A walk down any shopping street in South Korea reveals countless images of glamorous celebrity women, endorsing skincare products from the windows of stores such as Olive Young and Innisfree. Seoul’s affluent Gangnam neighborhood is crowded with buildings filled with competing plastic surgeons, and decorated with commercials with before/after photos showing the starkly unadorned next to the newly beautified. Job applicants may find themselves asked to include a headshot with a resume and cover letter. In casual conversation, it won’t be long before appearance comes up, along with myriad techniques and products that can improve it.
This is the world that journalist Elise Hu stepped into when she moved to Seoul in 2015 to work as the chief of NPR’s then-new Seoul bureau. It’s a world of painstaking multi-step skincare routines (with optional extra steps), and where spending time and effort on appearance is—among many other things—a sign of courtesy to others. It’s also becoming increasingly global, as women and girls outside Korea (along with men, who are also targeted by the K-beauty industry) seek to emulate their favorite hallyu idols.
Flawless is a mixture of personal memoir, reportage, sociology and musings on the changing nature of beauty and image work. The book opens with an autobiographical account of Hu moving to Seoul and her observations of Korean culture as it pertains to beauty and what she calls “appearance work”: carefully working on your personal appearance through everything from diet to plastic surgery. Then, she tackles Korean cosmetics: with their emphasis on appearing natural and on harmony, modern cosmetics use local products such as Jeju green tea to emphasize this naturalness and cultural continuity. Korean cosmetics largely revolve, she writes, around “glowing”, poreless skin rather than visible make-up, which has been associated with sex workers. She traces the roots of Korean ideas about beauty back to Korea’s Joseon dynasty, and moves from there to more drastic forms of self-improvement: plastic surgery, not as a solution for injury or a one-off procedure, but a continuous improvement.
In the latter half of the book, Hu discusses the backlash against these strict beauty standards: the current wave of Korean feminism and the “escape the corset” movement, in which women scandalized Korean society by cutting their hair short and shunning make-up. Hu also devotes a chapter to the fact that Korean cosmetics are also aimed at men, but she points out that the soft masculinity of the “flower boy” aesthetic is one of several conceptions of masculinity in Korean culture (alongside the current trend for more muscular idols, which Hu doesn’t discuss) whereas one increasingly demanding standard dominates femininity. She also considers the possibility that K-beauty, though originally anchored to ideas from Korean culture, is increasingly algorithmic in nature, and that in contrast to the plurality of available masculinities, an algorithmically driven society narrows and further de-personalizes feminine beauty ideals.
Finally, Hu offers her own alternative to these increasingly restrictive beauty ideals, one drawn from Korean culture itself. Older Korean women (ajummas) who are freer to dress and look outside these beauty standards, and more crucially, enjoy body care in the context of community-building and self-pampering rather than relentless competition.
One of the book’s most interesting features is its portrayal of K-Beauty as the confluence of several factors. Hu acknowledges:
To claim something is “Confucian” immediately makes me cringe; it’s so overused that it feels like a lazy catchall for stereotypes about East Asian culture.
For readers who have so often encountered the over-used Confucian catch-all, this is a refreshing moment. She acknowledges that Korea’s brand of Neo-Confucianism, with its strict gender roles and emphasis on self-perfectibility, has been a factor in the creation of Korea’s high beauty standards. After briefly considering Confucianism, Hu moves on to more significant and less previously discussed influences on K-Beauty.
Kotaro Mikamo, the Japanese doctor who created the double eyelid surgery now so prominent in Korea did so to hide the “curse” of the Japanese people’s Mongolian heritage. David Ralph Millard, an American surgeon working on reconstructive surgery in the aftermath of the Korean War, developed his version of double eyelid surgery working with Korean sex workers. Despite the colonial and militaristic nature of these historical facts, Hu reports, based on her interviews with countless surgeons and patients, that it seems to be that it is Western commentators who believe that today’s K-beauty is concerned with looking Western or shunning Korean heritage.
Plastic surgeons increasingly use computer algorithms, which analyze aesthetically alluring faces so that they can sell further surgical procedures to their customers. Rather than the well-known idea of the “male gaze”, which is voyeuristic and controlling, the “algorithmic gaze” is becoming increasingly prominent. This is programmed by humans with their inherent biases but now sorting and processing automatically, “feeding and creating demand at the same time”.
Hu explores the idea that, although Korean beauty ideals may seem to be flowing to the West, this is undercut by “neoliberal multiculturalism”. This idea is drawn from the work of Jodi Melamed, who sees this form of multiculturalism as performative and pernicious. It melds forms of culture in a top-down way, but only in the service of global uniformity. Thus, aspects of Korean beauty are slowly being divorced from their original context and assimilated into a global beauty ideal.
The algorithmic gaze and neoliberal multiculturalism are particularly suggestive concepts, but Hu’s book puts far greater emphasis on the voices of those who practice and consume K-Beauty than on concepts and theoretical frameworks. Hu promises, following the Vietnamese filmmaker and theorist Trinh T Minh-ha, to take the approach of “speaking nearby”. This amounts, in Hu’s hands, to a form of “nuanced nearness”. She achieves this admirably, allowing the voices of ajummas, sociologists, feminist activists, and plastic surgeons to come to the fore without being judgemental. Hu acknowledges that she feels the burden of Korean beauty ideals but at times can escape these expectations due to not being Korean.
Hu’s aim is to portray herself not as a detached observer or an aloof commentator but as an observer-participant, just as likely to be seduced by the allure of K-beauty as the next person but also concerned about her young daughters growing up in an increasingly image-conscious world. This authorial voice gives credence to Hu’s implicit belief that we should be grounded in culture and history rather than letting top-down algorithms dominate our lives. However, at times anecdotes about Hu’s own life can feel meandering (for example, the description of her luxurious and high-tech Seoul apartment that appears near the book’s beginning), and can even detract from her points rather than reinforce them.
Flawless begins as a book about K-Beauty, but along the way it takes in Korea’s colonial and war-torn past, the current global wave of Korean popular culture, and the country’s embracing of modern technology. Ultimately, the book shows that Korea’s newly global influence is not limited to tangible cultural products such as films and dramas, but may be beginning to shape how we look.