What Our Obsession With K-Beauty Reveals About All of Us

Emily Cummings

You’ve seen the look popularized by K-pop stars – smooth, blemish-free “glass skin,” luscious hair, and the sveltest of bodies. As South Korean pop culture – namely, K-pop and K-dramas – travels around the world, its stars are selling the world on another cultural product: Korean beauty standards.

In Korea, K-beauty is more than just a multistep skin-care regime starting with a double cleanse. It’s also one of the pillars of Korean culture the government has invested in as part of its soft-power experiment. South Korea is one of the plastic surgery capitals of the world, where double-eyelid surgery is so common it’s a popular graduation gift.

Related: How K-Pop Helped These Fans Forge Lasting Friendships

When I was in Korea last year, a trip to a skin clinic was on the to-do list of every Korean American I met. Nonsurgical procedures like Botox or lasers to treat hyperpigmentation (think sun damage or acne scars) are a fraction of the price they are stateside. So are injections that aren’t even available here, like Rejuran (derived from salmon DNA), that claim to reverse aging.

As fans of Korean culture travel to Korea, they’re also seeking out aesthetic procedures. But the choices and messaging can be overwhelming. Former NPR Seoul Bureau Chief Elise Hu, host of “TED Talks Daily,” explores the Korean quest for aesthetic perfection in her new book “Flawless: Lessons in Looks and Culture From the K-Beauty Capital,” which was released on May 23. Interwoven with her own experience as a Chinese American adjusting to life in Seoul, she’s written a book that explores Korean beauty in the political, historical, and financial context that’s turned the industry into a global power player.

POPSUGAR: What made you dive so deeply into Korean beauty? You could have written on this topic without delving into the history or the politics associated with it, so why did you explore it the way you did?

Elise Hu: I wrote it because I really wanted to read something like it, and it didn’t exist yet. I remember feeling like my appearance wasn’t good enough – in the comments I received when I lived in Seoul and the barrage of images showing me the ideal Asian beauty all around me. While that nagged at me personally, it wasn’t until I spent more time in Korea that I saw the ways beauty is inextricably linked with politics, the economy, society, and issues of global justice. I craved work that tied together the rise of Korea’s visual and virtual tech, its pop culture exports around the globe, the growth of its cosmetics industry, and what all those big, transnational forces mean for the way we are expected to show up in our physical bodies.

PS: What is the Korean beauty ideal? How do they get it?

EH: Advertising, entertainment, social media, and increasingly virtual worlds in gaming promote the general beauty pillars you see in a female K-pop idol: porcelain complexion; long, shiny hair; lots of makeup and formfitting dresses or short skirts. The emphasis on big, round eyes and a V-shaped, feminine jawline has fueled a boom in cosmetic procedures.

PS: A K-pop scholar noted that things have gone from racist in one way to the other extreme, where now the assumption is that all Koreans are good-looking and thin, like celebrities. So many tourists go to Korea now because of K-culture; would they be in for a shock?

“[T]hat pressure falls much more heavily on women.”

EH: There’s also a whole trend and tourism industry around women who go to Korea to look for the K-drama archetype of a sweet, gentle Korean man. Korean men do groom more than the average man in, say, the US, but there is just as much diversity of shapes and shades and sizes in Korea. That diversity just doesn’t get exported in all the promotion and marketing of Hallyu (the Korean cultural wave). The pressure to look a certain way perhaps makes it seem as if most cosmopolitan Koreans look “good” or more presentable than what you’d see on the streets of Los Angeles.

But that pressure falls much more heavily on women. School uniforms are supposed to be worn so fitted that young girls have complained about not being able to move comfortably at school. Headshots are often required on résumés. You’re openly judged for ducking down to the convenience store appearing unkempt. Journalist Hawon Jung noted in her book on the rise of Korea’s feminist movement that at one company, women employees had a list of 20 appearance requirements to live up to, from head to toe, where men were told only to wear matching suits.

PS: Ever since I was in Korea last year, my social media algorithms constantly serve up K-beauty or hair procedures. The hairline tattoos and powders, the styling of baby hair. My takeaway is that there’s no pore Koreans won’t touch for improvement. It seems exhausting. Do you think it’s that way for people who live there?

EH: For women in the 20s and 30s, yes. I had a sense even as an Asian American in Seoul that my body wasn’t good enough as it was, and that I was less welcome in society because it didn’t fit. I was too big for “free size” (one size fits all) clothes (a US size two), and I have freckles, which meant people would comment, “Why don’t you get rid of those when there are so many treatments to remove them?” So there’s a logic of supply of aesthetic fixes feeding demand – if you can fix that so-called problem, why wouldn’t you?

“The pain and the pleasure take place on the same canvas – our bodies.”

PS: Your book is about Korean beauty and all that goes into it, but it’s not just about Korea. Why should everyone be watching this space?

EH: Korea is uniquely fertile territory for appearance-based industries to thrive because there’s an emphasis on societal harmony, a futuristic society that’s increasingly virtual and visual, and the hypercapitalist ideas of “making it” by getting rich. Those all lead to situating our looks as a matter of personal choice and our bodies as malleable. But the forces I’ve just listed are not limited to Korea. They’re just more pronounced there.

We often reinforce these industrialized beauty ideals with our passive participation. I know I certainly have. Reflecting on it was helpful and liberating.

Beauty is full of paradoxes. What feels luxurious and connective can easily slip into exhausting and regimented. The pain and the pleasure take place on the same canvas – our bodies. I think it’s useful to first take a beat and reflect on the ways that we almost automatically give power to the notion that our worthiness boils down to our looks, and from there break that link and be kinder to ourselves. We’re not just a collection of body parts to be seen, and we can try to cultivate an inner appreciation for what our bodies can do and feel. That’s a key change I’m trying to make in my own life.

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