September 18, 2013

On Looking “Too Asian.”

Photo: Cindy Cheung on Pixoto.

Last week Julie Chen, the host of CBS’s “Big Brother” and a co-host of “The Talk”, confessed that she got surgery on her eyes after her former bosses told her that her Asian eyes looked “heavy and small”.

Despite the fact that Chen claimed “no one is more proud of being Chinese than [she] is” many in the media jumped on her statement and criticized her for altering her ethnic features.

As an Asian-American woman, this news couldn’t help but capture my attention, especially since this came shortly after I learned that South Korea is now the plastic surgery capital of the world and overwhelmingly, the patients are young women who want to look more Caucasian.

My first reaction to Chen’s confession was one of ambivalence.

On one hand, I have no problem if people want to get plastic surgery solely for cosmetic reasons: I know several people from all ethnic groups and races who have gotten nose jobs, breast implants, etc. and seem delighted with the results.

On the other hand, I feel uneasy when anyone confesses that they got surgery to appear “less Asian, black, Jewish, etc.” Personally I tend to find many of those “too ethnic” features beautiful.  Also, wouldn’t it be a boring world if we all looked alike?

As someone who is half-Chinese but raised in a white household by my very blonde, very Caucasian-looking mother, I always felt a bit like an alien, even in my own family. However, because I grew up away from Asian culture, I went through most my life blissfully unaware of bleaching creams, eye surgery and other things that are fairly common in Asia, which are geared towards Asian women who want to look more Caucasian.

While I would never call my up-bringing perfect and wish I had more of a connection to my Asian roots, one positive thing is that from an early age, I pretty much accepted how I looked.

Simply put, I felt like this was the way I was born, and I was staying that way.

Of course, I still wanted “perfect” hair and other things, but I didn’t feel that wanting these things was in any way denying who I was.

Plus, as I got older and started to date, many of my (white) boyfriends admitted that they were attracted to how I looked different from most of the people they grew up with. While some might claim they were guilty of having a fetish or exoticizing my “otherness,” I never felt that was the case. I never thought they were with me just because I was Asian. I thought they liked me for me, and I just happened to be Asian.

Therefore, when I visited Asia for the first time at 23 and became aware of the aforementioned creams, surgery, etc., my first reaction was disbelief followed by the question: who do they think they are kidding?

To me, these women didn’t look more Caucasian. They simply looked like Asian women with lighter complexions and slightly different eyes than my own.

As someone who is 50% Caucasian, I felt that these women who were “full” Asian were facing an uphill and ultimately unwinnable battle: why would anyone waste their time and a considerable amount of money trying to be something they would never be?

However, as I grew older and reflected more on it, I stopped being so judgmental.

There is no denying that when it comes to beauty, Caucasian features remain the ideal in most places.

Even back in the 90s when the fashion industry starting patting itself on the back about being inclusive, for example, occasionally featuring a black, Asian, Latina model from time to time, many critics pointed out that even many of these ethnic models had features that were more similar to the Caucasian ideal than what is typical of their respective cultures.

Despite what I considered to be my generally healthy take on my own appearance, I too longed to change some of my “Asian features” even though they were not the ones on my face.

For instance, I wanted long, thin legs like my mother and saw my short, chunky legs (typical of those of Southern Chinese heritage) as a curse. I also loved the fact that thanks to my mother, I had (at least pre-baby) a bust that was much larger than that of the average Asian.

The truth was, I was no more immune from the pressures of society than they were. It just affected me less.

Instead of shaking my head at them, I should have been shaking my head at a world-wide society that shows a very limited range of beauty.

While I can say with almost 100% certainty that I would never have gotten the sort of surgery Julie Chen did, I can see why she may have felt pressure to do so, given the profession she works in. (Sadly, Chen’s career did take off substantially once she had the surgery.) She may never have gotten as far she did without it.

Instead of getting upset at Chen, the real outrage should be at her former bosses in Dayton, Ohio whom she claims said she was “unrelatable” because she did not look like the majority of their audience.

It also makes me wonder if these people had ever heard of a talk show host named Oprah Winfrey who, despite being a large-boned, dark-skinned African-American woman, certainly gave the impression of being relatable to a wide spectrum of colors.

While I am not a fan of “The Talk” and never had an opinion of Chen one way or another before learning this, I now actually feel sad for her.

Unfortunately, what many do not get is that heaping the criticism on Chen is not going to change things.

In fact, it would not surprise me if others in her profession: Asian, black, Latina, etc., are tempted to get surgery to change or minimize their ethnic features to get ahead.

Until we as a society move past the idea that there is one way to look or acknowledge the diversity of people who make up the U.S. and the rest of the world, this will continue.

Also, it isn’t just about people of color either—even those who are Caucasian and look “too Jewish, Slavic, etc.” are often pressured to change their looks.

One day, I hope to turn on the TV and see news shows, movies and commercials where the people on-screen are truly representative of the world around us.

Now that truly would be beautiful.

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Ed: Catherine Monkman

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