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HomeTravel 2023Women Who Travel Podcast: Writer Elise Hu on Life in Seoul and...

Women Who Travel Podcast: Writer Elise Hu on Life in Seoul and the Rise of K-Beauty


LA: I think we’re throwing around the term K-Beauty a lot and it’s something I’m super familiar with, partly because I love my products, partly because I work in magazines. Um, but for those who maybe don’t actually really know what the term covers, um, can you demystify it a little bit?

EH: For me, I describe K-Beauty as anything that includes products from Korea, uh, cosmetics, skincare, treatments, tools, and procedures. So, [laughs] Korea is one of the leading exporters of cosmetics in the world, behind just the US and France. So, it’s the world’s third-largest exporter of cosmetics. The most sophisticated surgeries and innovation in procedures, um, for skin and for body are happening in South Korea, which is one of the most advanced and sophisticated cosmetic surgery markets in the world. And so Korean surgery also falls in K-Beauty in my definition.

What was different about Korea was how explicit the lookism was. It’s called lookism there. It’s appearance-based discrimination. So, passport photos come Photoshopped by default when you go and get your photo taken. They automatically Photoshop them. Head shots are required on resumes, for government jobs, for accounting jobs. For non-modeling jobs, head shots will often come on resume. Koreans will refer to their physical selves with the term specs, specs that we use to describe computers or gadgets like, «Oh, I’m gonna improve my specs. What are your specs?»

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So there was a lot of just diagnosis, a lot of ratios and lines of the correct ratios for your face, the correct lines that your silhouette should look like, the correct lines and ratios for your… the thickness of your calf. And then when doctors and industry kind of established those standards, they could then sell you the surgery or the procedure or the injectable or the treatment to fix it, to get to the ideal.

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LA: It’s not just residents of Korea committing to these sorts of procedures. Travelers are also coming from all around the world for shopping and medical tourism, sometimes even starting the process before they’ve left the airport.

EH: You can get off the plane at Incheon Airport and go to their medical tourism center, which is right at the airport, and get a skin analysis. So you’re getting a skin analysis in one of those giant, like, multi-thousand-dollar machines, which they’re like, «Ooh, you should probably fix this.» You know, like, «Oh, I can really those UV, that UV damage in this particular part of your cheek.»

LA: That is wild. I also can’t think of anything worse than getting off a flight from, like, New York to Seoul and then… [laughs]

EH: And then getting your s-

LA: Like, stuff of nightmares.

EH: [laughs] So, there are these brokers. There’s an entire network of brokers who offer concierge services to those outside of Korea, to, to foreigners to come into Korea to get a suite of treatments. There’s concierge brokers that provide translation services. If you do choose a, a surgery, they, they can kind of be at your side and be the first people that you see when you come out of anesthesia. And all of these brokers are paid for by the doctors, so you pay nothing for all of this extra translation and concierge help. And, and I write in the book, you know, when you’re not paying for the product, you might be the product. This is something that is really deliberate to try and lure people in to Korea.

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