Issue 71: Writing towards a soul-driven beauty culture with Elise Hu
One of the first times I spoke with Elise Hu was when my sister and I interviewed her in 2017 for our podcast, Sweet and Sour. At the time, she was living in Seoul, South Korea as the NPR bureau chief. Her time there became the basis of her new book, Flawless: Lessons in Looks and Culture from the K-Beauty Capital. I was so excited to talk with Elise about her reporting and writing process, the many facets of beauty culture, and how we can interrogate our own notions of beauty to make us more rooted in our bodies and communities. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Nicole Zhu: Can you introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about your book?
Elise Hu: I am a journalist and podcaster, and I was the founding Korea Bureau chief for NPR. I moved there in the beginning of 2015 and worked there for nearly four years covering North Korea, South Korea, and Japan. My time in Korea is now a jumping off point for my nonfiction book, Flawless: Lessons in Looks and Culture from the K-Beauty Capital.
NZ: Coming from a background in radio and video, what made you want to tell Flawless as a full-fledged book? What was it about this story that demanded a different form?
EH: I felt like I had so much unfinished business. Beauty is, I think, often thought of as a soft topic or something that's relegated to women's magazines. But if you think about it more deeply, how we show up in the world ends up being tied into so many larger systems of politics, of economics, of global justice. As I found in Korea, there's another -ism that Isn't talked about and labeled very often, and it's called “lookism.” It’s the umbrella for fatphobia and other kinds of injustices that happen because we are judged by our appearance.
I would cover these stories about K-pop and its expansion across the world or do a quick story about the thinness standard among K-pop stars, or any newfangled technologies and innovation that were coming out of Korea as part of the Hallyu wave of K-Culture being expanded across the world. A book is where I could tie all of that together and actually help people see that there's all these transnational systems at work that teach us and guide us on how we're supposed to look. They then lead us into judging each other and judging ourselves for our appearance in a way that can be really alienating and also marginalizes those who can't fit the conventional norms.
NZ: Flawless includes reporting, memoir, and cultural commentary. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how you balanced all those different subject areas and how you braided those together in the book.
EH: You're one of the first people to ask me a little bit about the writing of it itself! I didn't go into the (nonfiction book) proposal for Flawless expecting to include as much personal reflection or memoir. The memoir bits are a bit of a pandemic hack. It was a solution I had to find because I couldn't do as much on the ground reporting in Seoul as I intended. I sold the book on the very last day New York was open in March of 2020. I took almost the very, very last in-person meeting at Penguin Random House before the office shut down and everybody was sent home at one PM on a Wednesday.
After that, my whole ambition in the proposal that I sold—to go and interview 500 Korean women, to set up in a park and put up a sign and talk to anybody who would come up to me, to follow a high school graduate from the point of coming to the decision of getting the double eyelid surgery and following her through her journey and recovery—all of that had to go by the wayside. For me to go back at all in 2021 to do the reporting that was necessary for the completion of the writing, I had to get a quarantine exemption. It was a very bureaucratic process because Korea was under a mandatory 14 day quarantine for two years, if not more. I'm so appreciative of all the folks who helped with the quarantine exemption such that I could even do the reporting to get the project done.
As a journalist, I'm so trained to be on the other side of the curtain and not make myself part of the story. But ultimately, when I read Flawless back for the audiobook not too long ago, I thought that some of the memoir bits were my favorite because they hopefully will resonate with the readers, but also help you and others understand where I'm coming from. This is not just some random disembodied voice presenting the journalism. I'm a flesh and blood human and I have the same bodily anxieties and shame that I have to deal with and try to heal from over time.
NZ: In your introduction, you reference this idea of “speaking nearby,” a concept brought forward by the filmmaker Trinh T. Minh-ha. It’s an approach when making art about a culture that’s not your own, the idea that you can only speak in proximity rather than trying to assume a position of authority. As a Chinese and Taiwanese American expat living in South Korea writing about K-Beauty, you note your “nearness is nuanced.” How did you embody this “speaking nearby” ethos while working on Flawless?
EH: I think bearing in mind first and foremost of this conflict and the perspective that I'm coming from—and then being very transparent about my perspective—was really important to me from the start. As much as I could, I wanted to rely on the voices of Korean women. I also talked to a lot more people than the voices that actually made it in the book. I ended up talking to hundreds of sources, and the Korean women I spoke to range in age from 7-73. It's journalistic training. I did my best to synthesize what they were telling me and the big themes that were emerging.
But also, there were times where our experiences actually overlapped. Because I did also live and work in Korea as an Asian presenting woman, I faced much of the same sexism and misogyny. I think I could get a pass sometimes because they'd be like, “Oh, you're just a foreigner.” But I still felt the judgment. These comments about my appearance came unsolicited constantly, especially the freckles and being large. Just being yelled, “Large size, large size” when you're passing by storefronts is a lot!
NZ: This book tackles so many different subjects: the history of K-Beauty and how South Korean beauty standards were formed, globalism, beauty tourism, the feminist movement, appearance discrimination, the wisdom of ajummas (one of my favorite chapters). How did you decide on these specific topics to include in the book? Was there any section in particular that you found the most compelling?
EH: It's interesting that you brought up the ajummas in the aging chapter, because that was the one chapter that I added after reporting. It turned out that the ajummas and older women actually have so much to teach us about how to really be embodied, to care for our bodies in a way that is really soul-driven and not ego-driven, as I write about.
The original proposal didn't address aging at all. I found in the reporting that it was actually that particular cohort—those who are post menopausal and out of the target of beauty marketing—that can demonstrate a positive relationship with the body that isn't undergirded by competition or comparison, but instead, a self-care that’s about self-preservation and expression in a way that is not tied to consumption or spending.
NZ: Two of your three daughters were born in South Korea. You have a chapter that talks about the expansion of skincare and makeup for children and throughout the book, you also talk about how your daughters are absorbing beauty culture and how that really shapes your thinking about this topic. How would you describe your relationship between parenting and writing?
EH: Oh, gosh! I learn from my kids all the time. I just feel like this is so difficult to encapsulate because it's kind of esoteric, right? But one of my initial reactions to the beauty culture in South Korea wasn't the way that people were reacting to me. It was the way people were reacting to my daughters. There was this assumption, for instance, of beauty work for even three-year-olds being normal, because I was asked whether my three-year-old daughter had eyelash extensions.
I remember my daughter getting complimented on her looks so much at 4 or 5, and then her turning to mirrors and saying, “Oh, is it because of my eyelashes?” She was already learning what other people were valuing and then seeing herself as an object rather than the subject of her own story. Seeing that happen to somebody else who's very close to me, who comes from me, made it seem ever more important to take a deeper look at all of this and the forces behind it, and then what we could do to liberate them from it.
I should acknowledge they are conventionally cute, so it will be easier for them in a lookist society just to move around in spaces. But that's not enough, because we all live in community with one another, and I don't want a world in which appearances are so deeply linked to worth. There's so much marginalization, but also it keeps all of us anxious and exhausted trying to keep up with these standards.
I was thinking about New Year's resolutions. If you look at diaries of young girls from one hundred years ago, they tended to be, “I want to think before I speak” or “I want to be more generous towards my family.” They were these character-based goals. Now, our resolutions tend to be about our looks, “I want to increase my muscle mass” or “I want to lose weight.” These resolutions continue to conflate our self with our outsides.
NZ: Even as we're getting into warmer months, right? I hate the concept of a beach body. For every season, there’s going to be some marketed way to us to be unhappy about our bodies and, like you said, link our sense of self-worth with our exterior.
EH: Marketed is such a key word because if you problematize a thing, then you can sell a solution to the problem. That is where Korea really excels because it is not only a giant in exporting image, it's also a giant in exporting medical and technological advances to improve your aesthetics. That's not necessarily just serums and products and cosmetics. It's also diagnostic tools like skin analysis, wands, light therapy, and injectables, where they have a far larger buffet of options and surgeries.
NZ: You conclude the book with a really wonderful exploration of what a more inclusive and equitable beauty culture looks like that doesn't have competition or capitalism at its heart, and instead “governed by an ethic of consent, community and connection.” Could you talk about some of the things you think can help us achieve that future?
EH: First, it's just labeling and awareness more than anything else. We talked earlier in this conversation that sometimes beauty culture is so familiar to us that we don't even notice it. It is logical for a South Korean woman to go under the knife, because it is an extreme beauty culture. When I say beauty culture, I mean a system of beliefs that ties beauty to political capital, economic capital, social capital. There is a cost if you don't participate in the culture. We saw that with the #escapethecorset feminists that I write about in the book. But this reinforces appearance-based discrimination and all sorts of other discrimination: fatphobia, xenophobia, racism, classism, and sexism.
From there, I think we have to interrogate all the ways that we are hard on ourselves or we don't show up fully in our bodies because we are ashamed of how we look. There are times where I haven't left my house because I was feeling body shame in one way or the other. You multiply that by a populace and that is a serious social problem.
The other way to think about it is that, when we start having to work on our appearance, whether that's plucking and waxing, multi-step skincare routines, hair bleaching and dying, or whatever we're doing to our bodies—and this is stopping short of surgery—a lot of that aesthetic labor is not just labor that we're doing for free. It's labor that we're paying to do. That's one of the reasons why I won't Botox because I think of beauty work in this frame of maintenance that once you start you can't stop, and then it costs a lot of money, time, and energy. Time is a really important thing to think about, because it's such a lever of our freedom.
If you're spending two hours in the morning getting ready for the day, imagine all the other ways that you could be using those two hours. Is that how you want to use your time? For so many Korean women, there's no choice. They have to look that way. For trans women that I talked to, they said, “To be safe out in the world, I have to look more femme.” I have to acknowledge even being able to opt out is a privilege, because I'm a conventionally-looking cisgendered woman.
I write about a choice that I often make when it comes to treatments or procedures: “Does this make me feel like I'm taking a step deeper into myself and who I am? Is this good for my soul?” or “Am I doing this because I'm scared of the judgment of others or I’m trying to keep up with the Joneses or the Zhangs?”
That would be a soul-driven choice vs. an ego-driven choice. I think lots of our choices when it comes to aesthetics, especially if it's towards a sameness (the sameness that the filters present us), I think those tend to be ego-driven. I feel like so much of aesthetic labor is hustle culture but reaching into the sinews of our bodies.
My argument is actually to take a beat and rest and consider self-care as care for others, because we aren’t islands. If there's one thing that the coronavirus pandemic taught us, it's that we're actually quite relational and connected people. We are better when we think of our communities as webs and not hierarchy, and any time we need it, to ask for help and to be gentle with ourselves.
NZ: I really appreciate how you acknowledge how much beauty can be restorative. It's a point of connection and care, and the thing we're fighting is actually homogeneity. Beauty is difference, and how we foster that in ourselves and each other is, I think, a really beautiful thing.
EH: Exactly, don't prioritize your appearance over your own physical and emotional well-being. But if it actually helps, then great! I am now militant about sunscreen because I do feel like I'm protecting my skin from sun damage for the future. This is a foundational need of mine to have skin that's safe from melanoma going forward. For older women, especially because women are outliving men, sometimes the touch of a beauty worker is the only time they are touched by anyone in the course of a day or in the course of a week. So this is not a polemic! It’s an exploration that asks us to think about it in a more philosophical way.
NZ: You’ve been connecting with other authors in your “class” who are debuting at the same time. How's that journey been?
EH: It’s an emotional rollercoaster but it's 85% awesome. It's so much more fun to have a book finished and put it out into the world than be alone in my bedroom, hunched over my laptop, trying to write it, getting all of the citations right, and fact-checking it. That was brutal! It did not suit my personality. I have a very extroverted personality. I like to be in communication and in relation with others. It felt really isolating, alienating, and tedious to write alone. I'm so glad to be at this part of it.
What I mean by the rollercoaster is that, especially because I have a class of other authors that are debuting at the same time, I feel like I do have to look out for competitive envy a lot. I actually have to check myself and just really enjoy the ride. I'm overall just so grateful for this opportunity to connect with people and to talk about the book, talk about its ideas. And then also just to see my friends! As you probably know, publishers are not very keen on supporting book tours or events because the ROI (return on investment) is not good. But there's a bunch of events for Flawless only because my squad was so enthusiastic about participating somehow. I'm just filled with gratitude.
Rapid fire questions!
NZ: Tell me about your writing routine.
EH: I have no writing routine. I wrote this book in the hours after the girls went down for bed in the years that I was Zoom schooling them during the day and just absolutely harried. I wrote this book, as I mentioned in the acknowledgments, just in the most turbulent period of my life.
It helps me as a writer to be out in the world. So one thing that I was really disciplined about was just continuing to socialize when I could—when we weren't locked down—and to be in conversation with other journalists, to be in conversation with Korean Americans about the book because they were often giving me ideas.
I think all work and no play makes a really boring journalist. If I were to break down my writing routine, I don't have an easy answer but I have a couple general practices. One is to continue to just be alive and live in the world and engage. Two is to read a lot. So I was constantly reading, and I think reading really informs my writing. Three is, any time I was feeling a lot of anxiety, I would try and get outside and move. These sound like they’re not specifically writing tips, but they are because I think that everything is connected—our creativity and our intellect is really connected to our full selves.
NZ: What are three things that are bringing you joy right now?
EH: I’m very excited that NCT Dream, the K-pop group, has covered H.O.T's “Candy.” That song is an absolute banger. The other is gardening. I got one of those moisture meters you can stick down into the root level of the plant and it'll tell you wet, dry, or moist. It's such a delight for me, and I've never been somebody who has taken care of plants at all. I’ve just been so bad at it, but then they were really suffering after my dad left town. This panic actually led me to find my new joy. Finally, my daughters. They're all constantly growing, changing, and finding things each day. My eldest daughter just discovered volleyball and she's playing a team sport for the first time. Seeing her discover something new, and then want to practice at it and be in a team, brings me a lot of joy.
NZ: What are you reading right now that you can't stop thinking about?
EH: [holds up Crying in H Mart] I'm late to this. I'm embarrassed.
NZ: Oh, so good. Are you crying? I cried so much. I read that in the depths of the pandemic. I wasn't ready.
EH: Well, it's making me call my mom a lot. We don't have that much time left with our parents, no matter what, and it's just all a gift. A lot of that Asian Mom stuff has resonated with me. God, I'm getting emotional just thinking about it.
You can find Elise at her author website and on social media: Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok. Subscribe to the Flawless newsletter for updates and behind-the-scenes lessons about her publishing journey. Preorder Flawless, out May 23 (next week!!), anywhere books are available!
- I did an interview with Write or Die Magazine about lit mags, submissions, changing my relationship to rejection, and my love of tuna sandwiches! I love their Subs and Chill series where writers are given the opportunity to talk more openly about the publishing process.
- Why you should always read the acknowledgments in books: “I love knowing how the author came to the book, who they spoke to and who in their lives made it easier for them to write.”
- “10 Tips For Applying to Writing Residencies” by Alex Park
- A fascinating profile of Bookshop.org, its founder, Andy Hunter, and how it survives (and thrives) in an ecommerce world dominated by Amazon.
- Rachel Lyon on the question of whether any story is too private to use in one’s work: “Here’s what fiction can do: set our baffling conduct in relief, in the hope of seeing it a little more clearly. Drive toward truth via the bending roads of falsehood.”
Recent reads & other media
I loved Flawless by Elise Hu (of course)! I got my sister into Never Have I Ever since the new season is coming out in a few weeks. We watched the movie adaptation of Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret. Not only is it a really faithful adaptation of the book, as Shirley Li writes, “it’s also a subtle examination of how, for women, growing up can be a never-ending experience.”
I care very little about the monarchy tbh but found myself reading The Princess Trap by Talia Hibbert (a fake kingdom a la The Princess Diaries) and watching Queen Charlotte on Netflix (not my favorite romance but I loved how it talked more about loneliness, women’s friendships, and ~gardens~).
Recently read short stories: “Julia” by Ada Zhang, “The Date” by Jessie Ren Marshall, and “What Next” by Vauhini Vara
Note: Book links are connected to my Bookshop affiliate page. If you purchase a book from there, you'll be supporting my work and local independent bookstores!
~ meme myself and i ~
How each of the Roy siblings say “uh huh.” TV shows and movies need to expand their vocabulary. Just taking it one day at a time!! When you mispronounce a word and your friend can’t continue the conversation. Jimmy Johnathon WHY! I just want to impress Zari on Duolingo.