When Celebrities Change Their Faces, Literally – Julie Chen and the Eye Surgery Discussion

Back in April I wrote an article about China’s obsession with white skin and wide eyes for iPinion. Feel free to check it out and refresh your memory, but basically I said that I don’t want my goddaughter, or any Chinese woman, to set a standard of beauty for herself based on another race. I think that makeup should enhance one’s natural beauty and features, not try to mask them. I even think people can get plastic surgery if it is something they want or need for a variety of reasons. I have contemplated getting a nose job for years because it is something I have always been self-conscious about, but it is something I would do for me, not because other people think I should. Whether we color our hair, wear makeup, do our nails, or lose weight, body modification should be done for ourselves, either to feel good or even as freedom of expression. It shouldn’t be done for someone else.

Julie Chen, a long-time CBS news anchor and TV host, has been generating a lot of attention because of the revelation that she had eyelid surgery when she was just starting out as a news reporter to make her eyes more Western and more appealing to possible audiences. I don’t judge people for their choices or think that Chen should live in the past and carry regret. Should she have done it? I’m not in her shoes. It did help her career so maybe she made the right choice. Or maybe she betrayed her heritage. I don’t have all the answers on this topic, but what has me writing this today is that I finally sat down and watched the clip of her “big reveal” on The Talk. It isn’t Chen or her choice that has me upset, but the absolutely idiotic, uninformed, and bigoted responses from her co-hosts. Check out the clip below (as of this writing you can find the whole episode here, but it will probably be removed from CBS’ website in the next day or two so I am embedding the YouTube clip so it will hopefully stay up forever).

Sharon Osborne’s emphatic “fabulous” after seeing the before and afters was the first thing that made me go “what’s wrong with you?” Of course Chen looks beautiful after the surgery, she looked beautiful before. I’m severely bothered, though, by Osborn’s commendation of Chen having the surgery without questioning the racist motives behind it. It’s like praising someone for losing weight when she is bulimic or patting your kid on the back for getting good grades when she is cheating. Yeah, the results are great, but the road to get there is awful.

The worst commentator though is Sheryl Underwood. When Chen tells her backstory of what led to the surgery, she talks about her first producer who told said Chinese eyes made Chen look bored and disinterested when she was interviewing people. Was she bored or disinterested? Of course not. But through his narrow, white eyes she didn’t look alert to him so he told her she would never be an anchor. Underwood confirms and reinforces the producer’s racism by saying that Chen now “looks more expressive,” as if her Chinese face wasn’t expressive.

But Underwood isn’t content to simply reinforce racial stereotypes on Chen. She makes sure to go a step further and play “oppression Olympics” with her to let her know that the racism she experienced wasn’t really real racism. Chen says that the surgery did help her career, so she wondering if she did the right thing by “giving into The Man.” Underwood states, “you didn’t give into The Man, Julie. Because you don’t know about giving into The Man.” To Underwood, it doesn’t matter that Chen is also a woman of color who suffered oppression and had her career held hostage by racist men. Chen isn’t Black, so what can she possibly know about oppression? Even though this point has little to do with the topic of Chen’s eye surgery, it is the part of the discussion of Chen’s reveal that disgusts me the most. Oppression isn’t a competition. It is something all women face at some point in their lives, and women of color experience it the most frequently. I’m not saying that Chinese-Americans have suffered more than Black-Americans, but for Underwood to shut Chen’s oppression down as not as authentic as her own minimizes this truly horrible form of racism that is pervasive throughout the world, one that drives young women to deny their race to fit an unattainable standard of “beauty” and to undergo a frightening surgery to alter the shape of their eyes.

Underwood then goes on to say that Chen is an excellent example for “her people” (*cringe*) and for all women. Osborn chimes back in with “you did the right thing!” Sara Gilbert gives the only reasonable response in saying that Chen “was beautiful before, you are beautiful after.” In trying to be supportive of Chen, their friend, they are ignoring the racist and sexist issues surrounding this topic. Chen handled the show with grace and dignity. She didn’t join in Underwood’s Olympics. She didn’t outright say “I’m glad I did it,” nor did she say “I wish I hadn’t done it.” Chen is walking a middle road and it is hard to know how she really feels about it.

My concern, though, is for the millions of Asian women who are watching Chen and seeing her amazing career after eyelid surgery who might think “this is something I should do.” What the Chen episode is showing more than anything is the danger of looking at celebrities as role models. While celebrities might do great work, be great actors, great musicians, be great journalists, it is OK to admire their work, but not their persons. Chen is both a victim and perpetrator of the Western ideal of beauty Chinese women all over the world struggle with. You would think that in Asia Chinese women would celebrate Chinese beauty, but they don’t. Tape to make eyes bigger are in every store and bleach to whiten skin is in almost every facial product.

I don’t know what it is going to take to help Asian women accept their natural beauty, and it will be a long time before mainstream Western television truly embraces diversity. I hope Chen uses this moment to encourage Asian women to embrace their beauty, not to follow her example of finding flaws in her ethnicity.