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My Asian Eyes

Vivia Chen

September 17, 2013

 

Julie_chen_plastic_surgery(1) I had two gut reactions to TV personality Julie Chen's revelation on The Talk that she had cosmetic surgery to enlarge her eyes: (1) Man, she's going to get hell for trying to appeal to Western aesthetics; (2) Wow, she made a smart career move. Hey, why didn't someone clue me in?

 

Shocked that I don't find it shocking that a minority will get plastic surgery for her career? Well, get over it.

In case you missed it, Chen revealed that when she was 25 and working as a TV reporter in Dayton, her boss told her: "You'll never be on this anchor desk because you're Chinese." He then told her that her small eyes made her look "bored" and "disinterested." Some time later, a "big time agent" essentially told her the same thing, except he also gave her a list of plastic surgeons to fix her appearance.

Chen took up the suggestion—and the upshot: “I will say, after I had that done, the ball did roll for me." (Chen's before and after photos are above.)

As you'd expect, Chen's revelation has sparked loads of commentary—and a lot of it strikes me as achingly P.C. and patronizing. Though most blame the system rather than Chen, almost all use the word "sad" to describe how Chen decided to get surgery.

For instance, Kate Waldman writes in Slate that Chen's "career aspirations should not have required her to tone down her ethnicity." She then adds, "the pressure Chen faced was vile, unfair—and worth resisting."

"Worth resisting"? Hello? I hate to say this, but that strikes me as a simplistic, white view of diversity in the workplace. Would it have been so much more noble if Chen had rejected the suggestion and stayed stuck forever in some dinky job?

I can't speak for all sectors, but from what I've seen in law and business, the minorities who succeed almost always adapt the style of the dominant white culture. For some minorities (depending on their socioeconomic status), the adaptation takes no effort; for others, it is something to be studied and learned.

Less you think I'm just a sellout to my tribe, let me tell you I have company. Lawyer and novelist Helen Wan (she also recently wrote a Careerist post) expresses similar views. She writes in The Daily Beast:

As a Chinese-American woman practicing law in various corporate settings for 15 years now, I learned early on that it was incredibly important to perfect the art of passing—that is, to downplay or, better yet, rid myself entirely, of certain “minority group” traits in an effort to blend seamlessly into the mainstream corporate culture.

Wan tells several revealing stories of how she practiced the art of passing. For instance, she carefully wore a Tanglewood pullover ("instead of my comfy sweatshirt from Wei Hwa Chinese Language School") at a firm outing to signal her ease with the culture of privilege. She also remembers when another minority associate failed at "passing" by asking for the A-1 steak sauce instead of the restaurant's signature Bernaise sauce during a recruiting lunch. "You could almost hear the needle being torn off the record in that storied, gilded, high-ceilinged room, the moments that followed were so painfully awkward," Wan writes about the incident.

Of course, adapting the style and ways of upper-middle class, white culture is not as extreme as getting plastic surgery. Then again, the world of law is vastly different from broadcast journalism. (Luckily for most lawyers, "looks" don't matter as much.)

Still, isn't taking on golf, dressing yourself in Brooks Brothers, or wearing straightened hair another form of "surgery"—minus the knife? 

So I have to ask myself (as Wan did too): Would I have done what Julie Chen did if I were a 25-year old in her field?

I don't think you want to know my answer.

 

Do you have topics you'd like to discuss or tips to share? Email chief blogger Vivia Chen at vchen@alm.com. 

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Comments

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Wow I found this really interesting. I've been looking into plastic surgery in London Ontario and was just wondering how safe the procedures are?

Julie Chen is quite attractive, successful, and has a high profile marriage to boot. I doubt she regrets her decision. I also believe, like some of the other commenters, that her decision was multi-faceted because it does not appear that eye surgery was the only thing she had done to improve her appearance. Many white women in media have "work done" to benefit their careers as well. What offends me more about what happened to her is that the producer and agent felt empowered to criticize her based on race. hearing something like that at such an impressionable age can destroy someone's confidence. That is a career derailer, regardless of the field.

Employers basing hiring decisions or judging aptitude as a lawyer on the kind of sauce you are eating is plain ridiculous.

While there are likely a number of people who have unfortunately faced the racism that Chen discussed, I wonder if she is being completely genuine about her reason for surgery.


From looking at her before and after pictures it appears that, at a minimum, she also had her nose done and either had one side of her jaw shaved or had an implant added to even it out. Maybe her lips done as well.


That's not about racism, although it's certainly about the nasty business in which you have to be attractive to succeed.

I have worked in Journalism and am an Attorney and I can tell you that as an African American, I knew I had to conform to majority (read white) standards of beauty if I even wanted a chance on camera (and sometimes off). I totally get how Chen felt she had to get surgery to have a chance at a visual high profile career. Women also diet, get implants, hair weaves and lipo to get jobs that are attached to your appearance. The A-1 is about class primarily, but is also linked to race if you come from a culture that as a rule doesn't eat Bernaise or other "fancy" sauces. It speaks to the sophistication of your palate and "knowing" that restaurant has a famous sauce with the steak. I was asked in a job interview if I liked Opera. I happened to have studied ballet most of my childhood and adolescence and did in fact enjoy Opera and loved Ballet. The firm sponsored the Baltimore Opera company. But I know that it was a question designed to screen me out and see if I fit in. I didn't get the job, but it might have been the softball team question. (I don't play sports). The firm is still woefully lacking in diversity.

I would not go through plastic surgery for a job, modern culture is too obsessed with looks and we need to get over it.

I understand this surgery is quite popular in Taiwan, South Korea and other asian countries. So, clearly it is something that is sometimes done for a reason other than just trying to "fit in."

There is no connection between A-1 and race, but rather the perception that choosing a mass-produced, commercial condiment, such as A-1 sauce, over the restaurant's signature Bernaise sauce is a sign of being "low class." Fitting in at a white-glove firm involves making the "right" choices - image is everything and you better conform to whatever image the firm aspires to project. Just imagine the uproar if the associate had asked for catsup - LOL!!

There are two separate issues here. One is the gravitational pull of WASP culture which has subtly attracted and assimilated every ethnic group since the nation's founding, affecting behavior, religion and every other ethnic legacy. A perfect example is American Reformed Judaism, unknown in Israel and most of the world, which bears a striking resemblance to mainstream American Protestantism. That assimilation is predictable and reasonable. The A-1 sauce issue isn't ethnic at all -- it is a class issue that affects WASPs as much as anyone else. Of course lawyers of all ethnicities ape upper class manners to get ahead. Get over it. Changing one's appearance in an attempt to "pass" is a different and usually pointless endeavor. Straightening one's hair or getting eye or nose surgery is not going to fool anyone. But chances are that cultural assimilation is all that is necessary anyhow. BTW, I cannot imagine a senior lawyer at any significant law firm not being delighted to know that a junior speaks Chinese, Spanish, Russian or any other language. Just another skill to make clients happy.

Don't you think Chen's situation is as much about idealized Greco-Roman beauty as race? I think this story is really about how critical physical attractiveness is for success in many industries (including both TV and law, btw). Its also worth noting that the range of appearance deemed attractive in the case of women is much narrower than it is for men.

I don't see the connection between A-1 and race. My sister once got the same treatment when she asked for A-1 at a nice Italian steakhouse. They were so offended they almost took the steak away from her! She's as white as they come...

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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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