Plastic Surgery As Racial Surgery

New America Media, Commentary, Andrew Lam Posted: Mar 29, 2007

Editor’s Note: Plastic surgery is on the rise in ethnic communities across the United States, and in 2005 Asian-Americans had 437,000 cosmetic surgeries, up 58 percent from 2004. NAM editor Andrew Lam, who contemplated getting double eyelid surgery, could have been part of that statistic. Lam is the author of “Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora.”

SAN FRANCISCO – Three decades ago, fresh from the refugee camp of Vietnam, I was first made acutely aware of my own Asian looks by a schoolyard bully in my junior high. He pulled the sides of his eyes back to make them look slanted and sang the ditty now made famous by Rosie O’Donnell recently on The View — “Ching Chong, Ching Chong Chinaman.” Well, good old I’m-funny-not-a-racist Rosie didn’t say “Chinaman,” but you get the point.

I never thought of how I looked living in homogenous Saigon, but in America, as an outsider barely speaking English, I was fodder for teasing and racist epithets. In the bathroom one night, I used a toothpick to push up my epicanthic folds. They held for a few seconds, giving me the appearance of rounder eyes, and a glimpse of what I might look like with double eyelids. I had contemplated cosmetic surgery, and for a few months, even saved money for the purpose.

Andrew LamI never went through with the surgery, but my experience is hardly unique. The pressure to alter one’s features and body is endemic in every group and ethnic community in America, and in Asia it is as routine as having one’s wisdom teeth pulled. But the number of minorities getting plastic surgery is apparently on a steep rise.

According to a survey by the American Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS), the number of minorities getting plastic surgery quadrupled between 1997 and 2002. And in 2005 Asian-Americans had 437,000 cosmetic surgeries, up 58 percent from 2004.

One only needs to open a Vietnamese magazine or newspaper in San Jose or Orange County to see the onslaught of ads for cosmetic surgery: eyebrow tattoos, dimple and split chin fabrications, laser treatments for skin blemishes, facelifts, breast augmentations — you can have it all and with an easy-to-pay credit plan. But the most popular are nose and eye surgeries. In the online business directory of the Southern California-based Nguoi Viet Daily News, where the largest Vietnamese population in the United States resides, there are more than 50 local listings for cosmetic surgery.

Looking at these ads, I must admit that I find both the “before” and “after” pictures slightly disturbing. In the “before,” which is often out of focus, the woman is displayed in a downtrodden, bereft look — a mess of misery to go with her messy hair. But in the “after” picture, she is all smiles, well-dressed and coiffed. She poses in a kind of exaggerated cheerfulness — cheerful, I suppose, because her features have been altered. Apparently along with the surgery, the image suggests, her outlooks on life has dramatically changed as well.

I wish happiness were so easily obtained. While I am not against it, and have friends and loved ones who have had plastic surgery, I can’t help but find that there’s an inherent complex attached to altering one’s facial features — especially for an Asian-American. After all, I have never heard of someone who goes under the knife to have a double-eyelid reversal surgery or his classic roman nose flattened.

For a long time plastic surgeons worked with the Anglo-Saxon ideal of beauty, and medical schools a few decades ago did not acknowledge racial distinctions when it came to plastic surgery. A classic Roman nose was standard, and so was a double eyelid. Going under the knife in the name of beauty was, for a long time, a move toward having a Caucasian face.

Indeed, Asia’s relationship with the West has been traditionally schizophrenic and contradictory when it comes to self-image. Vietnamese children of mixed parentage born of American GIs during the war, for instance, were a permanent under class, and their conditions worsened after the war ended. Perceived as children of the enemy, they were often derided, chastised and beaten. But these days those mixed children’s features are coveted by many wealthy people in Saigon and Hanoi. They want their noses, eyes, lips, and would save a fortune to go under the knife to look like them.

Or take Japanese animation. While Japanese cartoons and comic books are taking the world over by storm — and are a source of pride for Japan — on closer inspection, one wonders if such pride is justified.

Characters in popular shows like InuYahsa or YugiOh or Naruto, to name a few, all have round, large eyes that are often blue or green, and their hair is blond, brown or red. Japan, even as it struggles to make itself a global political player, by the look of its manga and anime, seems strangely beholden to the visage of their World War II conquerors.

In Korea, one in 10 adults have had some sort of cosmetic surgery procedure. China, since a ban on cosmetic surgery was lifted in 2001, is now experiencing a boom in the cosmetic surgery industry. There are more than 10,000 medical institutions for cosmetic surgery and the industry is thriving. There is even, since 2004, a Miss Plastic Surgery beauty contest.

However, there is a new “look East” movement underfoot — a growing Asian social consciousness in the United States and Asia. Plastic surgeons have begun to develop techniques to preserve ethnic characteristics and retain their identity. The changes are now more subtle: the nose is no longer as pointy, and doctors are not removing as much fat near the lower eyelid to avoid the Caucasian look.

“Ethnic correctness” is the new catch phrase in cosmetic surgery, reports Anna M. Park in Audrey Magazine, a fashion magazine for Asian-American readers. “With a growing appreciation for diversity and a higher social awareness come advances in technique and deeper understanding of the anatomy of the Asian eye, resulting in more ethnically sensitive procedures.” A Chinese-American friend, who has had excess fat removed from her eyelids, told me she never thought she wanted to “look white.” “In fact, I wanted to look natural but better. So if no one noticed I had it done, then that’s great.” It was the older generation, she said, that was obsessed with “looking like Audrey Hepburn and Kim Novak.”

It also helps that many young Asian entertainers have resisted cosmetic surgery. Korean pop stars have been the rage in Asia as well as among Asian immigrants in America, and on top of that food chain is the 23-year-old superstar Rain, whose classic Korean features haven’t deterred fans in the least. He’s the biggest thing in Asia since Michael Jackson, sans the plastic surgery knife.

And Zhang Ziyi (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”), Sandra Oh (“Sideways” and “Grey’s Anatomy”) and Lucy Liu (“Charlie’s Angels”), to name a few, are famous actresses with very distinctive Asian features.

These days I take comfort in knowing that there are more people who look like me in the world than not. Having traveled throughout Asia over the years, my sense of beauty has become pluralized, and is no longer limited to a singular ideal.

And despite having felt slightly “dissed” by Rosie O’Donnell’s “Ching Chong” comment, I must say I’ve been inspired by her in the past.

She refuses the pressure of Hollywood’s standards of beauty, its liposuctions and chin tucks, even as she lives in the glaring limelight. She has grown into her own skin. And so have I.

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User Comments

fed up asian on Aug 22, 2007 at 15:55:22 said:

Mr. Lam,

After reading your article titled "Are Asians Increasingly Undergoing Plastic Surgery to Look White?", I realized that you, too, have been whitewashed. Are you saying that double-fold eyelids are characteristics of whites only? So, if a white person received collagen injections to puff up their non-existent upper lip, are they trying to look more black? Hispanic? Asian? How about when a white girl tries to slim down their Roman nose? Are they trying to look more Asian? It's a shame that people like you perpetuate this Euro-centric definition of beauty. I'm sure your intention wasn't to say that only whites have these features but your subconscious got the best of you. Just like when Julia Chen from CBS News did a story on Asians opting for the eyelid surgery. Ms. Chen made it appear that only whites had this eyelid characteristic. And that everyone is trying to look more white. I didn't realize that blacks, Hispanics, Indians, and Asians didn't have this feature. Only the precious white person. Most of my Asian friends have the double eyelids. Of course, only white America can perpetuate this nonsensical agenda. It's quite sad that Ms. Chen has obviously been white-washed ever since going through her own plastic surgery (rhino and eyelid) and then marrying her white employer from CBS. Tyra Banks was right, Ms. Chen is not very bright.

Please look past white America.


Fed-up Asian.

MLee on May 20, 2007 at 20:50:31 said:

I being a korean woman know the pressures to look beautifull. I never thought I looked ugly but you know the whole of asian society is very critical. Total strangers will come up to you and ask not if but when you're going to get plastic surgery done. Strangers tell you to your face you need to lose weight. In this image obsessed society you can hardly blame young women in thinking they need surgery. With parents and friends pressuring you its hard to ignore it. I don't have a flat nose but i do have a nose that i feel is too wide more a nose that looks better on a guy. I always wanted to fix it. . .not a perfect petite nose but without chiseling the bone I just want to slightly modify it I think when people see my picture they'd agree and understand. Then I have the double eyelids. . .natural ones but it has been brought to my attention that my eyes are in my mother's terms "sad looking" meaning my eyes are shaped in a way that it look like I'm looking up at you and pouting she thinks I should get surgery to make my eyes more perky. When you parents constantly say it to you you begin t think that yeah surgery isn't so bad and that U should do it.

Dragon Wizard on Apr 07, 2007 at 07:55:34 said:

I have read about this before and cosmetic surgery is picking up in mainland China, it is rampant in S.Korea and Japan. It is not just eye surgery but also breast implants.

I think we can look at this two ways.

1) Asians are no different from white people that they want to look better. They are becoming more affluent so they try to improve their appearance. Large eyes were popular in China way before extensive contact with Europeans. This was not true in Japan, as the geisha was the epitome of womanly beauty in Japan and traditionally they have quite small eyes, small breast, pale skin, and narrow shoulders. This is obviously not the Japanese beauty standard today, so I believe contact with the West has greatly influenced them. Well the pale skin is still seen as feminine, but just about everything else has changed. I believe this is directly due to extensive contact with Western nations, but knowing this and changing it are two totally different things.

2) Some folks are doing this to specifically look "white" probably, but I don't think the majority do anything like this consciously.

The libertarian part of me says in the end who cares, it is their business, if they want to look like Michael Jackson I'm not very concerned. I used to get indigent about these kind of things, but here is reality, or what I believe reality to be:

People want status and part of that is success. White Western Europeans have the highest living standard, most political, most military power, and most economic power on earth and have had for about 400 years. Japan along with a few smaller Asian nations are comparable in living standard but they still don't have the clout internationally...they are new comers. Unlike any civilization before that was "great" the West has the ability (due to technology) to spread its image world wide and it controls its image. For every white criminal you see on TV you see 4 saving the world. For every dumpy white woman you see you see 10 that looks like Kristy Turlington and Angelina Jolie. Chinese 1000 years ago were far superior to Europeans in most metrics but they could not spread their image of superiority.

I don't think evolution prepared us for mass media. We spent most of our time as humans wondering around chasing animals and picking berries, we have only had civilization for 10,000 years or so, some far less. In fact there are still hunter/gathers in some remote areas. I don't think that is enough time to evolve beyond our need, a very human need (probably pre-human if you look at Chimps and Gorillas) to imitate successful behavior.

Asians are wealthy and educated but they don't look like the epitome of "success" and "beauty" which globally is still very much the Western European phenotype, for the most part. I'm not saying in every country in the world white people are seen as attractive...but I'm 100% sure that in Asia they are considered more attractive and their appearance more desirable than a any other racial group besides their own. I don't know of any countries that think the darker the better and the kinkier your hair the better outside of Africa for instance...even there that would be hard to find. Not every foreign man (Asian, Arab, or black) wants to marry a white woman (for ethnic reasons) but I have met few who did not think blonds were sexy or wanted to sleep with one if they could.

Point is some things won't change until other nations surpass or become equal to Europeans (and other wealthy whites) and then whites will loose their luster. I don't think it will happen before then. It also helps to control your own image and promote it as positive on a global basis...this also comes with wealth and power.

All you can do is educate your future kids, if they are smart as you they will "get it" and have self esteem. It is hard. I think this hits women more than men...and certain ethnic groups more than others. Blacks males world wide are seen as hyper-masculine, talented singers and dancers, athletes, etc. Probably internationally, as much as blacks are often despised black men are probably the third most attractive men after whites and more white looking Hispanics. The "bad boy" image sells to certain types of women everywhere...unfortunately this same stereotype hurts black men a lot. Asian guys probably are generally considered the least attractive, I've rarely heard any nonAsian women say they thought an Asian man was sexy.

As far as women go, probably black women (dark ones) suffer the most...due to other stereotypes. I think because on average black women are bigger and dark. This goes against a common international preference for light skin and thin leggy women. It varies from country to country, I think in Latin America it is less so and maybe in some areas of the Middle East...I'm sure some areas of Africa as well. I do know black women marry out a lot more in Europe than here (especially in the UK and France) but then again they are exotic there. I'm sure a lot of white men are tired of looking at white women. haha They want something else, something different. Outside of Europe I don't see people knocking down the door to get with black people, especially black women. This is due to the international image of blacks as being poor, ignorant, criminal, etc.

One thing to think about is reality we have mapped the human genome, but we do not know what all the genes do or how they express.

I'm guessing in 50 years it will be possible, for a hefty fee to genetic modify your kids prenatally (at the single or double cell level) to make them have whatever hair or eye color you want...this will probably not be legal in America at first but I'm sure for the right money you can go somewhere and get it done, then all hell will break loose (not even going to consider genes for intelligence...that is going to be another can or worms).

Robert Land on Apr 02, 2007 at 21:30:36 said:

I am a black man with a biracial (black and white) daughter. I spent many hours finding materials showing her examples of beauty and pride that resemble her fathers side of the family.

At a young age she discovered Japanese Anime and I was shocked. They have warped the asian standards of beauty where as Andrew correctly described, the beautiful japanese girls have huge blue or green eyes, small petite noses, and long (long)flowing hair of various colors. If they are drawn with straight black hair, larger noses and two lines for eyes they are seen as objects of ridicule, comedy relief and certainly ugly.

I tried to point this out to her and was seen as the square parent. I am glad someone else sees this besides me.




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