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Friday, January 09, 2004  

Culture: 'Ethnic' plastic surgery may be boon or bane

Prince C. at American Black brought my attention to a controversy in my natal region. City officials cast and erected a statue honoring African-American civil rights martyr Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in North Carolina. But, critics of the design don't like the way the statue looks.

...plans to honor Dr King's memory by commissioning a bronze statue have triggered a huge disagreement in what is already a divided city, with members of the black population making accusations against white officials.

The critics say the pose of the statue appears "arrogant" and Dr King's face does not look realistic. But what has really upset them is that the sculptor is white.

The critics are demanding that the sculpture be recast - at least its head - with a different pose and a more "African" face. Kimberle Evans, one of the most outspoken critics of the $56,000 (32,000-pound) statue, said: "We need an artist who can relate."

Perhaps the contretempts is about ethnic chauvinism as Prince suspects. However, the topic happens to segue into something I was just thinking about. We are snowbound in the Pacific Northwest, so I've been doing something I rarely do -- watch 'junk' TV. Last night, I caught Extreme Makeovers. It is a 'reality television' show on which people spend two months in the care of plastic surgeons who repair their supposed defects. A commercial for plastic surgery masquerading as a television show in other words. Some of the patients' problems are real. A woman on last night's show was nearly deaf. She was fitted with new high tech hearing aids that allow her to hear better than ever before.

Other operations or fittings raise the issue of wants being placed over needs. One of the makeovers was of an African-American woman. The plastic surgeons reduced the size of her nose and lips among other things. I was very ambivalent watching it. Is there something so wrong with nonwhite features they need to be 'fixed'? The patient, a down-to-earth mother of six from Wisconsin, said she had considered herself ugly all her life because of her broad nose and full lips. She did not question the idealization of European features. Neither did the African-American surgeon who performed her rhinoplasty and lip reduction.

Plastic surgeons are well aware of the pressure to look as white as possible many people of color feel. They are targeting nonwhites, particularly people of Asian descent. As a result, their case loads are disproportionately Asian and Asian-American, and, as the black middle-class grows, African-American. Blepharoplasty, an operation to alter the Asian eye, is most common.

Ms. Wu at at All Look Same has pondered the puzzle of Asian eye surgery.

The way of Moi has been terribly occupied in consulting for a major international cosmetics company. These poor souls with big, round eyes who want to tap into the Asian market have not a clue on the mysteries of the Oriental Eye.

The single eyelid.

Accursed to some and quite lovely to others such as Moi, the epicanthic fold has always been a point of contention and debate among Asian women. Defined in the dictionary as "a vertical fold of skin from the upper eyelid that covers the inner corner of the eye," this piece of skin is more popularly known in Asian communities as the "single eyelid" as opposed to the "double eyelid" common in Caucasian features.

Blepharoplasty, a surgical procedure in which "single eyelid" women can have their eyes "fixed" to have a "double eyelid" look, is common in Asian countries along with other forms of tormenting rituals such as eyebrow and eyeliner tattooing. Many of my Shanghai flowers back in the days pinched and saved their earnings just to have the surgery. It would make my eyes look more beautiful, they'd say. My eyes will look bigger. I will look more like Hollywood movie star. And if one could not afford blepharoplasty, one can simply purchase little crescent-moon shaped "eye tapes" from the cosmetic store. This creates a temporary crease on one's eyes but it is also known to cause blistering. Alternatively, one can emulate the ways of Connie Chung and apply an impressive amount of blue eyeshadow on one's eyelids and hope ones eyes look doubly big.

Many a times I have lost my patience during conversations with Asian women who contemplate having their eyes fixed. On one level, I empathize with them. Applying eye makeup is much easier on double eyelids. Curling one's eyelashes also creates a more dramatic flare on double eyelids. But on another level, the fake double eyelid makes one appear either terribly sad or extremely sleepy.

One of the emotions I experienced watching Extreme Makeovers was a poignant sense of doubt when the African-American woman's young children stared at her visage after the makeover. Their faces were her original face. What message was she sending their young minds about their natural appearance?

An argument can be made that, in a capitalist country, people are free to buy whatever they want as long as it is not an illegal commodity. But, I believe sometimes it is a good idea to examine what we want and why we want it.

Note: Learn more about the King statue controversy at Silver Rights.

2:17 PM