An audacious journalistic exploration of the present and future of beauty through the lens of South Korea's booming "K-beauty" industry and the culture it promotes, by Elise Hu, NPR host-at-large and the host of TED Talks Daily
K-beauty has captured imaginations worldwide by promising a kind of mesmerizing perfection. Its skincare and makeup products—creams packaged to look like milkshakes or pandas, and snail mucus face masks, to name a few—work together to fascinate us, champion consumerism, and invite us to indulge. In the four years Elise spent in Seoul as NPR’s bureau chief, the global K-beauty industry quadrupled. Today it's worth $10 billion and is only getting bigger as it rides the Hallyu wave around the globe.
And fun as self-care consumerism may be, Elise turns her veteran eye to the darker questions lurking beneath the surface of this story. When technology makes it easy to quantify and optimize ourselves—from banishing blemishes, to whittling our waistlines, even to shaving down our jaws—where do we draw the line? What are the dangers for a society where a flawless face and body are promoted and possible? What are the real financial, physical, and emotional costs of beauty work in a culture that valorizes endless self-improvement and codes it as empowerment?
With rich historical context and deep reporting, including hours of interviews with South Korean women, this is a complex, provocative look at the ways hustle culture has reached into the sinews of our bodies. It raises complicated questions about gender disparity, consumerism, the beauty imperative of an appearance obsessed society, and the undeniable political, economic, and social capital of good looks worldwide. And it points the way toward an alternative vision, one that's more affirming and inclusive than a beauty culture led by industry.
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. For nearly four years, she was the NPR bureau chief responsible for coverage of North Korea, South Korea, and Japan. Her work has earned the national DuPont Columbia, Edward R. Murrow, and Gracie awards, along with a Gannett Foundation Award for Innovation in Watchdog Journalism. She lives in Los Angeles with her three daughters.
One of Vox's Best Books of 2023 | One of NPR's Books of the Day | Required Reading from New York Post | One of Nylon's 13 May Books to Add to Your Reading List | One of PureWow's 14 Books to Read for AAPI Heritage Month | One of W Magazine's 14 Books to Dive Into This Summer | One of Betches' Best Summer Reads of 2023
Praise for Flawless “The host of NPR’s “TED Talks Daily” shines a bright light into the shadowy world of manufactured beauty and endless “self-improvement”…Hu’s study of Korea’s beauty cult is fascinating and disturbing, woven with threads of dark humor and personal experience.”—Kirkus (starred review)
"A remarkable investigation."—Slate
“Hu tracks the social, political, and economic results of a beauty industry big enough to reshape a country. Her ability to lay out a highly rigid and codified standard of beauty in a different culture defamiliarizes our own enough to make its outlines and paradoxes plain.“—Vox
"A must read, Flawless is much more than a book about culture’s obsession with youth and beauty. It provides an urgent metaphorical societal mirror and context for why we spend so much of our time in the quixotic pursuit of perfection. Flawless helps us ask hard questions and reclaim our agency in a world that wants to deny us our power. Hu’s journalism shines a light on what is broken and provides optimism for what can be instead.”—Eve Rodsky, New York Times bestselling author of Fair Play
“Like a trip to the beauty counter with your most discerning friend, Flawless deftly redirects us from the individual choices we are bombarded with (so many serums, so little time!) and focuses us instead on the transnational systems that sell consumption as the key to wholeness. Well-researched and funny, it is Hu’s own vulnerability and keen observations on the endless project of female self-improvement that make each page sparkle.”—Alicia Menendez, MSNBC Anchor and Author of The Likeability Trap
"[A] deep and deeply-felt investigation."—Jessica DeFino
"An incredibly readable mix of first-person narrative of life in Seoul, rich cultural history, analysis and introspection. I loved it, and if you share the same fascination and ambivalence around beauty culture and serum culture in particular—you will too."—Anne Helen Peterson, author of Out of Office
"My favorite non-fiction book I've read so far this year."—Virginia Sole-Smith, New York Times bestselling author of Fat Talk
"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."—NPR's Brittany Luse
"If you think that only women are trapped by a society that demands physical perfection, think again. Korean men now consume roughly 13% of the world's skincare products--even camouflage lip-balm for men doing their mandatory military service. One can't help but wonder if K-beauty standards are causing the human soul to rot away. A fascinating look at the ugliness of Korea's cosmetic underworld, sometimes shocking and often darkly funny as Elise riffs on the more ridiculous aspects of the pursuit of "ideal" beauty. Let me tell you dudes, the book gets under your skin--in all the right ways."—Jake Adelstein, author of Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan
“Superbly researched and deeply insightful, Flawless is a timely, provocative, and fascinating must-read. Elise Hu masterfully blends an engrossing memoir about her experience as a foreigner, woman, and mother of girls in Seoul with a journalistic exploration of the disturbing forces behind K-beauty’s global rise [and the increasingly algorithm-driven perceptions and unforgiving standards of “beauty.”] I loved it.”—Angie Kim, internationally bestselling author of Miracle Creek
"If you're looking for a deeply engaging book about the past, present and future of Korean beauty's global impact on culture, and the relationship between beauty culture and tech, this book is for you! I appreciate how Hu covers everything from political economic history to theories around media and beauty in a really accessible read."—Xiaowei Wang, author of Blockchain Chicken Farm
“In Flawless, Elise Hu explores not just why South Koreans are so obsessed with skincare, but also how the beauty standards of Korean culture have created a seemingly endless feedback loop of beauty “problems” to be solved by an ever-increasing number of products. A fascinating, meticulously reported deep dive into Korean beauty culture.”—Doree Shafrir, co-host of Forever35 and author of Thanks For Waiting: The Joy & Weirdness Of Being A Late Bloomer
“Richly researched…Given Hu’s uncompromising critique of Korean beauty culture, we might expect her to conclude by rejecting “appearance work” completely. But she does no such thing. Instead, she takes a fresher and more interesting tack, reminding us that self-stylization has often served as a form of revolt.”—The Washington Post
“A fascinating and thoughtful deep-dive into the Korean culture of lookism… For readers who have had little to no exposure to Korean culture, it will feel like having your own knowledgeable tour guide leading you through a complex world.”—Asia Pacific Arts
"One of 14 new books to dive into this sumer!...[An] incisive investigation...a truly eye-opening summer read.”—W Magazine
“Nuanced, wide-ranging, and fluidly written, this peels back the layers of a powerful cultural trend.” —Publishers Weekly
“Hu interrogates what it means to live in a world obsessed with beauty and youth, the injustices this obsession helps perpetrate, and what we can do about it. It’s a thoughtful, fascinating, and rigorously researched book.”—BookRiot
"Binge this on your way to botox or as you slather on retinol. This non-fiction book will make you rethink what you know about beauty standards via the lens of the K-beauty industry."—Betches
"Hu has written a brilliant, deeply researched book that reads like a conversation with your smartest friend ... Refreshingly, the author’s lack of Western judgment makes way for curiosity and respect."—The Globe and Mail
“It provides riveting insight into the Korean beauty industry, the culture at large and Hu's individual experiences that anyone can enjoy. It’s an absolute must-read for beauty lovers.”—Lourdes Avila Uribe, HuffPost Books
"People can't get enough of K-beauty...Now, journalist Elise Hu has written the definitive exploration of K-beauty in her sweeping new book, which includes interviews with South Korean women as Hu asks the tough questions about our quests for perfection, as well as looks at the industry from a larger lens of gender disparities, consumerism, and beauty obsession."—Nylon