Julie Chen and American Views on Asian Eye Surgery

julie_chen_plastic_surgerySo, the “big” news is Julie Chen’s confession to having eyelid surgery and the controversy over her decision.  This is old news is Asia, especially Korea, the capital of plastic surgery where it’s been almost a rite of passage for the majority of Korean women, who typically get this done in their teens.  In fact, I remember reading about a famous movie director who had to do an extensive search while casting for a historical movie as all the actresses and leading ladies in Korea had the surgery and he was having trouble finding someone with a natural, authentic, and traditional look.

It’s controversial in America because of different cultural norms and ideas.  You can almost always tell a Korean who was born in America, raised here, or adopted because they rarely have the surgery, compared to immigrants or foreign students who have had it done.

Having grown up here, I also thought that those that had the surgery were “selling out”, trying to be more white, bowing to pressure from a racist society.  I realized that I was seeing it only from one perspective or one could say, seeing it through different eyes after talking with two girls from Korea that were ESL students who became my friends after moving in next door.

I had never really had any Korean friends, and especially ones that were Korean, not Korean-American.  One day, one of the girls asked me when I had gotten the eye surgery.  I was surprised, as I had never had it done, though of course I knew it existed.  She said “Your eye job looks so natural, they did it well.”  When I told them that I hadn’t had surgery, they sighed, saying that I was really lucky.  Curious, I asked them to tell me about their experiences.

They both had it done at about age 16, and said that it was de rigeur.  One girl told me she didn’t want to do it, but her mother forced her, which was pretty common in cases of resistance.  Both said that it was painful but to not have it done had a lot of repercussions from family pressure, societal acceptance, to the ability to get a good job.  Especially in places like Korea, women’s looks are integral to their ability to get employment.  The girl who didn’t want the procedure also had the worst time of it.  She said it was really painful and she got a terrible infection that made her eyelids swell up and were covered with crusty sores and oozed pus for weeks on end.  She cried endlessly and blamed her mother, but what was done was done.

I asked if it was done to look more Caucasian, along with the lightening their hair and colored contacts, and if it was conforming to a Western ideal of beauty.  To my surprise, they had a completely different perspective.  They said that Koreans weren’t trying to have Caucasian eyes, just larger Asian eyes.  They pointed out my eye creases as an example.  When they get the surgery, they want the crease to be close to the lash line creating a more open almond shaped eye, rather than much higher on the eyelid with a hollowed out crease as is common in Caucasians.  My poor friend who hadn’t wanted the surgery also pointed out that the surgeon had actually botched the job.  He had cut the crease too far up, and as a result, it gave her a bit of a pop-eyed look as her eyes were considered too round and you could see the whites of her eyes slightly on the bottom.  As for the hair dyeing and colored contacts,  they said “When you live in a country where everyone has black hair and brown eyes, it’s boring.  We don’t want to be white, just different from each other.”  They wanted to stand out from time to time in a homogenous looking society and experiment with different looks for fun.  For them, living in a homogenous society, there weren’t any racist undertones to these decisions, just fashion and individuality.

That was a real eye-opener.  And yes, I’m being punny.  But it made me think that my perspective and disapproval of the surgery was based on growing up as a minority in an endemically racist society where Caucasian was the beauty norm.  As a result, my views were one-sided and biased and I had connotations with this procedure that the Korean ESL students, living in Korea weren’t subject to, and unaffected by.  I had the proverbial chip on my shoulder from the environment I lived in and my ability to make a judgement was based on a one sided viewpoint and experience and ignorance of the way other people thought about things in their own countries.  Typical American, to impose American views and motives to everyone else without even knowing someone else’s native culture and viewpoints in depth.

In America, to tell anyone they need an eye job would be considered racist and offensive and engender a whole lot of PC outrage.  For Asians, it’ doesn’t have that kind of heat.  It’s just more matter of fact.  Some people have really heavy eyelids and small eyes, and it’s just not aesthetically attractive.  Koreans want bigger eyes, but bigger Asian shaped eyes, not Caucasian ones.

Truth is, a lot of Asians do look better after surgery, or would look better if they got it done.  After all, white people with beady, squinty eyes aren’t considered attractive either.  My brother has extremely small, very heavy lidded eyes and could have benefited from the surgery.  We teased him in the family that it was a wonder he could see at all.

It’s symmetry, proportion, and balance in a face that makes it aesthetically pleasing-so says anthropology and biological  cues throughout the world.  Dr. Steven Marquardt, a former plastic surgeon, invented a grid that maps the proportions of what is considered a beautiful face, based on the Golden Ratio of Leonardo Fibonacci.  It’s pretty amazing.  When you superimpose this grid on images of people considered beautiful, their features conform to the outlines within the grid.  This applies to all races, all ethnicities, and both sexes.  These standards apply and fit whether it’s a modern celebrity or historical figure and works whether it’s Angelina Jolie or Nefertiti.

And let’s not forget, Julie Chen is in a profession where looks matter, and that is a major factor in that business.  Perhaps what would have been crueler but more truthful is that taking the racism out of the advice given her, she just didn’t have an attractive face and her eyes are disproportionately small to the features on her face.  She really needed surgery because she’s visually unappealing in a visual medium, not because her eyes were too Asian.  They were just too small for beauty.

Let me use an Asian star as an example.  Jackie Chan had extremely small and unattractive eyes, which you can see in his early films.  He had eyelid surgery, and while he still isn’t a handsome man, it made him more visually appealing.  Being an Asian star, there was no outcry of racism.  His motivation was not to look white.  His motivation would have been to be more attractive and therefore, appealing to his audience-which were Asians.

Would it have made Julie Chen feel better if they had just flat out told her she was ugly, without bringing race into it?  Because really that’s what the problem was.  She would never be able to work on tv in Asia with that mug, and would have been rejected outright or told the same thing.  When you choose to work in a medium that focuses on looks, what else do you expect?  Live by the sword, die by the sword.  She’s making herself into this poster child for racism and will be viewed as such in America.  In Asia, she’s just a not very pretty woman who was given some brutally honest and realistic advice about how to further her career.

And please, that excessive, overly shadowed and contoured eye makeup is all about trying to make the illusion of Caucasian eyes.  If she’s so proud of her Asian heritage and resentful of being pressured to look white, how come she looks more whitey wannabe than ever?  Now that she is in the position to no longer have to conform, wipe off all that makeup that is applied to make a fake high Caucasian crease, take off the fake eyelashes, and stop heavily contouring her naturally wide (though less than before-clearly a nose job as well) nose to celebrate her Chinese features.  Stop whining and being a hypocrite and playing victim to an audience for ratings!


17 Responses to “Julie Chen and American Views on Asian Eye Surgery”

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