I watched with horror as a young girl of just 17 went under the knife at the wishes of her parents to become more beautiful (less Asian). Before the first cut I felt sick to my stomach, not through judgement of this family – they want the best for their daughter and this, in their eyes is the best – but with pain, the pain that comes from the realisation that this is real, this is happening and that no good will come from this.
This SBS documentary wasn’t just presented by Anna Choy, it came to life through her. I watched as her research touched and changed her sense of identify, belonging and validity in ways that I’m sure she never imagined possible previously.
I have been aware of a trend towards racial transformation surgery for some time- the re-shaping of faces towards a cookie-cutter western ideal- but had no idea of the extent of the desire for this here in Australia. I had always thought of Australia as a cultural melting pot, a welcome-all nation, a young country built on immigration and all despite the racist undertones of certain sectors of our society. But then again I’m white so what do I know. This documentary showed me an Australia that I hadn’t appreciated before – through the eyes of the ‘ideal Australian’, the image that graces our magazines, bill boards and advertising. Yes I’ve seen ‘her’ but I focused on her shape, perfect skin, vitality. I didn’t see her whiteness before but I do now.
Working in the cosmetics industry I can attest to the allure of whiter, brighter, more luminous skin – a vision that is lambasted across billboards all over the parts of Asia. A desire for whiteness (or lightness) of skin tone isn’t something that us white folk can lay claim to, lighter skin has long been seen as a mark of beauty and status for our sisters of colour. Not surprising given that skin darkens on exposure to sun and the only people able to avoid a daily grilling were the upper classes. But whiter, brighter skin has given way to something more sinister and it is the surgical chipping, grinding and re-shaping that has made me squirm.
Korea is the global capital of this radical plastic surgery and can cut, grind, pull and inject your facial features to within an inch of their life to give you what they perceive to be a ‘winning’ look. Gangnam style isn’t just a catchy pop tune, it is Seoul’s beauty district and home of some of the most radical plastic surgeons in the world. Earlier this year a Korean beauty pageant made headlines because the girls all looked the same – not surprising when during the documentary Anna Choy mentions that one in five Korean women have had plastic surgery.
This look isn’t achieved by rigorously applying creams, powders and war paint. This required a hammer and chisel, a few blows and cuts to the chin bone, a lift and fill of the forehead and some strategically placed fillers in the bridge of the nose. They look pretty but they also all look the same – takes the idea of personal branding to a whole new level – God help them if the ‘fashion’ in chins and noses changes – your face is not your jeans but therein lies another problem…….
I’m all for freedom of choice but I can’t help but feel, after watching this documentary that choice is something that we are no longer getting and that brings me onto our genetics. What happens when these girls and boys (who are not immune to the scalpel) have children? Will they be disappointed by their ‘natural’ looks and whisk them off for surgery at their earliest convenience? What will this ‘gap’ do to the child’s self esteem, cultural identity, ties to heritage? Will it induce feelings of shame or will it serve to divide parents who fell for the whims of fashion vs children who are happy in the skin they are in. Who knows. Looks have always been a factor in mate choosing but when everyone looks the same (un-natural) it is hard to predict where this might end. It is hard to judge what is real and what is fake when you can no longer read or recognise loved ones expressions.
On the other hand racial transformation happens naturally via mixed-race pro-creation, something that has (thankfully) become normalised and unremarkable at least where I’ve lived. Bridging cultural differences, blending cultures and becoming one could be a great outcome for the world making us less likely to fight our neighbours as they look, sound, feel and think like we do. But that sort of integration is catalysed by the right stuff – by a desire to reach out and know another, by mutual interest and respect. It takes time to foster and grow, takes an investment of the whole person and changes the world slowly, carefully, considerately. Going under the knife for 20 minutes might put you ahead of the ‘mate it out’ game but doesn’t it miss the point entirely?
Then there is the radical idea that we (as a species) may be barking up the wrong tree entirely. Maybe we would be healthier, happier and more emotionally intelligent if we can respect, love and cherish each others differences unconditionally. If we could get back to a time and place where we ‘see’ looks but we ‘feel’ and connect with the persons energy, spirit and vitality. Maybe we could celebrate diversity just as we currently seem to celebrate similarity, we could connect with others on many, deeper levels and not just go with what at first we see. Maybe we could be wild and free again. Maybe…….
I’m left with a few nagging questions that I hope time and tide will help me answer but in the meantime I’m hoping that somehow we can find the strength to look beyond the surface and into the heart of what makes us human and beautiful because I have a feeling that the answer lies there.