Julie Chen’s Confession Isn’t Just About Plastic Surgery, But Racism

4 years ago

[Updated 9/13/13 5:02 p.m. PST: Dayton, Ohio TV station WDTN-TV issued a statement saying "We are sorry for what happened to CBS' Julie Chen in 1995 when she was a reporter at WDTN-TV,” and stating that they do not tolerate racism or discrimination of any kind. --Grace]

Everyone’s talking about CBS host Julie Chen’s revelation that she had plastic surgery to make her eyes look bigger or “less Chinese”. At first, I thought what’s the big deal? A TV personality gets cosmetic surgery? Dog bites man.

I’ve worked in television news. It’s a harsh industry where on-air talent can sometimes be appraised like heifers at a 4-H fair. Part of putting yourself on the screen is having people tell you brutally honest things about your looks, your weight, your voice, your personality -- basically, anything that makes you you. And sometimes those comments come from people who can make or break your career.

Image Credit: CBS

But that a news director or talent agent would come out and point-blank say Chen looked “too Chinese” still shocks. After all, this happened in the 1990s, not the 1960s. Part of me wonders why Chen didn’t file a complaint for racial discrimination, although the reality is that lawsuits take a lot of time and might scare away future employers. For example, just last year, Rhonda Lee, a black meteorologist was fired from her job in Shreveport, Lousiana for responding to Facebook comments from a viewer criticizing her short, natural hair.

Maybe Chen felt like eyelid surgery, a simple outpatient procedure, was her best option. Who knows how many other aspiring news anchors have had a little nip and tuck? Nobody talks about it.

So when a TV personality openly talks about having plastic surgery? And racism? That’s man bites dog.

Watch the clip here on CBS’ The Talk, part of a series in which the co-hosts each reveal a deep secret.

At the end of her confession, Chen asks, “Did I give in to ‘The Man’?”

Here are some of the comments from the co-hosts.

“You have represented your people, you have represented your race, you have represented women and your colleagues” -- Sheryl Underwood

“It’s the right thing to do,” -- Sharon Osbourne

“You were beautiful then and you are beautiful now,” -- Sara Gilbert

I think the way this discussion – a really big one—went down on The Talk was oversimplified.

They talk about Chen’s procedure as if hooded eyes equal Asian, and eyelid surgery equals becoming white, or American. In reality, this operation, called “double eyelid surgery” by many – or blepharoplasty, if you want to get technical – is really common amongst Asian Americans. And it’s practically a requirement to become a model or actress in certain parts of Asia, like last spring’s South Korean beauty contest controversy showed. I think the preference for larger, rounder eyes is something that's been internalized in Asia after a long history of European colonialization.

And many Asians, like me, are born with folded 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.

I’m sure Julie Chen is well aware of everything I’ve just explained. Maybe she felt like simplifying the situation makes it fit into a neat network time slot for CBS’ audience. And I can’t help but wonder if Chen’s decision to come out about her experience with racism and her choice to have plastic surgery was influenced by her experience this summer hosting Big Brother.

One of the contestants, Aeryn Gries, repeatedly made racist and homophobic remarks, including slurs about a Korean American housemate.

Chen later called out Gries for her racist and homophobic comments, saying, "It stung. I took it personally."

Whatever led Chen to finally talk about her surgery and her experiences with racial discrimination, I'm glad she did it.

What do you think about Julie Chen’s revelation? Would you change a part of your appearance that’s related to your heritage? And if you’ve had plastic surgery, do you have any regrets?

News and Politics Editor Grace Hwang Lynch blogs about raising an Asian mixed-race family at HapaMama.