On the importance of accepting ethnic beauty


When my half-sister, Xia, entered my father’s hospital room after his quadruple heart bypass surgery, there was something different-unnatural-about her face. She waited for me to say something, and when I didn’t, she came inches from my face so I wouldn’t miss her new nose. My beautiful half-sister, who was born with a typical Asian nose-flat bridge and petite nostrils-now has a classic Roman nose that looked like it was ripped from Susan Sarandon.

I refused to acknowledge Xia’s new nose and the implication behind her looking so Caucasian. More and more ethnic women have gotten plastic surgery in recent years. Some women, like Xia, do it to rid themselves of their ethnic features. Other ethnic women claim they are having surgery to look like better versions of their Asian, Black or Latina selves and say they don’t want to assimilate and look Caucasian.

Caucasian women are still the main clients of cosmetic surgery, but the number of Asian, Black and Latina patients have increased dramatically in the past five years, according to officials at the American Society of Plastic Surgeons and the American Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery. From 2000 to 2005, there was a 65 percent increase in so-called ethnic plastic surgery, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons. For the overall population, the increase was 38 percent.

Women in general have complicated relationships with our bodies. The media projects unrealistic ideals for us to measure up to, from having Barbie-doll measurements to being youthful and cellulite-free forever. But I believe ethnic women have an even more complicated relationship with our bodies.

Society tells us that our faces-eyes, nose, cheekbones-and bodies are not good enough. That is why the major cosmetic surgery procedure for Asian women is getting eyelid folds in order to have the deep-set European eyes. When we are depicted in a beautiful context it is usually exoticizing us, as sexual creatures to be dominated or dragon ladies who use magical powers to put gullible Caucasian men into peril.

Now that ethnic women are becoming professionals and part of the middle class, they have disposable income to improve their looks-and some of them want to look Caucasian.

Though I don’t approve of Xia’s surgery, I understand my half-sister’s desire to have the classic Roman nose. When I was in my teens I was unhappy with my slanted eyes, flat nose and full lips. I wished I had Brooke Shields’ features: strong nose, deep-set eyes and high cheekbones. I pinched my nose for hours each day for years to make it look more like Brooke’s. When I was in the 11th grade I hated my looks so much that I contemplated breaking my nose by running into a wall so I could reshape it into something less ethnic.

When I graduated from college and worked full time as a reporter for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, I saved about $3,000. That may not be a fortune, but to a recent college graduate who ate mostly ramen noodles while in school, it was a lot of money. I debated whether I should use the money to finally get the nose job or go to Europe for three weeks. The ultimate goal with both plans was to meet the man of my dreams. I asked advice from a friend of mine who was at the same time ditzy and smart. She replied, “You should get the nose job so you will meet the man of your dreams who will take you to Europe.”

Her words utterly shocked me. I realized I didn’t want a nose job, especially to get a man. I just needed to learn to love myself. I went to Europe instead and promised to not be obsessed with meeting a man. I enjoyed visiting some of the most beautiful cities, castles, plazas and museums from Vienna to Madrid. I look at my nose in those pictures and I am glad it was the one I was born with.

Ka Vang was born in Laos and raised in St. Paul. She is a poet, playwright and community activist.