In the last few years, Korea’s advancements in the beauty industry have grown dramatically, stretching far beyond the country’s own borders. K-beauty products and the multi-step skincare routine have taken over social media feeds worldwide, with the enticing promise of clear “glass” skin and youthful features. Meanwhile, the meticulously perfect faces of K-pop idols and South Korean actors adorn magazine covers and metropolitan billboards. In her debut book Flawless: Lessons in Looks and Culture from the K-Beauty Capital, journalist Elise Hu ventures on a fascinating and thoughtful deep-dive into the Korean culture of lookism, writing from her personal experiences from when she was stationed in South Korea as well as a vast amount of research and interviews. Each chapter looks at the phenomenon from a different angle, dissecting how Korean standards for women’s appearances have come to be and are continuing to evolve with the advancement of technology and the virality of media.
Hu opens the book by describing her arrival in Seoul in 2015 when she was a reporter for NPR and the culture shock she experienced as a tall, Chinese American woman who didn’t fit the mold of an ideal Korean female figure. Hu’s personal anecdotes are engaging, and her writing style is accessible and approachable. For readers who have had little to no exposure to Korean culture, it will feel like having your own knowledgeable tour guide leading you through a complex world, all while she is undergoing her own assimilation of sorts. Hu is open and vulnerable about her experiences, from the excitement of trying Korean serums and toners for the first time to the self-consciousness she felt about her postpartum body. She is also honest about being susceptible to certain beauty practices herself that she previously would’ve considered extreme, including receiving Botox and giving her infant daughter a facial. The mix of personal stories along with the journalistic integrity of well-researched data helps create a balance that makes Flawless a relatable yet educational read.
Hu describes how the impact of the Korean War led the nation’s government to focus on cultural exports as a way to reinstill life into the economy and pay off its debts. This form of soft power led to the Hallyu wave, which is reflected today in the music and media from Korea that is enjoyed by consumers around the world. With contemporary references to K-pop idols and K-dramas, Hu zooms out to illustrate how Korean media has not just captured the hearts of fans across the world but how it sets a standard for what it means to be attractive. Heavily visual, these pieces of media continue to reinforce beauty ideals even off the screen. In the real world, celebrity endorsements are common, hinting that you too can look like your favorite singer or actor if you use their product, while neglecting to acknowledge the not-so-secret secret of cosmetic surgery.
Plastic surgery is a multi-billion-dollar industry in Korea, and Hu describes the blocks of practices lining the streets of Gangnam: an area nicknamed the Beauty Belt or Improvement Quarter. These businesses churn out individual after individual with the same coveted features that have become synonymous with Korean beauty, complete with a V-line jaw and double-lidded eyes. As a journalist, Hu gives us the inside scoop and describes what it’s like first-hand to go through the initial consultation process for plastic surgery. This includes downloading an app where you must comb through categories of facial features and mark each area you want to fix, which can end up being in the dozens. Today, companies have even developed advanced algorithms for evaluating one’s face to recommend procedures. Pulling in some astounding data points from external surveys, Hu notes that one in three Korean women between the ages of 19 and 39 has undergone some form of cosmetic surgery, with 23 being the average age of when the first work was done.
Beyond giving insights into the industries of skincare, beauty, and plastic surgery, Hu also discusses the socio-political aspects of lookism. In Korea, there are two main motivations when it comes to trying to improve your looks: avoiding being shunned by society and wanting to be empowered in a capitalist and individualistic society. Corporations directly benefit from an appearance-based culture, where they can simultaneously make up new problems about the way you look while selling their so-called solutions to you. In the past couple of years, there has been an uprising of young women defying the status quo. One example is the Escape the Corset movement, where participants reject expectations by sporting short hair and no makeup, facing harsh judgment from their fellow Koreans. Hu writes about how opposition to beauty standards is inherently an act of feminism, a fight against the misogyny that has evolved over the centuries.
Having touched upon only a few topics in this review, I would recommend reading Flawless for a more holistic look (no pun intended) at all the complexities and intersectionality present in Korean culture and the beauty industry in general. Questions like: “Where do Korean beauty standards come from?”, “How are women who are deemed ‘unattractive’ by society treated?”, and “How has the beauty industry marketed toward men?” are all answered in the book. By pulling in elements of history, media, and business, Hu explains how these factors fuel a vicious cycle of appearance standards that directly impacts people’s livelihoods. When it comes to self-care, there is a blurred line between giving in to self-indulgence and building up self-esteem, and Hu acknowledges that caring about one’s appearance is not a bad thing on its own. The paradox lies in the fact that to defy the system means you are to become an outsider, but to reach a position of power means you adhere to the system’s rules of beauty, continuing to perpetuate an endless loop.