'Asian Eye' Surgery and Media Racism

Though Julie Chen has achieved success as a rare example of a visible Asian American news anchor and TV host, the industry pressured her to alter her face to look less like the people she represents.

Julie Chen, before and after eyelid surgery (CBS)

News anchor and TV personality Julie Chen said last week that, earlier in her career, she underwent plastic surgery on her eyes to make them look "less Asian." Chen's story publicly reinforces a narrative of “fixing,” that Asian Americans—particularly females—have heard many times in relation to the physical traits that make them "different" than the U.S. norm.

Chen recounted last week on The Talk a conversation she had with a former employer about filling in for anchors who were away for vacation. Her boss was frank: She could never sit at the anchor desk because being Asian made her dissimilar from the Dayton, Ohio population the station served, dissimilar enough that she was no longer "relatable." Then came the whammy that did Chen in:

“Because of your heritage, because of your Asian eyes, I've noticed that when you're on camera—when you're interviewing someone—you look disinterested and bored because your eyes are so heavy. They are so small.”

Chen's co-hosts gasped as she recalled this. There were murmurs through the audience.

The rest of Chen's story flows like some sort of ugly duckling makeover scene in a movie: Chen was shocked and dismayed to hear something like this from her boss, but couldn’t challenge him. She developed a huge insecurity about her eyes. She obsessed over how she looked on television, and when she met with an agent to get career advice, he told her the same thing: “I cannot represent you unless you get plastic surgery to make your eyes bigger.”

She entertained the thought and talked to her parents about it. But the subject caused a rift in her family. For Chen’s parents, getting her eyes done would be akin to “denying [her] heritage.” But ultimately, she got the plastic surgery. On The Talk, she showed the audience a side-by-side of her pre- and post-surgery headshots. The studio filled with praise, both from the audience and from Chen and her colleagues: “The eyes are bigger, I look more alert.” “Fabulous!” “More expressive.”

The choices that Chen had to make in order to advance her career were based on the racist notion that the monolidded eyes that many Asians have are less attractive than double-lidded ones. Chen said that having “hooded” and “heavy” eyes made her concerned about whether she looked bored when interviewing subjects, which in her and her boss’s minds, might be a bigger offense than actually being bored.

Though plastic surgery is an open secret in any look-driven industry—especially an industry that already requires impossible ideals from its women—Chen’s own plastic surgery experience came directly from preferences that uphold a racist norm. She did acknowledge that, even though she framed it as carefully hesitant question: “It felt like a weird, grown-up form of ... racism? In the workplace?”

She didn’t say if she always had insecurities about her eyes, or if they developed only after her conversation with her boss. In any case, she felt she had to “fix” a physical trait often associated with her race in order to assimilate, in order get ahead.

But the issue with Chen’s admission isn’t a moral one. She isn’t wrong for doing something that helps her advance her career when the number of positions for female anchors of color is already so limited. The problem is the response that came from her colleagues and the audience immediately after the post-surgery reveal. The ooh-ing and ah-ing from her approving colleagues shifts the focus from the reason why she had to get the surgery in the first place—racism—to applauding the courage it took to get a makeover to get ahead. Quipping on how much “better” Chen looked after only serves to reaffirm Chen’s fears about how her natural eyes might have been unattractive and restricting. It’s a feel-good moment, but not a teachable one, since the positive reaction acts as encouragement for any other Asian female who considers getting the surgery.

The takeaway by the end of the conversation was no longer society’s harmful preferences that made Chen “deny her heritage,” but the idea that she had taken a necessary step to represent her people in her field. While Chen’s choices shouldn’t be judged, it’s too simplistic to say that this was just a matter of making sure a particular race or gender was represented in an industry, which is the thought that co-host Sheryl Underwood ended the segment on. This viewpoint neglects to put the blame on the environment and the people who are responsible for making Chen take such drastic measures in the first place.

Chen said, “No one’s more proud of being Chinese than I am, and I have to live with the decisions I have made.” Chen can be proud of her Chinese heritage, but it doesn’t change the fact that she worked in an environment that wasn’t proud of it. The television industry wanted to distance itself from her heritage by suggesting that she erase traits that linked her to it.

Sadly, changing her “Asian eyes” seems to have been part of unlocking the career that Chen wanted as an aspiring anchor. “After I had that done,” Chen said, “the ball did roll for me.” She had already been told that she was good at her job, she just didn’t look like someone who was good at her job. Now she does and she was rewarded for it, both with job opportunities—she’s been hosting Big Brother since the show’s debut, and was previously a co-host for The Early Show on CBS—and with validation from people who cooed over her transformation, patting her on the back for a job well done. Chen is a veteran now in her own right, one of the few visible Asian American anchors on TV, but her successes came at the expense of making herself look less Asian than “her people,” the ones her co-hosts lauded her for representing.