Apparently “ethnic” plastic surgery is on the rise across many countries, including the U.S. Maureen O’Connor, a writer for NY Mag who is half Asian and White, wrote about her visit to a plastic surgeon who specializes in altering your physical appearance in order to eliminate the features that define your ethnicity.
“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.
People go under the knife for different reasons, when it comes to plastic surgery. Often times I’ve thought about getting a nose job, not to erase my “blackness” but to actually give myself a more prominent bridge. But when it comes to ‘fixing’ something like your eyes if you’re Asian, does it automatically mean you’re trying to eliminate your ethnicity?
“The general idea then—and I keep hearing it even today—was that Asians who have facial and eyelid surgery want to ‘Westernize,’ ” says Flowers. “And that’s even what Asian plastic surgeons thought they were doing then as well. But that’s not what Asians want. They want to be beautiful Asians.”
…Why do white people fixate on the “Westernizing” elements of ethnic plastic surgery? While working on this article, I found that people of all races had principled reservations about and passionate critiques of these practices. But the group that most consistently believed participants were deluding themselves about not trying to look white were, well, white people. Was that a symptom of in-group narcissism—white people assuming everyone wants to look like them? Or is it an issue of salience—white people only paying attention to aesthetics they already understand? Or is white horror at ethnic plastic surgery a cover for something uglier: a xenophobic fear of nonwhites “passing” as white, dressed up as free-to-be-you-and-me political correctness?
But what if the reverse happens? I’ve always envied my sister’s prominent almond shaped eyes, that some will still refer to as being “slanted”, maybe on top of getting a bridge in my nose, I can get my eyes reshaped, but that doesn’t make me less Black or more Asian. Does it?
I would never judge a person on what they of surgery they choose to have, or why, but hopefully people realize that just because there’s a quick fix when it comes to ethnic plastic surgery, doesn’t mean their genetic make-up will change.