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Elis Hu’s 'Flawless' examines the dark side of South Korea’s beauty standards

The cover of "Flawless" by Elise Hu. (Courtesy)
The cover of "Flawless" by Elise Hu. (Courtesy)

Elise Hu spent almost four years as NPR’s first Seoul, South Korea, bureau chief. During that time, Hu experienced what she calls an “endless assault of images of the ideal Korean beauty.”

Hu explores the South Korean beauty industry in her new book “Flawless: Lessons in Looks and Culture from the K-Beauty Capital.

“I really started feeling the bodily shame and angst that I hadn’t felt since I was a teenager,” she says. “I think all of us as we’re going through puberty, and then in those teenage years, when we’re confronting ourselves in the mirror have had those moments of bodily angst or bodily shame. I felt like I had largely put that away. It wasn’t until I was about 32 years old and plopped into Seoul where I was confronted by strangers sending me messages like, ‘there’s freckles on your face, you could get rid of those. We have dermatologists for that.’”

Elise Hu. (Courtesy of Emily Cummings)

4 questions about South Korean beauty standards with NPR’s Elise Hu

You’re obviously a foreigner, but women are born into this. Girls are born into this and they wouldn’t get a message like you did. They might just have to go do that.

“I think it’s really crucial to me in terms of my experience, and why I ended up writing this book. I had daughters in Seoul, I have a total of three daughters, that’s notable because they were treated differently than boys.

When South Koreans would compliment girls, they would only be talked about in terms of their appearance.

“So my daughters came back knowing three phrases in Korean: ‘hello, thank you and you’re so pretty.’ That’s really powerful because when we talk to little boys, it’s not, ‘you’re so handsome, great hair, awesome skin.’ It tends to be about their capability or you look strong or that’s brave. And so I do think that gender and the way that girls are seen versus boys are seen ends up getting internalized at very young ages. My daughter was 3 when she was asked whether she had eyelash extensions.”

I found it quite stunning that when you apply for a job, you have to include a headshot, and that’s not applying for a modeling job or an acting job. It seems across the board, which puts a lot of pressure on women, I imagine. 

“This is why I think it’s really crucial that I emphasize that I am not coming down on individual Koreans. I loved my time in South Korea and continue to want to go back. What I am coming down on, and I think that we need to really critique, is an entire system that upholds this norm that we need to look better in order to be acceptable professionally or socially. And that it’s a matter of personal responsibility, and that our beauty or our physical beauty is tied to worthiness. I actually think that that can be very harmful and marginalizing. It leads to discrimination.

“I talk about ‘lookism,’ which comes into play when your head shots have to be affixed to resumes. And when your passport photos are photoshopped by default, as I found one time when I went to get a passport photo and my skin was automatically retouched and my jaw line was narrowed down.”

You said in the book, and I’m going to quote you here, “Korea has become a neoliberal dream state, a place of unquenchable consumerism.” How does that tie into the beauty industry and the pressures on women to look a certain way?

“We are not only consumed as women. Women have long been objectified, but we are also consumers. So we are having to spend money in order to look better for the eyes of other people. It is kind of this constant feedback loop of spending and then also being consumed. At the same time, I think beauty ideals have mattered all over the world for several millennia, but often for aristocratic classes.

“So when Chinese women were getting their feet bound, it was aristocratic Chinese women and it wasn’t everybody. Lower class women couldn’t possibly do that, not only because it was expensive, but because it wasn’t practical. But now we’re in this global standard of beauty or we are reaching global standards of beauty that everybody has to chase, and so even lower classes or those who might not be able to afford it are being sold on this notion that you could afford to pass as higher class or get the injectables or get the work done.”

“I think that the industry then wants to creep in into more markets. So you have all these transnational forces that are getting negotiated when it comes to beauty as well that makes it part of this hyper capitalistic moment.”

It’s easy to other the South Korea beauty industry, especially when you’re reading about it from here. Why is it important that we know about it? And how do you think the Korean beauty industry is or will impact us here in the U.S.?

“So many of the things that are now popular in the West among Gen Z, people [who are] my oldest daughter’s age, like dewy skin sheet masks, those pimple patches that you can put over blemishes. Ideals that we see for young people today, are ideals that come from the East, come from South Korea.

“It is the world’s third largest cosmetics and skincare exporter. South Korea is now exporting more in cosmetics than it exports in smartphones. South Korea may seem like it’s far away, a place that people aren’t going to visit, but it influences us and that’s why it’s not only an important place to be looking at but an important influence that shapes all of us.”


Emiko Tamagawa produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Julia Corcoran. Catherine Welch adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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