cover image Flawless: Lessons in Looks and Culture from the K-Beauty Capital

Flawless: Lessons in Looks and Culture from the K-Beauty Capital

Elise Hu. Dutton, $29 (384p) ISBN 978-0-593-18418-9

NPR correspondent Hu debuts with a thorough examination of South Korea’s booming “K-beauty” industry and the national obsession with physical appearance fueling it. Noting that South Korea is the world’s third largest cosmetics exporter, Hu describes Seoul as a skin care mecca, where dermatology and cosmetic surgery clinics are as common as hair salons. A Korean term, oemo jisang juui (“looks are supreme”) encapsulates the “stubborn social prejudice against those who fail to meet certain appearance standards,” which are set by impossibly thin K-pop girl groups, social media influencers using Facetune and other filter apps, and beauty industry conglomerates like Amorepacific. Hu forthrightly reflects on her own “vacillating enthusiasm and unease” for Korean beauty products and interweaves startling statistics (according to a 2020 survey, one in three women between 19 and 39 has had cosmetic surgery) with profiles of plastic surgeons, former K-pop idols, and activists who signal their rejection of beauty norms by cutting their hair short and appearing in public without makeup. Throughout, Hu persuasively links oemo jisang juui to Korea’s “punishing gender imbalance” (among developed nations, Korea ranks worst in the gender wage gap, women’s labor participation rates, and other metrics) and warns that “narrow, industrialized beauty norms” driven by mass marketing and digital technologies are spreading around the world. Nuanced, wide-ranging, and fluidly written, this peels back the layers of a powerful cultural trend. Agent: Howard Yoon, Ross Yoon Agency. (May)