In grounded and humorous prose, Elise Hu tells the stunning (pun intended) and sinister story of the Korean beauty industry and its rise to global prominence in Flawless.
Hu does an excellent job laying out multiple different factors in K-Beauty’s rise to popularity, pointing to everything from gender roles in South Korea, to the global popularity of Korean culture, also known as Hallyu , to traditional medicinal practices in Korea.
Hu takes us through each chapter, focusing on a different aspect of the K-Beauty industry — which includes but is not limited to packaging shaped like tomatoes, double eyelid surgery, and botox injections in the legs — and explores what distinguishes it from the rest of the world.
Reading Hu’s words dredged up some of the same concern and wonder that I felt when I watched K-pop videos over my friend’s shoulders in our middle school cafeteria. The Korea that I saw on the screen seemed so clean, so crisp, so coordinated. It unsettled me in a way that I couldn’t quite pin down. Maybe it was how the girls dancing on the screen often looked so thin, like they’d break if you bumped into them — nothing like my 5-foot-5-inch, 140-pound frame. Maybe it was the cognitive dissonance between their smiling faces and the teen suicide rates in South Korea. The Korea I saw through the screen didn’t seem anything at all like the society or a culture that I was a part of.
Incidentally, Hu cites the rise of technology for the K-Beauty’s popularity, both in Korea and abroad. The social media age has given rise to depression, anxiety, and the expectation of smooth, effortless beauty. In a world where beauty filters can be instantly applied to touch up a cute selfie, our bodies become similarly malleable. The human body simply becomes a blueprint on a page, or on a screen.
In South Korea, botox, facial reconstruction, and products that aren’t even available in the U.S. are accessible for at affordable prices. All things, which, as Hu puts it, “improve [our] specs.”
The book isn’t all doom and gloom and the overcast of a neoliberal society, however. There is hope and wisdom to be found in the reclamation of one’s body and value.
One of the final chapters of the book is entitled “The Wisdom of Ajummas,” which explores how older Korean women, respectfully and affectionately referred to as ajumma, have come to terms with their aging bodies and beauty routines. Instead of taking care of their bodies in an effort to “fit in,” as so many Korean women do, these ladies take care of their bodies because it makes them feel good.
Hu suggests that this kind of body-neutrality just might be a way to combat the pervasive and draining standards of beauty on both sides of the Pacific.
If you find yourself caught up in Hallyu, as I have in the past few years, you might consider giving this book a read. Not only will it offer a window into the vast selection of K-beauty products, but it will also give you a peek into the sociocultural context that lurks under the surface of those smiling, flawless faces.