Danielle Ho learnt at a young age that there is a fine line between beauty and agony. The personal-image consultant recalls doing everything she could as a teenager to “correct” the shape of her “flat” nose. “When I was 14, I used to go to bed almost every night with a peg on the bridge of my nose,” says Ho, now 31. “My cousins did it and swore it worked, so I did that for a whole year.”
When Ho was 15, her mum encouraged her to travel to her native Vietnam for a nose job–an all-expenses-paid trip that she ultimately declined. “In south-east Asia, there is an obsession with having a high-bridged nose, large creases on the eyelids and high cheekbones. I grew up with the idea that you’d look better if you had those features . . . [But] there was no way I was going to go under the knife just for the sake of a different nose.”
While Ho is happy with her decision, a recent Insight program on SBS revealed that an increasing number of ethnic Australians are opting to go down the cosmetic-surgery path. The show’s guests, Heidi Liow and Glenda Bui, spoke openly about getting double-eyelid surgery for bigger, “prettier” eyes, but the main discussion kept returning to the same topic: why do young, independent women feel the need to alter their racial features in the name of beauty?
Meredith Jones, media lecturer and author of Skintight: An Anatomy of Cosmetic Surgery, believes the answer lies far beyond the assumption that non-Caucasians want to “Westernise” their appearance. “I think our attitude to so-called ‘ethnic’ cosmetic surgery is [inherently] racist. For example, a very common procedure for white women to have is lip augmentation. But nobody would accuse them of wanting to look African or of ‘de-racialising’ themselves,” says Jones.
In fact, according to Sydney cosmetic surgeon Dr Peter Kim, Asian-Australian patients tend to model their idea of a “perfect” face on Asian stars rather than Hollywood celebrities. “People usually bring me pictures of Korean actors and singers,” says Kim. “I’ve never had anyone bring in a photo of a Caucasian star and say they want to look like them.”
Performing more than 100 double-eyelid surgeries a year (the procedure involves making incisions in the upper eyelids to create the desired “double fold”), Kim maintains that many clients see the procedure not as an act of vanity but a form of “self-improvement”. “For example, in Japan and Korea, cosmetic surgery is the norm. If you’re not born with double eyelids, most people will end up getting it done . . . It’s almost as common as mole removal in Australia.”
But if thousands of women are going under the knife each year to achieve seemingly “Asian” ideals, why do some of the most desirable features in the Eastern world (big eyes, tall nose, pale skin) still carry echoes of Caucasian traits? Is it mere coincidence or is something more insidious at play?
This preference for certain facial characteristics was scrutinised in a 2006 study conducted by University of California, San Diego, psychology professor Piotr Winkielman. His research showed that we are far more likely to find familiar-looking objects or people more attractive because it requires less work for our brains to process standard “prototypes”. In other words, our perception of beauty can be influenced by what we see again and again. “What you like is a function of what your mind has been trained on,” Winkielman wrote. “Beauty basically depends on what you’ve been exposed to and what is therefore easy on your mind.”
Winkielman’s finding could explain, for example, our reinvigorated fondness for double denim, or the popularity of hyper-publicised reality stars such as Kim Kardashian. More importantly, it might even shed light on why today’s globalised aesthetics are still largely based on Western standards of beauty. Given the frequency with which Caucasian faces appear in international media and advertising campaigns, it’s no wonder typically Western features are easy on the eye–whether you’re in New York or New Delhi.
Grace Park, 21, has felt first-hand the pressure to conform to the global template of beauty. The fourth-year medical-science student recalls the trauma of getting a silicone nose implant and double-eyelid surgery at the age of 18. “My mum has always said, ever since I was four years old, that I was going to get double-eyelid surgery one day. She would keep bringing it up periodically, and we’d end up getting into a huge fight every time because it wasn’t something I wanted to do,” says Park.
At 18, Park was flown to South Korea and taken to a prestigious plastic surgeon for a consultation. “At the appointment, I just pretty much sat there, bawled my eyes out and hyperventilated the whole time . . . I’d never cried so hard in my life. My mum literally dragged me into the [operating] theatre.”
Having grown up in Australia, Park had a hard time conforming to strict Korean ideals. “I don’t look in the mirror and [worry about] my new nose and my new eyes any more; I just lament the fact that [I had to go] through the whole experience.”
While she believes greater ethnic diversity in popular culture is long overdue, she also thinks it will take time for aesthetics to shift culturally. “If more Asian women were used in fashion and advertising, it would change people’s ideals.”
Perhaps it’s time we took a break from beauty images that are way too easy on our brains.