10 Feb 2024

South Korean beauty culture and the costs of perfection

From Saturday Morning, 9:05 am on 10 February 2024
Goods on display at Etude House store in Seoul.

(file image) Photo: 123RF

The pressure to look a certain way is only increasing - and there is a cost to fighting back, an author says.

Elise Hu, NPR's host-at-large and the presenter of TED Talks Daily, lived and worked in Seoul while South Korea's celebrated K-beauty industry was booming.

Her new book is called Flawless: Lessons In Looks And Culture From The K-Beauty Capital.

It examines the growing reach of the country's beauty industry, not just domestically but around the world. 

She told Saturday Morning the book was about consent - "whether we really have a choice in how we modify our bodies ... in a world that is so consumer-driven and so capitalist".

Everyone had experienced lookism - prejudice or discrimination towards people perceived as physically unattractive - in one way or another, but the difference in South Korea was that it was "embedded into the economy", she said.

For example, job seekers had to submit headshots with their CVs and ID photos for passports and drivers' licences were Photoshopped "by default".

"There really was an expectation that you looked better than you naturally looked."

No-one with an internet connection was immune to the increasing pressure to look a certain way, she said.

With the rise of apps and Zoom meetings, people were staring at their own faces on screens more and more each day.

Alongside that, social media algorithms increasingly pushed a certain type of look, while "filters show us ideals for what beauty is", she said.

Lip augmentation injection.

South Korea is described as the "plastic surgery capital of the world". (file image) Photo: Supplied/AFP

"There opens up a gap between the way we look digitally and the way our meatspace (real-life) selves look in the mirror ... we are letting the digital world dictate real-world beauty standards."

Meanwhile, Hu said, the proliferation of biomedical technology made it easier for people to "improve" their bodies - if they had the money.

She described South Korea as the "plastic surgery capital of the world", partly due to price.

Some procedures, such as double eyelid surgery (which creates a crease in the eyelid), could be obtained at a fraction of the cost in South Korea than in the United States, Hu said.

She said while it could be "individually beneficial" for people to take care of their bodies and look a certain way, it was "collectively harmful" when not everyone had access to the same resources - whether that was a Pilates membership or the diabetes drug Ozempic, often used off-label for weight loss.

"These procedures costing any sort of money at all and becoming attractive for people to get, and in some cases becoming a standard or norm that people who are jobseeking, for example, are having to get, is creating a lower class."

The fact people's success in dating or in the job market was dependent on their appearance meant engaging with the beauty industry was "not really a choice", she said.

The Korean beauty industry was growing and in a couple of years was expected to be worth $14 billion, Hu said.

Elise Hu is NPR's host-at-large and the presenter of TED Talks Daily. Photo: Emily Cummings

It was also expanding into different demographics. Younger and younger girls were "running amok" in makeup stores, while South Korean men spent an "astronomical" amount on haircare and skincare, she said.

Many norms and products that were now an everyday part of many Western consumers' lives also originated in South Korea, such as 10-step skincare routines, sheet masks and pimple patches.

Resisting the pressure of the beauty industry required people to question norms and take into account the consequences they would suffer if they opted out, Hu said.

In South Korea, those consequences could be severe. If a woman cut her hair short or refused to wear makeup, she could find herself passed over for jobs or uninvited to family gatherings, she said.

People should also interrogate their own motives - for example, whether they were exercising to lose weight, or because they liked the endorphin rush after a run or a weight-lifting session.

"When I am deciding on a product or procedure ... I ask myself, is it ego-driven or is this soul-driven? And I think all of us have the answer to that deep in the emotional engines of [our brains]."

It could be fun to put on makeup or get a manicure, so people should try to "find a happy balance", Hu said.