Beauty shouldn’t be standardized at expense of identity

October 10, 2013

Last month, talk show host Julie Chen revealed on The Talk that she had undergone plastic surgery on her eyes after being told by both her boss and an agent, on separate occasions, that the shape of her Asian eyes were going to hinder her career.

“Let’s face it, Julie, … How relatable are you to our community?” her news director told her. “I’ve noticed that when you’re interviewing someone, you look disinterested and bored … because your eyes are so small.”

The reaction from the audience was clear as she recounted the incident. Gasps of shock and dismay rang out. Immediately after, her co-hosts extended their comfort: A chorus of “You did the right thing!”—instant validation for her choices. “I choose to live with no regrets,” Chen said, invoking the middle-aged YOLO.

A part of me has a sharp disdain for Chen for not having the strength to ignore those pressures, for giving in to such racist beauty norms. Far East Asian standards of beauty are specific to their cultures, and it’s simplistic to universally equate plastic surgery with a desire to look white. In Chen’s case, however, it is clear that the surgery was done to alter ethnic characteristics.

“But she’s just more marketable with wider eyes!” some jerkoff will smarm, giddy at the hollow argument that he’s just being pragmatic. If he took one second to think, he would see that certain norms persist as pathetic veils for blatant racism. Chen was told that her face was wrong because of her ethnicity, so she paid someone to cut her open and change her eyes to satisfy these external standards.

The idea that viewers would be totally unable to relate to her because of her race is ridiculous. Orcs look radically alien. Julie Chen is simply Chinese. But the notion that the validity of American citizenship is contingent on whiteness still hasn’t died the painful death it deserves. It lives on despite our president being black, despite the mayor of San Antonio being Latino, despite the fact that when I vote in the United States, it counts just as much as the WASP-iest of Mayflower descendants.

There is a tender part of myself, nonetheless, that empathizes with the complexity of the choice that Chen faced—as an Asian-American, as a woman, and as  someone who hopes to succeed professionally.

The pressures facing women today—to be poreless, HD-ready embodiments of beauty at all costs—have been well documented by feminists and mainstream media alike. What is ignored is that for women of color, there is the added difficulty of also being born the wrong race.

Attending an international school abroad, I grew up around women from a wide range of countries, races, religions, and ethnicities. The easy version of the story is that this has made me greatly accepting of different types of beauty, including my own. The truth is that as diplomats’ daughters and children of investment bankers, so used to being shunted around from country to country, we clung to the unified Western pop culture that glorified white faces. This influence is not a two-way street. Asian features are considered exotic, but only beautiful for their strangeness and not in and of themselves.

My awkward adolescent stage was inhabited by a peculiar and specific self-loathing. I learned the right way to apply eyeliner to make my eyes look as large as possible, I learned how to angle myself for photos so my nose would look smaller, and I learned to stay out of the sun.

The history of my family is written in my bones. My Okinawan heritage finds itself in my thick hair and strong eyebrows, and, of course, my Japanese genes are expressed through my eyes. I would profess to be proud of my heritage, just as Chen declares in the segment, but making eye contact with my reflection is still a brutal exercise in bitter rejection.

My story is intertwined with Julie Chen’s. It extends outside the private realm, because Chen did not merely accede to a beauty standard, or to a culture of normative whiteness. She also buckled under the weight of her own ambition—a familiar weight. She was told that in order to succeed and get ahead, she needed to get plastic surgery. She chose to and has become accomplished in her own right. The question of “What if?” wasn’t worth entertaining in the face of success.

The problem Julie Chen faced wasn’t solely an Asian or female question. Who among us has not mutilated our dreams, even in the thinnest paper cut of an increment, in order to satisfy a societal standard? Who of us has not allowed small explosions in the realm of our ideals, allowing structures to collapse as we get that internship, clinch that interview? These concessions stick in us like shrapnel, and it’s all we think we can do.

I hope that one day I will look in the mirror with the same conviction that Chen purportedly does today. But the question is, at what cost? If I have to anesthetize myself like she did to go under the knife, perhaps the pain is worth it.

Julia Tanaka
Julia Tanaka doesn't do anything for the Voice anymore. She is sad about it.

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Ukishima Taro

About 20% of Korean women undergo plastic surgery and the percentage is rising. Ms Chen’s eyelid surgery is called “the basic”.

Bob Bill

This is far too dramatic to really be a compelling argument, without the over the top and pompous language, it could be easier to read and much easier to identify with.