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The Cost of Beauty Culture with Elise Hu

Haley Paskalides  |  August 16, 2023

Beauty culture is a form of labor – and we’re paying for it. Elise Hu gets real about the true cost of perfection.

We all know that it’s MUCH more expensive to be a woman than it is to be a man. Just how much more? $300,000 more, to be exact — but one thing our list doesn’t include is plastic surgery. And as you might have guessed, more women than men go under the knife to achieve the look they want. Perhaps no one knows this better than Elise Hu, author of the new book: “Flawless: Lessons in Looks and Culture from the K-Beauty Capital.” 

Hu says that women are barraged with images of what the “ideal” woman should look like — and it’s taking a toll on our self-confidence and our wallets. Nearly 1 in 4 people in the U.S. have had at least one cosmetic procedure, and people ages 30-44 are willing to spend $10,000 up to $100,000 to achieve their “dream feature,” according to a survey from RealSelf. That survey also found that while the majority of men see plastic surgery as fake and vain, the majority of women see it as a form of self-improvement, an empowered personal choice, and a way to build confidence. 

But the U.S. is hardly the epicenter of the plastic surgery industry — that title goes to South Korea, home of the famous 10-step K-beauty routine). Seoul leads the world in plastic surgery rates, and the K-beauty industry is projected to be worth a whopping $14 billion by 2027. When Elise Hu was working as the NPR bureau chief responsible for coverage of North Korea, South Korea, and Japan, she experienced this culture firsthand. 

Hu says that immediately upon arriving in South Korea she was confronted everywhere with enticing “before and after” images of exactly what the “perfect” Korean woman should be. (Of course, these images also came with guidance on the plastic surgery and procedures you’d need to get there!) As a Taiwanese-American with freckles who didn’t always fit into South Korea’s super-small clothing, Hu says this was a difficult experience. 

Overall, the constant bombardment of messages that encourage us to look “better than ever” are positively dangerous, Hu says. And the true danger is that today “we can treat our bodies in the ways that we have treated fashion, where we go in and we get updates,” Hu explains. “It really is this constant project of having to improve.” Hu gets real about why we should all seek to challenge “beauty culture,” and think more critically about things like “the four pillars of beauty.” (They are: thinness, firmness, smoothness, and youth,  as defined by beauty researcher, Heather Widdows.) 

In Mailbag, we hear from a listener who has a 401(k) plan from a previous employer and isn’t sure what to do with it next. We also hear from a listener who is 72 and looking for advice on where they can splurge a little (new car, anyone?) In our money tip of the week, we go over how to decide when is the right time to sell a stock


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All advisory services offered through Financial Engines Advisors L.L.C. (FEA), a federally registered investment advisor. Results are not guaranteed. AM1969416

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