Elise Hu: The Beauty Ideal – KUAR

Elise Hu: The Beauty Ideal – KUAR

About The Episode

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But it's also shaped by global norms. This hour, journalist Elise Hu reflects on what's considered beautiful now, and how we'll think about beauty in the future.

About Elise Hu

Elise Hu is host of the TED Talks Daily podcast. She is a former international correspondent for NPR and served as our first Seoul bureau-chief. Elise hosted the NPR video series Future You with Elise Hu which explored technologies of the future. She continues to serve as host-at-large for NPR and has recently dived into topics like fast fashion, meditation and habit formation for the NPR program Life Kit. Elise is also the co-founder of Reasonable Volume, a podcast production company. She is currently writing a book exploring beauty, consumerism and womanhood.

Featured Segments

Teagan and Keisha Simpson: Our Body Image and Social Media

Twin sisters Teagan and Keisha Simpson have grown up in the age of social media where photo editing and filters are the norm. They say the omnipresence of "perfect" photos can lead to a negative body image, anxiety, and depression so they created a campaign encouraging people to "live life unfiltered."

Sasah Sarago: The (de)colonizing Of Beauty

Sasha Sarago is an Aboriginal Australian writer and model. She invites us to reflect on the colonization of beauty and reconsider the Eurocentric beauty ideals prevalent around the world.

Hari Nef : The Aesthetics of Survival

Trans model, actress, and writer Hari Nef explains how appearing femme is often a means of survival for many trans women. She counters second-wave feminist critiques of extremely feminine aesthetics and argues that presenting as femme does not make anyone a "bad feminist."

Paul Knoepfler: The Ethical Dilemma of Designer Babies

Genetically modified humans could be a reality in the next 10 years, estimates biologist Paul Knoepfler. He asks, what are the implications of using gene editing to alter our offspring, from their risk of disease to their height and eye color?

This episode of TED Radio Hour was produced by Sylvie Douglis, James Delahoussaye and Rachel Faulkner. It was edited by Sanaz Meshkinpour and Jeff Rogers.

Our production staff also includes Katie Monteleone, Diba Mohtasham Matthew Cloutier, and Fiona Geiran. Our intern is Harrison Vijay Tsui. Our audio engineer is Daniel Shukin.


It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And on the show today, ideas about beauty.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: I have been thinking about beauty culture and appearance standards a lot these days - how much beauty means to us, not just as women or men, but as society.

ZOMORODI: If this voice sounds familiar, it's because you've heard her all over NPR. It's our very own Elise Hu. And in 2015, Elise moved to Korea to open up NPR's bureau in Seoul, a city which, in the past few years, has emerged as a cosmetics and skin care superpower.

HU: When I first got to Seoul, the sort of pervasiveness and dominance of a really specific beauty standard and beauty norms was everywhere. The night I got to Seoul, I was staying in Myeong-dong, which happens to be the makeup district, where every store is lit up, up and down the street, by images of skin care products and women with these sort of alabaster skin faces. And every single store is the name of some sort of makeup brand. And so you can have kind of the face shop across from another face shop across from another face shop. And so it's like trick-or-treat, but for skin care products. So it was made very obvious to me as soon as I landed in Korea, the dominance of the skin care industry, but also appearance standards and the importance of looking a certain way.

ZOMORODI: Elise wanted to see what it was like to follow all these Korean beauty trends. And so she did in a series called "Elise Tries."


HU: Skin care in South Korea is serious business, with South Korean women spending twice as much of their income on beauty products as American women.

Really go in for the excavation. Oh, yeah. I think she's getting my nose pores. Mmm hmm. Oh, geez, you can hear it. Oh, dear. Oh, geez. I can actually feel stuff being sucked up.

I want this off my face so bad because I feel like I'm, like - I'm feeling a little claustrophobic. Oh, my gosh.

ZOMORODI: Today, Elise is writing a book about beauty - particularly K-beauty, as it's called.

HU: I'm really fascinated by it. And I'm fascinated by the power of beauty ideals, politically, economically, but most important, culturally.

ZOMORODI: Which is why we've invited her to be our guide on this episode. Because not only is she on NPR and researching this topic, Elise also hosts the "TED Talks Daily" podcast. So she watches a lot of TED talks.

Elise, you are going to take us through a selection of TED talks about beauty norms or questioning the beauty ideal, not just in Korea, but all over the world. And there are so many layers to this topic, right?

HU: Yes. Yes. So I went to Korea. I learned all of this stuff. But I didn't want to simply eviscerate Korean beauty because I take the industry and its growth and the influence of beauty really seriously. And I think that the pursuit of beauty is kind of a tentpole of the modern female experience, right? And my hope is just to kind of really take it seriously and make room in our conversations and in our minds for thinking through it and how the so-called beauty industrial complex plays a role in our experiences and our identities, right?

We see so many digital images all the time flashing before us. And that kind of helps solidify norms of how we should appear in our sort of consciousness, right? And what I really wanted to dig into is the work that it takes to appear, quote, unquote, "beautiful." It requires a lot of maintenance. It requires a lot of work. And it requires a lot of spending money on products or makeup or procedures. And that's just to kind of keep up with the Joneses - right? - of appearance standards. Because if you don't sort of meet those aesthetic norms, that'll cost you.


ZOMORODI: So we want to kick off our conversation with a talk about the influence that social media has had on how people think of beauty and also the sort of mental health for mostly young women. So the first talk is by two twins who live in Canada - Teagan and Keisha Simpson. They gave a talk in 2019 called "Can Our Body Image Handle Social Media?"


KEISHA SIMPSON: Different ages use and interact with Instagram differently. For example, if we were all to pull out our phones right now, what you would see on your account would be very different from what I would see because it all depends on who you follow. I'm going to take the guess the majority of you don't follow hundreds of young women.

TEAGAN SIMPSON: But I do. When I go on Instagram, I'm overwhelmed by photos of girls my age, many of which are posed and perfected versions of my friends and mere acquaintances. What a teenage girl sees on Instagram is drastically different from what the average adult sees. And over time, scrolling through these photos can really take a toll on your self-esteem. With a quick Google search, we found numerous studies that link social media to increasing levels of anxiety, depression, loneliness and body image issues in young women. But could our friends really be feeling this way, too?

K SIMPSON: No. No way. There's no way. Because when we go on Instagram, what we see are happy, beautiful and confident people. There's no way that these girls are going through the same thing that we are. Yet the more we researched and Googled, the more concern we felt.

ZOMORODI: Elise, just listening to these young women is stressing me out because there are many worrying studies that link social media to depression, even suicidal thoughts, especially for teenage girls. But there might be some people who are thinking, well, then just don't go on social media. How would you explain it to people who maybe just don't understand what young women are dealing with these days?

HU: Well, this visual culture doesn't just get propagated on Instagram or on TikTok or places where teenagers spend time, right? How we look and how we're supposed to look is communicated in so many different channels and across so many different ways that we receive images and are bombarded with images. So all of us are part of it universally because all of us are connected to the web, you know, in the developed world. And all of us are kind of being fed images constantly. So even if you think that you are not part of this sort of cycle of imagery and the norm-setting, you are.


ZOMORODI: OK. So another thing that Teagan and Keisha bring up is just how common it is today to edit and filter yourself - your photos - on social media.


K SIMPSON: The biggest surprise for Teagan and I was how many young women admitted to using Photoshop regularly. I could go on right now, and in a few moments, I could have a photo of myself with longer legs, a thinner waist. I could remove acne, remove a fat roll. Or I could even give myself that perfectly round butt that everyone is talking about.

T SIMPSON: Now, these issues aren't new. We've been comparing ourselves to photoshopped images forever. I'm sure many of us have been in a grocery store where we opened up a magazine, scanning through pages of perfectly photoshopped, beautiful people. But what if you opened up these magazines and the photos were of your friends?

ZOMORODI: Elise, from what I understand, one of the most popular photo editing apps, Facetune, reportedly had 20% more usage, as they say, at the start of the pandemic, and then - I'll make a little confession here that I was spending so much time on Zoom and was so tired during the pandemic that I did use the Zoom filter to make my skin look a little better.

HU: And why not?

ZOMORODI: Well, I don't know. It's not - you know, in the name of truth, like, where do we start to draw the line? What have you been hearing about this? Like, and to what extremes will people go to try to make what is fake - let's just call it that - a reality?

HU: Yeah. So one of the questions that I'm asking is, A, where do we draw the line when it comes to self-improvement? That's a key question. But B, because the norms that we're seeing on Zoom or on Instagram or on TikTok are so enhanced, then what we start believing is normal becomes more and more narrow, right? Because everybody's skin is enhanced. You know, everybody's chin is a little bit thinner.

And researchers say that there's kind of a global mean. There are four aspects of beauty that, irrespective of where you are in the world, people aspire to. And it's smoothness, firmness, thinness and youth. And the thinness can be relative to your population. So thin in Asia is thinner than, say, thin in Northern Europe. And what results is that all women, and increasingly numbers of men, need surgical and non-surgical technical fixes if we are to be perfect like those filters, right? Even just good enough is getting harder to achieve as these norms become more and more dominant because it makes it harder for us to resist.

ZOMORODI: You know, it makes me think, like, as with many things with technology, at least here in the U.S., there is very little oversight. And I read with total fascination that Norway recently passed a law that says influencers and brands must identify photos on social media that have been retouched. And, you know, just to go back to Keisha and Teagan Simpson, they kind of had a similar idea. More of a grassroots way of going about it, but they challenged people to post untouched photos of themselves and to see what that feels like.


K SIMPSON: What if we could improve the Instagram experience? Could we balance the perfected photos with unfiltered ones? Last year, we ran a campaign to do just this. It was called the As She Is challenge, where young women are encouraged to post an unfiltered photo to our hashtag, #AsSheIs.

T SIMPSON: This is a typical post from one participant's Instagram account. Clearly, she's beautiful. But on the day of the challenge, this is the photo she chose to post. Vulnerable and courageous, she talks about her facial acne and her use of filters to cover it up. This young woman's willingness to be unfiltered made a real impact on her followers, and admittedly, also herself. From our experience, when young women are willing to be vulnerable, they express a sense of relief, freedom from accepting and admitting that they have insecurities.


HU: I applaud these women, and I support that they are trying to keep the window of what's normal inclusive of how we really look. Because one of my concerns as somebody who's now researching beauty is that our appearance norms, especially because of filters, become so far removed from actually what we normally look like. And so I love that they are maintaining a space and, in fact, encouraging all of us to show up as we really are.


ZOMORODI: When we come back, more from Elise Hu on interrogating the beauty ideal. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you are listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

It's the TED Radio Hour. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and I am so pleased to be spending the hour with longtime journalist Elise Hu. She is the host of TED Talks Daily, and she is working on a book about beauty norms, beauty standards and why we think someone is beautiful but not someone else and all the work we have to do to be, quote-unquote, "beautiful," right, Elise?

HU: That's right. You packed a lot into that, and thank you.

ZOMORODI: OK. So the next TED Talk that you have brought us, it's a fascinating one. It is from a woman named Sasha Sarago. She is an Aboriginal writer and model in Australia, and she gave this talk in 2020. And so just let's get right into it. Sasha starts off telling a story from a few decades earlier when she was a preteen at a friend's birthday party, and a friend's sister asked her the question, so what's your background?


SASHA SARAGO: And, like any proud Aboriginal child would declare, I'm Aboriginal. Given the reaction of the room, being Aboriginal was clearly a dirty word. And at the tender age of 11, I was told by my best friend's adult sister that I was too pretty to be Aboriginal. By this time, my mouth is dry. My blood is boiling. And I'm trying so hard to fight back what feels like an ocean of tears. I calmly join my circle of friends and begin to (laughter) fake laugh at whatever is funny to mask my embarrassment as I clutch on to my newfound complex.

And this is why we need to change our perceptions of beauty. And how we do this is by learning from Aboriginal women, their stories and perspectives, because right now pretty hurts. Pretty hurts because you're trying to erase my Aboriginality to applaud my proximity to whiteness. Pretty hurts because, aimed at an Aboriginal woman, it is a weapon loaded in racism, sexual exploitation and cultural genocide. You see; what this woman didn't realize when she declared that I was too pretty to be Aboriginal is that she took something precious from me - pride in my identity. You see; I belong to the oldest living culture in the world, but that day, that legacy, it was replaced with shame. And it's been this filthy stain I've been trying to get rid of for 20 years.


HU: That really resonates with me so much and is arguably responsible for why I still wrestle with these questions of beauty because when I was a teenager, I remember - I'm an Asian American and so not part of the dominant group, especially not in suburban Texas, where I grew up. And I remember when I was in 9th or 10th grade, a boy said to me, you're pretty hot for an Oriental. So that kind of just backhanded compliment-slash-out-grouping at the same time, you know, it does make you feel and internalize a sense of shame. And that's such a shame, right?

ZOMORODI: Yeah. And, actually, Sasha goes right on to say that the way that Aboriginal women define beauty is completely different. She actually goes on to tell a traditional story about a fisherwoman named Barangaroo, a famously defiant female ancestor who lived in the 18th century.


SARAGO: Barangaroo, like the other Eora women, took pride in their status as being main food providers for their tribe. A skillful and patient fisherwoman, Barangaroo would access Sydney Harbor and its surrounding waters for its abundant food supply, only taking what was needed. So you can just imagine how furious Barangaroo was when she saw British colonists trawl 4,000 salmon off the north shore in just one day, then gifting some of this catch to her husband and some of the other men from her tribe. Barangaroo knew such a wasteful act would threaten the Eora women's cultural authority within the tribe, furthermore destroying their traditional way of life.

So Barangaroo rejected British laws and customs, their food, drink and social etiquette, even when her husband decided to conform. When Barangaroo and her husband Bennelong was invited to dine with Governor Philip and the British party, Barangaroo stayed true to who she was. Instead of wearing colonial attire - a tight corset and a gown layered in silk - she came sporting her traditional wears - white ochre and a bone through her nose. What Barangaroo illustrated was Indigenous beauty is authentic.


ZOMORODI: What a beautiful story.

HU: Yeah.

ZOMORODI: And I love that it's passed on through the generations as something to sort of hold onto, that beautiful can be defined in different ways by different cultures. Do you know of any other cultures in which, I guess, very specific beauty ideals have held strong in the face of more - sort of the more homogenous, Eurocentric, Western look?

HU: Yeah. And, just to be fair, we are seeing a more homogenous look, but it's not necessarily Eurocentric, right? There is a more homogeneous look that - in Asia, that is a competing standard against kind of a real Eurocentric look. So we should note that. But it is harder to find examples of regional or local norms that really hold strong because we are all so connected on this global internet. Local norms still do exist in pockets of the world. I just think what's considered sort of globally beautiful is now something that we see and is becoming more and more flattened.

ZOMORODI: Yeah, because, as you say, we're all looking at the same web...

HU: Exactly.

ZOMORODI: ...Which, actually, I think, is one of the reasons why Sasha, by the way, started what she says is Australia's first Indigenous and ethnic women's lifestyle blog and magazine.

HU: Cool.

ZOMORODI: But she does say in her talk that it really took her a while to figure out how to appreciate her and her people's roots and their conception of beauty.


SARAGO: Over the years, my obsession for beauty, it's led me to this truth. You cannot appreciate beauty if you cannot recognize it in yourself. So how do we change our perceptions of beauty? We have to get real with ourselves and start by asking, who am I? Where do I come from? The world that I live in, how did it come to be? And, more importantly, where to from here? You may not like what you discover, but sit with it. Feel the discomfort. Colonization has stolen from us one of the greatest treasures we can obtain - each other.

ZOMORODI: That is a big topic. There's lots to unpack here.

HU: Yeah. I am actually deep in the research on how colonization really has affected beauty norms. Double eyelid surgery, for example, which is the most popular procedure in South Korea, was brought to South Korea and, arguably, invented by a plastic surgeon named David Millard, who was a U.S. Army physician...

ZOMORODI: Oh, wow.

HU: ...And plastic surgeon who was stationed on Yongsan, which is the U.S. military base in South Korea following the Korean War. And he originally did this surgery - this is to create a crease in your eyelid if you weren't born with one. And David Millard said it was so that his patients could look more white.

ZOMORODI: I mean, that is deeply, deeply troubling in many ways. But what about people, Elise, who are saying, you know what - I'm done with this? Is there a backlash to all of this?

HU: In South Korea, there's a movement called Escape the Corset, where women are collectively crushing their makeup compacts on Instagram and on TikTok and shaving their heads or cutting their hair really short. It is their form of resistance and since it has cost them. It's been so costly to try and keep up with appearance standards, not just financially but also emotionally, mentally, intellectually. But the beauty industry seems to be bouncing right back, and so it's really hard to see whether resistance is having an impact.

ZOMORODI: You know, I think that's interesting because, in a way, it segues nicely to the next talk that you brought us...

HU: Yeah.

ZOMORODI: ...Which is about the opposite end of the spectrum.

HU: Yes. So one community or a few communities that really celebrate sort of the traditional femme idea of beauty is the transgender community, as well as the drag community, where you can really sort of go after these adornments and wear these adornments and makeup and glitter and what's considered traditionally feminine displays. That's a really powerful way of either coming out or feeling like you can wear on the outside what you feel on the inside.


ZOMORODI: So the next talk is by the model Hari Nef, and she gave a talk in 2016 called "The Aesthetics Of Survival."


HARI NEF: Remember when Caitlyn Jenner revealed herself on the cover of Vanity Fair?

ZOMORODI: She starts her talk by projecting a picture of Caitlyn Jenner on the cover of Vanity Fair. And I don't know if you remember, Elise, but Caitlyn Jenner is looking extremely glamorous - lots of makeup, big hair...

HU: Oh, the corset.

ZOMORODI: The corset, exactly.


NEF: I've got a lot to say about her conservative politics and her bumpy advocacy, but this was cool.

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Elise Hu: The Beauty Ideal - KUAR

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