Julie Chen’s “Confession” is Bad for Our Daughters

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.

Journalist Grace Hwang Lynch remembers her own struggles with her Asian features:

” … [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?

Screen shot, CBS The View

Screen shot, CBS “The Talk”

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.

  • Great points, Joanne. The story reminds of all the women who were at healthy weights but were told they had to lose 15 pounds for a role, a job, etc – sometimes sacrificing their emotional and physical being permanently in the process, and of course perpetuating the norm of skinny being beautiful (like the Miss USA winner, who felt she had to go down to 18 percent BMI).

    • @Rebecca, I guess this is just another layer in the “what IS the norm” discussion? It’s hard enough to battle with our own inner insecurities, but even worse when our kids — girls and boys — are presented with potential role models who potentially harming themselves for the sake of some fleeting success.

      • Also, who decides what the norm is? And who can and will challenge it?

        Great discussion.

  • I won’t speak for all Asians everywhere nor can I speak for Julie Chen, but I can tell you about my own “first-gen” upbringing. It wasn’t my peers or even my employers who told me I wasn’t American enough to get ahead in life. It was my own Filipino parents. My mom used to pinch my nose so hard it would bleed, so it wouldn’t be so “flat”. I wasn’t allowed to play outside or participate in sports because I would get too “dark”. (I was then insulted for being too short and fat…) I would get punished for falling down and bruising my knees because dark skin leaves darker scars. The fascination with the Western/Whiter look was so heavily ingrained in my sisters and me from birth, and living in the US only made it worse. I can only imagine that Julie might have gone through the same thing…

    • Grace, thanks so much for commenting! If you watch the video, she doesn’t talk about any sort of push back like that from her family. In fact, she said her family was initially very upset about the prospect of her having the surgery. But I do know that you are not alone in your experiences. I think if Chen had found a different way to talk about it, it might have come across differently. But the message it certainly sounded like she was sending was that she was pretty sure she would not have been “successful” (and that others told her that) without the surgery. I hope things have changed in the world of broadcasting since then, but I’m not holding my breath.

      • I agree! That’s a really poor message to put out there… especially for next generation of girls!

      • Marti Teitelbaum

        wondering what this says about Connie Chung’s success.

  • Marti Teitelbaum

    My daughter, also born in China, doesn’t seem to have those feelings about her features. I think it’s because when she hit the worst, most insecure years (6th grade), she was in a school with a large number of Chinese-American girls. Last year her lunch group was almost all Chinese ethnicity, the kind with Chinese parents. This has meant that when she compares herself to others, it’s often others with somewhat similar features. However, she is aware that she’s much darker-skinned than her friends. One of her Chinese-American friends has parents who are convinced my daughter is African-American. And I don’t think it’s meant as a compliment. Disapproval of looks can come from many sources, from many prejudices, and be about all kinds of things. Still, I’m glad I pushed for to go to the school she goes to, rather than her home school. Very few Asians in her home school.

  • Pattie Dunn

    Funny thing about perspective. Being an American of Japanese descent growing up in Hawaii, I always felt awkward because at 5’4″ I was too “tall” compared to the other girls in my class who were petite beauties at 5′ and 90lbs. My mother made us pinch our noses too in hopes that we would have pretty pert noses and despaired at how dark we got cause we were such water babies.
    As I grew older and traveled, I learned that I was actually short and round and never going to fit either the Asian or Western stereo type of beauty. Now at 61 I’m just me, still short round with little Asian eyes and a pudgy nose. Lucky for me the sportswear company YMX Yellowman Expressions looked at my accomplishments instead of what I looked like and took the brave step to make me one of their 2013 Ambassadors.

  • Margaret Bourassa

    This story breaks my heart… not for Julie Chen but for all the Asian Americans out growing up.

    “The eyes are the mirror of the soul” for all races!

  • Lisa Ercolano

    I think everyone is being too hard on Julie Chen. She did what she believed she had to do in order to accomplish her dreams. She didn’t set out, I am sure, to be a role model for anyone: she just wanted to get ahead in the world of broadcast television, which is a very visual medium and with HD TV, getting more visual all the time. (Besides, she is not the first woman in television to change her appearance on the ladder to success.) In my opinion, it would be far more fruitful and fair to examine, criticize and do something about the obviously very racist (white centric) standard of beauty in our country. That is the bigger issue here. I

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