Thursday, March 15, 2007

Ethnic Surgery

Today we talk about ethnic surgery and what values are reflected in the Hollywood stars who chose to undergo the knife (or not).

Market studies report that African-Americans buy movie tickets at higher rates than any other ethnic group. The 79th Academy Awards were the most colorful ever: 8 of the 20 actors nominated were African-American, Mexican, Spanish, Asian, or African. Forty percent! Three African-Americans walked away with statues. Ten years ago never have seen Eddie Murphy, Forrest Whitaker, Djimon Hounsou, and Will Smith all simultaneously up for Oscars. Their looks epitomize the black male - they carry all the characteristic features of their race in very handsome fashion.

Adrianna Barraza, Rinko Kikuchi, and Jennifer Hudson were all up for Best Supporting Actress along with Penelope Cruz for Leading Actress. Barraza gained 35 lbs. to play her nanny role in "Babel" but this is less a stretch for Hollywood. Ethnic minorities historically have played character parts, particularly as "the help." Rinko Kikuchi got her role on sheer grit: she spent a year attending a school for the deaf in order to be fluent in sign language - and this was before she got the Babel part. Yet she showed up at the Globes as a blond, bleached brows and all. At the Oscars she morphed to a light brunette. She's tall, has a rounded western eye, and high nasal bridge. These last three features may well be natural, but it's certainly not characteristic of the Japanese race. Hudson has been hailed as "fresh" and "original." Both her talent and looks qualify on that point. As a dark skinned, classically black African-American woman making it on talent, she is a Hollywood anomaly.

Penelope Cruz floated in for her Best Actress nomination with just a touch of filler in her lips. Known for going topless in eight films, some of her scenes border on pornography, but all her equipment is real. They're good documentaries on how natural breasts function (they really are more fun than implanted ones). Yet, in her newest release Volver she strapped on a prosthetic bottom to fill out the role. She has this to say about Hollywood:
The most difficult thing in the world is to start a career known only for your looks, and then to try to become a serious actress. No one will take you seriously once you are known as the pretty woman.
All plastic surgeons will tell you that they are in the business of helping their patients "look their best." So how does looking your best become conflated with racial mores?

The poster children for race surgery are the Jackson family. Michael, Latoya, Janet, and now Jermaine have all but eradicated their ethnic heritage. Their judgment was clearly skewed by a weird infantile Caucasian aesthetic (perhaps influenced by early careers as child stars?) and resulted in rhinoplasties not found in nature – yet nose reshaping is the most common choice of cosmetic surgery among not just African-Americans but Asians and Hispanics as well.

Beyond having the bridge of the nose heightened, women of Asian heritage undergo cosmetic surgery to have their eyelids restructured. About 90% of that population has an epicanthal fold, yet they opt for epicanthoplasty, a procedure that forms a "double eyelid crease." It provides a more open-eyed look. A more Caucasian look.

South American tastes influence Latina women to favor large nalgas. That preference has migrated north to Hollywood (think Jennifer Lopez). Yet, as thin has become the fashion manifesto, augmentation surgery has risen in popularity. Gluteoplasty uses two distinct methods, neither entirely satisfactory: solid or semi-solid implants (usually silicone) or fat grafting (harvesting the patient's own fat and injecting it into her rear). The implants can cause significant scarring as well as shift in their placement. And no, they don't feel like the real thing. More common is the fat transfer, but only about half of the most carefully grafted fat remains at one year.

Traditionally, the motives for cosmetic surgery amongst minorities were to erase ethnic characteristics. Thirty to 40 years ago immigrant Italian and Jewish patients sought out surgery as a means of assimilation. From 2000 to 2005 there's been a 65% increase in racial minorities seeking cosmetic surgery, 91% of them women. Beyonce reflects that trend: breast implants, rhinoplasty, lips thinned, thighs starved, hair lightened and straightened. Academics say:
The beauty ideal has been white for a very long time. I think it's a little bit naive to say it [ethnic plastic surgery] is about personal esthetics and choice. That negates 400 years of history. The image that's in women's heads when they walk into a surgeon's office, when they think of 'proportionate' — that's very much shaped by the images they've been consuming in the media.
That's how Jennifer Hudson is changing Hollywood for women of color on-screen and off. She didn't gain entree as a "sepia sex symbol" ala Dorothy Dandridge. She did it like this year's male African-American nominees: on authenticity and talent. What happens in Hollywood mirrors the sexual, ethical, and racial double standards found in America and a shift in one brings about change in the other.

Hear Anne live on the Kevyn Burger show on Thursdays featuring Knifestyles of the Rich & Famous.

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