On 'de-racialisation' surgery

CHANGE MY RACE: A still from the SBS documentary.
CHANGE MY RACE: A still from the SBS documentary.

Last Tuesday, I appeared in an Australian SBS documentary about so-called de-racialisation cosmetic surgery aimed at "Westernising" non-Caucasian features:

In Change My Race, Chinese-Australian presenter Anna Choy explores the proliferation of extreme procedures such as facial contouring, skin whitening and double eyelid surgery to "open up" Asian eyes.

Eyelid surgery grabbed the spotlight earlier this year when US newscaster Julie Chen revealed she had the operation back in the '90s after her boss bluntly said she would never be a news anchor because Chen's Asian eyes made her "look disinterested and bored".

Her career skyrocketed. "After I had that done," she said, "the ball did roll for me and I'm not going to look back."

Both Chen's story and Change My Race highlight the cases of women who successfully undergo de-racialisation surgery, with the discussion centring on the idealisation of Caucasian features.

But what happens when the surgery goes wrong?

When I was 21, also back in the '90s, I became obsessed with having a nose job. I can't pinpoint exactly when I became dissatisfied with my schnoz. As a teenager I was too preoccupied with obsessively combing the curls out of my recalcitrant hair and envying my older, leggier sister who never had to have her jeans taken up.

But around the time I graduated from uni, it suddenly became all I could see whenever I looked at my own face. I began researching surgeons and flicking through fashion magazines to find the ideal nose. Every train or bus trip was an opportunity to surreptitiously study the noses of the women around me.

Should I go for a ski-jump or a straight line? A cute button nose or a high bridge? Although I never consciously set out to get a "white" nose, it just so happened that all the enviable noses sat smugly on the faces of white women.

As I mentioned in Change My Race, the modern face of white imperialism doesn't necessarily proclaim that only white women are beautiful. Rather, it's that the features we associate with beauty - those that are most celebrated by the media and fashion industries - including facial symmetry, porcelain skin, thin noses, slim physiques, and sleek hair, are found predominantly in the Caucasian race.

Conversely, features associated with other races are devalued. Just last week 12-year-old Vanessa Van Dyke, who is African-American, was informed by school authorities her natural, frizzy hair was a "distraction" to other students (who bullied her mercilessly) and ordered to cut it off or risk suspension.

Every day, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways our society tells us that white is right.

I clearly remember my own tipping point. A middle-aged Israeli customer in the restaurant where I was a waitress asked me if I was "from" the Middle East. When I replied "yes", he smiled knowingly, tapped his forefinger to his nose and said, "It's the nose that gives us away."

I had the nose job.

I don't know what went wrong. Initially, both the surgeon and I were pleased with the result. It wasn't perfect, but I was ecstatic to be rid of my "Middle Eastern" nose.

But over the years I noticed that my breathing was becoming increasingly constricted. Looking at photos of myself over the years, I could see my nose aligning further and further to the right. The operation had left me with a deviated septum that threatened to eventually close off the right side of my nose altogether.

By the time I hit 30 I could barely breathe through my nostrils, leading to chronic sleeplessness. Once again I turned to surgery, this time to fix the problems caused by the first. It took me almost two years to finally settle on the doctor I thought would make my problems disappear.

Unfortunately, this surgeon botched the procedure even more than the first.

To make a long story short, I barely left the house for weeks, so mortified was I at my appearance. Not only did the surgeon make a mess of the operation itself, he also neglected to write me a prescription for antibiotics (or any other medication). The inevitable infection prevented my nose from healing normally and scar tissue quickly set in.

My breathing was the worst it had ever been. There was visible scarring on the nostrils and even now, a full three years later, there is swelling that refuses to subside.

So bad was the function and appearance of my nose that, like the old lady who swallowed the fly, I embarked on the search for yet another surgeon who could just make it all go away.

And so here I am, many years and four operations later, still having regular check-ups and breathing tests. Sometimes I am simply grateful my nose hasn't collapsed altogether and looks reasonably "normal", but barely a day goes by that I don't feel resentment and anger at the repeated mutilations I have endured.

Doubtless, many people reading this will gleefully treat my misfortune with a scornful, "But you chose to do this Ruby!" Yes, that's true, I did.

But I didn't choose to grow up in a society that relentlessly posits beauty as the ultimate state of a woman, even as it sets a beauty ideal that is unrealistic for most white women, let alone women of a different race.

And for every Julie Chen out there who has successfully carved away the most obvious markers of their racial heritage, there are countless others who are full of sadness and regret.

Dirty Dancing star Jennifer Grey, who devastated her fans when she swapped her "Jewish" nose for a chiselled "WASPy" one, destroyed her career by eliminating the very thing that made her stand out. "I'll always be this once-famous actress nobody recognises ... because of a nose job."

But perhaps poet Kate Makkai, who had facial cosmetic surgery at her mother's insistence, best sums it up in her poem Pretty: "I have not seen my own face in 10 years."

Makkai's words haunt me whenever when I study my nose in the mirror and they rang in my ears while watching Kathy's story in Change My Race. Kathy is a 17-year-old Vietnamese-Australian girl who agreed to undergo de-racialisation surgery to please her parents, who are adamant it will improve her prospects in a white-dominated society. How will she feel about this in 20 years?

The genie is well and truly out of the bottle. De-racialisation - like all forms of plastic surgery - is only going to get more lucrative. My own experience has given me ample opportunity to reflect on the unfairness of a society that routinely imposes insecurity on women, driving them to mutilate themselves in the hope of gaining acceptance and validation.