The New Adventures of Old Cosmetic Surgery

Why the plastic surgery industry's new take on 'ethnic' features is the same old thing.

By Akiba Solomon Feb 22, 2011

The modern cosmetic surgery business isn’t known for its subtlety. Between ads, expert commentary on the latest techniques, live surgery shows, and reality TV cheese-a-ramas like "Bridalplasty," even the most casual observer can’t escape the knife or needle.

That’s why I wasn’t surprised by the disturbing generalizations catalogued in "Ethnic Differences Emerge in Plastic Surgery," a recent "New York Times" report about how NYC’s surgeons have developed "a host of niche markets that allow the city’s many immigrants to get tucks and tweaks that are carefully tailored to their cultural preferences and ideals of beauty." 

Throughout the feature, docs tick off their ethnicity-based observations. Apparently, Iranian women want rhinoplasty, Russians favor breast implants, and Dominican women get the buttock lift because "they all love the curve." We also learn that Koreans in Chinatown get their jawlines slimmed; Chinese folk in Flushing, Queens, want their "upturned noses flipped down;" and eye-widening double-eyelid surgery is a pan-Asian phenomenon. 

"When a patient comes in from a certain ethnic background and of a certain age, we know what they’re going to be looking for," a surgeon and Iranian immigrant named Kaveh Alizadeh explained. "We are sort of amateur sociologists."

What’s new here:

Supposedly, immigrants of color aren’t undergoing expensive, invasive surgery–and in some cases, putting it on layaway or getting bootleg, back-alley procedures–to erase their ethnic features. They’re doing it to enhance them! One Dominican breast-implant vet personifies the spin: "We Latinas define ourselves with our bodies. We always have curves. My personality doesn’t go with small breasts. Now I’m a person with a lot of ‘pechonalidad’!"

What’s scary:

I won’t get into individual assessments of immigrant patients’ motives; that’s impossible, unhelpful and potentially judgmental. But I do think it’s worth noting how the clients and the doctors in this piece have literally swallowed whole the "Ethnic Surgery" talking points disseminated by the American Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS), the industry’s main trade organization. In a characteristic media briefing paper, "Plastic Surgery for Ethnic Patients," the ASPS lays out the language:

The majority of patients want to maintain their ethnic identity. They do not want to lose important facial features that exhibit racial character. For instance, the typical Asian patient who has eyelid surgery desires a wider, fuller eye that is natural looking to the Asian face and maintains an almond shape. An African American patient interested in nose reshaping may want to reduce the size of their nose to achieve a harmonious balance with other facial features, but is not seeking a nose that is more European.

Joining the chorus are the ASPS members like Edmund Kwan, MD, who writes of so-called Asian Eyelid Surgery:

Till [sic] a few years ago, everyone thought the "ideal look" revolved around having Western features. However, with the recent increase in the Asian population in the United States, aesthetic standards have seen a drastic change. A large majority of Asian patients are looking for cosmetic surgery which will improve their attractiveness without affecting or altering their ethnic identity. Such procedures are known as ethnic surgery. …

Asians tend to have bulky eyelids. Such fatty eyelids can cause the skin around the upper eyelid to hang over. Asian eyelid surgery can help improve the beauty of the eyes as it helps open up the eyes. Through this procedure, Dr. Kwan can help get rid of "sleepy eyes." Asians also suffer from a large fold in the inner segment of the eye. A large fold can make the eyes look far apart or provides a "cross-eyed" appearance."

And, as slippery slopes are wont to do, ethnic plastic surgery verbiage plummets into Caucasian-as-control-group think. Check this excerpt of a 2008 ASPS press release, which the organization should disappear ASAP if they want to continue bamboozling marketing the ethnic pride line:

African Americans have a slight slant to their eyes, much like Asians do but not as pronounced," said Julius Few, MD, ASPS Member Surgeon and study co-author. "During aging, we found not only do the outer corners of the eyes of African Americans droop lower than Caucasians, they also droop sooner.

My takeaway:

To paraphrase the urban poet, Sean Carter: I don’t believe them. They need more people.