CBS television host Julie Chen recently revealed that, years prior, she had gone under the knife to “widen her Asian eyes” in order to advance her career as a broadcast journalist.
Critics have jumped to accuse Chen of denying her cultural heritage and attempting to look “less Asian.” Some even called her “a product of colonialism,” pointing out other supposedly altered facial features to tack onto the list. As an Asian woman, I have no wish to judge Ms. Chen’s actions. But there is one thing that I am certain of. Chen represents an ever-growing demographic of Asian American women who turn to plastic surgery to cope with self-image issues.
When I was growing up, I wanted “double eyelids” too, otherwise known as “blepharoplasty”—the cosmetic procedure that adds a crease to one’s upper eyelid, making it appear two-dimensional. I also wanted notable curves and blonde hair like the beautiful Caucasian girls on TV and at school. But cosmetic surgery was not as common and affordable as it is today. So it was never an option for me. Instead, I learned to live with my appearance, “single eyelids” and all.
Throughout my teenage years, I experienced emotional turmoil and alienation because of my dissatisfaction with my appearance, but I learned an invaluable lesson. I learned that I did not have to embrace others’ opinions of me as my own. The ethnic features that I was “stuck with” so to speak, forced me to foster a stronger sense of identity, founded on self awareness and life experience—not approval from others.
I am troubled by the fact that Ms. Chen’s past superiors were able to convince her—as beautiful and intelligent as she is—that she must alter her features in order to advance in her career.
But Chen is not the first woman to alter her features in an effort to conform. According to a survey by the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, Asian cosmetic procedures have doubled in the past five years. Many firms have added outlandish aesthetic services to their “Asian-specific” arsenals, such as jaw shaping, skin whitening, and—my personal favorite —“smile lifting.” South Korea’s medical tourism industry has tripled since 2009 due to Asian tourists visiting on “plastic surgery trips.” As Huffington Post writer Andrew Lam reports, physical alteration amongst Asian Americans may become “as routine as having one's wisdom teeth pulled.”
With the growing availability of cosmetic surgery, an increasing number of Asian American women are opting for quick-fix physical alterations instead of enduring demanding yet utterly invaluable life experience. I fear that the prevalence of these procedures is leading to a rise in women who are much too eager to alter themselves at the slightest sign of disapproval.
We should ask ourselves: What convinced Chen to seek out these services? What does Chen’s dramatic success after completing her cosmetic procedure—taking her from a local news reporter at Dayton, Ohio to a CBS news anchor and producer—tell us about the validity of her feeling judged by others for her Asian features? Should we be critical of doctors who specialize in medically unnecessary image-centric procedures and profit from women’s insecurities? How is the increasing availability of this technology going to affect our future generations?
The same critics who comment on the morality of Julie Chen’s actions, or rudely accuse her of a cultural inferiority complex, would be better off examining the social configurations of our society that led her to make that decision in the first place. They just might be contributing to them.