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South Korean beauty culture reveals a grim future in 'Flawless'


No matter where you live, people make judgments based on how you look. Those judgments are a little different in different places, as one of our longtime colleagues discovered when she moved. NPR's Elise Hu found Korean beauty standards so revealing she wrote a book called "Flawless" and talked with Brittany Luse of It's Been A Minute.

BRITTANY LUSE, BYLINE: When Elise moved to South Korea in 2015 to set up the first NPR Seoul bureau, her reporting focus was quite clear - a pretty busy time for geopolitics and a lot of missile provocations from North Korea. But in the midst of geopolitical tension, she noticed that at every street corner, in every magazine, TV show, and even from other people, that there was an expectation she wasn't meeting.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: I saw so many before-and-after signs and so many advertisements of what to look like and skin care places and face shops across from face shops and across from face shops.

LUSE: A few years later, she found she was still thinking about Korea's vision of beauty. After exhaustive research and many revelations, she brings us this new book which lays out some pretty high stakes for beauty.

HU: Korean women accurately perceive that failing to be thin or failing to be beautiful will literally cost them. Korea is still a place where you're encouraged to attach a headshot to a resume, where passport photos come photoshopped by default. There's also - the hypermodernity of Korea, I think, really plays a huge role. So South Korea being very forward in developing technology is another reason why visuals matter a lot - right? - because our projections, our digital avatars, supersede our physical bodies because that's the way that we are seen and we want to be seen. And you can be seen all the time.

LUSE: And there is a collectively understood ideal for women. The standard is more than a cute face, minimal makeup and smooth skin. Elise found specs, actual metrics that tell you whether or not you qualify as beautiful.

HU: And for a woman would be weighing under 50kg, so 110 pounds, having at least a C cup bra. Cosmetic surgeons will say the ideal beauty - the chin part of the face is slightly smaller, and so that helped popularize the jawline or V-line surgery that would shave down the jaws to make more of a heart-shaped jawline. There's all these ratios that are applied in the same way that we apply to, you know, nonhuman things.

LUSE: Elise also notes that the wheels are greased for you to buy into the standards because it's culturally acceptable, easy and relatively affordable to get surgery.

HU: So crucially, because of the glutted market, it's a lot more affordable to get Botox. It's a lot more affordable to get an eyelid surgery or get your jawline shaved down. So all the conditions are there to make it rational to drastically modify your body. But just as I don't think the way to address homophobia is to make everybody straight or the way to address fatphobia is to make everybody skinny, I don't think the way to address a lookist (ph) society where you are discriminated against because of your appearance is for everybody to be so-called pretty.

LUSE: This book is full of interesting dives into fixations on legs, government-driven beauty and the technological gaze. I was regularly pausing to absorb what I had just read. And for those of you who think that none of this has anything to do with you, Elise has convinced me that a lot of the intense beauty pressure is headed here, if it hasn't already arrived for some of us.

HU: There's that quote, right? The future has already arrived. It's just not evenly distributed.

LUSE: Elise Hu's "Flawless: Lessons In Looks And Culture From The K-Beauty Capital" is out now.


INSKEEP: She spoke with Brittany Luse of the podcast and radio show It's Been A Minute. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.