• Our standards of beauty change from race to race and from time to time. (E+/Getty)Source: E+/Getty
Although the rise of race-based plastic surgery reflects the dominance of Western beauty ideals, it’s also proof of the ways in which standards of attractiveness are historically and culturally contingent, writes Neha Kale.
Neha Kale

28 Sep 2017 - 2:50 PM  UPDATED 28 Sep 2017 - 2:54 PM

For as long as he can remember, Peter Prasad* wanted to alter the way he looked. Prasad, who’s in his thirties and has a Fijian-Indian background remembers watching reality TV shows such as Extreme Makeover and feeling thrilled at the possibility of radically transforming his appearance. He’s since undergone a string of surgical procedures including rhinoplasty, a jaw reduction and body implants. He says that Western ideals have helped shape his idea of what’s attractive and what’s not.

“I personally [have always] been attracted to Western features and I had no issue telling my doctor that I wanted that kind of look,” he tells SBS. “Living in Australia, you really do feel like you should look a certain way. In Asian countries, people want to look Western but in Western countries people want to look tanned! I know people get surgery for a natural result, but I wanted a dramatic result. People love to judge you and label you but it’s never been my first option. It’s a last resort.”

“Living in Australia, you really do feel like you should look a certain way."

Prasad’s circumstance might sound dramatic. But when it comes to race-based plastic surgery (or ‘ethnic plastic surgery’) — the practice of people from different ethnic backgrounds seeking plastic surgery that ostensibly “de-racialises” their features, he’s hardly alone. According to a May 2017 report in The South China Morning Post, the market for double-eyelid surgery or Asian blepharoplasty, the process of adding a fold in the eyelid to make it seem larger, is expected to be worth HK$900 billion by 2019. And the American Society of Plastic Surgeons reports that plastic surgery procedures in minority races doubled between 2005 and 2013, compared with a 35 percent increase in the Caucasian population.

Of course, it’s easy to attribute this to the dominance of Western beauty ideals. Despite worldwide conversations about the importance of cultural diversity, a 2016 Screen Australia study found that only 18 per cent of Australian television characters have non-Caucasian backgrounds. A study from US website Fashionista revealed that only 19.1 percent of US magazine featured models of colour on their covers in 2015. But if you ask Dr Laith Barnouti, a Sydney plastic surgeon who’s been practicing since 2003, this shift is equally informed by our universal human desires. Historical and geographical context also plays a major part.

“It’s an interesting phenomenon because we tend to like what we lack,” Dr Barnouti explains. “Light-skinned people want to be tanned, Middle Eastern clients want a ski-jump nose, Asian patients want to look more Westernised, narrow the lower part of their face so it looks triangular. Beauty trends change with time and geographical location. For instance, in America and Australia, people want large breasts but in Europe, a small bust is considered beautiful.

“If you look at brow shapes from the ‘70s and ‘80s, that’s also changed. These days, we’d like our brows to be raised laterally. But in Africa, this is different. Our standards of beauty change from race to race and from time to time.”

Pop culture trends also have a profound effect on what his patients, regardless of their cultural backgrounds, aspire to look like — although it’s telling that the models we most want to emulate still (mostly) reflect Western ideals.

“Light-skinned people want to be tanned, Middle Eastern clients want a ski-jump nose, Asian patients want to look more Westernised, narrow the lower part of their face so it looks triangular."

“Clients see Caucasian models like Miranda Kerr and Megan Gale and they want to look like them and these days a lot of people can afford it,” he says. “People see the Kardashians on TV and they want the Kardashian bottom for example or there’s a new actress with a large chin that people desire. I regularly see how trends in fashion and media inform beauty. It’s very interesting.”

Studies often confirm the existence of a “beauty premium” — the fact that attractive people are considered more intelligent, earn more and are likelier to receive job callbacks. But how does the pain and expense of plastic surgery, especially in a world where the rulebook for attractiveness is dramatically skewed, manifest in real life?

“You know what, when I was younger and first got plastic surgery, I put so much on it,” says Prasad. “I thought I was going to be so happy. I thought it was going to get me a relationship, that it was going to get me a job.

"I felt quite miserable after each procedure. But looking back, now that I have had a lot of things done, I think it was kind of worth it. I’ve become used to the physical pain.

"I look back at photos and say to myself, ‘Wow, I really did look different.’ I think it just takes a long time for your mind to absorb it.”

*Not his real name. 

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