Julie Chen’s parents are proud of her for revealing her 20-year-old secret last week. Chen, a host on CBS’s “The Talk,” chose to undergo plastic surgery on her eyelids after her boss said her “Asian eyes” made her look “disinterested and bored.” She said on the show that her career really launched after the procedure.
While many people reached out to her with their support, others have criticized her for “trying to look less Asian.” In response, Chen said she still looks Chinese and that her decision had nothing to do with denying her heritage. Commentators and columnists, meanwhile, have used Chen’s story to point out Asian Americans’ struggle with racism.
The problem of racism has blindsided another issue that Chen’s revelation highlighted: the correlation between beauty and success. Chen got the surgery to attain her career goal of becoming a news anchor. An agent she consulted with told her she had to get the surgery to “go straight to the top.” She was qualified, but she didn’t have the right looks.
After Chen’s blepharoplasty, her eyes looked bigger, which is the intended effect of this double-eyelid surgery. Psychology studies on standards of beauty have shown that adults and babies alike find people with larger eyes more attractive.
Sharon Lee, an assistant professor of social and cultural analysis at NYU, told Southern California Public Radio that Asians getting the eyelid surgery might have less to do with looking white and more to do with “looking great.” Similarly, Dr. Chase Lay, a San Francisco Bay Area plastic surgeon specializing in Asian patients, said in a statement on PR Newswire that this procedure was more about helping women feel more attractive.
There are, meanwhile, plenty of people who do consider bigger eyes a more Caucasian feature and get the surgery to look more white, but the underlying motivation is still to increase perceived beauty.
Attractive people do get a leg up in the working world. According to a recent Italian study, when the researchers sent out 10,000 of the same resumes, 54% of attractive women received a callback versus only 7% of unattractive women, and 47% of attractive men received a callback versus 26% of unattractive men. Similar studies have found similar results elsewhere in the world. It’s also significantly easier for beautiful people to earn more and move up the ranks faster.
The effect that attractiveness has on employment prospects depends on the type of job. If people perceive physical appearance to be important for a job, then attractiveness has a larger effect — for example, television and movie actors and actresses, and broadcast journalists. In a study on challenges that television news anchors face, anchorwomen rated an overemphasis on appearance as their largest career obstacle.
Julie Chen, therefore, is probably not the only one in her field to undergo plastic surgery to advance her career. Sharon Pian Chan, a writer at The Seattle Times, noted that broadcast journalists — regardless of race and gender — have “quietly” gotten procedures to upgrade their appearances.
If success is so defined by perceptions of physical beauty, is it all that surprising that an ambitious woman looking to further her career would undergo plastic surgery to achieve that end? Julie Chen has brought to light the issue that attractive people have significant advantages. The question is, then, is her way the right way to success?