Beauty standards penalize ethnicity, say non-Caucasians


Some Hispanics are narrowing their noses through surgery. Some Asians are undergoing operations to make their eyes appear rounder. And ads for Asian-Indian marriage partners often specify "fair" skin, reflecting centuries-old preferences and mirroring tensions that still exist in parts of the black community.

Ethnic activists urge their constituents to maintain pride in their ethnic heritage, yet given the country's conflicting concepts of beauty, that isn't always easy.

The dramatic increase in the nation's minority population has heightened the awareness that good looks, in many ways, continue to be vaguely defined in terms of European or Caucasian standards. And that is prompting intense debate in a variety of ethnic forums, from movie reviews and a new textbook on plastic surgery to Essence magazine and the San Francisco Bay Area's Asian Week.

Reasons for the endurance of European standards vary. But researchers and ethnic advocates often blame the media. And they worry that the scarcity of minority faces on everything from billboards to the covers of beauty magazines helps foster a sense of ethnic insecurity.

"This is a very serious problem," says Marilyn Kern-Foxworth, a black public relations professor at Texas A&M; University who studies media portrayals of minority groups. She said the relative absence of minority faces implies such faces aren't beautiful and often prompts minority-group members to "reject ourselves and our race."

"The message from the media continues to be the European standard," says Monica Lopez, an organizer and former queen of the American G.I. Forum's annual Flores Mexicanas pageant in San Jose, Calif. And while many Hispanics are proud of how they look, she said, others still "buy into the (media) images that we see."

Such standards can be especially problematic in plastic surgery.

"When I trained, most of the characteristics of beauty that were presented in the teaching and in the literature were Caucasian," says W. Earle Matory Jr., a black plastic surgeon in Massachusetts who is writing a book about ethnic issues in such operations. Even now, he said, non-Caucasian patients often wind up with Caucasian features because surgeons "make assumptions that an individual of color wants to look . . . Caucasian."

Then again, that is the case with some minority people, says Oscar Ramirez of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, who is writing a chapter for Dr. Matory's book on Hispanic surgery patients. He said the media's projection of Caucasian images "has changed the concept of beauty in different parts of the world, particularly in Latin America."

Over the past decade, Dr. Ramirez says, he has seen growing numbers of Hispanics with Indian-looking noses -- which often are broader than those of Europeans -- who want their noses narrowed. He said recent immigrants often do so because of "the desire to be integrated more easily."

But even discussion of altering ethnic features can rankle. Clyde Ikeda, a plastic surgeon and burn unit medical director at San Francisco's Saint Francis Memorial Hospital, found that out two years ago when he wrote in the hospital newsletter about an operation favored by some Asians.

The surgery involves etching a crease above Asian eyelids to give the eyes a more oval look. Some specialists in the procedure say it isn't an attempt to hide Asian features, since many Asians are born with such a crease. But Dr. Ikeda's article said some Asians prefer "this Westernization of the Oriental eyelid," noting such eyes "give a more striking appearance."

Dr. Ikeda says he was merely explaining the operation. But, he added, "I received so much flak" because some people thought he was advocating it.

The surgery also has drawn scorn in the pages of San Francisco-based Asian Week. "It is distressing to think we are growing up feeling [so] apologetic, inferior or imperfect for the way we look," an essayist lamented. Asian Week readers also have expressed concern about how Asians view themselves.

In recent months, more than a half-dozen letters have debated whether Asian men have inferiority complexes or seem "wimpy" -- in part because Asian physiques are generally somewhat smaller than others.

An even more contentious issue among some minority groups is skin-tone preference.

Some Asian-Indians run matrimonial ads in India Currents magazine of San Jose, specifying fair-skinned partners. And last year, the magazine ran an article complaining that the birth of a light-skinned Asian-Indian child often evokes relief from relatives. Indians, by and large," the writer scolded, "have learned little from America's struggles with race equality."

Recent studies suggest similar biases, noted during the days of slavery, remain among blacks.

In a 1989 survey by black-oriented Essence magazine, most of the 14,000 readers responding reported some tensions between light-skinned and dark-skinned blacks. Moreover, researchers at

Virginia's Old Dominion University in 1992 said 36 percent of the 66 black women interviewed wished they could lighten their skin.

The line between ethnic insecurity and adherence to fashion often isn't clear. During the 1960s, minority activists often criticized blacks for straightening their hair with curling irons and chemicals. Many blacks started wearing styles deemed more "natural." Yet in a 1989 Essence survey, 68 percent of respondents straightened their hair "chemically or by hot comb."

"It doesn't mean necessarily that they hate themselves," says Bruce Tyler, a black University of Louisville historian who has studied styles and sees them more as a matter of artistic diversity.

Ultimately, each individual must decide what's pretty, adds Keiko Arai, a 48-year-old Hawaiian of Japanese ancestry who had surgery to make her eyes "look like a Western woman."

"A lot of people said, 'Oh, you shouldn't have done that,'" after her operation, she says. "It's not their business."

"It's frustrating," says Maria Elena Rodriguez, chairwoman of the Los Angeles-based National Hispanic Academy of Media, Arts and Sciences. "It's like, if it's not European, it's not beautiful. And that's basically pushed down our throats by the media."

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