There’s so much to say about TV personality Julie Chen’s revelation of her having had plastic surgery to make her eyes “look bigger” that I don’t know where to start. Perhaps it’s because I’m Asian and a woman that this public disclosure makes me eager to tell all the ways I am offended.
Having worked in the TV biz before Chen was born (well, almost), I understand the struggle for ratings that underlies the pressure to do whatever it takes to survive in this cutthroat business. I’m also aware of the tremendous impact of seeing Asian faces on the tube every day, and hence the responsibility entailed in being a public figure.
Now 43, Chen revealed that her plastic surgery happened when she was a 25-year-old neophyte trying to get ahead in that bloodthirsty business when a “big-time agent” told her he couldn’t represent her unless she made her eyes bigger. From my calculations, this was around 1990, a time when women like Connie Chung and Tritia Toyota were already familiar faces in the news. I can’t help but wonder if having that kind of plastic surgery was a prerequisite for every female TV anchor back then, but according to Chen and this big-time agent it was.
Chen felt tremendous pressure to follow the man’s advice, especially when it was previously told her by another male — a news director in Dayton, Ohio, who made it clear, “You will never be on the anchor desk because you’re Chinese” (a statement for which the TV station has since felt compelled to apologize).
Chen realized the racism involved in this statement (she’s no dummy) but then went on to describe her efforts to validate their assertions that “heavy” and “small” Asian eyes were at the heart of her career inertia. She began studying her taped interviews for any sign of disinterestedness in her look, and then apparently finding those signs, she went on to describe Asian eyes in the most unflattering way.
She said that we were born with “too much fat,” with “excess skin” hanging down making our eyes look heavy. She made it clear that if you were Asian, you understood what it meant to carry that burden.
It’s probably true that Asian women don’t need to be taught about disdain for their narrowed eyes. I am reminded when I was in college, a guy I was dating told me I was “OK” except for my small eyes. Luckily, I had enough sense to drop him like a hot potato. Granted he wasn’t a news director, but I knew I didn’t have to hang around someone so obviously contemptuous (and most likely racist).
In our struggle for acceptance, I’d say that every woman — Asian or not — would like to be thought of as beautiful, hence the megabillion-dollar beauty industry of skincare, make-up, hair, and fashion. As much as I would like to think that I don’t spend time putting on make-up, straightening my hair or shopping for the perfect body-slimming outfit, I admit I’m as guilty as the next woman of trying to adhere to some elusive standard of beauty dictated by our majority culture.
Still, the point I believe Chen was trying to make was not that she wanted to be more attractive (of course not, and could that be a nose job, too?), but just wanted to further her career. But if that’s all she wanted, why hold up the photographs she held up before a gasping audience that showed the dramatic metamorphosis from an Asian ugly duckling with “heavy” eyes and a thick nose to a stunning wide-eyed beauty?
“Fabulous,” exclaimed co-host Sharon Osbourne, as if Chen had been magically transformed into Angelina Jolie. It’s as if we should feel sorry for the more Asian-looking, less attractive Chen before surgery. What kind of message is this before-and-after shot sending out to girls and women?
The Asian American Journalists Association recently applauded Chen for her confession, saying it was a reminder of the importance of calling attention to the need for diversity in the newsroom. However, if all Asian American news people have had to resort to plastic surgery to hide their Asian-ness, how is that a reflection of our diversity?
Somehow, I can’t imagine Gwen Ifill, recently named PBS co-anchor, lightening her skin to look “less black” in order to get to where she is today. On the contrary, I’d bet she overcame all racist odds against a dark-skinned woman because of her enormous talent.
There’s just no way I believe Chen when she says, “No one is more proud of being Chinese than I am.” A proud woman would no doubt have rattled her saber more when asked to change a trait that defined her ethnicity. Instead, she conveniently chose to admit to having her eyes done not then but now — at a time when overt racism is being condemned as a big no-no.
Chen was adept at rallying support from politically correct viewers while crying she was victimized. Call me cynical, but her timing was perfect to garner lots of attention and, coincidentally, more publicity for a career that lately seems to be thriving on it.
Sharon Yamato writes from Playa del Rey and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.