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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