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.
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