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Is White Right? Ethnic Cosmetic Procedures

Is White Right? Ethnic Cosmetic Procedures


The iconic American beauty has porcelain skin, blonde hair, and blue eyes. For centuries, many women of color have striven to fit into this narrow ideal by using skin-whitening creams and an arsenal of other products designed to beautify – that is, anglicize – their faces and bodies. Now, cosmetic surgery gives ethnic men and women the option to change their appearance far more dramatically and permanently than was possible with hair dye or colored contact lenses. Despite this, many of today’s men and women of color are eschewing the “classic” beauty of whiteness, opting instead to pursue a look which alters, but ultimately maintains, their distinct ethnic features.

The New Face of Plastic Surgery

Minority patients are going under the knife in increasing numbers. According to a study by the American Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS), the number of plastic surgery patients of color quadrupled between 1997 and 2002. Minorities composed 17 percent of all cosmetic surgery patients in 2001.

More telling than these raw statistics, however, are the types of procedures racial and ethnic minorities are choosing to undergo. More than any other type of plastic surgery treatment, people of color are opting for nose reshaping and eyelid surgery. Many African-Americans are seeking to change the size and shape of their noses, while eyelid surgery which adds an eyelid crease is popular among Asian-Americans.

At first glance, this may seem to indicate that patients with identifiable ethnic features are denying their heritage, literally buying into racist beauty standards by nipping and tucking their way to an anglicized ideal. Certainly, ethnic insecurity does contribute to the desire of some minority patients to alter their appearances. Many plastic surgeons, however, are noticing a different, more pervasive trend. Though cosmetic surgery patients of color want some changes made, they are also deeply concerned with maintaining their ethnic identity.

Not All Beauty Standards Translate

According to Dr. Renato Saltz, the chair of the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery Public Education Committee, “Being aware of cultural differences is more than just speaking the language.” When it comes to plastic surgery, cultural awareness entails “understanding how patients want to enhance their natural beauty. For example, South American women typically want smaller breasts and larger buttocks than the average white American female.”

A decade ago, cosmetic surgeons were taught and trained according to a single standard of beauty; now they’re adapting and expanding their expertise to accommodate a diversity of ideal looks. For example, most African-American patients prefer a longer, wider nose and more prominent jawbones and cheekbones, while Asian-American patients overwhelmingly wish to achieve a softer appearance rather than a sculpted one.

Moving Toward Ethnic Beauty

The demand for aesthetic enhancement which still looks natural has led to a new emphasis on “ethnic correctness” in the cosmetic surgery industry. Advanced techniques now allow surgeons to preserve the ethnic character of features such as the African nose and the Asian eye. Dr. Kristoffer Ning Chang finds that “[Asian patients] are seeking doctors of a similar ethnic background because they don’t want a Westernized look.”

Minority patients have learned to steer clear of plastic surgeons who subscribe to an outdated school of thought in which whiteness is equated with beauty. Doctors who study the subtle but important differences between what Caucasian and minority patients consider attractive are reaping the benefits of the plastic surgery boom among people of color.

Of course, many will still argue that minorities who undergo plastic surgery are submitting to standards of beauty that disrespect the natural physical features of people of color. Others claim that, as Caucasian patients have been attempting for years to lend a more “exotic” appearance to their features through such procedures as lip augmentation and rhinoplasty surgery, it is unfair to brand minorities with the ethnic-sellout stigma. After all, African-, Asian-, and Hispanic-Americans are simply taking advantage of the opportunity to feel more attractive that cosmetic surgery provides.

In any case, wittingly or not, the plastic surgery industry may be contributing to the creation of a more diverse, inclusive definition of “beautiful.”

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