modification And Depersonalisation Of The Body
Furthermore, Sweet Home demonstrates the instantaneous judgement of appearances through evaluating the monsterisation process. The protagonist’s first impression about his idol trainee neighbour is reflected in his thoughts and facial expression, “Is she an actress? I bet she’d had plastic surgery. [Blushes]” His action of attributing his neighbour’s beauty to plastic surgery while blushing, exhibits his internal rejection of her beauty on the grounds of unnaturalness, while being physically attracted to her. In Korea’s booming plastic surgery industry where “its citizens put on achieving collectively defined standards” of beauty (Epstein and Joo, 2017, p.2), monsterisation parallels surgical processes — reflecting the range of mild to severe bodily changes individuals undergo. Through extreme modification and depersonalisation of the body, surgery can be compared to monsterisation. While the person is able to achieve some semblance of perceived beauty (in their subconscious mind), even then, they are still “ugly” and rejected by society. Through the creation of the monstrous Other in montserisation, the body becomes a dehumanised and deformed corporeal Other. Sweet Home presents that ultimately, beauty can never be achieved through the defiling of the body.
Hence, through various devices, This lack of hope at the end of the world is mirrored in Sweet Home, where the pursuit of beauty is caricatured through monsters and complicated through the paradox of the Self and the Other, rooted in impossibility. The process of the Self to begin Othering oneself into a monstrous form reveals the gloom and doom of the apocalyptic diegesis. Sweet Home offers a view: that achievement of the ideal is impossible, and any attempts to achieve it will only lead to a contradiction. It reflects a complete lack of faith in humanity and its obsession with perfection, leading to mental breakdowns and irreversible damage to an individual’s self-perception.
Examining the Self and Other in Sweet Home’s on beauty in Korean society using the lens of monsterisation reveals a number of complexities. The paradox of achieving beauty and internal othering seems to complicate the conventions of Frued’s theories about the separate Self and the Other. In comparing Freud’s analysis in the context of Sweet Home, it becomes apparent that the concept differs greatly from Freud’s binaries. Through the complex relationship and interactions between the Self and the Other, Sweet Home demonstrates the pursuit of beauty as impossible, raising the paradox: To realise oneself; an individual loses oneself in the end. Sweet Home is effective in using monsterisation as a lens to view how unpleasant and depressive the effects of a looks-obsessed society is. In the backdrop of the gloomy neo apocalypse, the individual is presented with dismal hope to better themselves, making us question society’s exploitative propagation of beauty.
Jean-François Staszak. (2008). Other/otherness, International Encyclopedia of Human Geography. Elsevier BV Publishing. pp. 1-7.
Kim C, Hwang Y.C. (2017). Sweet Home. Line Webtoon. Retrieved from https://www.webtoons.com/en/thriller/sweethome/list?title_no=1285. Accessed 24 October 2021.
Park, S.U. (2007) ‘‘Beauty Will Save You’’: The Myth and Ritual of Dieting in Korean Society’, Korea Journal 47(2): pp. 41–71.
Stephen Epstein, Rachael M. Joo. (2012) Multiple Exposures: Korean Bodies and the Transnational Imagination. The Asia-Pacific Journal (10:33:1) pp. 1-24.