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To Keep or Not to Keep Your Nose

Barbra Streisand did. For those who don't, one big trend has been to something called 'westernization.' But shouldn't variety be the spice of life?

July 09, 2006|Amy Wilentz | Amy Wilentz is a contributing writer for West and the author of the forthcoming book "I Feel Earthquakes More Often Than They Happen: Coming to California in the Age of Schwarzenegger."

All over the world, to paraphrase Dorothy Parker's observation about singer Fanny Brice's plastic surgery, people are cutting off their noses to spite their race.

They are doing it everywhere, but the front lines are probably in Beverly Hills. On any given weekday in the offices of Dr. Paul Nassif on Spalding Drive, men and women, teenagers to 50-year-olds, wait in a luxuriously carpeted and upholstered reception area. On a comfortable chair, a young African American woman in her 20s reads a book. An older Asian woman in a broad hat emerges from the consulting rooms. A Latina chats with the receptionist. The door to the outer hallway opens and in comes a perfect Hollywood blond in a lacy white blouse, white linen trousers, gold bracelets, diamonds on her fingers, a designer handbag hanging from her shoulder. An older white man leaving the office jokes with a nurse: "Now I'm ready for a weekend of golf." On a closed-circuit television in a corner, testimonials by former patients and video footage of procedures play to current and prospective clients.

The patients are ethnically diverse. What many have in common, of course, is a desire to appear more youthful. But page through the before-and-after album that lies on a waiting room table and you see the other trend.

In this office it's known as westernization.

Here is a 31-year-old Asian woman who "feels that her nose is too bulbous.

Procedure: westernization rhinoplasty. Comment: Notice the smoother, softer nose with a 'natural' appearance." Next, a 26-year-old African American male "desiring a 'westernization' rhinoplasty . . . he has an ethnic nose and wants it thinner and desires more projection. Comment: Notice the improved but not over-corrected profile with more projection and a slimmer nasal tip. His nostrils also were narrowed with a natural appearance." Over on this page, "a 25-year-old Middle Eastern male desiring removal of the hump on his nose."

While all this westernization is going on, the cautionary example of Michael Jackson remains on people's minds. Patients and doctors say he is often mentioned as they discuss plans for surgery. No one wants to make his mistakes; no one wants to turn into a monster of tragic racial confusion.

Both doctors and patients say the lessons of multiculturalism learned in the 1970s and 1980s have had a significant impact on the practice of cosmetic surgery. Today's patients are seeking a look that could almost be called mestizo, and a kind of racial syncretism seems to be the goal of many. Dr. Charles Lee of Beverly Hills (not of Spalding Drive, but of Roxbury Drive), whose patients are often Asian Americans, dislikes the word "westernization."

"If I performed an operation to westernize an Asian patient," Lee says, "they'd be unhappy because it would look unnatural. When I give someone a double eyelid, which is a very popular surgery among Asians today, I try to retain the Asian look of their eyes. I want to create a natural appearance, an Asian appearance. Ideas of beauty have evolved over a long time, and there is now an evolving standard that is transracial."

There has always been a cultural debate surrounding cosmetic surgery. The debate swirls around such emotionally charged issues as God-givenness and individual free will. Should one bear for life a physical or mental burden that one was dealt at birth? What constitutes a physical defect? There are questions of masquerade and racial or ethnic passing, as well. Should people undergo procedures that make them less perceivably members of the socially stigmatized race or ethnic group into which they were born? Does an unconscious self-hatred, stemming from discrimination by a dominant culture, push people into the waiting rooms of cosmetic surgeons?

"It's all about the politics of appearance," says Patricia J. Williams, a Columbia professor and columnist for the Nation magazine. "It is distressing to see those who are getting cosmetic surgery trying to appear more Western European. Plastic surgery, which began as a process to reconstruct in medical emergencies, has been taken up by those who have been so oppressed that their ethnicity is perceived as a medical emergency."

That is one side of the debate. Cultural historian and Emory University professor Sander Gilman, who has written extensively on the cultural impact and significance of cosmetic surgery, represents another. He says critics like Williams can "end up sounding like Catholic cardinals from the 17th century. Their implicit argument is that you must suffer with it, because it is God's will. Aesthetic standards, however, are not absolutes, but rather questions of negotiation and accommodation within a culture and among individuals. I think that one must be careful not to assume that self-hatred is always the motivation behind the patient's desire for surgery. For example, by the 1970s here, the idea wasn't not to look Jewish--but not to look too Jewish."

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