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How South Korea became a global beauty powerhouse

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A pedestrian walks past advertisements for plastic surgery clinics at a subway station in Seoul on March 26, 2014. The South Korean capital Seoul is to restrict the use of plastic surgery adverts on public transport, officials said, after complaints that they were fuelling an unhealthy obsession with body image. AFP PHOTO / JUNG YEON-JE        (Photo credit should read JUNG YEON-JE/AFP via Getty Images)
A pedestrian walks past advertisements for plastic surgery clinics at a subway station in Seoul on March 26, 2014. The South Korean capital Seoul is to restrict the use of plastic surgery adverts on public transport, officials said, after complaints that they were fuelling an unhealthy obsession with body image. AFP PHOTO / JUNG YEON-JE (Photo credit should read JUNG YEON-JE/AFP via Getty Images)

10-step skincare routines, products made from snail mucus. Welcome to the South Korean beauty industry.

"The long luxurious hair, it’s the porcelain white skin. It’s big, bright eyes," Elise Hu says. "And then a feminine jawline, which, in Korea, is called the V-line."

South Korean beauty techniques have become so popular, the country is now the world's third largest exporter of cosmetics.

But pursuing beauty ideals have always come at a social, emotional and physical cost. K-beauty is not different.

"The labor, the aesthetic labor that we do on our bodies. That is labor that we don’t just do for free but that we pay to do," Hu adds.

Today, On Point: The K-beauty industry, consumerism and the pursuit of flawlessness.


Elise Hu, correspondent and host-at-large for NPR. Author of the new book “Flawless: Lessons in Looks and Culture from the K-Beauty Capital."

Michelle Cho, assistant professor of East Asian Popular Cultures at the University of Toronto.

Also Featured

Sue Greene and Herra Namhie, co-founders of the L.A.-based online K-beauty store Ohlolly.


Part I

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: Paris, New York, Los Angeles, and now Soul South Korea. Welcome to the new global powerhouse in the beauty industry.

KRISTINA ARANILLA: This essence has snail secretion filtrate, which yes is snail slime, so the snail secretion filtrate is supposed to brighten, hydrate and support skin repair.

That's Kristina Aranilla, one of an army of YouTubers, immersed in the world of K-beauty.

And here's Charlotte Cho walking viewers through her 10-step Korean skincare routine.

CHARLOTTE CHO: After cleansing, I do use a exfoliator to slough off any dead skin cells, and I've been really into the Neogen bio peel. This is the green tea version.

CHAKRABARTI: There are oil cleansers, toner, essences, serums, moisturizers and ampoules.

The list goes on in a video for Harper's Bazaar, K-pop Star Somi demonstrates how she plasterers a bright yellow mask on her face.

SOMI: You can tear it easily. There we go. Look at this. It's yellow, so I'll be looking like a giant yolk, but.

CHAKRABARTI: She also uses a plastic device called a neckline slimmer.

SOMI: So you know this part here, like this double chin you get ... you put this on your chest right here. Hold it. Nicely, gentle, and you nod.

CHAKRABARTI: This is On Point. I'm Meghna Chakrabarti. All of these beauty products help explain how South Korea has become the third largest cosmetics exporter in the world. Inside Korea, the beauty industry isn't just limited to products either. It encompasses standards for weight and for transforming every part of your body with plastic surgery.

So how did the country become such a driving force in the global beauty industry? And what might it mean for worldwide beauty standards and how we even think of the concept of what beautiful is and also what impact is it having on Korean women now? Elise Hu from her work as an NPR correspondent and host-at-large, she also served as NPR's first ever Seoul Bureau chief from 2015 to 2018.

And it's that experience that inspired her new book “Flawless: Lessons in Looks and Culture from the K-Beauty Capital."

Elise, I'm thrilled to welcome you to On Point.

ELISE HU: Hey, Meghna. Thanks for having me.

CHAKRABARTI: First of all, I want to ask you about, again, the experience that that inspired the book. Because I oftentimes feel that Seoul, South Korea these days, going there is almost like walking into the future because it's economically, technologically, and culturally developed. But what did you see when you opened the Seoul Bureau for NPR, in terms of beauty standards, what were you immediately immersed in?

HU: You are right. It was like a video game because it was so electric, so alive. You had skyscrapers reaching high into the clouds. There was kind of pollution in the air. There was just digital signage everywhere, not just on tops of cars and on the sides of buses and in Florida ceilings, window displays.

But also, there's signage, digital signs that wrap around entire buildings. And so much of that imagery is just full of women's faces and women's torsos and advertisements for products to fix ourselves. So there was a lot of before to after signage at the time I was there. That has now been regulated a little bit more.

And just makeup ads, right? Skincare ads. This sense that it was possible to look like these aspirational images of women, or there was something that you could buy to get there.

CHAKRABARTI: And there's also, there was a particular look to that aspiration, right? In the book you call it variations on a prototype.

So what was that prototype? What is that prototype?

HU: Yes. Yes. It's that really glassy skin that's porous and usually quite porcelain white. A small nose, full lips, a chin, or a jawline that meets at a V, a very delicate feminine jaw. Big, bright eyes, and just long luxurious black hair, typically, and then a very thin waist.

The thinness in South Korea was a thinness that I hadn't encountered before.

CHAKRABARTI: Wow. You've previously talked about a really interesting and perhaps somewhat disturbing statistic about BMI for what teenage and women in their twenties and thirties in South Korea, and how it's followed a unique trajectory different than any other developed country.

HU: Yes. I think it's the only demographic. So women between the ages of 18 and 30 in South Korea following the year 2000 or so. So following the turn of the century, they are the only demographic in the world that got skinnier, that got thinner. Even Korean men saw BMI increases, but the percentage of underweight women in South Korea jumped something like 60%.

So it's pretty astonishing. And it happened around the same turn of the century time when South Korea became such a soft culture or soft power. And when I talk about soft power, we're talking about the spread of Hallyu, which is the Korean cultural wave, K-pop movies, animation, games. And when South Korea became so big, when it came to these film and TV and visual industries, then it was also exporting images of beautiful Korean people.

And as a result, the pressure on Korean people domestically to up their game when it came to their appearances and aesthetics also went up.

CHAKRABARTI: Wow. And I learned so much from your book, which was eye-opening, challenging, and it really got me thinking about how we all treat ourselves as individuals, which we'll get to that in a couple of minutes, Elise.

But on the thinness side of things. I know you've talked about this before, but I want people to hear how many sizes are offered to Korean women when they go shopping for clothes.

HU: So you asked me at the outset of this interview what it was like for me when I got there. So yes, I did feel as though I stepped into the future.

I also felt like I stepped back in time, because my teenage self, with all my insecurities in front of the mirror, was triggered. Because constantly Korean strangers would say the quiet part out loud about my appearance. So they would point out that, "Botox is available now preventatively, and maybe I could get it around my mouth." Or they would point out that, "I have freckles."

I'm aware that I have freckles, but I wasn't aware that it was a problem. Freckles are very frowned upon. And so I think I write something about how I might as well have had boils on my face. Because the freckles, people would just say, "Ooh, we could take care of that." And I'll put a pin in that because there's more on that later.

But then also, I was post postpartum twice. I had two of my daughters when I was in Seoul, and each time I was postpartum, I was presented with just a bevy of ways to deal with my postpartum body. People would say to me, "There's slim wraps, there's these diet teas, there's diuretics," all sorts of things about my size.

And it mattered because there is this 50-kilogram standard for weight, which was astonishing. I think that is around 110 pounds, and that's irrespective of your height. And in the boutiques, there's something called free size, and as we named a chapter, free size isn't free. Free size is a U.S. size two.

And so even at a size eight, I was considered large sized or plus sized, and it was nearly impossible to shop in any of the places with the cool clothes. So I experienced fatphobia which obviously happens all over the world. It's just that the thinness, the window of thinness is so narrow that there was far more fatphobia. Because I couldn't be straight sized when I was in East Asia.

CHAKRABARTI: And shopkeepers, what size would they offer you then?

HU: Oh no, it was just the big hand Korean, or the hand X, so they would make an X with their forearms. It's, "No."

CHAKRABARTI: (LAUGHS) We have nothing for you.

HU: (LAUGHS) Right. It's not very welcoming.

CHAKRABARTI: So can you tell me a little bit more, give me an example of someone, because you talked with so many people in writing this book, about the lengths that they would go to try to achieve this, variations on a prototype, as you said.

HU: Yeah, increasingly the pressures of Korean beauty or just the beauty culture are falling on men. And so one person who really stands out to me is a guy named Groomin'. He went by Groomin' as his YouTube name, but his name is Kim Minki, and he talked about how he had a pretty average morning routine for a Korean man, and it sounded like it took three hours. Not only in the multiple steps of skincare, which require many products and moisturizing. But also, he gets his face waxed and he goes in for Botox every two or three months.

And it was astonishing how many products, and how much work and aesthetic labor he put in as a man. And he was an excellent example of how increasingly as the beauty industry expands and as we live in a more virtual and visual society, men are subsumed by these beauty pressures in those similar way to how women are.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So if men are feeling the pressure now it makes it that much more urgent to understand how Korean women have been feeling the pressure for years now.

HU: Of course. Of course. And it's such an interesting summer to be talking about all of this because it's a summer of a lot of labor actions. I'm in Los Angeles where SAG-AFTRA is going to be out on the picket lines today. And in 2018, what I saw was a general strike against appearance labor, that's what I would call it.

It was a movement called Escape the Corset, in which some 300,000 women who had spent all of this time and money and energy, psychic energy on trying to meet these very exacting beauty standards, decided not to participate in it anymore. And so they got online and crushed their compacts and cut their hair.

It was really rather inspiring and astonishing to see.

CHAKRABARTI: Today, we're speaking with Elise Hu. She's correspondent and host-at-large for NPR. Her new book is "Flawless: Lessons in Looks and Culture from the K-Beauty Capital." And she's talking about the rise of the South Korean beauty industry worldwide, but also its impact. I'm particularly interested on South Korean women, so we'll have a lot more on that when we come back.

Part II

CHAKRABARTI: Now, as we talked about in the previous segment, South Korea is now the third largest exporter of cosmetics worldwide. It's behind only the United States and France. So entrepreneurs Sue Greene and Herra Namhie are a part of that sort of worldwide explosion of K-beauty. They're Korean American sisters and founders of the online store Ohlolly. Headquartered in Los Angeles, but only sells Korean skincare and products and makeup.

So we wanted to talk with them about why they decided to launch their store, and when we finally were able to connect with them via telephone, it was appropriately at CosmoProf, a big beauty trade show in Las Vegas.

We got all these samples that we're bringing back home. Once again, our faces are going to be kind of irritated (LAUGHS), but we can't wait to try them all.

CHAKRABARTI: Ohlolly was launched back in 2016. Sue and Herra say the business grew quickly through word of mouth.

About six, seven years ago was when K-beauty really caught on and just exploded.

Yeah. Every year we were doing like 300%, 400% of growth.

CHAKRABARTI: Sue and Herra think that social media really helped put Korean products in front of a Western audience with influencers using Instagram or TikTok to walk through their multi-step skincare routines. Sue says the K-beauty products themselves are also intriguing.

SUE: Interesting ingredients that you may not think of as what you would put on your skin. The classic K-beauty ingredient, I would say that's snail mucin. Which is the snail secretion that the little trail that snails leave, that is actually naturally high in hyaluronic acid, which is actually really good for your skin.

CHAKRABARTI: For holding onto and grabbing hydration. Today, the Ohlolly online store carries around 40 Korean brands, and the sisters test every one of the products they sell on their own faces. Sue's hopeful that what she describes as the store's highly curated selection and small business vibe will help them stand out in a very saturated beauty market.

SUE: So it has not stopped growing. Thank God.

HERRA: Yeah, it's really continuing that trend, people have really caught on, to caring for self via skincare is actually, there's a lot of benefit to it. So yeah, it's been great. Yeah. We're seeing a lot of growth.

CHAKRABARTI: That's Sue Greene and Herra Namhie, co-founders of the online Korean beauty store, Ohlolly, which is based in Los Angeles. Now, Elise, I wanted to ask you about something specific. We just heard them say that they were talking about how pursuing these the K-beauty ideal is seen amongst many as a form of, like, positive self-care. Is it seen that way in Korea?

HU: In some circles. Absolutely. Yes. And this is why the paradox of physical beauty was so fascinating to me as a reporter, because physical beauty is a double-edged sword.

It can be a vessel for self-realization and expression and care. It can be a way to nurture yourself and be nurtured. By physical touch, when you're talking about beauty workers and salons, for example. But on the flip side, there is an exacting nature when it comes to factory issued or industrialized beauty standards.

And that can be a hamster wheel. It can be a crutch to invest all our time and self, and it can often come at the expense of becoming a fully realized person. And so where is that line? Where do we draw the line? In a society that's becoming so virtual and visual, and when technology is offering so many solutions and inventing problems that maybe we didn't have.

So this reminds me of the freckles I was talking about in the first segment, right? I didn't realize my freckles were a problem until I was presented with solutions to zap them off. So the fact that something existed to get rid of that problem, then really amplified the notion that there was something that was naturally occurring in me that needed to be removed, or needed to be fixed or needed to be upgraded.

CHAKRABARTI: A problem that didn't exist, suddenly a solution for it appeared, so interesting. Yeah. I think one of the most arresting things about what you write in the book is the links that South Korean women, in South Korea go to, in order to try to achieve this, K-beauty standard.

We've been talking about the products and the skincare routines. There's also huge amounts of plastic surgery at pretty young ages, which we'll talk about a little bit later in the show. We spoke about weight, but you write that it's actually very economically rational for South Korean women to go to these links, for keeping up their appearance.


HU: That's right, because South Korea is a society where appearances matter more than they do in the United States. It's tied into your professional prospects. And your personal prospects. Headshots are often required on resumes, and at least that was true until this was banned a few years ago, but it's still happening.

People are still asking for photos on resumes, and this is for jobs ranging from accounting to, government positions. It's not for modeling and acting. Your parents encourage you to get cosmetic surgery so that you can do better in the labor market or get into tougher schools. The dating market uses the term specs in the way that we use the term specs for computers and other devices.

They'll use the term specs on people, and your specs include physical attributes like your height and your weight and your bra size and your hairlessness. And so it is a hyper competitive landscape, which makes it really rational to try and, quote-unquote, "work hard on your appearance."

CHAKRABARTI: It feels like women, did they talk to you about that they felt like if they didn't do these things, even if they wanted to, if they didn't, they stood to lose a lot?

HU: Absolutely. It was all about sort of the risk of losing their jobs, or being taunted on the streets, or bullied at school or being uninvited to family gatherings, which has happened to some of the Escape the Corset women I mentioned earlier, who decided just not to participate in this appearance labor anymore.

I remember they spoke to me so movingly about how they wished that they could just exist and love and be loved as they are. This sense that you are you, I'm me, without the makeup, without this figurative corset. And they didn't feel as though that they could feel worthy without actually appearing, at least within the norms of conventional standards.

So there is a real link between physical attractiveness and worthiness, and we're seeing that globally. There are now global standards and global pillars of beauty according to social science research, and ethnographic research.

And they are thinness, firmness, smoothness, and youth. And this is for women primarily, that all over the world, that we are expected to strive towards these standards in a way that is becoming really normalized and considered natural.

CHAKRABARTI: So this is why I just loved reading the book because you're simultaneously talking, not about South Korea, but also about what's happening around the world.

It's just in South Korea, it seems like it's much more overt, the link between appearances and these beauty standards. And the economic necessity of achieving those standards. So with that in mind, I want to introduce Michelle Cho, into the conversation. She's assistant professor of East Asian Popular Cultures at the University of Toronto, and she's joining us from Seoul, South Korea.

Professor Cho, welcome to the show.

MICHELLE CHO: Hi. Thanks for having me.

CHAKRABARTI: So can you talk a little bit more about what Elise had mentioned earlier, about this sort of almost organized effort that South Korea underwent after the Asian financial crisis? To not only diversify its economy, but use culture as a form of economic strength that led to this Korean wave that Elise mentioned called Hallyu.

CHO: Yeah, sure. I think that the lessons that were learned from the financial crisis were that, globalization or finding customers, fighting markets for Korean products was imperative in a increasingly volatile global market.

And one of the ways that a small country can do that reliably to insulate themselves from the shocks that can occur from interruptions to supply chains, or the lack of natural resources to build products for export, is to think about culture as an export.

And after the '97, '98 financial crisis, there was a concerted kind of plan on the part of the government and spreading into other industries, culture industries in particular, to really focus on creating products for export that could appeal to audiences around the world.

And so at this point, I think K-beauty and other aspects of K-culture are fruits of that way of thinking at the turn of the century.

CHAKRABARTI: But I think you've also mentioned that K-beauty as a term, which I've been using very liberally throughout this hour, already actually emerged in North America.

CHO: Yeah, the K prefix. That is attached to lots of things these days. K-drama, K-beauty, even K-food. This is something that it only really makes sense if you're thinking about an external gaze. Korean consumers themselves wouldn't call beauty or cosmetics, beauty products or cosmetics K-beauty, they just call them cosmetics.

But so with the kind of rise of the Korean wave as a sector of the economy, specifically organized around cultural export, the K prefix has become a sort of cultural brand. And so you hear that being used and now promoted by cultural producers themselves in Korea.

CHAKRABARTI: Elise, I know you want to jump in here. Feel free to jump in anytime, because this is like all of what your book attempts to explore. So go ahead.

HU: No, and Michelle is such an important voice in the book, so it's great to hear her talk about it.


CHO: Thank you, Elise.

HU: She's a source. And we've become friends over the course of reporting on this topic, but yeah, I agree.

I can concur with what she has said. And in fact, now, K-beauty, you mentioned what a huge industry has become. When I moved to Seoul, obviously smartphones and Samsung was one of the major exports that I would think of. But now, just as of last year, Korea is exporting more in cosmetics and cosmetic tools than smartphones.

So it's massive, and I think it's actually under-reported on by business watchers.

CHAKRABARTI: Oh, wow. And so Professor Cho also, I'd love to hear a little bit more about the really interesting relationship between not only the cultural producers that we've been talking about, but the Korean Government's Ministry of Culture itself, it's actively supporting the development and spread of these various aspects of Korean culture.

CHO: Yeah, definitely. As I was saying earlier, the lessons that were learned from the economic crisis really led policymakers to think about ways that soft power could be cultivated and deployed, going forward, as South Korea became more visible and more of a player in global economics and politics.

And so one of the things that the culture ministry does is it really helps as a kind of mediator or broker to help cultural producers, both K-beauty companies, but also media companies, film producers, television studios, that kind of thing.

To find markets, to find distributors, overseas. And I do want to point out though that this is not something that's unique to South Korea. I think most countries have some kind of cultural policy framework, and so they'll have some government assistance to help the spread of their kind of culturally branded products elsewhere.

Canada has a film council as well, just like Korea has its film council. And this is actually something that the state was learning from the U.S. The fact that the U.S. became such a huge superpower in terms of cultural export in the second half of the 20th century.

So if we think about Hollywood and how it is often the dominant source of entertainment and culture in many markets around the world, South Korean cultural producers were taking their cues from that.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. Completely. I'm so glad you mentioned that. Oh, no, go ahead, Elise. Go ahead.

HU: Yeah. And Michelle, as we're talking about this, I'm curious what made South Korean cultural producers so good at what they do?

And I remember just a couple months ago I was talking with the TikTok CEO who had just been to Seoul, and he said, the execution on culture when it comes to dance or images, visuals, film, TV, it's just TikTok. It's so much better when it comes out of Korea these days than anywhere else that he's been.

How'd they get so good at it?

CHO: Yeah, I think that if we're talking about film and television, my theory is that South Korea has itself been a receiving market for content from everywhere. In the latter parts of the 20th century, it was mostly Hollywood, but also Hong Kong, Japanese popular culture has been really popular, as well.

And so the absorption of cultural forms from around the world has created a kind of familiarity with the genres and the story forms and the kind of media forms that Korean cultural producers then mix up, remix and repackage and then send out into the world with a kind of unique Korean lens on these issues. So that's really, I think what Korean film has been become very lauded for, and also in the landscape of Korean TV. But yeah, I also think that part of the answer has to do with the early adoption of various technologies.

The country digitized comparatively early and very thoroughly compared to other places. And so there's just a kind of facility that people have with using technology to create culture of their own.

CHAKRABARTI: Michelle Cho, assistant professor of East Asian Popular Cultures at the University of Toronto. Joining us today from Seoul, South Korea. Professor Cho, thank you so much for taking the time to be with us.

CHO: Thank you. It's been really fun.

CHAKRABARTI: And Elise, hang on here for just a minute because there's so much more from your book that I want to explore in the last segment, when we come back.

Part III

CHAKRABARTI: I just want to hear a little bit more sound from YouTube as one of the primary digital means by which the K-beauty phenom has been spreading around the world. So here's a couple of people walking through their K-beauty inspired skincare routines.

CRYSTAL LEE: Today, I'll walk you through my night routine and show you from cleansing to the actual application process to help you achieve glass skin, no filter, no foundation.

SOMI: In Korean, we say, Gwalsa. But in English, it's Gua Sha.

HAILEY BIEBER: My standard when I go to bed at night is that if I'm not getting into bed looking like a glazed donut, then I'm not doing the right thing.

CHAKRABARTI: So that was YouTuber Crystal Lee, K-Pop star Somi, and American model Hailey Bieber. And Elise, as I listen to those voices it really makes something that Professor Cho said just ring even more strongly in my head.

And that is that of course, Korea was not the first place where the sort of pedaling of unachievable beauty standards, right, emerged. The United States has been the forefront of exporting that culture, those standards, that soft power. So I just wonder if should we be checking ourselves a little bit about A, the hypocrisy and B, the judgment that we might want to pass on Korea now?

HU: Absolutely, we should check ourselves. Because increasingly what's happening is a global standard. It is not unique to South Korea to have such exacting prescriptions for how we're supposed to look and have such fatphobia. For example, we are now in this national discourse about Ozempic, which is the diabetes drug that is being used off label reportedly by celebrities in order to be thinner.

And a lot of questions are now arising as to whether, "Oh, if there are drugs that can help us lose weight, then why shouldn't all of us just take these drugs so that we can be skinny?" Because obviously, America has an obesity problem.

But just as I don't believe that the solution to racism is to make everyone white and the solution to homophobia isn't to make everybody straight, I don't think we should address the problem of fatphobia by making everyone skinny, and I don't think we should address the problem of over emphasizing beauty by making everyone conventionally pretty. And so this is actually a moment that we should be discussing these topics. Because Scientific and technological developments are making it more and more possible to change our appearance and change our physical bodies.

And we should ask ourselves what kind of society we want to live in and where we draw the line for ourselves. Because what South Korea presents is a near future. Where because it is such a wired society, there is a feedback loop.

That basically when you have an interaction with the industry, and a company is filling screens and add time with images of a particular type of face, then customers absorb the image and internalize it as an ideal, and then buy the products or get the services or the treatments or the surgeries to resemble those commercial fed images.

And South Korea stands out because its plastic surgery market. And its plastic surgery industry is the most modern, the most sophisticated and the most affordable in the world. And so when you can avail yourself of all of these procedures to drastically change your appearance, would you? And that's the question that being in Seoul presented to me.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. So I'm really glad you mentioned that. Because another thing that was truly eye-opening in your book was the plastic surgery market in South Korea. Because it ties a lot of things together that you write about, the speed at which digital life is changing and therefore standards can actually change, and people want to look like those standards.

And then, like you said, technology and in this case, surgical or medical technology, just makes it easier and easier to go to the doctor over and over again to get different types of plastic surgery. So can you tell us a little bit more about the plastic surgery market in South Korea? Who's getting it? How young are they? You even wrote about how parents give daughters plastic surgery as graduation gifts.

HU: Yes, and there's discounts if you show up with your evidence that you just took the Korean SAT. So it's so common to get plastic surgery right after you've finished your Korean SAT just before college, that there is an entire seasonal discount that's offered at that time of year.

South Korea has the most mature and advanced plastic surgery market in the world. No other country comes close. It has more plastic surgeons per capita than anywhere else. Brazil is second. The United States is third, but South Korea has four times more plastic surgeons per capita than the U.S.


HU: And other western surgeons often go to Seoul to actually study the ways and the innovations of South Korean plastic surgeons, this industry really sprung up and exploded following the Asian financial crisis. And around the same time as the Hallyu wave that Michelle and the two of us were talking about.

There is no other market like it. And then the country, the state actually tries to lure visitors in as medical tourists to get procedures there so you can go and get a lot of tax-free procedures that are already heavily discounted compared to the United States, and it's a place where everyone can go and get it.

You can avail yourself of plastic surgery and procedures. These days, it's a lot more injections and injectables. Neurotoxins and fillers because you can just pop in and pop out. And increasingly, men are seeking various procedures that women have been seeking since the late 1990s.

You're seeing a huge rate or a huge increase in younger demographics getting neurotoxins earlier as a preventative. And more and more our bodies are treated as malleable and med spas and plastic surgery clinics are thought of as salons, places where you return to often or at a regular.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. And it's it ranges from everything from, you had mentioned, the desirability of that V line chin, so that requires like shaving off parts of the bone in your jaw. Everything from that to, as you said, Botox injections in people's shoulders and calves.

HU: I was most surprised by this.

But then I saw an article in the New York Post saying that the very, the hot, off-label use of Botox among TikTokers this summer is the traps. So I wrote about, several years ago, I wrote about how the second most popular place to get Botox injections is actually in the base of your neck at the trap muscles of the trapezius muscles, and it's in order to give the appearance of a longer neck.

And the third most popular place are your calves, in order to give an appearance of longer legs. Because legs are a showpiece for K-pop idol women, you've probably seen the K-pop girl groups. They often have short skirts and short shorts, and those legs are a soft power flex. And the surgery seemed, or not the surgery, the procedure seemed rather absurd to me.

Wow. You would get Botox at the base of your neck, but now it's been labeled, or it has a name. It's called Traptox. It is it procedure in the United States, a few years behind South Korea. And so just yet another example of my thesis that this is the near future. And it's really important to pay attention to, because they're showing us where we're going to wind up.

So the other thing that I really appreciated about your book is it helped knock away some presumptions that people might have that come from a really western perspective. And one, one of them, I'm thinking of at the moment, is that here is a longstanding effort for yet another Asian culture to achieve some sort of western ideal of beauty.

But you write in the book how that is not, that's actually kind of western arrogance to presume that, because it's not necessarily the case, that we're talking about beauty standards that are thousands of years old. Yeah, go ahead.

HU: It was a colonialist idea in the first place to even assume that Asians wanted to look Western. Because the whiteness standard, the white skin standard in east Asia, predates America as a country. We are talking about the earliest dynasties prized very fair complexions as evidence of wealth, as evidence of class, and it showed that you were aristocratic, and you didn't have to be outside working in the fields.

And so we saw this across East Asia, this prize for white skin, even though it would be impossible for laborers, impossible for those who had to work in agriculture, anybody outside, to have that porcelain white skin. And so it's an example of how beauty has long been a performance of class, and the power that we can derive from it is often to show our wealth.

And so I often say now that these days conventionally pretty means conventionally wealthy, that you can afford all of the products and procedures and treatments and maybe off-label uses of diet drugs to look, or diabetes drugs to look a certain way. And that is marginalizing. It's exhausting.

It leaves an underclass sort of wanting and reaching, and I don't think it's desirable for those at the top either, who are stuck in this kind of anxious loop of trying to maintain their appearance and maintain these global beauty standards of firmness and thinness in youth. Which gets harder and harder to do as you get older.

So that's on the whiteness. And then there's also the idea that the double eyelid was in order to look white, but to a person, those in South Korea are like, "No half of Asians have double eyelids." Like, why would I be necessarily wanting to look white? Why wouldn't I want to be looking like the other half of Asians?

And so we go into the history of that in the book also.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, but I think it's really important to note, because again, just shaking us out of our presumptions here a little bit, to help us understand like why this beauty culture has such a grip on South Korea. And as you keep saying it's in our near future as well, no matter where we live.

But, even though, in the course of a radio conversation like this, you're a host as well. What we tend to drift towards the questions that raise a critical lens on anything. But your book isn't a uniform critique or a polemic against the K-beauty industry.

You talk about how, yeah. You talk about how personal expression, personal look in Korea itself has often been a means by, or at least a few times, has been a means through which women have been actually able to express themselves against certain expectations of them. Can you talk about that a little bit?

HU: Yeah, so there's various archetypes of women throughout Korean history that I do touch on. The modern girl is one of them, in the early 1920s. So that's the flapper, we saw the flapper, phenomenon all over the world actually, and the modern girl is Korea's take on that. There was also the factory girl in the 1950s and sixties.

So I write about these women and research these women because they were women who were able to use beauty or adornment as a form of revolt, as a form of being able to just traverse various class boundaries that otherwise would've kept them in a rigid hierarchy. And so by putting on makeup, by cutting their hair, by looking a little bit different than how they were expected to work, they were able to challenge the norms of the day.

And today, a lot of the folks who are challenging the norms of the day are the ones who aren't doing anything at all. Bringing us back to the Escape the Corset women who are saying, "We're gonna strike. We're not gonna take part in this, and this is how we are using our bodily autonomy to show and challenge a system that is built on this notion that we're not enough unless we spend money to fix ourselves."

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. It's so complicated. So wonderfully complicated, I should say because I gotta come clean with you about something, Elise.

HU: Oh, no.

CHAKRABARTI: Because we should be critical when beauty standards drive people to not appreciate themselves for who they are and also towards an unhealthy way of living.

I completely, obviously, that should go without saying. But as I was reading the book, I'm a no makeup person, to be perfectly honest. But everyone also still wants to like look beautiful, to be beautiful, to feel beautiful.

HU: Absolutely.

CHAKRABARTI: So I came out the other end of your book being like, Should I try those face masks?

Maybe I should look into BB cream.

HU: No. That is an effect that it's had, actually. A lot of folks, especially on the tour, have said, "Oh my gosh, now I have gotten those foot peels." And there is this boomerang effect of it, and I think that really exemplifies the paradox within beauty.

There is something alluring about it. There is something alluring about the packaging and the products and being able to experiment with them and maybe use them as a vessel for self-expression. And for North Korean women, for example, who I write about in the book and the trans women who I write about the book, it really is freeing and a way to step deeper into themselves by availing themselves of beauty products.

And so ultimately, we come, by the end of the book, we come to a question that you can ask yourself: Is what you're doing, what kind of beauty, ritual or product or procedure that you're taking part in, a step deeper into yourself, or is it for somebody else? Is it for somebody else's gaze? And I think asking whether something is ego driven or soul driven is a really instructive question to ask.

This program aired on July 14, 2023.


Claire Donnelly Producer, On Point
Claire Donnelly is a producer at On Point.


Meghna Chakrabarti Host, On Point
Meghna Chakrabarti is the host of On Point.



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