Is Race Plastic? My Trip Into the ‘Ethnic Plastic Surgery’ Minefield

Maureen O'Connor, New York Magazine, July 27, 2014

“You’ve got some nice Caucasian features,” Dr. Edmund Kwan says, inspecting my face at his Upper East Side plastic-surgery practice, where the waiting room includes an ottoman larger than my kitchen table. “You’re half-Asian mixed with what?” Chinese mom and white dad, I reply. “You inherited a Caucasian nose. Your nose is nice. Your eyes have a little bit of Asian mixed in.” He proposes Asian blepharo­plasty, a surgical procedure to create or enlarge the palpebral fold, the eyelid crease a few millimeters above the lashline that many Asians lack. “You’ve got nice big eyes,” he admits, but eyelids more like my father’s would make them look bigger.

To some, Kwan’s assessment may seem offensive–an attempt to remove my mother’s race from my face as though it were a pimple. But to others, it will seem as banal as a dietitian advising them to eat more leafy greens–advice having nothing to do with hiding one’s race or mimicking another. Asian blepharo­plasty belongs to a range of niche cosmetic procedures known colloquially as ethnic plastic surgery, the popularity of which has spiked in recent years–and is prone to heated arguments, major misunderstandings, alternating whiplashes of sympathy and disgust, and some intensely uncomfortable reckonings. (Including, perhaps, the ones in this article.) The issues at stake are loaded: ethnic identity, standards of beauty, the politics of diversity, what constitutes race, and whether exercises of vanity can reshape it.

From 2005 to 2013, the American Society of Plastic Surgeons estimates that the number of cosmetic procedures performed on Asian-Americans increased by 125 percent, Hispanics by 85 percent, and African-Americans by 56 percent. (Procedures on Caucasians increased just 35 percent.) This is, in part, simply a mark of rising purchasing power: Plastic surgery is nothing if not a sign that one has money to burn and status anxiety to spare.

And doctors comfortable advertising their expertise in ethnic plastic surgery are growing wealthy creasing Asian eyelids, pushing sloped foreheads forward, and pulling prominent mouths back. These are procedures outsiders generally view as deracinating processes, sharpening the stereotypically flat noses of Asians, blacks, and Latinos while flattening the stereotypically sharp noses of Arabs and Jews. Some are refinements of formerly rare procedures like the ones that deformed a generation of Jackson-family noses, while others arrived Stateside from the bone-breaking, muscle-shrinking, multi-procedure extremes of Korean and Japanese plastic surgery. And, in fact, many procedures under the “ethnic” umbrella have no Caucasian model at all, as the Asian women asking surgeons to reduce their cheekbones can attest.

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None of this should be too surprising: White standards still anchor our beauty culture, in part because white people still anchor our privileged classes. Procedures to “white-ify” minorities are not altogether new, nor have their politics been resolved: Just this April, the U.S. Army banned many natural African-American hairstyles for women (an outcry produced only a promise of review). But walk down the street in New York, Miami, Chicago, or L.A.–or Macon, or Clovis, or Dearborn, or Kailua–and you’ll see people exhibiting a vast array of personal and cultural aesthetics, some overlapping, others starkly polarized. A tour of the cosmetic-­medicine clinics shaping those bodies and faces paints a more complicated portrait of beauty, too–one that includes “white” ideals like thin noses and arched eyes, yes, but also alternative archetypes like childlike chins and exaggerated butts. The patients display an equally wide array of motivations.

As they traffic in all these modified body parts, even the most esteemed surgeons in the field can come across as almost blasphemously politically incorrect in casual conversation. (I had never thought Mongoloid was anything other than an insult until a black surgeon used it to praise a mouth, and even the term “ethnic plastic surgery” confuses most accepted distinctions between ethnicity, which is tied to culture and language, and race, which includes physical appearance.) These exchanges can be jarringly retro but also oddly refreshing–discussions of race with strangely post-racial specialists who choose to see beauty as something that can be built, à la carte, with features harvested from peoples all over the world. It feels like science fiction–but utopian or dystopian, I can’t decide.

Because, as we all know, race is hugely more complicated than a handful of traits on a face. And many of these new procedures come with horror-show backstories, stretching from the ugly days of phrenology and eugenics to contemporary cultural flash points like hair-straightening and skin-­lightening. Practitioners have long defended those treatments, too, as personal beauty choices and not deracination. But the stakes for ethnic plastic surgery are higher than those for a hairdo–most are alterations to the identity-giving part of the body, the face, and often permanent. Still, even as phrases likenice Caucasian features sneak into their language, the practitioners and recipients insist that ethnic plastic surgery isn’t about looking white. To them, this new expanse of procedures is not a sign of ethnic self-­loathing but proof that the loud-and-proud club of American narcissists has admitted a new set of members–and with them new ideas of what qualifies as beautiful. The people I interviewed differed in their aesthetics, politics, and medical preferences. But they passionately agreed on one thing: No matter what white people say, this isn’t about them. Plastic surgery doesn’t have to be a sign of deference to some master race, they told me. In fact, it could be the opposite.

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  • cherrie greenbaum123

    It’s never been anyone’s secret that whites are the most beautiful race. It is only natural that all others would want to acquire the elegance of Caucasian features if it were within their grasp. Appearance doesn’t affect genetics, however, and will not pass on the most prized possession of whites; their genes. The only way for them to acquire better looking children would be for them to attempt to breed their genetic flaws out as much as possible, by mating with a Caucasian.

    • JohnEngelman

      I first saw Oriental children on a television documentary when I was six or seven. Back then there were none where I lived. I thought, “With white girls some are pretty. Some are not. With Oriental girls all are pretty.”

      Oriental women have less testosterone than white women. This gives them a special quality. They look and act more feminine.

      • antiquesunlight

        Grace Kelly

      • WR_the_realist

        And gosh, you’ve had an Asian obsession ever since.

        The Asians I know aren’t any worse than the whites, but I don’t obsess over them.

        • Alucard_the_last

          At least Asians are human, not homo erectus commonly called ‘black’.

        • caughy

          As a people, most Asians are very intelligent and don’t give the sense that they want to kill you for no reason. I have seen many of the most beautiful Japanese women in the world in Hawaii. They are sort of the forbidden fruit to white men. Japanese, and other Asian people, do not take too kindly to inter-marriage, much as white people oppose it. The bottom line is that I respect and admire Asians. They keep to themselves and pull their own weight in the world.

      • Oil Can Harry

        Now John, you don’t really believe all Asian women are pretty.
        Two words: Yoko Ono.

        • JohnEngelman

          Yoko Ono is not beautiful, but she attracted John Lennon. He could have had nearly any woman in the world.

          • http://www.amren.com/ Michael Christopher Scott

            He also attracted a crazed killer.

          • Whitetrashgang

            Yeah but, can you do the same?

          • http://www.amren.com/ Michael Christopher Scott

            What if I don’t want to attract a crazed killer?

          • Whitetrashgang

            John Lennon was Gay, that’s why he liked Yoko.

          • JohnEngelman

            John Lennon probably had sex with over six hundred women. I do not admire him for that. It does indicate a serious attraction to females.

          • Whitetrashgang

            No, it means he is a pervert.

          • Mike Lane

            What does that have to do with it? We’re talking about objective beauty, not some drug induced illusion of John Lennon’s.

        • http://www.amren.com/ Michael Christopher Scott

          Margaret Cho is Asian and not at all pretty. She looks more like Porky Pig with tattoos.

      • WhiteGuyInJapan

        “With Oriental girls all are pretty.”
        Please walk around Japan for a few weeks and say that again.

      • slash345

        You have got to be kidding me. No asian woman can compare to a white woman. Not even close. They have attractive features, but it’s not comparable to caucasian features.

      • Stan D Mute

        If by “pretty” you mean “look exactly alike” then I’m right there with you.

      • IBWHITE

        “With white girls some are pretty. Some are not. With Oriental girls all are pretty.”
        You must not have seen very many Asian women because some are butt ugly. I have never saw an Asian female as beautiful as Barbara Eden, Christy Brinkley or Raquel Welch. in fact if you google “worlds most beautiful women” the list is almost exclusively White.

      • kjh64

        They, along with their male counterparts, have to me the bodies of 12-year olds. They don’t look very feminine or masculine, just petite and undeveloped. Also, they don’t act more feminine, they along with the men, don’t act feminine or masculine to me, the sexes seem to act very similar to me. With Whites of both sexes, I see a lot more variances in looks and personality.

    • Matt Turner

      No. No mating with Caucasians for them. Let them stay as they are.

    • saxonsun

      All one needs is eyes.

  • dd121

    Yep, Michael Jackson looked just like a white guy.

    • Anglo

      He tried to look White but, in the end, he looked freaky to me.

    • http://www.amren.com/ Michael Christopher Scott

      A white guy with a large set of various detachable plastic noses! The fact that I do not have to wonder which nose to put on each morning is an endless source of joy to me.

      • Whitetrashgang

        That’s very white of you.

    • Michael Whalen

      He looks like he had second and third degree burns all over his face, and the doctor botched the plastic surgery.

    • IstvanIN

      He went from being an nice looking colored boy to a poor copy of Diana Ross.

    • Chris Granzow XI

      He ended up looking like that doll from the Saw movies.

    • Alucard_the_last

      I guess he was smart enough to not want to look like something that eats live insects, living in dung huts and go to witchdoctors.

    • Alucard_the_last

      Correction, a white girl.

  • JackKrak

    Yeah, why doesn’t New York magazine ask surgeons how many people walk in and ask about getting a wider, flatter nose? Why don’t they go to a sperm bank and ask how many people want a child with the darkest possible skin? Why don’t they do detailed studies of dating websites, adoption statistics or the skin-whitening industry in Asia and Africa?

    I think we all know why.

    • Alucard_the_last

      Even Okra got part of its nose taken off but few really noticed. She also got the pubic hair on its head straighten to look more human.

      • Whitetrashgang

        Almost all Negro woman on TV or movies have had rhinoplasty

        • http://www.amren.com/ Michael Christopher Scott

          An odd set of priorities. For instance, Condoleeza Rice made plenty of money as US Secretary of State, but while she obviously spent a lot on clothes, it never occurred to her to have her hideous teeth fixed.

  • Mary

    Sure there’s no Caucasian ideal… that’s why most procedures on ethnics attempt to replicate Caucasian physical traits, whether they admit it or not. This article is ridiculous.

    • http://www.amren.com/ Michael Christopher Scott

      There’s so much intra-racial variety among Caucasians that it is hard to say exactly what that ideal might be, except that Joseph Merrick, “The Elephant Man” was probably not it.

  • Anglo

    Besides altering their facial features, non-Whites are also coloring their hair and using all sorts of products and techniques to make their hair look as Caucasian as possible. Changing your face and lightening your skin wouldn’t help much if your hair still looks like a Brillo pad.

    • Who Me?

      Two words: hair hats.

    • slash345

      Alot of light skinned hispanic women are coloring their hair blonde and light brown because it helps them blend in easier. They can’t fool me though. I have a good eye for ethnicity.

  • IstvanIN

    There was a soccer player, in the recent world cup games, who had spikey blond-frosted hair, forget if he was Brazilian or Argentinian, who had enough plastic surgery that I was surprised how Negro he looked before his surgeries. As I recall he had a nice looking wife and a blond-haired son.

  • Usually Much Calmer

    “Because, as we all know, race is hugely more complicated than a handful of traits on a face.”

    Oh, thank you, Maureen. I knew that of course, but I had my doubts as to whether we all did.

  • WR_the_realist

    Liberals will never be happy if they can’t find some way to prattle about white privilege. Some people get plastic surgery out of necessity — they got badly burned in an auto accident, say. But for the rest, I can’t be too concerned about whether their precious psyches have been distorted by media images of pretty white women. After all, it’s not as though I asked all those non-whites to come here in the first place.

  • Augustus3709

    Personally I think the “White People are the most beautiful” conversation is counter- productive. White people need to be more gritty and think about practical things, not engaging in empty ego-boosting, which will only make other races resentful and hostile.

    White narcissism is a major problem in my book. It is a major component of the mindset of White liberals, including the notion of going to Africa to “save the children”. Those Whites want to feel like gods. That is narcissism and is very dangerous. If you have good will to spare, lavish your own community with it. Why give it away to people who will multiply today and eat you alive tomorrow? Look at the big picture.

    I see chubby Hispanics waddling around pushing strollers all the time. They’re not going to win any beauty pageants, but at least they’re having children.

    • antiquesunlight

      I’m generally for anything that boosts white racial pride. I don’t see any harm in being proud of the beauty of our race. Of course, genuine narcissism is a bad thing.
      I think there is an important distinction between self-righteousness, which is the liberal disease, and healthy racial pride.

      • Augustus3709

        That’s an interesting point about pride, but what is pride? Can you take pride in something you didn’t earn? I would rather instill into children a strong work ethic and a sense of racial loyalty, which would create a society which one could take pride in for its beauty. We can cherish our heritage, but to take true pride in something, I think you must also work for it.

        As I think back, yes there are things from history I’m proud of that I didn’t participate in, but there is also the saying, “don’t rest on your laurels”.

        • antiquesunlight

          I think it can be legitimate to take pride in something that you did not earn. For example, I take pride in the accomplishments of my family members even though I did not earn the things for them. I suppose it isn’t really rational for me to be proud of them, but not everything needs to be rational. I just am proud of them, rational or not.

          I think being proud of white beauty is sort of like someone being proud of having a lot of money. So long as it doesn’t become morbid or obsessive, there’s nothing wrong with it – in fact, it’s perfectly natural.

          But I more or less agree with what you’re saying. Far too many white people are resting on their laurels right now. It’s up to us to prevent the greatness of Western Civilization from becoming a relic.

          • Augustus3709

            Yes, we are a ‘rational’ people. This is our strength, but it also makes us doubt oursleves. Maybe with pride I’m thinking more about arrogance, which is something to avoid. There is no victory that is not earned. It’s dangerous to inherit too much prosperity, because it makes you soft.

            But I agree that our people need to have something to feel good about, call it pride, call it whatever. Just a positive outlook.

            We’re proud of our heritage and the accomplishments of our ancestors, and we want to work hard and add to our enduring legacy.

            I think that sums it up well enough.

            And maybe the beauty thing even has some merit. Tell girls not to miscegenate, “cuz your children will be ugly!” lol

      • Alucard_the_last

        Negroes are the most narcissistic creatures in the world. They think they are equal to humans when they blame whites and Chinese are racist because computers too hard to master. A buck in Oakland, CA actually said this. When they are treated as equals, they squeal ‘racism’ like a pig.

        • Augustus3709

          The thing is blacks don’t even know what “racism” means. It’s an utterly vague and abstract concept. All they know is it’s a magic word that somehow makes them get their way. Therefore it’s a survival strategy. Blacks don’t want to starve, and blaming Whites gets them fed.

        • http://www.amren.com/ Michael Christopher Scott

          Do you mean this one?

    • kjh64

      White leftists in many ways are very narcissist and paternalistic when it comes to race. This is why they insist that 3rd world people come to White countries. If they really thought they were equal, they’d tell them to fix their own problems in their own countries. I told this to a leftist, pro-immigration person once and they didn’t know what to say. I asked, “are you saying that they are racially inferior and can’t make a success of their own countries”?

  • Basketeddie

    So now plastic surgery is racist.

  • Alucard_the_last

    How wouldn’t want to look white esp. if you are an ape-looking negro. They are, by far, the ugliest simians alive (and twice as dangerous).

  • none of your business

    Yoko Ono attracted John Lennon because she was his heroin supplier. Didn’t hurt that she belongs to a very wealthy Japanese banking family. Her heroin turned him into a comatose addict. He was barely conscious when Yoko whisked him away from Cynthia. He remained comatose and under Yoko’s control the rest of his life.

    Asian eyes are beautiful on asians but the most average White nose and lips are preferable to the most beautiful black, brown, asian, arab, hispanic and indian noses and lips.

  • JohnCabel

    Notice anything about Ms. South Korea?

  • JohnCabel

    B.t.w watch the documentary “Good Hair” by Chris Rock, its a real eye opener!

  • http://www.amren.com/ Michael Christopher Scott

    Remember also cheek pads that can go inside one’s mouth, and fake paunches that can be worn under one’s shirt to make one look fat. Using a cheap cane and faking a pronounced limp may also be a useful trick.