Last week, Julie Chen revealed on The Talk that she had plastic surgery to fix what a news director called her “Asian eyes.” In the segment, she has a nice, lengthy pretty-cry, shows dramatic before-and-after photos, gets applauded for confessing her secret, and receives a healthy dose of support from her costars. And while most of the response has been positive, she’s also received some backlash for allegedly shunning her Chinese heritage. Quite frankly, those people need to step back from the race shame game.
Yes, it’s horrible that her boss told Chen that her eyes weren’t relatable to her audience, that they made her look “disinterested and bored” on camera. It’s horrible that an agent said he wouldn’t represent her unless she got her eyes “fixed.” The sequence of events that led to Chen’s cosmetic surgery was horrible and sickening and undoubtedly, undeniably the product of a racist system. But her decision to undergo double eyelid surgery is inseparable from the long history of female celebrities of all races altering their appearances to “fix” something about themselves. Don’t say she’s denigrating her ethnicity, because she’s not, really.
As a half-Japanese, half-Chinese-American woman who still receives flack for “not looking Asian enough” (monolid and all), I’m uncomfortable with the power people are assigning to a style of eyelid that some Asian people have and others don’t. The surgery that Chen got to make her eyes “look bigger” sounds exotic, but it’s not a radical or unusual procedure in the Asian community. When I first became conscious about what double eyelids were — and that I didn’t have them — I was told in the same breath about the surgery that my mom’s friend got so that she could wear her eyeshadow in a particular way. It was this procedure.
Chen says getting the surgery wasn’t about denying her Chinese heritage — it was a cosmetic choice. “The goal was to simply have bigger eyes so the camera didn’t make me look sleepy, bored, angry, or disinterested in my interviews,” she told People. “The goal was to look, in my opinion, more alert and more interested on camera for my work/career.” That justification may have troubling roots, but so does the logic behind getting a labiaplasty to make your vulva look like a porn star’s.
If we’re going to talk about racism in the entertainment industry, let’s talk about racism in the entertainment industry. But shaming Julie Chen about her plastic surgery doesn’t promote more inclusive beauty standards. It doesn’t make the spotlight a safer place for women of color. Instead, it’s a sneaky way of dictating what traits make someone Asian or not. (Here’s a hint: It’s not in the eyelids.) And you know what? That’s the kind of essentialist thinking that should never, ever be a part of conversations about race. It’s the kind of talk that makes it easy for someone to be “too Asian” and “not Asian enough,” all in the same breath.