The best books that challenge beauty standards and diet culture

Why am I passionate about this?

My interest and curiosity in this topic primarily came from life experience: not fitting in as a gangly Asian girl growing up in white suburbs and picked on for how I looked, working as a teen model in the late 1990s and early aughts, becoming a mother to three girls while opening up NPR’s first-ever bureau and living in Seoul, South Korea, the plastic surgery capital of the world. Ever since graduating from The University of Missouri-Columbia’s School of Journalism, I’ve been a professional journalist. Most of my career has been as an NPR correspondent, but I’ve also worked as a reporter for VICE and appeared in The Atlantic, WIRED, Slate, and numerous other publications.


I wrote...

Flawless: Lessons in Looks and Culture from the K-Beauty Capital

By Elise Hu,

Book cover of Flawless: Lessons in Looks and Culture from the K-Beauty Capital

What is my book about?

Flawless is a deep dive into how an increasingly visual and virtual world is changing what we expect of our looks, and of each other. It braids international reporting, cultural commentary, and memoir to explore how Korea catapulted to become the beauty capital of the world, and what it shows us about a future where algorithms and AI set increasingly out-of-reach appearance standards. With darkly funny personal anecdotes and rich reporting, Flawless wrestles with how the pursuit of physical beauty is both empowering and diminishing at the same time, addresses where to draw the line on body upgrades when science is making so many available, and offers an affirmative vision to liberate ourselves from chasing perfection.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Perfect Me: Beauty as an Ethical Ideal

Elise Hu Why did I love this book?

As the author and philosopher Heather Widdows makes clear, one of the big reasons why appearance has come to mean so much to us, and we spend so much time, energy, and resources on upgrading our looks, is because physical beauty has wrongly become conflated with worthiness and character.

In other words, we assume if you look good, you’re a good, moral person. In this comprehensive yet fast-paced read (which laid an academic groundwork for a lot of the reporting in my own book), Widdows connects the dots between ethics and beauty and makes the case for why we should resist the increasing demands of beauty ideals. 

By Heather Widdows,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Perfect Me as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

How looking beautiful has become a moral imperative in today's world

The demand to be beautiful is increasingly important in today's visual and virtual culture. Rightly or wrongly, being perfect has become an ethical ideal to live by, and according to which we judge ourselves good or bad, a success or a failure. Perfect Me explores the changing nature of the beauty ideal, showing how it is more dominant, more demanding, and more global than ever before.

Heather Widdows argues that our perception of the self is changing. More and more, we locate the self in the body--not just our…


Book cover of Fat Talk: Parenting in the Age of Diet Culture

Elise Hu Why did I love this book?

Few people write as clearly and cogently as Virginia Sole-Smith about the way thinness is the reigning beauty standard across the globe, and how punishing and marginalizing that standard is for those who aren’t “straight sized.”

This book is not just sweeping and rigorously investigated, it is also chock full of practical tips for addressing fatphobia in our own thinking, in our own families, and in the wider culture. There’s a reason this book was an instant New York Times bestseller. I could not recommend it more full-throatedly.

By Virginia Sole-Smith,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Fat Talk as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

THE INTERNATIONAL BESTSELLER

'Fearless and game-changing.' - Emily Oster

'Hard recommend.' - Pandora Sykes

'A must-read.' - Aubrey Gordon

'Essential.' - Laura Thomas, PhD

'Revolutionary!' - Bethany Rutter

'Pivotal.' - Anita Bhagwandas

Change the way you talk about food, weight, and self-worth, forever.

We live in a world designed to make us hate our bodies. By the time children start school, most have learned that 'fat' is bad. As they get older, many pursue thinness to survive in a society that ties their value to their size. Parents worry both about the risks of their kids fixating on unrealistic beauty…


Book cover of If I Had Your Face

Elise Hu Why did I love this book?

If you are looking for a character-driven novel that takes you to modern Seoul and gets into the personal and social motivations for the cosmetic procedures that go unquestioned in South Korea, look no further than Frances Cha’s debut.

It’s an engrossing read with layered characters who are easy to root for, and a text that goes a long way to help us understand how the motivations for upgrading ourselves are not limited to just those on the other side of the Pacific.

By Frances Cha,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked If I Had Your Face as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A riveting debut novel set in contemporary Seoul, Korea, about four young women making their way in a world defined by impossible standards of beauty, after-hours room salons catering to wealthy men, ruthless social hierarchies, and K-pop mania
 
“Powerful and provocative . . . a novel about female strength, spirit, resilience—and the solace that friendship can sometimes provide.”—The Washington Post

NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY Time • NPR • Esquire • Bustle • BBC • New York Post • InStyle 

Kyuri is an achingly beautiful woman with a hard-won job at a Seoul “room salon,”…


Book cover of Plucked: A History of Hair Removal

Elise Hu Why did I love this book?

Oh my goodness, this is the most surprisingly fascinating book I’ve ever picked up, because I originally thought, how much could there be to learn about body hair removal? Well, the answer is, a lot.

It is ostensibly all about the history of body hair and body hair removal, but really it’s about abuse, freedom, and bodily autonomy and so many other sweeping topics. It’s funny, it’s fast-paced, it’s full of tidbits I continue to share with friends at cocktail parties.

Without giving too much away, I will say that as we move into an era in scientific innovation where it’s easier than ever before to genetically modify ourselves and other creatures, Herzig’s book is so evergreen and relevant.

By Rebecca M. Herzig,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Plucked as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Uncovers the history of hair removal practices and sheds light on the prolific culture of beauty
From the clamshell razors and homemade lye depilatories used in colonial America to the diode lasers and prescription pharmaceuticals available today, Americans have used a staggering array of tools to remove hair deemed unsightly, unnatural, or excessive. This is true especially for women and girls; conservative estimates indicate that 99% of American women have tried hair removal, and at least 85% regularly remove hair from their faces, armpits, legs, and bikini lines. How and when does hair become a problem-what makes some growth "excessive"?…


Book cover of The Body Is Not an Apology: The Power of Radical Self-Love

Elise Hu Why did I love this book?

I learned so much and gained important insight after reading this book.

It offers really actionable frameworks for challenging our own negative biases about our bodies and the judgment we might have for others, because as the author emphasizes, self-care must be predicated on care for the community—caring for one another.

Taylor calls for big, systemic change for a society that is way too hard on bodies that don’t “fit” according to capitalistic, patriarchal, and historically colonialist influences. And in doing so, she is an excellent guide for how to be and make change.

By Sonya Renee Taylor,

Why should I read it?

8 authors picked The Body Is Not an Apology as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"To build a world that works for everyone, we must first make the radical decision to love every facet of ourselves...'The body is not an apology' is the mantra we should all embrace." 
--Kimberlé Crenshaw, legal scholar and founder and Executive Director, African American Policy Forum 

"Taylor invites us to break up with shame, to deepen our literacy, and to liberate our practice of celebrating every body and never apologizing for this body that is mine and takes care of me so well."
--Alicia Garza, cocreator of the Black Lives Matter Global Network and Strategy + Partnerships Director, National Domestic…


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A Particular Man

By Lesley Glaister,

Book cover of A Particular Man

Lesley Glaister Author Of A Particular Man

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

About myself: As a novelist I’m crazy for detail. I believe it’s the odd and unexpected aspects of life that bring both characters and story worlds to life. This means that I try to be an observer at all times, keeping alert and using all five – and maybe six – senses. My perfect writing morning begins with a dog walk in the woods or on a beach, say, while keeping my senses sharp to the world around me and listening out for the first whisper of what the day’s writing will bring.

Lesley's book list on relationships and sexuality in post-World War II Britain

What is my book about?

This book is a literary historical novel. It is set in Britain immediately after World War II, when people – gay, straight, young, and old - are struggling to get back on track with their lives, including their love lives. Because of the turmoil of the times, the number of losses, and the dangerous and peculiar circumstances people find themselves in, sexual mores have become shaken and stirred.

But what happened after the war, in the time of healing and settling down? This novel examines the emotional, romantic, and sexual lives of three characters searching for a way to proceed.

A Particular Man

By Lesley Glaister,

What is this book about?

Love never dies in this novel by “a writer of addictive emotional thrillers” (The Independent).

Told from three perspectives A Particular Man is about love, truth and the unpredictable consequences of loss.

When Edgar dies in a Far East prisoner-of-war camp it breaks the heart of fellow prisoner Starling. In Edgar’s final moments, Starling makes him a promise. When, after the war, he visits Edgar’s family, to fulfil this promise, Edgar's mother Clementine mistakes him for another man.

Her mistake allows him access to Edgar’s home and to those who loved him, stirring powerful and disorientating emotions, and embroiling him…


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