In her book, “Flawless: Lessons in Looks and Culture from the K-Beauty Capital,” Elise Hu recounts giving birth in South Korea and having a midwife constantly conceal her with a blanket. Hu detected that despite the urgency of labor, a certain bodily discomfort in Korean culture endured.
“I had this very quick and rather darkly funny lesson in how the female body was something to be ashamed of or needed to be prettified,” Hu said.
Hu led NPR’s first Seoul bureau from 2015 to 2018, reporting on everything from missile provocations to political summits to a landmine explosion. But one area she didn’t cover also frequently affected her day-to-day life: Korean beauty culture. As she navigated the country pregnant or postpartum, Hu encountered a restrictive social atmosphere shaped by beauty ideals on which she eventually focused her journalistic eye.
“Flawless” unpacks those personal experiences in a larger examination of K-beauty. Hu writes about the exacting, high-tech beauty culture and how countless companies offer products to hydrate, soften, and illuminate in scientifically innovative ways. But the abundance of options also funnels into “lookism” (appearance-based discrimination) and a “technological gaze” of algorithm-driven beauty standards, according to Hu.
The book covers a lot of ground, by necessity. “Physical beauty and the pressure on our appearances is a really serious subject that intersects with politics and economics and labor and social issues,” Hu said.
Hu, who now lives in Los Angeles and is the host of the podcast “TED Talks Daily,” embarked on the book once she returned to the US. Hu is Chinese and Taiwanese American and does not speak Korean, but she worked with interpreters, researchers, and fact-checkers to create an accurate view of K-beauty, finding hundreds of sources in Korean women from ages 7 to 73.
“I did my best to really try and center the quotes and the stories and the experiences of Korean women,” Hu said.
Hu wanted to explore the “paradox of physical beauty” — how cosmetics can feel like both self-care and a never-ending “hustle” of maintenance — and ultimately learned that beauty can’t be reduced to appearance. She asked her sources, “What does beauty mean to you?”
The answers were expansive and shaped how Hu thinks about beauty.
“Beauty is not limited to physical beauty,” she said. “It is not limited to aesthetic [beauty], and the beauty that we should search for is actually rather spiritual.”
Elise Hu will be in conversation with Cristela Guerra at 7 p.m. Tuesday, June 20, at Porter Square Books.
Abigail Lee is a writer in Boston. Find her on Twitter @abigail_jlee.
Abigail Lee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.