Long (Slightly Weird) Read: “Is Race Plastic?”

Mo O’Connor, in NYMag, on what she calls “My Trip Into the ‘Ethnic Plastic Surgery’ Minefield“:

“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.

From 2005 to 2013, the American Society of Plastic Surgeons estimates that the number of cosmetic procedures performed on Asian-Americans increased by 125 percent, Hispanics by 85 percent, and African-Americans by 56 percent. (Procedures on Caucasians increased just 35 percent.) This is, in part, simply a mark of rising purchasing power: Plastic surgery is nothing if not a sign that one has money to burn and status anxiety to spare.

And doctors comfortable advertising their expertise in ethnic plastic surgery are growing wealthy creasing Asian eyelids, pushing sloped foreheads forward, and pulling prominent mouths back. These are procedures outsiders generally view as deracinating processes, sharpening the stereotypically flat noses of Asians, blacks, and Latinos while flattening the stereotypically sharp noses of Arabs and Jews. Some are refinements of formerly rare procedures like the ones that deformed a generation of Jackson-family noses, while others arrived Stateside from the bone-breaking, muscle-shrinking, multi-procedure extremes of Korean and Japanese plastic surgery. And, in fact, many procedures under the “ethnic” umbrella have no Caucasian model at all, as the Asian women asking surgeons to reduce their cheekbones can attest…

56 replies
  1. 1
    Amir Khalid says:

    I simply don’t understand cosmetic surgery for any purpose other than fixing the effects of disfiguring injury or illness.

  2. 2

    How many people actually do this? Is this really a trend?

  3. 3
    khead says:

    I inherited a caucasian nose. Irish-Hungarian.

    So, I guess I got that going for me.

  4. 4
    eemom says:

    Sorta OT, but you can tell a boob job a mile away in a women’s locker room.

  5. 5

    So. At the top of my blog there is a photo of one of the gates of Bayon. At the compass points on the walls around one sacred space at Angkor Wat, these 4-sided towers feature the face (archeologists think) of the king of the empire and religious figure who oversaw Eurasia’s largest city in 900 CE.

    While it’s true that our society is racist, and that the exclusion and compelled foreign-ness of South Asians is particularly conspicuous (cf FL Congresscritter asking Indian-Americans for ‘their government’ to help with an initiative), I cannot imagine WTF I would say if my child informed me that she planned to spend the price of a Honda Civic to have that nose, Jayavaraman’s nose, erased. Regardless of what it was replaced with.

  6. 6
    jibeaux says:

    Agree with Amir. There are risks with any surgery. I’ll leave those risks for the non-elective procedures.
    And it would be weird. Julie Chen looks like an entirely different person after her surgeries, not to mention looking vaguely Latina instead of Asian.

  7. 7
    Hal says:

    That’s funny. I was just looking at pics of Sammy Sosa becoming whiter and whiter a little while ago. Not exactly cosmetic surgery, but some of these surgeons are preying on, and making money off of people who buy into the idea that Caucasian features are superior to any other ethnicity or race.

    In the African American community for instance, there has always been this idea that lighter skin is more appealing. I know growing up biracial that some of my friends otherwise racist parents and siblings had no issues with me because to quote a friend, I wasn’t a “real” black person. That’s why some people made such a big deal out of Lupita Nyong’o success. A dark skinned black woman being held up as a style and beauty icon has more significance than some people might have imagined.

  8. 8
    Schlemizel says:

    race is a political construct. it is meaningless outside the minds of people who want to make it into something. We are allowing a small subset of the worst of us to set a societal “norm” that is no benefit to society.


  9. 9
    trollhattan says:

    I demand the right to verify this research data!

    Just sayin’.

  10. 10
    Cassidy says:

    @Amir Khalid: It depends on the procedure. The removal of excess skin around the abdomen of a man or woman, mostly women though, who have busted their ass to lose excess body fat can be that last little thing they need to say they’ve made it, whatever “it” is in their minds. It’s all context.

  11. 11
    A Humble Lurker says:


    That’s why some people made such a big deal out of Lupita Nyong’o success. A dark skinned black woman being held up as a style and beauty icon has more significance than some people might have imagined.

    Lupita Nyong’o is easily one of the most beautiful famous actress type people I’ve seen in a long time of any color. Which is one of the many reasons why shit like this horrifies and disgusts me. It’s like somebody thinking it’s a good idea to put eyebrows on the Mona Lisa. It’s because of those ethnic particulars that people are beautiful, not despite them.

  12. 12
    RareSanity says:

    @Amir Khalid:

    You obviously don’t have cash to burn, and the copious amounts of free time required, to obsess over every perceived imperfection with your physical appearance.

  13. 13
    Mike in NC says:

    Is this some kind of a Mitt Romney joke?

  14. 14
    Amir Khalid says:

    @schrodinger’s cat:
    I don’t know if you have them in America, but I’ve seen beauty parlours in Asia promoting their skin lightening treatments and glossy magazines at newsstands devoted to cosmetic surgery.

    I’ve read that people are conditioned to think of light skin as more desirable — maybe a sign that one belongs to the upper classes who stay out of the sun, whereas the poor people work out in the fields and get all brown.

  15. 15
    Liberty60 says:

    “I want to get a tattoo all over my body. Of myself, just better looking.”

    Steven Wright

  16. 16
    Amir Khalid says:

    I’d consider that to be part of fixing the effects of disfiguring illness, i.e. morbid obesity.

  17. 17
    beltane says:

    @Amir Khalid: If people really want to appear as carefree members of the leisure class they would do well to emulate John Boehner’s orange look.

  18. 18
    Cassidy says:

    @Amir Khalid: Medically, it’s no different than a boob job or nose job. It’s completely unnecessary.

  19. 19
    Violet says:

    while others arrived Stateside from the bone-breaking, muscle-shrinking, multi-procedure extremes of Korean and Japanese plastic surgery. And, in fact, many procedures under the “ethnic” umbrella have no Caucasian model at all, as the Asian women asking surgeons to reduce their cheekbones can attest…

    This is not just about wanting to look “white” or “Caucasian”. There are plenty of other cultural pressures people feel to change things about how they look. Asia in particular is a huge market for plastic surgery.

  20. 20
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    @schrodinger’s cat: It’s a trend among Village vermin, therefore it’s a trend that shows up in the media.

    These guys are notorious for taking a very small sample size of themselves, a few friends, and colleagues, and exploding it into a “thing”.

    I saw this happen in high school, when I was on the school paper.

  21. 21
    Violet says:

    @Cassidy: That depends how much extra skin someone has. If they’ve had bariatric surgery or lost a whole bunch of weight another way they can have tremendous amounts of extra skin that make it difficult to fit clothes and uncomfortable in general. Those extra folds of skin can become irritated. While it might not be in the same category as recreating a face after an accident it can still be medically recommended.

  22. 22
    Eric U. says:

    I feel a little stupid for having my ear fixed via surgery instead of getting a hearing aid. Just can’t imagine cosmetic surgery. White privilege I guess

  23. 23
    Amir Khalid says:

    Rich people of leisure tanning themselves is a fairly recent thing. I’m talking about cultural conditioning that goes back many centuries.
    ETA: Isn’t John Boehner that colour because of the bourbon marinade?

  24. 24
    Mayken says:

    @Amir Khalid: yup, the older Chinese women in our local Chinese American Association are always giving me a bad time for letting my boy get “brown.”
    Otoh I spent now of my childhood trying to tan so I’d look more like my (Asian) dad.
    Ok, forgive me if this posted more than once! FYWP or Internet vagaries. Take your pick.

  25. 25
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    @RareSanity: There was a movie back in the 80’s called Looker. In it, Albert Finney plays a plastic surgeon who makes very small alterations in models so they can be “perfect”, to maximize their impact according to research done by a computer firm. This plan does not meet expectations, so the computer out fit decides to digitize the models to make them “more perfect” and offers them a lifetime contract to use their images in perpetuity. The models start dying after they’ve been used to create computer models…because the company doesn’t want to fulfill the lifetime contracts they negotiated with the models to get their consent to being used for digital models.

  26. 26
    Violet says:

    @Villago Delenda Est: Korea has the highest plastic surgery rate in the world per capita. Here’s a handy chart of what kinds of surgeries are done more frequently in what countries.

  27. 27
    Ron Beasley says:

    That’s interesting, my X wife was very attractive but had a an obvious “Roman Nose”because she was of Italian ancestry. She talked about have it fixed but her break, if you can call it that, came when we were in an automobile accident and her nose was literally destroyed. We went to the plastic surgeon for reconstructive surgery and the plastic surgeon told her you can give me a picture of your old nose or you can choose from here and handed her a small book. She choose the latter and got her new nose.

  28. 28
    Cassidy says:

    @Violet: I can get a doctor to give me TRT just by walking in and being willing to pay for it; doesn’t make it medically necessary. I’m just sayin’ people have reasons and we shouldn’t judge.

  29. 29
    RareSanity says:

    @Villago Delenda Est:

    Wow, that sounds like an awesome plot for a movie…

    Why do I get the feeling that the actual picture does not live up to the potential this expectation?

  30. 30
    Violet says:

    @Cassidy: I don’t know what TRT is.

    From the thread of comments, you said that skin removal surgery was “completely unnecessary”. I disagreed saying that depending on the amount of skin it might be highly recommended or even “medically necessary.”

    I don’t disagree in general that we shouldn’t judge people but the whole article was exploring the idea of cultural issues around plastic surgery and there is a lot of judgment from all sides there.

  31. 31
    NotMax says:

    Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.

  32. 32
    patroclus says:

    My brother did a DNA test, which equally applies to me (I think), and I’m basically an Anglo-Saxon mutt from Northern Europe (i.e., Caucasian), but in 10 generations, there was 1 Jewish ancestor! Shalom! I now want to explore my Jewish heritage and I’ve been feeling real pro-Israel lately and I’ve been watching Woody Allen films and listening to Leanard Cohen CD’s a lot.

  33. 33
    Violet says:

    @patroclus: I remember reading some book when I was a kid. The families were Jewish and the moms took their teenage daughters in to get nose jobs when they were around 15 or 16. It was just what they did. No arguing, no discussion of losing their heritage or anything. They just got nose jobs. Period.

    I thought that was the weirdest thing. I was probably slightly younger than that when I read it and I couldn’t imagine going to get my face cut on by choice.

  34. 34
    NotMax says:


    As the Froot Loops toucan could have stood next to her in order to make its beak seem smaller, never blinked an eye over step-sister’s decision when well into adulthood to dehonkerize a bit.

  35. 35
    Steeplejack says:


    At the top of my blog [. . .].

    Linky no work. This one does.

  36. 36
    Suzanne says:

    After having two kids, I want a tummy tuck. My abdominal muscles just will not go back to flat. And I’ve wanted a boob reduction since I was a teenager. Mr. Suzanne promised me that I could get one after we are done with babies. I am excited at the prospect. So I get plastic surgery. My nose is slightly crooked, but other than that, I feel fine about it.

  37. 37
    Jack the Second says:

    I read a fun book on the subject, “Making the Body Beautiful”. Besides going through all the different body-image-issues different cultures have had, the most interesting thing I learned was that Japan got into “Western eyes” before World War II. I had assumed it was a post-occupation thing, but nope. Oh, and cosmetic surgery (including rhinoplasty) predates anesthetic.

  38. 38
    PurpleGirl says:

    @Cassidy: I have a friend who lost an enormous amount of weight after bariatric surgery. At first the insurance company claimed that surgery to remove the excess skin pouches was cosmetic and elective and refused to pay for surgery. After a few years though, he had repeated infections in the skin folds and they finally agreed to pay for the surgery to remove the excess skin.

    ETA: The insurance company paid for bariatric surgery in the first place because of health concerns due to his weight.

  39. 39
    PurpleGirl says:

    @Amir Khalid: There probably are beauty palours in the US which specialize in such treatment. Look up Sara Breedlove (1867-1919) — aka Madame C. J. Walker — who has been called the first American Black millionaire and self made woman. She made and sold hair and skin care products for black women. Many of the products were aimed at hair straightening and skin lightening.

  40. 40
    tazj says:

    My husband is of Chinese heritage, his parents emigrated from China to Canada. He told me his mother would go out in the summer with an umbrella.

    My husband has much darker skin than mine and I always say that I’m jealous. I’m of Irish heritage and have pasty white sensitive skin that burns easily. I remember Conan O’Brien joking about his skin by saying “I should just live in a bog.” I always thought that comment could pertain to me. Luckily, my kids have inherited my husband’s complexion.

  41. 41
    beltane says:

    @PurpleGirl: The same thing happened to a relative of mine. She still looked just as hideous after the surgery, but she was much more comfortable. Both the bariatric and skin removal surgeries were done for health, not cosmetic, reasons. That said, I don’t have a problem with people doing whatever they want to their own bodies. It’s their money, their body, and their psychological needs.

  42. 42
    Anne Laurie says:


    The families were Jewish and the moms took their teenage daughters in to get nose jobs when they were around 15 or 16. It was just what they did. No arguing, no discussion of losing their heritage or anything. They just got nose jobs. Period.

    Back in the 1980s, one of the Detroit-area conventions I attended was in the same hotel as the national meeting of an Arab-American youth group. Almost every male teenager had a proud, Semitic hawk-nose. Every single one of the female teenagers had a perfect little “Grecian” bob-nose…

  43. 43
    srv says:

    @Amir Khalid:

    I simply don’t understand cosmetic surgery for any purpose other than fixing the effects of disfiguring injury or illness.

    Age is an illness.

    This country is so twisted, some day, it will be a thing for plastic surgeons to create scars.

  44. 44
    Mike J says:

    @PurpleGirl: I’ve heard a thousand women talk about going to the hair salon to “get a process”, as it was called.

    (Alex Chilton in Make a Little Love refers to his $50 process)

  45. 45
    SectionH says:

    I was just about to say that when I was in Japan, so-called “racial features” sort of morphed to me to the point that I started seeing many Japanese people as Caucasians unless I was srsly close to them. It was fairly weird even to me, because it happened within a few days of arriving in Japan.

    That’s a fairly “plastic” visual definition isn’t, it?

    Maybe I’m the plastic one, in a very good sense. New things? Yay!

  46. 46
    Robert Sneddon says:

    @tazj: Japanese lady’s bicycles come with a handlebar clip to hold a parasol/umbrella to keep the sun off their faces. Shops sell enormous tinted sunvisor face shades and lightweight sleeves for outfits with bare arms to prevent skin tanning when out and about.

  47. 47
    Mandalay says:

    @Amir Khalid:

    I simply don’t understand cosmetic surgery for any purpose other than fixing the effects of disfiguring injury or illness.

    I’m with you, with one exception: kids who have ears that really stick out a lot. I would think fixing that that is relatively low risk surgery, and it surely prevents a lot of childhood misery and psychological pain. Kids can be so cruel to each other.

  48. 48
    opiejeanne says:

    @Anne Laurie: Our neighbors were Jewish when I was growing up; they were close friends, close enough that I called them Grandma Ida and Grandpa George. My dad went to school with their daughter and he told me that she had had a nose job in the 1940s and was pretty matter-of-fact about it. I think she was about 19 at the time.

  49. 49
    🚸 Martin says:


    He told me his mother would go out in the summer with an umbrella.

    That’s routine where I live. Parasols, solar face shields, gloves, etc. Not just the Chinese but the Vietnamese and Koreans as well. I thought it was odd at first, and then realized that I’m the one that’s going to get cancer and decided it was actually a smart thing.

    I spoke to a group of visiting Chinese girls last week – about 30 of them, high school age. Every single one had a parasol.

    But I don’t fault people that get plastic surgery. Ms Martin did for something that she felt incredibly self conscious about. She’s got a tattoo as well. Society came to grip with them too. Only criminals and sailors had them when I was a kid.

  50. 50
    maurinsky says:

    I’ve seen people of all races adopting the umbrella – a return to the parasol, I guess. I’m 100% Irish, so I’m very, very white, and all my life I was urged to try and tan, which I knew even when I was very young was a fool’s errand. I mean, my freckles will get darker, but the sun also wants to kill me. I do go out early in the morning without sunscreen to get a dose of vitamin D, but aside from that, I take precautions, wear big hats, etc.

  51. 51
    C.V. Danes says:

    No matter what you look like on the outside, you can’t change your genes. You are who you are.

    Just sayin’

  52. 52
    satby says:

    @maurinsky: me too, in fact on of my biracial cousins used to hold his arm next to mine and tell me I needed to get more sun! I have the last laugh though, at almost 60 years of age, I have no real wrinkles yet and people routinely assume I’m in my 40s. In spite of my very matronly “gramma” shape.

  53. 53
    J R in WV says:




    Yer both wrong, the page you get for both linkies is “Account Suspended”

    I’m sure the pic is wonderful, and the prince as handsome as can possibly be! But we can’t see it until the account isn’t suspended any more.

    Ref the plot of this post, I had a friend somewhat younger when I was in High School, daughter of parents’ good pal. Small crush on her, cute and really smart. Didn’t see her for 25 years, shocked to see she was missing the family nose. Still cute, tho. Just different.

    Not that long ago local college athlete (softball, soccer, very gorgeous) had minor surgery. Completely optional. Died. Sad!

    Not gonna get surgery unless urgently required not to die.

  54. 54
    Kevin says:

    My brother lives in South Korea, and he and his Korean wife just had their first son. He found the compliments on his sons appearance from Koreans to be unusual to say the least…

    “Oh, he has a high nose bridge”

    “He has double eyelids, very nice”

    So…hooray for my nephew I guess? He won’t need these surgeries (which are incredibly common in the plastic surgery obsessed South Korea).

  55. 55
  56. 56
    StringOnAStick says:

    @Anne Laurie: My husband is from Detroit, Jewish, and grew up in a suburb that was dominantly Jewish. I was shocked when he told me all his buddies got nose jobs at age 16 to remove the “Hassidic hook”; it was just standard procedure in his low to mid-middle class cohort. Since my hubby was of a mixed marriage (German Catholic and Russian Jew), he ended up looking German, so no nose job. He described it like it was no big deal, everybody did it.

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