The “shocking” admission by Julie Chen of CBS’ daytime show The Talk, that she had surgery to make her Asian eyes look bigger in order to be a “success” in broadcasting, has the online world abuzz. In a week full of confessions, Chen shared that her boss at a local Dayton, Ohio TV station told her, a then-25-year-old aspiring newscaster, that without plastic surgery, her broadcasting career would go nowhere and she would never be a television anchor because she looked “too Chinese.”
As a former television broadcast journalist myself, I first have to ask — why would you ever take advice from anyone in local television news in Dayton if big time success is what you’re after? Oprah Winfrey didn’t do so badly after refusing to get a nose job when she was a news anchor in Baltimore.
But I digress.
The bigger sin for Chen was going public with her not-so-secret “secret” in a way that surely will have a negative trickle-down impact on many girls like my own Asian daughter who, whether she should or not, struggles with self-image issues because she has Chinese features in a world that she sees is full of Caucasians, like me and her dad.
Our daughter has wondered often as she approached her tween and teen tears — “Why is my nose so big? Why is my nose so wide?” She sometimes complains that she wants my nose. To which I reply: (1) I’m sorry. I’m still using it! and, (2) I think your nose is perfect for your face.
” … [M]any Asians, like me, are born with folded [eye] lids. I was reminded often as a child how lucky I was to have my mother’s eyes. But just like you can never be too rich or too thin, I still envied the girls with rounder, deeper-set eyes. And believe me, I was still reminded constantly that I was Asian, and thus, not American enough.”
But all the reinforcement I give our daughter about her appearance fails to sink into her brain because she believes that, as her mother, I have no choice but to tell her those things. And she’s not the only teenage girl in the world who puts more stock into what celebrities and contemporaries say about appearance than what their families do. So what message is she going to get if she learns of Chen’s surgery and the reason she did it? That success can only come if you acquiesce to racist advice that you have to look more like those in your community? That only people who don’t look like you can have a successful career?
Interestingly, Chen didn’t ‘fess up to the obvious rhinoplasty she’s also had done, which is clear from the before and after photos she herself has shared. And the responses Chen got from her co-hosts aren’t going to do much for promoting a message of self-acceptance for girls:
“Fabulous!” “More expressive!” “It was the right thing to do.” “Brave.” You are “representing” your people and her race!
I’m curious, though — in retrospect, would Chen make the same decision? Was a slot on a daytime gab-fest worth changing so much that she she’s almost hiding her heritage? Was the year-long recovery period worth it? And does she really believe in her heart that she would have been a failure if she had just embraced her looks?
Beauty, of course, is always in the eye of the beholder. Over the years, my husband and I have encountered many Chinese people who’ve told us, “You know, your daughter is quite beautiful.” As parents, we’re obviously biased, and but would try to respond by saying, of course all our girls are beautiful. Then those admiring our child would look us in the eye and add, “You don’t understand. Your daughter has features that many Chinese think are especially beautiful.”
I dare say, that’s probably what those same people would have said about Chen. If only she had been around to hear them, instead of that news director.
Joanne Bamberger is the publisher and editor-in-chief of The Broad Side. She was formerly known around these internet parts as PunditMom, but now she is trying to be herself. She is the author of Mothers of Intention: How Women and Social Media are Revolutionizing Politics in America (an Amazon.com bestseller and now available in E-book form!). She was recently awarded the Campaigns & Elections Magazine/CampaignTech 2013 Advocacy Innovator Award for her research and writing on the power and influence of women online. Joanne is a “recovering lawyer,” but she is still well-versed in her litigator skills and courtroom practices.
Image courtesy Joanne Bamberger. All rights reserved.