Can You Change Your Race? 'Ethnic Plastic Surgery' Raises Big Questions

"Ethnic plastic surgery"—the practice of altering physical features supposedly typical of your race, to either erase them or to deliberately look like a member of a different race—sits squarely at the fraught intersection of bodily autonomy, racial politics, and oppressive beauty standards. It's nearly impossible to talk about without being oppressive or paternalistic in one way or another.

Maureen O'Connor has a lengthy, complex piece on the topic over at New York magazine — in the headline she understandably refers to it as a "minefield."

O'Connor suggests that plastic surgeons who specialize in "ethnic" procedures — mixing and matching "ideal" body parts stereotypically associated with different races — might, in certain ways, be truly post-racial. As though our culture's current hodgepodge of obsessive beauty ideals — small chin, thin nose, big lips, big eyes, big butt—is the great equalizer:

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As they traffic in all these modified body parts, even the most esteemed surgeons in the field can come across as almost blasphemously politically incorrect in casual conversation. (I had never thought Mongoloid was anything other than an insult until a black surgeon used it to praise a mouth, and even the term "ethnic plastic surgery" confuses most accepted distinctions between ethnicity, which is tied to culture and language, and race, which includes physical appearance.) These exchanges can be jarringly retro but also oddly refreshing—discussions of race with strangely post-racial specialists who choose to see beauty as something that can be built, à la carte, with features harvested from peoples all over the world. It feels like science fiction—but utopian or dystopian, I can't decide.

("Equality" based in oppressive, unattainable physical standards doesn't seem particularly liberating to me, but it's an interesting idea nonetheless.)

She also addresses the idea—a common hand-wringer among white people — that "ethnic" procedures are universally intended to make the patients look "more white."

"The general idea then—and I keep hearing it even today—was that Asians who have facial and eyelid surgery want to 'Westernize,' " says Flowers. "And that's even what Asian plastic surgeons thought they were doing then as well. But that's not what Asians want. They want to be beautiful Asians."

...Why do white people fixate on the "Westernizing" elements of ethnic plastic surgery? While working on this article, I found that people of all races had principled reservations about and passionate critiques of these practices. But the group that most consistently believed participants were deluding themselves about not trying to look white were, well, white people. Was that a symptom of in-group narcissism—white people assuming everyone wants to look like them? Or is it an issue of salience—white people only paying attention to aesthetics they already understand? Or is white horror at ethnic plastic surgery a cover for something uglier: a xenophobic fear of nonwhites "passing" as white, dressed up as free-to-be-you-and-me political correctness?

It's well worth reading the whole thing.

Personally, my stance on all plastic surgery is the same. Shaming people for things they choose to do to their bodies is never productive. If there are destructive cultural forces — whether patriarchal beauty standards or white supremacy — dictating a cultural phenomenon, then we need to focus on those forces specifically, not the human beings affected by them.

Image via Dario Lo Presti/Shutterstock.