Monday, September 16, 2013

Julie Chen, Ethnic Identity & America's Ideal of Beauty

Photo Credit: David Shankbone
I'm guessing that most of us have likely sought to improve our physical appearance in some form or fashion in order to enhance our job prospects. Whether it be updating our wardrobe or changing our hairstyle, it is not uncommon for people to seek to maximize how they look so that it will benefit them in the workplace.

But is undergoing plastic surgery in order to please an employer going too far? Or to take it another step, is it wrong to alter aspects of our appearance which are tied to our ethnic identity so that we can move up the corporate ladder?

Television personality Julie Chen recently revealed that she underwent plastic surgery early in her career in order to minimize her Asian features. Chen, probably most well-known as the host of CBS's "Big Brother", shared on a recent episode of "The Talk" that she underwent surgery in order to become more identifiable with mainstream America.

Chen offers background on her revelation:
"My secret dates back to — my heart is racing — it dates back to when I was 25 years old and I was working as a local news reporter in Dayton, Ohio," Julie began. She then set the scene by showing a clip of what a young Julie Chen looked like as a reporter at one of her first jobs and explaining how it was her dream to be a network news anchor some day. 
"So, I asked my news director … over the holidays if anchors want to take vacations, could I fill in? And he said, 'You will never be on this anchor desk, because you're Chinese.' He said 'Let's face it Julie, how relatable are you to our community? How big of an Asian community do we have in Dayton? On top of that because of your Asian eyes, I've noticed that when you're on camera, you look disinterested and bored.' 
"So, what am I supposed to say to my boss? I wanted to cry right then and there. It felt like a dagger in my heart, because all of my life I wanted to be a network anchor," she continued.
She then went on to explain how the situation took her back to her childhood growing up in Queens, New York, experiencing racism, and how the kids on the bus would make "ching chong" comment on the bus. "It was racism," she said. 
"So I started recording my newscasts every day and all I could see was my eyes, and I'd ask myself, 'Does he have a point?' I'd always ask myself, 'Do I look bored?' "So I started meeting with agents for career advice, and this one big-time agent basically told me the same thing. He had the biggest names in the business. And he told me the same thing. He said, 'I cannot represent you unless you get plastic surgery to make your eyes look better.' He then whips out a list of plastic surgeons who have done this procedure."
Julie then explained to the studio audience and her fellow co-hosts how half of all Asians are born with a double eyelid, and that the excess skin hangs down. "But the agent said, 'You're good at what you do. And if you get this plastic surgery done, you're going straight to the top.'
"So, I consulted with my mother, and [she greeted me with] silence. She said, 'This is a deeper conversation that we have to have with your father.' We talked about if this was denying my heritage, and whether or not I should have this done. 
"And this agent — he represented the most famous Asian broadcaster out there at the time — you know who I'm talking about and I'm not going to say names. "So, this divided my family. Eventually, my mom said, 'You wouldn't have brought this up to me unless this was something that you wanted to do.' And they told me that they'd support me, and they'd pay for it, and that they'd be there for me." 
Julie then showed the audience side-by-side photos of what she looked like before and after her procedure. "And after I had it done, the ball did roll for me," she confessed. "And I wondered, did I give into the man?"
Unfortunately, Chen's dilemma is an all-too-common predicament that women in Hollywood face, but also in our society at large. Rather than being judged for their intelligence or aptitude, women are often limited by men based on their physical appearance. In Julie Chen's case, it was her "Chinese look" that was holding her back. So she changed how she looked.

As a white man, I can only begin to imagine the internal struggles that Chen (and so many others like her that find themselves in similar situations) went through in deciding to have plastic surgery that would alter her appearance. I do not judge her. I feel sorry that a talented broadcaster felt that she had to go under the knife to fit the definition of beauty that others had established for her. And when you add the ethnic component to it, there are all sorts of questions that are raised about what lengths we should go to in order to achieve professional success.

Because the standard of beauty within America has traditionally been that of the skinny, blonde-haired, blue-eyed model, women that don't fit this stereotype are often left questioning not only their own beauty, but also their self-worth. In thinking about this story, my mind was drawn back to an interview that I watched earlier this year when actor Dustin Hoffman comments on the profound impact that playing a woman in the movie "Tootsie" had on him. Here is the video:

Hoffman's point is well-taken. Too many men throughout history have not paid attention to certain women simply because of how they looked. Whether it be in the marketplace, in romantic relationships, in ministry settings or simply in friendships, we often fail to look below the surface. The psalmist writes in Psalm 139:14, "I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well." Because each of us are made in the image of God, our physical attributes represent only a small part of our humanity We are each beautiful because God made us. It is too bad that we often don't see that.

You can read the rest of the article about Julie Chen's confession here.

(HT: Melissa Dyo for the link.)

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