Flawless: Lessons from the Capital of K-Beauty

May 17, 2023 The Asia Foundation
Flawless: Lessons from the Capital of K-Beauty
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Flawless: Lessons from the Capital of K-Beauty
May 17, 2023
The Asia Foundation

Elise Hu spent four years as NPR’s first bureau chief in Seoul. She joins us to talk about her new book, a deeply reported and deeply reflective account of Korea’s world-challenging beauty industry.

Order a copy of her book Flawless: Lessons in Looks and Culture from the K-Beauty Capital. 

Show Notes Transcript

Elise Hu spent four years as NPR’s first bureau chief in Seoul. She joins us to talk about her new book, a deeply reported and deeply reflective account of Korea’s world-challenging beauty industry.

Order a copy of her book Flawless: Lessons in Looks and Culture from the K-Beauty Capital. 

Elise Hu (00:03):

It was so cute. It was so adorable. But I am still stunned that when I called my facial place and said, "Hey, can I bring my newborn in?" They were like, "Oh yeah, sure."

Tracie Yang (00:15):

Women in beauty in Korea where makeup is [foreign language 00:00:18]. No one is too young for a facial. And the stylish Gangnam District has a plastic surgery street. Today on, In Asia from the Asia Foundation, I'm Tracie Yang.

John Rieger (00:28):

And I'm John Rieger. Our guest today is Elise Hu, author of the new book, Flawless: Lessons in Looks and Culture from the K-Beauty Capital, inspired by her four years as NPRs bureau chief in Seoul. It's a deeply reported and deeply reflective account of the sometimes amazing and sometimes disturbing Korean beauty industry. Elise, welcome to, In Asia.

Elise Hu (00:51):

Thank you for having me. What a delight.

Tracie Yang (00:52):

So Elise, reading this book reminds me of what my Taiwanese mother would say to me growing up, which is, "There are no ugly people, only lazy people." And I don't have time to unpack all that problematic statement, but there's no doubt from your book that being a beautiful woman in South Korea is hard work. So what is a normal beauty regimen for South Korean women?

Elise Hu (01:20):

Gosh, what I heard in your question there just undergird such a big idea that comes out through the reporting and by the time I get to the end of the book, which is this notion that beauty, our external our physical beauty, is so wrapped up in morality and to be good. And so that if you have good looks, then somehow you're a good person. And that if you have bad looks, that you're a bad person. And that if you work hard to look good, then you're hardworking. But if you don't put in the work, then somehow you're lazy and incompetent.

Tracie Yang (01:52):

You just highlighted the argument I had with my mother over your book yesterday.

Elise Hu (01:57):

Wow. But to get to the question about the routines, in Korea, there is such an embedded idea, normalized idea of really caring for your skin that I was not familiar with growing up in St. Louis and then Texas in the US. The multi-step skincare routines, the night creams, the morning sunscreen and preventative that you do, the face slapping that a lot of Korean moms teach their daughters in terms of how to pat their serums and moisturizers into their skin. It's also going to the jjimjilbangs, right? The spas, the saunas, and going regularly to get your dead skin sloughed off and to spend time in the cold water and then the hot water tubs, and then also the saunas themselves that are dry. It's also going to get a facial regularly, sometimes, many times a week. It's going to get maybe injectables like neurotoxins, like Botox or all the newfangled injectables that are available several times a year. So you would go back two to every two to three months, whether it's plucking, tweezing, waxing, dying, lasers, it's a lot of trips to more med spas and all of that is work.

John Rieger (03:11):

You write that consumer beauty matters more in Korea than in any other place on earth. What is the paradigm of beauty for Korean women and what's at stake?

Elise Hu (03:22):

Professional success, personal connections, whether you can find a partner. It's all baked into a larger beauty culture. And when I say beauty culture, I'm describing a system that's a cousin of diet culture, a system in which chasing or achieving the reigning standard of physical beauty is then tied to someone's morality and their levers of success in the professional and personal sphere. It means that you're really walking a tightrope when it comes to your looks because you're so heavily judged on them, but also improving your looks. So the aesthetic market, not just skincare, but also the various biomedical advances to improve your appearance that has now wrapped up and tangled into the selling of the nation. So when you're exporting K-pop, K-culture, K-film, K-drama, you're also serving as this running advertisement for images of beautiful Koreans and the tools and therapies and treatments to get more beautiful.

Tracie Yang (04:29):

You describe an almost feverish entrepreneurialism in the K beauty industry. Give us some examples of that.

Elise Hu (04:37):

Yeah, so we're familiar with fast fashion, H&M and Zara, and the way that you can go from a design to a finished article of clothing in the store within six weeks to two months. K-beauty works in that way in which there can be a concept for a new product, and then it can wind up on shelves within a span of a couple months or less, maybe six to eight weeks even. This allows for a market that's constantly innovating at a rate that's faster than what European and American beauty industry folks can do and serve. I just can't emphasize how much churn this means and how much consumption it means, and it's sold to us as a matter of empowerment.

John Rieger (05:28):

How big is this industry and what has the South Korean government's role been in developing the K-beauty industry?

Elise Hu (05:37):

Yeah. Well, gosh, in less than a decade, South Korean cosmetic exports went from 1.6 billion in 2014, so that was the year I was posted to Seoul to 8 billion by last year. Wow. Korea now exports more in cosmetics than smartphones, so it's skincare and cosmetic export volume has exceeded smartphone export volume, and then is the third-largest cosmetic exporter in the world behind only the US and France. And that's significant considering Korea is small enough to fit in the space between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

John Rieger (06:18):

How has the Korean government participated in this triumph?

Elise Hu (06:22):

It is part and parcel to Korea's soft power flex of the Hallyu wave. When we say Hallyu, that's the Korean cultural wave of K-pop movies, animation, fashion, food. As Korea was emerging from the late 1990s IMF crisis, in which the IMF had to bail out the country to the tune of what, like 55 billion and the country had to pay it back, South Korea decided to really double down and invest in exporting visual imagery and just image in general. Coolness. There was a government report during the Kim Dae-jung administration that indicated if South Korea was able to make a blockbuster film on the scale of Jurassic Park, it would equal, if not exceed the manufacturing of 1 million Korean made cars in terms of revenue back to the country.

John Rieger (07:15):

Oh my gosh.

Elise Hu (07:16):

Yeah. And so there was a serious investment, not just in the government sector, but also a lot of private industry saying like, "Hey, we're going to invest in film, we're going to invest in television, we're going to invest in K-Pop and be really directed and intentional about it, but also produce culture as if it's a product." And that was something that the K-pop agencies, the big three agencies focused on in the late 1990s. And so, Hallyu, you is such an important component to this story because it's tied to K-beauty. It serves as an advertisement for Korean beauty ideals, but also the ways to get there, Korean medical and aesthetic advantages and innovations to try and improve your appearance.

Tracie Yang (08:00):

You described the personal beauty imperative in Korea as a mix of the ideology of self-improvement and a sense of responsibility to the community. How do those things fit together?

Elise Hu (08:13):

Yeah, because Hallyu is part and parcel to the selling of a nation that went from dirt poor to one of the top 10 economies in the world in probably the fastest time in geopolitical history, history, right? South Korea is the fastest country to go from a UN aid receiving, to a UN aid granting nation. And as a result, I think there's a real pride in that and a patriotism. And when aesthetic or visual culture is wrapped into it, then there's almost kind of a responsibility or the logic of improving your appearance gets tied into the logic of being a good citizen. And so within the country, there's also that sense... There was a period where you could get tax subsidies if you got cosmetic surgery.

John Rieger (09:03):

Holy cow.

Elise Hu (09:04):

So yeah. So we really sort of normalize this idea that looking good is a matter of being a good citizen of your state, but also putting on a good face for the rest of the world. The face is the front of shop.

John Rieger (09:19):

In your book, you go a little deeper into that to discuss how this sense of communal responsibility ties into a kind of hyper capitalist ethos of competitive.

Elise Hu (09:29):

Yeah. We all kind of have become products essentially where we're competing against one another and then having to consume in order to stay competitive. Women's bodies get fragmented and broken down into parts that can each be a little bit better. When you go to cosmetic surgery places, they will diagnose and problematize the ratios of your face. The matchmaking agencies use specs, height, weight, hairlessness, bra size, and we all become under neoliberalism, this self-starting entrepreneur and my body is a worker.

Tracie Yang (10:06):

It's a product.

Elise Hu (10:07):


Tracie Yang (10:07):

Well, can you tell us a bit more about plastic surgery street?

Elise Hu (10:11):

Oh, yes. The improvement quarter. I'm happy to talk about it. Korea is the plastic surgery capital of the world. There are more cosmetic surgeons in South Korea per capita than any other place on the planet. No other country comes close. There's 150% more plastic surgeons per capita than Brazil, which is the runner up and four times more than the United States, which you would think had a lot of plastic surgeons. And as a result of a regulatory climate that really favored and made it more lucrative for doctors to specialize in surgery and also specialize in diagnostic technology, cosmetic surgery grew out of that because it has both.


You have to sort of diagnose a problem, like something to solve right, and something to operate on. And it has surgical specialization. And so you have one of the most sophisticated and developed cosmetic surgery markets in the world and surgeons of excellent skill. US surgeons will go to South Korea to watch them at work and pay to observe because they are considered the best. But there were too many surgeons at one point. There were too many doctors, not enough patients. So around 2007, the Korea tourism organization stepped in and decided to try and sell surgery. A surgery tourism like it's called medical tourism, and lure in foreigners to the country to get nips and tucks.

John Rieger (11:45):

You describe South Korea as the most mature plastic surgery market in the world, and some of their procedures are remarkable. I was astonished to read in your book about a procedure called, jaw shaving.

Elise Hu (12:00):

Yes. The V line surgery. Yes. The V line surgery is one of those cosmetic procedures that really comes out of Asia rather than out of the west. Cosmetic surgery emerged as an American practice largely to fix disfigurements from war. But as South Korea's market matured, it sort of innovated beyond what was happening in the US and Europe. And one notable way that it's innovated beyond it is with this jaw shaving. So it is a breaking of the bones of your jaw and then sort of restructuring them so that you have a more feminine jawline. This is something that in the early aughts, when South Korea began performing jawline surgery or what's known as V line surgery, American doctors wouldn't do it unless you had gotten into a catastrophic car accident or something.


But in South Korea, it became popularized as a cosmetic procedure to have a thinner looking face. And it was one of those cases where supply drove demand, where doctors came up with it as something that was a more ideal or cute or pretty looking appearance. And then they offered free surgeries to influencers, to celebrities, who then had skinnier faces, which then created a mold for a regular folks to want to imitate. And then this perpetuated itself, and the V line jaw became a beauty standard by the mid-tens, when I moved to Korea.

Tracie Yang (13:30):

I recently was on a Korean Air flight, and I ashamedly could not, after a while, even after four hours of flying with them, could not distinguish one flight attended from the other, just because the uniformity was so-

Elise Hu (13:46):


Tracie Yang (13:47):

I just couldn't-

Elise Hu (13:48):

And crucially, that wasn't a racist comment. I just want to separate that from the fact that we, Asians are often... Probably the listeners can't tell that I am Asian and that Tracie is too, but we Asians often face this, the microaggression of being confused for one another. But what you're describing of the uniformity of Korean Air is next level in that the reason why they look so uniform is because they are hired to be uniform, and the specific aesthetic standards are so meticulously detailed from head to toe.

John Rieger (14:22):

I was surprised to read in your book that employers in all different sectors of the Korean economy are free to specify standards of beauty and appearance that would be considered outrageously intrusive in the United States today.

Elise Hu (14:37):

Yes, and actually, there was finally enough backlash about this after the escape the corset movement. So this feminist consciousness raising general aesthetic labor strike that happened in 2018 when I was there. After that so by 2019, there was some reform to the labor law. This didn't make it into the pages of the book in which employers could no longer ask that you attach a headshot to your resume because previously you had to attach headshots to your resumes. It was sort of just the norm. So even if it wasn't specified, you were expected to. And now employers are not allowed to explicitly ask, which isn't to say it's not happening at all. And it isn't to say that employers aren't getting in trouble and dinged because they're continuing this practice. And it's all to show the way that beauty culture, the idea that beauty equals morality and that your fate, your professional and personal fate can be tied into it, is prevalent. And it continues to work even around regulation.

Tracie Yang (15:39):

The standard-bearers of K-beauty most familiar to the world are probably K-pop stars.

Elise Hu (15:47):

And they are.

Tracie Yang (15:47):

They are.

Elise Hu (15:49):

They are the standard-bearers.

Tracie Yang (15:51):

What can we learn from their lives?

Elise Hu (15:54):

We know so little about their personal lives. I detail a few that have died by suicide actually, because online backlash, the cyber bullying in Korea is so extreme, probably because it was one of the world's first fully wired nations. The doxing there, the way that online mobs can come after you. There's famously the K-pop starlet, Sulli of f(x) fame where she tried to go in public without wearing a bra and just live in her own skin and call some of her male colleagues without the proper Korean honorific. And she just took a torrent of vicious abuse by online mobs as a result of her just trying to move out about the world, making her own choices. And she eventually died by suicide. And it was really quite tragic. Some folks called this a social homicide, like a social media homicide.

Tracie Yang (16:57):

So second wave feminists pointedly criticized the relationship between women striving for beauty and the so-called male gaze. You write about an even more powerful force, the technological gaze. Can you talk more about that?

Elise Hu (17:13):

Sure. So where the male gaze was, how women were expected to perform for the perspective of men, the technological gaze is fed by the male gaze. It's algorithms and a lot of programmers who are men. But the technological gaze is how all of us are increasingly performing or expected to perform for a machine driven perspective. It's something that we feed with our images. And an example of this is filters, beauty filters that we see on Snapchat or TikTok or Instagram. Filters are often offered and designed and originated by tech companies, but they're also informed by what we seem to use and what we seem to like and what our eyes linger on. And they are informed by the beauty standards we all sort of tacitly agree to. So there is a huge TikTok filter right now called Bold Glamour, which we believe is an AI generated filter. And it instantly makes you look like a cross between a Kardashian and a Hadid sister. And it plumps your lips, narrows and slims down your jawline. It arches your eyebrows, it gives you a bunch of eye makeup.

Tracie Yang (18:32):

I have tried this filter.

Elise Hu (18:34):

And these filters, what they do is they really bake in what assumptions about what we think is beautiful or what the reigning beauty standards are at the time. And so we learn from the filters how we're supposed to look, how we're supposed to perform, and we're continuing to feed the algorithms when we perform in that way. And so it's a feedback loop the way the technological gaze works and it's self-policing, it's narcissistic, it's largely internalized. And the other dimension of a technological gaze is that once we start seeing ourselves in a certain way, we can also see problems and then a different form of technology, self-improvement technology. So that's what the cosmetic surgery places offer and the derm spas offer, the med spas offer. And that's fixes technological innovation to reach into your skin and your bone and your tissue and your muscle to match what the screens are teaching you to look like.

John Rieger (19:40):

An important part of the story you tell in Flawless, is that some Korean women are opting out.

Elise Hu (19:47):

They sure are.

John Rieger (19:48):

How are they doing that? And at what cost?

Elise Hu (19:50):

Yes, they are doing so at great cost. Some of the most inspiring women, and I would argue some of the most inspiring feminists in the world today are those in South Korea, a country in which the gender wage gap, the women's labor participation rate, the percentage of women in leadership positions are the worst among countries in the developed world. And yet, in 2018, we saw the largest women's rights rallies in Korean history. Tens of thousands of Korean women took to the streets to protest their sort of second class citizenship in the country and all the discrimination that they face sexually, but also in under lookism, appearance based discrimination. And online, there was a movement called, Escape The Corset in which women would take images of their crushed compacts, strewn in the trash. They would cut their hair or wipe off their faces in elaborate videos so that they could show and give evidence that they were discarding this so-called corset of how they were supposed to look and how society expected them to behave.


Because this was a show of bodily autonomy. And in trying to liberate themselves, they also took part in, what I would call a general strike against aesthetic labor. They basically just said, "Nope, we're not going to do it anymore." And they did it at an extreme. A lot of them wear no makeup at all and have continued to keep their hair very short to symbolize that they are protesting. And it is a really brave position to take because they are constantly bullied on the streets, in their offices. They have lost out on jobs. They are uninvited to family gatherings. In some cases, they are the victims of violence, just street violence.

John Rieger (21:44):

That's incredible.

Tracie Yang (21:45):


Elise Hu (21:45):

And yet, this is still a stand that women really believe in because they want to exist differently. This is for a fight for liberation and bodily autonomy, and I think it's really inspiring.

Tracie Yang (21:56):

Yeah. Out of curiosity, did you have any work done in Korea and what was your experience like?

John Rieger (22:02):

And did you like it?

Tracie Yang (22:03):

And did you like it? Yeah, that's a good question.

Elise Hu (22:04):

Yeah. Well, it's detailed in what chapter eight or chapter nine, the work that I did do. It was largely for reporting purposes. I tried a few different injectables that are now available. I tried regular Botox just because I hadn't tried it before. I tried skin Botox, which is micro injections of Botox, but not into the muscle, into the skin layer.

John Rieger (22:27):

I heard that hurts like hell.

Elise Hu (22:28):

And it's supposed to tighten your pores.

Tracie Yang (22:30):


Elise Hu (22:30):

And it does hurt very badly. I looked embossed by the time I got done with that process.

Tracie Yang (22:39):

You also took your four-month-old daughter for a facial. What was that like?

Elise Hu (22:46):

Oh, man, it was so cute. It was so adorable. But I am still stunned that when I called my facial place and said, "Hey, can I bring my newborn in?" They were like, "Oh, yeah, sure."

Tracie Yang (22:59):

No hesitation.

John Rieger (23:00):

There's nobody who doesn't need a facial.

Tracie Yang (23:04):

What are you hoping readers come away with after finishing your book?

Elise Hu (23:09):

I hope that we start naming and labeling localism. I want us to be able to occupy space and occupy our bodies with a lot more respect for ourselves and be kinder on ourselves. And I think there's some ways by the end of Flawless, where I offer where we can think about that. Think about body neutrality instead of good bodies or bad bodies, but just bodies. And then cultivating and appreciation for our bodies from the inside out with a school of thought called, sensualism. A way to think about our bodies and appreciate them, not for what they look like, but what they can do and what they feel. And I think that's a really lovely thing.

John Rieger (23:50):

Elise Hu, thank you so much for being with us today.

Elise Hu (23:52):

Thank you both.

John Rieger (23:54):

Elise Hu's, Flawless: Lessons in Looks and Culture from the K-Beauty Capital is available now for pre-order wherever books are sold.

Tracie Yang (24:01):

If you'd like to hear more, please join the Asia Foundation on Thursday, June 1st from 6:00 to 8:00 PM at DPR Construction in San Francisco, as we host Elise and our own senior director for women's empowerment, Jane Sloan. For a conversation moderated by KQEDs Mina Kim. Find out more at

John Rieger (24:20):

That's all from us. We'll see you next time. Until then, I'm John Rieger.

Tracie Yang (24:24):

And I'm Tracie Young.

John Rieger (24:25):

Thanks for listening.