Beauty culture in South Korea reveals a grim future in 'Flawless'
BRITTANY LUSE, HOST:
Elise, I could say welcome to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE, but it makes more sense to say welcome back to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE because you've hosted the show before so many times.
ELISE HU, BYLINE: I'm glad to be back. It has been a minute, though.
LUSE: I know. You're joining us today as a guest.
HU: It's so weird.
LUSE: Is it really that weird?
LUSE: Hey there. You're listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. I'm Brittany Luse. And if you've been with IBAM for a while, you probably recognize that voice. It's Elise Hu, one of the absolutely stellar guest hosts on IT'S BEEN A MINUTE. But what you might not know about her is that she set up NPR's Japan-Korea bureau in Seoul, South Korea, where she was an international correspondent.
HU: A pretty busy time for geopolitics and a lot of missile provocations from North Korea. And then Trump got elected in 2016. And then there was all this, my nuclear button is bigger than your nuclear button, talk with Kim Jong un.
LUSE: And while that definitely took a lot of her focus, there was something else that really stuck with her. Beauty was everywhere. And I'm not talking about nature or even anything natural.
HU: I saw so many before-and-after signs and so many advertisements of what to look like and skin care places and face shops across from face shops and across from face shops.
LUSE: A few years later, she found she was still thinking about Korea's vision of beauty. So she wrote a book. It came out this week - "Flawless: Lessons In Looks And Culture From The K-beauty Capital." It's a deeply researched peek into how the Korean beauty market has become something of a global superpower. This book is mind-blowing, to say the least. But many of its revelations hit a little closer to home than Americans might realize. Coming up, Elise peels back the dewy layer of K-beauty and reveals the algorithms lurking right under the surface.
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LUSE: So you ended up turning your attention in this book to the beauty standards that exist in Korea and how these standards have kind of created a lens through which K-beauty has taken over the beauty industry.
LUSE: And it's interesting. As I was reading the book, I noticed for the first time just how many Korean beauty products I use in everyday life.
HU: Exactly. And it's a cultural story, too, because Korea very deliberately, since the late '90s, early aughts, has sought this soft power strategy that I detail in the book - the spread of Hallyu, which is the Korean cultural wave. It includes K-pop, movies, animation, food, fashion, gaming. And as a result, all of this visual culture that's spreading around the world and is such a cultural force acts as a running advertisement for images of beautiful Koreans and beauty standards and the tools to get us there and to get to those places. And so what's crazy that's happened in terms of cultural exports is that the export of Korean cosmetics has now surpassed the export of Korean home appliances and smartphones.
LUSE: So to go deeper on the beauty point, I mean, throughout the book, you consistently return to what you refer to as the global definition of beauty, which has four tenets...
LUSE: ...Thinness, firmness, smoothness and youth. How do these principles inform or manifest in South Korean beauty standards?
HU: You can see the smoothness part, especially with regard to skin - glass skin, dewy skin. A lot of those ideas that we are now more used to was really coming out of Korea in the early 2010s. The notion that you have any blemishes or - for me, I have freckles, and that was constantly commented on.
LUSE: Seemed like an issue for other people when you were living in South Korea.
HU: And it was mystifying that I wouldn't fix it. And so that is a big theme that comes up.
LUSE: As if it were something to be fixed.
HU: This is something to be fixed, and there are the options and the tools and the doctors or the dermatologists available to fix it. So why wouldn't you fix that? And so when I talk about Korea being this epicenter for global beauty, it's not just about industry. It's about the conflation of beauty with worth.
LUSE: Just for a point of clarity for...
LUSE: ...Our listeners...
LUSE: You know, most of our listeners are American and likely can think of the features that make up the idealized version of American beauty standards for women - someone who is slightly tanned but white and thin with small, "fine," quote-unquote, facial features but also big, blue eyes and...
LUSE: Long, bouncy blonde hair that's straight - you know, perhaps somebody who, like, resembles Margot Robbie, for example...
HU: Right. Yes.
LUSE: ...Or something like that.
HU: Or Angelina Jolie...
HU: ...Is held up as a Western beauty.
LUSE: Right, right, right, right, right. What are the features that make up the South Korean beauty ideal for women?
HU: I think if you've ever watched a K-drama - and apparently, 60% of all Netflix subscribers in the world have watched a K-drama - you've probably seen...
LUSE: Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.
HU: ...An ideal Korean woman - wearing some makeup but not too much makeup, having a hairless body and then possessing this je ne sais quoi, an aegyo, a cuteness. But the face - there's a scientific glaze and a technological glaze that's applied to the face and other parts of the body where there are certain ratios that they want you to meet, right? They are called specs, the metrics by which humans are supposed to measure up, like we talk about gadgets...
HU: ...Or computers.
LUSE: Think about, like, computers, your phone, tech specs...
LUSE: ...But, like, person specs.
HU: Yes. And for a woman, it would be weighing under 50kg - so 110 pounds...
HU: ...Having at least a C cup bra...
LUSE: Wait - having at least a C cup bra.
LUSE: That's interesting.
HU: Cosmetic surgeons will say the ideal beauty - the chin part of the face is slightly smaller, and so that helped popularize the jawline or V-line surgery that would shave down the jaws to make more of a heart-shaped jawline. There's all these ratios that are applied in the same way that we apply to, you know, non-human things, which is what I write about is worrying.
LUSE: It's kind of like applying these design principles to something that in essence has already been 3D printed by humans onto your face.
HU: Exactly. It happens with all these body parts, too. You know, there's all these lines...
LUSE: Right, right.
HU: ...That are drawn on advertisements. There's the S line, which is what your body should look like in a profile. There's an X line, which is what your body is supposed to look like photographed from the front because your waist is supposed to be so snatched that it's like an X...
HU: ...Meeting at the waist.
LUSE: You lay it out in the book. Of course, the desire to look, you know, quote-unquote, "perfect" doesn't end at the face. Even the body is up for debate. And, you know, we know that here in the United States, breasts are paramount with the body, with the butt now becoming a close runner-up - couldn't...
LUSE: ...Leave that out. But I was really intrigued by how different that is in South Korea.
HU: Oh, yeah. South Korea really weaponized the legs. If you go to K-pop and you watch any K-Pop girl group, you can see that. They're always in those really short skirts and really short shorts as a way to sort of signify power and cultural power. This is something that was deliberate. When K-pop girl groups are exported, the legs are a big part of that image. And so there have been some kind of funny ends to it as a result. Like, the Thai government had to issue a warning to young girls, saying that they needed to stop wearing K-pop-style shorts in Thailand because there was dengue fever breaking out as a result of too much leg exposure. And...
LUSE: Now, I don't know if that's why...
HU: They put that out. They put - they issued a warning. But there's also a magic ratio for legs just as there's a magic ratio - these are all made up, of course; they're arbitrary - but a magic ratio for faces.
LUSE: Right, right.
HU: And I think the leg ratio is something like five to three to two, which is the measurement around the biggest part of your thigh to the measurement around the biggest part of your calf to the measurement around your ankles. So that ratio should be five to three to two, and those are the ideal legs. And so in South Korea, you'll find that one of the most popular places for Botox, besides the face, is actually the calf in order to slim down the appearance of the calf, to actually atrophy that muscle so that your legs look longer.
LUSE: That blew my mind. Coming from, you know my American...
LUSE: ...Positioning - right? - I'm used to this sort of thinking being applied to, like, how a celebrity might think about their physical appearance, you know?
LUSE: So throughout the book, we come to realize that there's actual real-life consequences to not adhering to these beauty standards. How does the investment in looks affect women on the job, marriage and social markets in South Korea?
HU: Korean women accurately perceive that failing to be thin or failing to be beautiful by the various standards of the moment will literally cost them. Korea is still a place where you're encouraged to attach a headshot to a resume, where passport photos come Photoshopped by default. Because South Korea is already - even though it is one of the world's 10th largest economies and super-futuristic in a lot of ways, the gender wage gap, the women's labor participation rates and the number of women in leadership positions are the worst among developed nations. The percentage of women lawmakers in South Korea is around the same percentage of women lawmakers in North Korea.
And so Korean women, in order to get a leg up, in order to get into the door, not only have to measure up when it comes to education, when it comes to experience, when it comes to competency and capabilities. They are also competing against a system that already favors men, and so their looks tend to matter even more. So it's economically rational to devote time and energy to looking good because it has clear returns in the labor market.
Technology helps feed into that, not only in setting standards for what we're supposed to look like but also making it possible to change ourselves. It's like, why wouldn't you just fix that? It's affordable, right? So crucially, because of the glutted market, it's a lot more affordable to get Botox. It's a lot more affordable to get an eyelid surgery or get your jawline shaved down. So all the conditions are there to make it rational to drastically modify your body.
But just as I don't think the way to address homophobia is to make everybody straight or the way to address fatphobia is to make everybody skinny, I don't think the way to address a lookist (ph) society where you are discriminated against because of your appearance is for everybody to be so-called pretty, whatever pretty means at the moment. There should be a far more affirmative and liberating vision for how we should be than that because otherwise, you are still leaving people out on the margins. You're still leaving lower classes aspiring to something that gets ever out of reach. And all of us are feeling anxious because we're having to be on this hamster wheel of maintaining a certain appearance standard.
LUSE: Coming up, Elise lays out how technology reinforces lookism in South Korea and how the United States may not be that far behind. Stay tuned.
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LUSE: I could see how it would be easier to just go along with the standards or participate in it, especially when it's made so convenient, it sounds like. There is quite a lot of social pressure to conform to them that shows up very differently than what we're used to here, as you mentioned. In your research, what about South Korean culture makes it so that looks - you know, makeup, hair, body, skin, how you present yourself in those ways - is less of a personal choice and more about a, quote-unquote, "communal good?" And how does that inform the way that people treat each other?
HU: There's a real emphasis on societal harmony that, you know, you could say is a vestige of being a neo-Confucian society that I really liked, right? I loved the way that there was a trust, kind of a collectivism and a trust in one another such that - I saw this in Japan, too, that - as you know, you know, kids as young as 6 can ride home on the subway because there is a trust that the community will look out for the children. At the same time, and the flip side of that, is that kind of everyone else is doing it is a huge energy. And when everyone else is doing it, it makes it harder and harder to opt out of things that might not be aligned with your personal values or might just not feel right for your body, right? And so I think that's a driver of it.
There's also - the hyper-modernity of Korea, I think, really plays a huge role. So South Korea being very forward in developing technology and developing culture is another reason why visuals matter a lot - right? - because our projections, our digital avatars, supersede our physical bodies because that's the way that we are seen and we want to be seen, and you can be seen all the time.
LUSE: That makes so much sense. That makes so much sense. So many people in the West, so many people in the United States - we're used to the idea that our community can pressure us into extreme beauty standards - right? - to a certain extent. But in your research, you found that the South Korean government has also been complicit in reinforcing these pressures. Can you lay out how lookism is mandated systematically in South Korea?
HU: So in about 2007, when there were too many plastic surgeons and not enough patients, the South Korean government decided that it would try and sort of juice its cosmetic surgery industry by encouraging something called medical tourism...
HU: ...And called it a strategic product. Seoul has the most mature plastic surgery market in the world. It has twice as many plastic surgeons per capita than the U.S. And the Korea Tourism Organization decided to spring into action, and it established medical tourism as a focus area for growth. So it helps subsidize brokers who help lure other folks from other countries to come into South Korea for its world-leading plastic surgery and other enhancements. It helps folks kind of navigate the system. It provides translators. There is a medical tourism outpost at the airport when you fly in to Seoul, so your trip to get aesthetic enhancements can be smoother.
LUSE: You know, in South Korea and in the West, grooming is often presented as self-care.
LUSE: Often, self-care rituals are passed down in the home...
LUSE: ...Like, say, from a mother to a daughter. How are we seeing that manifest in South Korea? You had some really interesting reflections on that.
HU: Yeah, well, it's in the same way that diet culture is passed down by our mothers and our grandmothers. You know, beauty culture and diet culture are cousins in that thinness is so equated with beauty.
LUSE: There's also industry, though, around children's beauty, which, to me, is, like, that's an inherent thing. Children are cute. No more to be said on the topic.
HU: Yeah, but markets need to grow.
LUSE: Right. Right.
HU: Capitalism's central conceit is growth, right? And so because the market for cosmetics was already so saturated in South Korea - there were already so many brands and then women were already sort of tapped out on all the possible skin care and other services they could do for themselves - the industry grew in two ways - one, outward, by exporting to other countries, which have been very receptive, but also within, by going to demographics that weren't previously doing as many steps for their skin or engaging in as much body modification or beautification. So that would be younger and younger kids and men.
LUSE: Right. In your book, you write that South Korean men consume 13% of the world's skin care products for men, which is not a small number.
HU: There are spas for kids as young as 4 or 5 years old, and those spas actually do nails and - but with safer products.
HU: And so you are getting into the rituals of pampering, so long as you can afford it, at ever-younger ages.
LUSE: Right. You ended up taking your daughter to one when she's 8 weeks old.
HU: To a baby facial.
LUSE: I mean, yeah, 8 weeks old for a baby facial in the book. Talk to me about that.
HU: It's crazy that they didn't object, right?
LUSE: Right. Right, right, right.
HU: The most strange part about getting a 2-month-old a facial wasn't the facial itself, because I believe that they used a pretty gentle product...
LUSE: Right, right.
HU: ...And the baby did not protest, and all of that was fine. It was that I called and I said, could I bring in my 2-month-old for a facial? And they're like, yeah, sure. We have young kids all the time.
LUSE: Right. And it's so funny 'cause, like - I mean, it's, like, not funny ha-ha. But, I mean, you know, interestingly enough, after I read that section, I started poking around. And I was just, like, Googling children's spas. There's plenty of children's spas in the tri-state area. I don't know about the rest of the United States, but children's spas - they're not not a thing in the U.S.
HU: They're not not a thing. Yeah.
LUSE: After hearing about this book, some listeners may come away like, oh, phew, so glad that's not us. I'm so glad that's not how we live in the United States. But we know that's not true. And also, by the end of the book, you warn us of a future that may be similar. But, you know, I also couldn't help but think that depending on who you are in the United States, some elements of lookism and of cultural pressures to adhere to rigid beauty standards might already feel very familiar.
HU: Yes, there's that quote, right? The future has already arrived, it's just not evenly distributed. South Korea gave me a glimpse of the future in that it prioritizes a machine-driven gaze. So if the male gaze is how we're supposed to perform for men, the gaze that I write about and I think we should all be thinking about is the technological gaze, which is a internalized, computer-driven, machine-driven, algorithmically determined gaze that tells us how we're supposed to look that we feed by feeding our images into it. And then it sort of improves upon that and then feeds us more images of how we're supposed to look. The standards then get ever more cyborgian (ph) and, I would argue, alarming. Computers are ranking the way people look...
HU: ...And the results of the way computers rank us are influencing the things we do, the posts we see...
HU: ...The way we think about ourselves.
LUSE: Right. It makes me think of the Jia Tolentino essay about Instagram face.
HU: Yeah. And now it's Meta face...
HU: ...Which is the augmented reality face...
HU: ...Right? The plastic surgery clinics, the people who make filters, the technologists - right? - keep trying to apply math to quantify beauty - right? - to try and pin it down. We saw it in South Korea with all these ratios that I'm talking about. But those standards are so often solutions in search of problems. And the narrower our view of pretty gets, then the wider our view of unacceptable or ugly becomes. And so we really have to widen our perspectives to see beauty as a far more sort of virtuous or spiritual or non-aesthetic concept, but also for visual types of beauty, we need to look for it in different and more surprising ways.
LUSE: Elise, Elise, I am so grateful that you came to talk to us about this today. This form of beauty culture, I think, is kind of coming for us all in the end. So thanks for laying that out in the book, and thank you so much for coming on the show.
HU: Thank you, Brittany. It's great to be back.
LUSE: That was Elise Hu, author of "Flawless: Lessons In Looks And Culture From The K-Beauty Capital."
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