5 Minute Focus: Elise Hu on Beauty & 'Flawless'

Former NPR Seoul bureau chief, Hu's upcoming book 'Flawless investigates K-beauty and our relationship with fashion, beauty

Welcome to the second Notes on K-Pop interview! This is a five-minute segment featuring industry talent and insiders discussing their relationship and feelings about a certain topic for five minutes freely via voice note with no interruptions. You can listen to the short interview, or read an English-language transcript.

In this edition,  writer, NPR journalist, and Ted Talks Daily host Elise Hu ruminates on beauty, the broader topic her more specifically K-beauty-focused book, Flawless: Lessons and Looks and Culture from the K-Beauty Capital, explores. Quasi memoir, quasi industry history and investigation, Flawless arrives on May 23.

I spoke to Hu on background for the book years ago, exploring beauty’s impact, and cost, on K-pop, a topical explored in the second half of the book.  Although Flawless is focused more broadly than K-pop, I wanted to flag this as a book worth reading for Notes on K-pop readers, and appreciate Elise taking her time to put some thoughts into a voice note for me.

You can buy Flawless from your local retailers or request it from your local library, or from Hu’s site. You can also attend any of the several promotional events, with more details available here.

If you’d like to listen to, or read the transcript of, the first Notes on K-pop 5 Minutes Focus, you can find it here. It is bittersweet, however, so please proceed with caution as it features Astro’s Sanha and Moonbin, who we lost too soon.

Elise Hu (00:01): Hey, so I'm monologuing on beauty. Beauty, so often, especially when we think about this visual world in this time that we live in where we're just barraged by images and we see more images of ourself, whether it's on Zoom or on social media, we're seeing images of ourselves more than ever. Beauty so easily gets conflated to appearance and how our external or our physical bodies appear.

Hu (00:28): But what I want to do is, and especially by the time I get to the end of my book, what I really want to do is expand our notion of beauty and remind y'all that beauty is not just appearance. Beauty is far more nuanced and expansive than that, right? It's also kind of, if you think about art, and if you think about nature and that which we find beautiful there, it cannot be reduced to just simple formulas of, oh, having a narrow waste or having smooth skin.

Cover of 'Flawless', featuring the title and Elise Hu's name in white font atop of a stereotypically beautiful Asian, ostensibly Korean, face, with thin white markup

Hu (01:00): Beauty can be spiritual beauty can be surprising. It can help expand our perspective. And so what we really ought to do is break the link between appearance and worth, between appearance and beauty, because appearance and beauty are two different things. And when I talk to my kids, I sort of tell them, as we saw in Korea, in our experience living there for nearly four years, constantly they were being told things like, ‘oh, you're beautiful,’ and ‘Did you get your eyelash- [or] Did you get eyelash extensions?’ Because I guess some people assume that maybe a three year old would get eyelash extensions. That was something that was really confusing and conflating for young kids because they immediately learned that, ‘Oh gosh, to be pretty is to be good.’ And we so often conflate beauty with morality, like people who are meeting the conventional prettiness standards of the day are more deferred to, they are more listened to.

Hu (02:04): They are seen as more competent. They are given more personal space study after study shows this. But if we are affording people a pretty privilege, then that means those who don't fit in and don't measure up are then marginalized and left out. And I don't want to see a society that d discriminates against people for their looks because we show up how we're going to show up and we should be safe and be free in our bodies no matter how they appear. And so by the time I get to the end of my book, Flawless: Lessons and Looks and Culture from the K-Beauty Capital, one key lesson is that when we do appearance work that is labor, it's hustle culture on our bodies, and we have to really examine whether we want to spend our time and our energy and our money this way. It's totally logical. It's totally logical

Hu (02:58): To try and get your armpit colorized or your asshole bleached or your she skull reshaped. And the K beauty capital of soul promises and offers all the ways to do that. But these are choices that we make that then mean an opportunity cost. It means that we can't spend time and energy somewhere else, and time is a really important lever of our freedom. And so I think of beauty work as maintenance that once you begin, you really can't stop often. So it's true for Botox, it's true for shaving your legs or hair removal in general, that once you start, you often can't stop.

Hu: (03:38): So when you think about beauty work, one way to think about it is, ‘Do I want to do this forever?’ And, ‘This is work that I'm not just doing for free. It's work that I'm paying to do.’ So progress to me would look like being able to opt out of beauty work without having to pay a price. And right now, especially for trans people for instance, or black people or fat people, it's not necessarily safe to appear in our bodies just as they are because of the marginalization and the discrimination that happens as a result. And so I want to, my affirmative vision for the world is being able to show up just as we are, as our full flawed selves and still be considered worthy. And that to me is a beautiful thing.