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.
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Beauty Is a Beast
Our new Seoul home spread across half the thirty-fifth floor of one of the tallest high-rises north of the Han River, which famously bisects the city. We never got a key to the place because every unit was fitted with an electronic keypad for entry. The door played a trill or a five-note ditty, depending on whether it was unlocking or locking. The first week, I padded around in my socks on gleaming white heated marble tiles that were warmed underneath by Korea's traditional ondol floor heating. My feet never once went cold in that apartment.
I learned you could un-press the elevator buttons to deselect destination floors, which saved me many times when my then two-year-old Eva would get trigger happy with all the buttons. I marveled at the central vacuum system, in which every room had a conduit to plug in our vacuum hose, so we'd never be bothered to push around a vacuum cleaner from room to room. Down in the underground parking garage, maintenance workers waxed and buffed the floors so often that when we eventually bought a used Hyundai to drive, the tires would squeak when we parked, as if we were backing up on the surface of glass.
In the comfortable confines of my tower, I lapped up my initiation to Seoul. From our apartment's floor-to-ceiling double-paned windows we could see everything, from the grassy patches of the U.S. army base next door to the Lotte World Tower-Seoul's tallest skyscraper, a 45-minute drive away-to the numerous green-clad mountains that surround the city. Compared to most American cities, Seoul is first-world plus. It has all the advancements and conveniences of the world's most developed places, but shinier, sleeker, and more efficient. Ours was just one of the many buildings pushing high into the cloud of pollution above the city. Like the rest of them, it was mixed use, so we had access to a coffee shop, nail salon, convenience store, and restaurant right in our apartment building. Underground, subway cars come with heated seats from which I could stream my favorite shows on my phone, the Wi-Fi never interrupted. If I ever missed a bus, the next one reliably showed up two minutes later. And absolutely everything-everything-could be delivered straight to your door. Furniture, food, convenience items. Agencies even send actors to your doorstep if you need extra party guests-or a fake spouse-in a pinch. The futuristic place and its on-demand, always connected consumer culture was the opposite of a hardship post. It felt like a vortex and a privilege.
I settled in by the summer of 2015 and spent the early weeks of June waddling around the apartment heavily pregnant with my second daughter, unpacking our clothes and housewares after they finally came off a container ship. At night I'd go live from Korea for NPR's Morning Edition in America, which was thirteen hours behind. Reclining on the slipper chair in my windowless home office, I used my belly as a handy shelf to rest my Comrex audio transmitting device on. The baby used my insides as a speed bag, doing nightly workouts on the lower part of my belly. Just enduring this was enough to wear me out.
That summer was sticky and smelly, as hot as Seoul's winter is cold. The humidity hung so thick that the barbecue smoke, diesel fumes, and steam from the sidewalk grates packed a pungent punch. Women scurried down the street hovering battery-powered pastel fans in front of their faces, and my husband Matt would come in from his commutes joking that he lost six pounds from sweat alone.
I eventually dropped eight pounds-and four ounces-when Baby Isabel Rock made her entrance in early July, officially kicking off my maternity leave. We gave her the middle name Rock partly as a play on the Republic of Korea (ROK) acronym that U.S. soldiers throw around. My parental leave allowed for eight weeks of nursing, sleeping in three-hour stretches to match the newborn's schedule, and altogether sweating a lot in my postpartum husk. I stayed at home as if I were quarantining, which made sense because that summer MERS, a mysterious respiratory virus, came in from an airline traveler and spread rapidly through the city.
In my reflection I saw all the nights of interrupted sleep and the heaviness from carrying a baby for nearly ten months. Dark circles parked under my eyes, and frown lines carved themselves between my brows. The hair on my head and body had grown thick from the hormones of pregnancy. A little patch of fur even sprang up somewhere it never existed, on the front of my neck. Pregnancy and postpartum are the only periods of my life I have ever had boobs, so I enjoyed that at least, though less perhaps because they constantly leaked milk.
Up until that point, my skincare routine consisted of a drugstore cleanser (thank you, Clean & Clear), followed by a moisturizer before bed. Now that I had finally made myself at home in a skincare product mecca and suddenly had nowhere to go and a lot of time on my hands. I decided it was time to try all the goop I'd seen and read about.
When my unapologetically capitalist brother Roger came over to visit from Beijing, where he was also living as an expat, I knew he'd be game to go spend money in the name of self-improvement. He particularly wanted to shop for trendy clothing "where the hot Korean girls are, in Gah-roh-soo-geel," purposely drawing out the Korean. He was describing a tree-lined shopping street in the glitzy Gangnam district (made famous by the eponymous song) that's a Korean equivalent to Rodeo Drive. I learned the phrase one-minute bags to describe luxury handbags so trendy that on Garosugil you'd spot one on someone's arm every minute or less. When Louis Vuitton was the most popular brand in South Korea, its handbags would flash by at an even quicker rate, earning them the nickname "three-second bags" because of their ubiquitous appearances.
To wander these shopping streets, I brought along the two-week-old baby Isa. I strapped her onto me with one of those single pieces of stretchy cloth used to harness a sleeping baby onto your body, tangling myself and the baby together into an elaborate knot. (This required watching the manufacturer's YouTube instructional video several times.)
I had researched what to buy for this time of maternity-leave-slash-product experimentation before we set off for Garosugil (for my brother) and Myeongdong (for me and Isa). Myeongdong is the Korean mecca for skincare and makeup stores. Walking through a busy neighborhood in Tokyo-say, Shinjuku-can feel like walking through a video game. Walking through Myeongdong in 2015 assaulted your senses with the same amount of neon and noises, but with notes of spa-like smells of lavender or jasmine, because it's the cosmetics that reign there. An old cathedral, the seat of Seoul's archdiocese, sits out of place among glossy department stores, as shoppers rush past it to worship at the altar of consumer beauty. They pack themselves into promenades and narrow alleyways lined with one glittering shop after another, looking for the hottest products to improve their faces and bodies in a hundred different ways. If you missed one Nature Republic store, there was another one across the street, and another one a block down. Same for Aritaum, or Etude House, or Olive Young, the Korean drugstore equivalent of Sephora. (There is also one actual Sephora store in Myeongdong.)
Having at least enough knowledge to know I possess either dry or combination skin, I cribbed from lists compiled by Instagram influencers and fashion magazines that featured moisturizing products suited for my particular skin and circumstance. For good measure, I also jotted down whatever the go-to Korean beauty staples seemed to be at that time.
I came home with bags full of products and the generous samples they throw in with all Korean beauty purchases. The clerks knew which items the out-of-towners liked best, so they went straight to offering me creams to prevent wrinkles and concoctions involving snails, since that ingredient was all the rage that year. After taking time to unwrap each product's packaging, I lined up the bottles and tubes and sticks on a mirrored tray on a counter in our vanity area that connected my closet to the bathroom. Almost all these products come with English instructions, so I studied what I was supposed to do with each item. It was complicated, and I struggled in particular with the sequencing of the Laneige Water Bank line, which includes at least ten products. Over the coming months of experimentation, I eventually tried most of the brand's aqua-blue bottled products on my face, but almost definitely not in the correct order or at the frequency and consistency they recommend. Was it toner, then essence, then serum? Eye cream goes last, pretty sure of that. I dabbed that product under my eyes obsessively in the days after I bought it.
The blue bottles of Laneige were encircled on my vanity by a buffet of sheet masks from the beauty retailer Olive Young, and fruit-shaped containers of creams and lip balms from Tonymoly. By my sink, I kept the product I fell most sincerely in love with-a black sugar face scrub from Skinfood and eye cream in a mint-green frosted glass container from belif. K-beauty packaging changes every season, but at the time, Skinfood's dark brown scrub with its paste-like consistency came in a little tub with a screw-on cap. Once a week, I scooped out one glob at a time with my pointer and middle fingers and spread it over my face, standing over my sink wearing a stretchy terry cloth cat ears headband holding my hair back. For thirty minutes I left the surface of my face-everything but the eye area-blanketed by the thick brown-sugary scrub. The sandy mud-looking stuff sent my older daughter into screams and giggles when I approached her. "Momma aaaaaaah!!" she squealed, before bolting in a blaze of laughter. One night, out of curiosity, I reached my tongue over my top lip to taste the scrub, since it was brown-sugar-based, after all. Nope, not sugary sweet. It tasted more like a grainy hair pomade.
My clumsy product testing was strictly out of curiosity, since I was drawn in not as a reporter but as a woman who wanted to try these things and see what they might do for me. I was attracted to the promise of improvement and possibility that came with each series of bottles, to their colors and design. And ultimately, all the dabbling in the products helped me better understand what makes the Korean beauty industry unique. It also underscored just how little about skincare I'd absorbed until that point, probably because I grew up in America during a time when actively frying our skin in tanning beds was the thing to do. Tanning sessions came free with gym memberships in the late 1990s, and I remember tacking tiny palm-tree stickers on my hip to see how tan I got in those pneumatic-tube-looking UV-ray-blasting pods. It seems jaw-droppingly irresponsible now, like how our parents would let us ride bicycles without helmets or down two-liter bottles of Coke.
As I futzed around with my potions, the difference between my cultural understanding of skincare and that of native Koreans could not have been more pronounced. Most middle- and upper-class Korean women my age, in their mid-thirties, had practiced protecting and caring for their skin practically all their lives. My twenty-six-year-old assistant Haeryun, a K-beauty skeptic, shared with me the supposedly correct temperature of water that Koreans believed you should use to wash your face in the morning. The other moms at preschool, as well as my Korean Pilates teacher Soomi, all had go-to facialists for regular treatments and various oils and serums they could recommend off the tops of their heads. These regimens weren't about covering up blemishes, they were about caring for the canvas itself.
The cultural know-how is immense because consumer beauty matters more in Korea than in any other place on earth. South Koreans spend twice as much on skincare products as consumers in the United States, the UK, and France. The entire country is small enough to fit in the space between Los Angeles and San Francisco, but its beauty brands number in the 8,000s. Demand drives a geyser of cosmetic offerings, and a saturated market drives demand, and on and on it cycles. Beauty practices that only recently became common in the West, like microblading eyebrows or laser facials, were mainstream in Korea a decade or more ago. The Korean beauty industry invented the cushion makeup compact now emulated by more established brands like L'Oréal, Clinique, and Lancôme. Same goes for the now widely desired effect of "glowy" or "dewy" skin-an ideal for Korean men and women alike. This is a country and a culture that knows its stuff when it comes to skincare.
Sales success is owed in part to a selling point the K-beauty industry carved out-heritage ingredients-"natural" or herbal product sources that represent a connection to a land's heritage. AmorePacific has staked its Innisfree brand on using plants and other sources grown in Korea-ginseng, fruits, certain herbs, and flowers-to advance skincare and its bottom line. Plantations on Jeju Island grow one such ingredient in abundance, helping sell millions of units and launching an entire product line.
Jeju is South Korea’s southernmost island, a former volcano small enough that it takes only forty-five minutes to drive across it and a few hours to drive its perimeter. Koreans often refer to it as the Hawaii of Korea. Like Hawaii, Jeju impresses with its natural beauty, unpolluted air, and untouched patches of lush greenery.
I ventured to Jeju for the first time about a month after Isa was born, and only five months since our arrival in Seoul. This was a family trip, where the four of us were joined by the Yau family, fellow American expats and new friends we met in Korea. (They became such frequent travel companions that my daughters refer to their kids as their cousins.) I hadn't left my apartment in weeks save for my shopping trip with my brother. So the morning of the flight marked only the second time since Isa's birth I ran a brush through my bird's nest of hair. Isa was strapped to me in a BabyBjörn, her sweaty face pressed to my chest and the steady weight of her sleeping body resting on me for most of the trip.