The Politics of Plastic Surgery

How Julie Chen’s disclosure reveals our hypocrisy around beauty and going under the knife.
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Remember when plastic surgery was so rare that we marveled at people who got work done like they were in a circus? We examined them in hour-long Jerry Springer shows, pored over their before and after photos in the National Enquirer—we were fascinated by folks who would do something that seemed so extreme. Now, it’s so commonplace, we assume everyone in the public eye has had plastic surgery. We look at their so-called before and after pictures like analysts: “She’s totally had her lips done,” we’ll snicker, whether we've been in a plastic surgeon’s office ourselves or not.

You’d think that a plastic surgery reveal wouldn’t be a big story anymore, but news anchor Julie Chen’s announcement last week on The Talk that she’d had her eyes widened to look more appealing to Caucasian viewers, was a shocker. As a young TV news reporter, Chen, now 43, said she was told: “You will never be on this anchor desk, because you’re Chinese.”

She ignored that director but later met with a big Hollywood agent who told her the same thing. Chen got the eye-widening surgery so that she could further her career. (The sad part is that these people were right, and her career took off soon after going under the knife.)

But Chen’s reveal was different from other recent plastic-surgery confessions by Real Housewives of Orange County star Vicki Gunvalson or Millionaire Matchmaker’s Patti Stanger, who both copped to having procedures to feel younger and prettier. Chen revealed her secret to show how messed up it is that Asian women are pressured to look whiter, particularly in showbiz. Even in South Korea, extreme plastic surgery is so prevalent it threatens to transform a whole nation into clones. Chen’s surgery confession challenges us to think about plastic surgery as something beyond the purely shallow realm of appearance-obsessed reality stars, Playboy bunnies, and strippers getting boob jobs. Plastic surgery becomes far more complicated when its purpose is to erase ethnicity.

Some media outlets, like Hollywood Life, praised Chen for coming clean. But soon, the Internet armchair plastic surgeons immediately sprung into action, including The DaytonDailyNews.com, an outlet based in the very city where Chen had originally been told to get the snip. The publication asked: “Did Julie Chen get a nose job during the surgery to make her eyes look less Chinese?”

These new allegations prompted Chen to go on The Talk again. She said: “I do not have cheek implants, and I did not take fat out of my face. I did not have chin surgery. I did not have a nose job. I have not done my teeth. I've never even had braces.” She showed a video of herself getting makeup applied, to highlight how much it changes her look, even putting an overlay of her pre-makeup face on the old picture of her pre-surgery face. A less secure person would have no doubt found the entire thing humiliating.

Unbelievably, people still weren’t buying it. Gawker turned the images into a gif and wrote: “It looks like damning evidence that she did have her nose worked on—you can see it slimming down before your eyes.”

The debate over Chen’s nose and her eyes highlights a bigger problem that women in the public eye encounter when it comes to plastic surgery. In the past decade, we have all become accustomed to body policing—and therefore—shaming women who have made the choice to change how they look. Plastic surgery causes us to infer that a person is shallow, and we draw conclusions that a woman who gets plastic surgery is less valuable or smart than a woman who doesn’t. Women can get their hair dyed to cover their gray and maintain a youthful look. They can spend a small fortune on the best wardrobe. But somehow that doesn’t make them as vain as someone who wants to get a little nip or tuck.

Remember back in 2002 when Greta Van Susteren, then a CNN anchor, got eyelid surgery before she jumped ship to Fox? Her reveal to People that she had gone under the knife made national news. As she wryly told Jon Stewart: “It’s interesting—there’s the War on Terrorism, Al Qaeda, Osama Bin Laden, Ken Lay…and my eye surgery.”

People were shocked that a no-frills, brainy news anchor would do anything so vain.  Pre-surgery Greta was lauded for being low-maintenance. Post-surgery, people focused on her looks. TV writer Michele Greppi wrote: “Fox hired a tomboy, and they got a babe.” USA Today opined: “Why turn brilliant lawyer into Barbie with brains?” (Because smart people should be less attractive?) And according to Henry Schafer, the executive vice president of the Q Scores Company, which tracks public figures’ likeability, Susteren’s popularity took a hit immediately following the surgery.

But rarely do male celebrities get this sort of reaction. When men—like Tom Cruise—suddenly appear “fresher,” they are praised for their good looks.

No wonder Chen felt the need to defend herself even more. In critics’ view, it was OK, if somewhat tragic, that Chen got surgery on her eyelids—she was beating the system by joining the system. But for her to have gotten a nose job, well, that’d be pure vanity.

I’ll admit that I’ve done my own share of body-policing. Recently I tweeted: “OMG what the hell did Kim Kardashian do to her face!!” I was bothered by her apparent rhinoplasty, because it looks like she’s carving off her dramatic Armenian nose—which made her so unique and beautiful. Sometimes we pick apart what these women look like to make ourselves feel better, and even morally superior. Sometimes we just find it sad. And sometimes, it’s pure schadenfreude.

But as women like Chen reveal the work they’ve had done, pushing our perception of plastic surgery, perhaps our reactions will change as well. Jane Fonda, another smart and talented celebrity who reversed her anti-plastic surgery stance, recently discussed her own procedures with Katie Couric: “I said to the surgeon, don’t get rid of my wrinkles. Besides the fact, I don’t want to look foolish. The trick is don’t overdo it!” She added: “The most important thing about beauty—is that it has to come from the inside out.”