Assimilated Beauty

by Guest Contributor Lisa Leong, originally published on the AZN Television blog

“That’s colonialism all over your face!”

The quote is from one of my favorite Asian American Studies professors on eyelid surgery, nose bridge implants, and any other kind of cosmetic surgery that transforms Asians physical features into more Caucasian ones. She meant that there is one standard of beauty—the Western one—that gets imprinted on our faces, our bodies, and our senses of self.

It’s easy to see that the Western ideal of blond-haired, blue-eyed, All-American (or Ayran, if you’re more sinister) beauty is the dominant standard. Look no further than the all-present world of popular media. Advertisements, TV, and movies glorify beautiful faces, but these beautiful faces don’t look anything like me—or you, probably. Every billboard says, “This is Beauty, and you are not quite it. Envy my bag, my hair, my look and my, uh, eyelids.”

Racialized plastic surgery is a popular topic on talk shows like Tyra and Montel. They raise the question: does eyelid surgery erase or enhance race? The audience nods along in agreement that eyelid surgery is a way for Asians to conform to white prettiness. The plastic surgeon and his patients say that they are just enhancing Asian looks. I may not have big, round eyes, but I can see perfectly well what’s going on here.

These girls feel really bad about themselves. Liz and Keyounga (the guests on Tyra and Montel) both say they were “the only Asian girl at school” and remember being called “chink.” They have memories of face-to-face racism. I can sympathize with that. Eyelid surgery is not simply a matter of wannabe white, it’s also about trying to remedy their experiences of racism.

The crease, that coveted fold, is such a small thing, but it has come to mean so much. This is because the eye is the quintessential sign of Asian difference. The “Asian” eye is the focus point of racial taunting, like “slant-eyed” you-know-whats and “ching chong” jokes with the accompanying hand gesture. Going into surgery, Keyounga says, “Maybe I won’t get called chink anymore.”

Plastic surgery offers a way to hide those physical features that have been denigrated. Getting new eyelids or a new nose is a form of racial covering. The term is Kenji Yoshino’s, who explains that to cover is to tone down a disfavored identity to fit into the mainstream. And covering is something everyone does because behaving mainstream is a social necessity. (I’m not a plagiarizer, so you can read this on page ix of his book Covering).

So, in effect all this westernizing plastic surgery is a form of assimilation. You can swim in the mainstream instead of upstream by transforming your appearance. The slanted monolid eye is the marker of Asian difference, so changing it brings you closer to sameness. Does it really?

Liz and Keyounga are aware that plastic surgery doesn’t make them look white. “I’m still Asian,” says Liz, but she doesn’t seem too happy about it. Eyelid surgery patients are probably not trying to pass as white, but they are at least trying to appear part white. They come out of surgery Eurasian, with a few European features like a “tall” nose or slighter bigger eyes added to their generally Asian faces. It’s a double-bind of wanting to be Asian, but not too Asian. In other words, wanting to be different and the same as “everybody else.”

Getting cosmetic surgery is a personal choice, but even our most personal choices are influenced by dominant culture. Internalizing western notions about what is beautiful (and what is ugly) happens almost subconsciously. Knowing that Western beauty is dominant, has helped me question its standardization. I guess that means I won’t be getting my face “colonized” any time soon.

This story has been reprinted with permission from the Asian American Journalists Association.