Flawless | An Excerpt from the Big Ideas & New Perspectives Category

Elise Hu

January 25, 2024


A cutting-edge journalistic exposé of self-care consumerism, using the extreme case South Korea to both celebrate the astounding growth of K-Beauty and South Korean pop culture as a global export and examine the dark implications for women in a looks-obsessed patriarchy, in a debut that asks the question: What is the future of beauty?


I’ve seen the future, and it’s poreless. In 2015, I moved from Washington, D.C., to a city I’d never previously stepped foot in—Seoul, South Korea—to be an international correspondent and the first-ever Korea and Japan bureau chief for the American broadcaster NPR. Almost immediately, I realized that by making the move, I had time-traveled forward and was face-to-face with the future of how we might live, look, and relate to one another. 

South Korea’s capital is an endless assault of images blasting in your direction on every street corner, at every hour. Many of them are faces. They tower above you on digital signage glowing from the sides of skyscrapers, flash by in subway stations deep underground, or whip past on cars topped with oversized screens. What I found after I moved there (with my journalist husband, toddler daughter, geriatric beagle, and two cats) was a city that felt like a living monument to conspicuous consumption, with upscale malls, blinding lights, and blinding wealth—everything hitting you with its height and size and newness. Looking at all the floor-to-ceiling ads featuring faces, I started to notice they had a uniformity to them, as if they were variations on a prototype. 

In the bustling Myeongdong shopping district and along the supercool streets of Gangnam, there were so many skincare and makeup stores that I could stand on a corner and see a Face Shop across from a Face Shop across from a Face Shop. It was common to spot women walking around with silicone nose covers and medical tape, following cosmetic procedures. I sometimes spied even more dramatically bandaged bodies of tourists, with full-on Freddy Krueger–style post-op masks, moving about the crowded spaces of Seoul.  

The obsession with appearance runs deep—you’re expected to include a photo, height, and weight on résumés for jobs across various industries—and the country’s wide and early embrace of digital technologies has turned its society into an overlap of selfie culture and “self-care” consumerism. South Korea is leading the way on bringing these trends to global consumers—South Korean cosmetics exports quadrupled from $1.6 billion to $6.3 billion between 2014, the year I got assigned to Korea, and 2018, the year I moved back to the United States.1 Having gained a cultlike following around the world, the K-beauty industry is projected to be worth $13.9 billion by 2027.2 

Korea’s advancements include an enthusiastic embrace of consumer beauty, for everyone, and a look that’s free of surprises—no blemishes, bulges, or hairs out of place. Equally embraced is support for the idea that digital filters can be less imperative if you perfect your look not with temporary cover-ups but with a more permanent alteration of the canvas—the body itself. That’s possible thanks to developments in science and technology—skincare products, injections, and plastic surgery. But the sought-after result of all the beautification work is for it to appear like there was no work done at all. The future I glimpsed brought technological innovation to the surface of our faces and bodies, while promising consumers “choice” and self-expression for the whole process. 


What goes through your mind when you see yourself in the mirror? If I linger too long, I start noting where I could look better. Maybe smoother skin. A skinnier face. Shinier hair. If something is off enough about my reflection, my entire mood can take a hit. I know better than to conflate external appearance with self-worth, but a good hair day puts a bounce in my step and getting pampered at a spa feels good. The vacillating enthusiasm and unease I feel for beauty culture underlines the tension at play—skincare or spa services allow us to care for our bodies, finding ways to nurture ourselves in these turbulent times. But market-driven standards for female beauty are also tools of powerful systems. They sustain the idea that looking better—and spending energy and money to do so—is a worthwhile pursuit in the first place. 

This complex, often contradictory relationship has nagged at me for as long as I can remember. In South Korea, I found a dizzying, dynamic place where looks matter in a way that felt exacting and extreme—but in the end, illuminating. Because I don’t think I’m alone in struggling with where to draw the line on self-improvement, now that selfie culture and self-care culture collide. As the rest of the modern world develops into what Seoul already has been for years—an image-laden, social-media-driven landscape, where digital representations of us can be automatically filtered to have longer lashes or poreless skin, and digital makeup can be instantly applied before we show up on our video meetings—it makes clear Korea’s looks-obsessed culture, where appearance norms inch further and further out of reach, isn’t some anomaly. It presents a vision of a future that’s already arriving. And it offers a lens through which we can ask the larger, thornier questions about the power we give commercialized beauty itself. It’s reflected in systems: economics, the workplace, our home lives. As the old saw goes, the personal is political. Or it gets political once you look beneath the filters and the face masks. 

Ultimately, it’s not just Korean women but all of us who must wrestle with a system that sells us on the notion that we are insufficient and that consumption can cure it. What today’s beauty imperative lays bare is how the core promise of capitalism—transformation through spending—can now be expertly and inexpensively carved on our faces. In South Korea’s super-intense interpretation of “making something of yourself,” that means remaking our very bodies with fast-improving technologies. Like everything else, it comes at a price. 


From Flawless: Lessons in Looks and Culture from the K-Beauty Capital by Elise Hu with permission from Dutton, an imprint of the Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2023 by Elise Hu. 


About the Author

Elise Hu is a correspondent and host-at-large for NPR, the American news network, and since April 2020, the inaugural host of TED Talks Daily , the daily podcast from TED that's downloaded a million times a day in all countries of the world.

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