Love, Inc

The intersections of emotion and capitalism.

"Ethnic" Cosmetic Surgery

All cosmetic surgery is ethnic cosmetic surgery.

You know how you open your email sometimes and everyone and their mother will send you the same article?  That's how it was this weekend with an article in the New York Times on "ethnic differences in cosmetic surgery." The article, by Sam Dolnick, talks about how cosmetic surgeons in New York who cater primarily to Dominican women are performing a lot of butt lifts while surgeons that cater primarily to Chinese women are doing a lot of eyelid surgery to create double folds.  According to Dolnick, 

As the demand for surgical enhancement explodes around the world, New York has 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. Just as they can find Lebanese grape leaves or bowls of Vietnamese pho that taste of home, immigrants can locate surgeons able to recreate the cleavage of Thalía, the Mexican singer, or the bright eyes of Lee Hyori, the Korean pop star.

I just wrote a book on cosmetic surgery, American culture and economy, so it is no surprise to me that cosmetic surgery is performed differently in Bahrain than Burbank, but what is a surprise to me is that it is not patently obvious to everyone that ALL COSMETIC SURGERY IS ETHNIC.  After all, the body, like food, is always situated in particular cultural/ethnic/racial contexts.  So in the same way that it is totally a political decision to pretend that some food is "ethnic" and other food is "unmarked," it is also a political decision to pretend that some cosmetic surgery is ethnic while other procedures are part of some "univeral beauty ideal."  In other words it is bizarre that if I want to buy soba noodles or pesto, I have to go to the "International" aisle of my grocery store, but all the other foods I might want to buy- from HoHos to Craisins- are unmarked and therefore either "American" or perhaps transcendent of a nationality.

There is nothing universal about the unmarked cosmetic surgery in this country.  Breast implants are obviously gendered, but they're racialized (white) and classed (the higher the socio-economic status, the smaller the cup size).  Why is this that white women have a taste for large breasts?  The answer to that is long and complicated.  The desire for bigger and bigger breasts is somewhat related to changing fashion trends like the earlier invention of the bra that held breasts up and out or the current fashion of lots of cleavage showing.  But big breasts are also related to the increasingly visible porn star and a desire to imitate that look, the hypersexualization of young white women along with their simultaneous status as "childlike" (think big eyes, big lips, and blond hair) and the normalization of breast implants through reality TV cosmetic surgery shows.  And, no doubt, a host of other white things- such as Barbie- who like the ideal porn star is always really white (even if she can also be presented in other colors).

The second most popular surgery, right behind breast implants, is rhinoplasty (nose jobs).  Nose jobs are clearly racialized.  Cosmetic surgery began as an industry by "fixing" the noses of Irish (too flat and upturned indicating a syphillitic nature) and then Jews (too big indicating a degenerate nature).  It continues to take white women or nearly white women and recreate a nose that it is impossibly small for an adult face.  A childlike nose. Which is the kind of nose a true (white) lady will have. 

Breast implants and nose jobs remain the most popular cosmetic surgeries in this country, but not far behind are anti-aging surgeries such as facelifts.  This too is racialized.  Not only are most consumers of cosmetic surgery white and female, but they're middle-aged as well.  And why would middle-aged white women be so obsessed with looking younger?  Perhaps because white women are sexual to the extent that they look "innocent" and "pure" (unlike other racialized groups of women who are sexual precisely because they have "big butts" or some other marker of "hypersexuality").  And if a white woman doesn't look young, she is no longer desirable.  

When cosmetic surgery is desribed in this article and others as a sign that immigrant groups are "choosing" to embrace their cultural heritage by getting these surgeries done, there is a lot of ideological work being done.  Cosmetic surgery- like all of the body project- is not a "choice" as much as it is a command.  As Joan Rivers says in her book about cosmetic surgery, Men are Stupid and They Like Big Boobs, if you're unwilling to get cosmetic surgery you might as well go live under a rock.  If you're unwilling to remake your body according to the prevailing standards of your race, class, nationality, and even georgraphic location, you might as well climb under that rock now.  It doesn't matter if you're white or Dominican or Chinese American.  Go under the knife or risk being seen as an outcast.  Just remember that the knife you go under is not just surgical, but societal as well.  

 

Laurie Essig, Ph.D., is a professor of sociology and women and gender studies at Middlebury College.

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