This extensive Buzzfeed article investigates the troubling story of Leo Jiang, a man who has spent years and tens of thousands of dollars on cosmetic surgeries designed to mask his “ethnic” Chinese features. While the phenomenon of plastic surgery is an increasingly common one, Jiang’s deliberate attempts at “de-racialization” and obvious psychological issues confound the conversation on beauty, race, and the choice to go under the knife.
Jiang explains his reasoning for undergoing such extensive facial reconstruction, and his childhood trauma being teased as a Chinese “other” growing up in the UK:
“I believed that my ugliness was in part due to my ethnic features. My father thinks I’m ridiculous for building a complex system of beliefs based on that shallow stimulus. He says, ‘You’ve gone and done this, so you must be very proud of it, but initially it was some stupid kids opening their mouths to you.’”
But Jiang’s attempts to “Westernize” his own features cannot speak for the decisions of many South Korean men and women to opt for the colloquially-termed “double eyelid surgery,” which some have called an overt reflection of the East’s fetishization of Western beauty standards. Such a reading may be a simplistic imposition of our own Western understanding of race and beauty into a very different societal context. NYU’s Sharon Lee explains:
“Race does not enter the consciousness [in Asia] in the same way it does here. It’s easy to pathologize a whole country of people. This notion that Korean women want to become white becomes a really easy answer. That’s not to say that race isn’t important, but when we stop there we’re overlooking much larger structural and historical phenomenons. No Korean woman says, ‘I want to look white.’”
Jiang’s provocative journey and its implications for the larger conversation on cosmetic surgery’s increased ubiquity is explored further here.
Victoria Le - Brown University:
What a repugnant article, soaking in unquestioned bias, condescension, and racial privilege.
While it was very nice of you to even include opinions from the defenders of these procedures, it’s clear that you’re completely uninterested in weighing the merits of their arguments or even extending to them real compassion or more than the vaguest and most pitying curiosity for their rationale.
You quote Jiang saying that “Whatever I do, I can’t become white,” yet you still feel comfortable diagnosing him with the need to “pass” and to “become this new [implied: whiter] person.” I’m not saying that racial insecurity has nothing to do with certain Asians’ decision to tuck their eyelids or reshape their noses, but you seem unwilling to entertain any other possibilities. Like here: “Protestations of doctors like Cheung aside, the procedure’s history belies its original intended purpose.” A) That sentence is stupid. No crap the procedure’s history belies its original purpose - its original purpose is its history. B) People do things for all sorts of reasons that can have nothing to do with their original intended purposes: get tattoos, keep kosher, wear blue jeans.
And it’s one thing to have a firm opinion about an issue, another to let your biases interfere with your sense of journalism. You describe the risks of blepharoplasty and jaw-narrowing surgery without explicitly acknowledging that non-racialized cosmetic procedures pose the same risks.
It’s especially sad because there’s so much about this issue you could have discussed in greater depth: the generational gap between proponents and opponents of surgical enhancement, the effect of globalization on various cultures, the changing cultural landscape of major Asian cities, how class influences people’s decisions about their bodies and appearance, how traditional Western and Eastern ideals of beauty intersect to create the kinds of body modification you see in Asian countries, etc.
Instead we get:
“Bei was undergoing jaw narrowing surgery - a slightly, but only slightly, nuanced version of taking an angle grinder to your lower jawbone” - I love that sneering “only slightly,” as if something like a facelift (remove and reattach your face!) isn’t a similarly intense procedure. Or as if grinding down the jawbone isn’t also done as a part of non-cosmetic surgery.
“I ask if [Jiang’s] lost the perspective that this is a medical procedure, and things can go wrong. Again, it doesn’t seem to properly sink in” - Again, I love the condescension.
“She was white and had dyed-blonde hair - her own, decidedly less invasive attempt at physical reinvention” - When white people change their appearance, it’s fine and not at all symptomatic of a deeper racial sickness.
“After we part, he’ll walk to a private dance class for which he’s paying $80 an hour…. A few weeks later he’ll wake at 5 a.m. for voice and drama lessons to learn how to act confidently in social situations” - How bizarre and snidely insinuating. It’s true that there is a specifically Asian market for lessons in confidence, but you might as well mention how Western stereotypes and pressure to conform feed that market.
“where two pretty parents are surrounded by ugly kids” - Yes, “pretty” and “ugly.” Not the more journalistic “who have undergone cosmetic surgery” or “who have not undergone cosmetic surgery.” I get that the ad itself is invoking a social bias, but could you try not to use language that perpetuates the kinds of attitudes that drive people to seek out cosmetic surgery in the first place?
“It’s all a way to muddle the real emotion behind the actions - 16 years ago some dumb people made some dumb comments and it’s still dominating his life” - Spoken like someone who’s never been the victim of persistent and culturally encompassing racial prejudice (yes, yes, you’re only agreeing with Jiang’s father, but you have even less of a basis to infer anything about Jiang’s psychology).
I’m Asian. I haven’t had any of these procedures done, but my mom has (an eyelid tuck), and as far as I can tell, she’s happy with her surgery and content with herself in general. If there was a racial component to her decision, she never mentioned it.
But racial prejudice is more than just a few isolated incidents. It’s not just that a kid in school can call you a chink or a gook or make squinty eyes to mock you. It’s that there are almost no Asian actors or actresses in Western-made film or TV; it’s that the Asian (more likely half-Asian) performers who do appear tend to conform to Western beauty standards; it’s that stereotypes about Asian impotence and submissiveness are tied to height, penis size, and jaw strength; it’s that eye makeup is designed for Western features; it’s that you can get passed over for jobs or relationships because of your appearance; it’s that people look at the before and after pictures for these surgeries and think the “after” picture is the beautiful one.
When will we finally get sick of hearing white people like the author of this article ridicule racial pathologies among people of color - pathologies which white people helped to create, or at least benefit from without question? If you really cared about Asian self-esteem, you’d worry more about what Western culture is doing to help or hurt Asians, instead of just blaming the victim.