Cosmetic surgery and ethnicity

The Atlantic has featured a couple of good articles about this topic recently,  so I put together a roundup of related pieces:

The K-Pop Plastic Surgery Obsession from The Atlantic (24 May 2013).  This thorough article includes some quotes from anthropologist Eugenia Kaw and a reference to her work Medicalization of Racial Features: Asian American Woman and Cosmetic Surgery.  From the article: “Dr. Kang’s philosophy is about helping nature along. ‘I always try to copy the natural look, give face the ideal shape it should have been born with,’ he said.”

SBS Dateline (Australia) had a segment on the K-pop cosmetic surgery phenomenon a couple of months ago:

This Reddit thread about the 2013 Miss Korea contestants is interesting as some comments come from people living in Korea, trying to give a perspective from inside the culture.  They also reference this story from China in which a man sued his beautiful wife for marrying him under false pretenses, after she gave birth to a less-than-lovely child and then revealed she had had about $100K worth of surgery before meeting him (sounds like an urban legend to me).

Looking beyond Korea, in 2011 the New York Times published the article Ethnic Differences Emerge in Plastic Surgery. It’s not an academic or researched article;  it basically groups together a bunch of generalizations by surgeons about immigrant surgery preferences.

The Atlantic went back to the cosmetic surgery topic for today’s article Bringing Beverly Hills Cosmetic Surgery to the Middle East.

And to return to my home country, I offer you this Gawker post from 2011: A Guide to the Fake Faces of Real Housewives.  Perhaps there’s something to be said about trying to look like those seen as successful  trendy role models among those of your subculture — whether they be pop stars, actors, or trophy wives — and the dominant story isn’t that people are trying to look Caucasian, at least not anymore.

The ‘baby bump’ as public property

What is it about a pregnant woman’s belly that inspires strangers to stare at it, touch it (sometimes without asking permission), and comment upon it? On Slate today, Jessica Grose is creeped out by our obsession with celebrity pregnancies, pointing to a recent New York Times article about pregnant celebrity fashion entitled Pregnancy Takes a Turn on the Red Carpet. Her views are doubtlessly shaped by her own experience:

People I passed on the street wouldn’t meet my eye, they’d stare right at my stomach. Once, a man leered at me, which felt much more invasive than cat calls did before I was with child. I suppose it’s because I had no control over the way my body looked, and I felt much more vulnerable than usual because I had a helpless baby I was supposed to be protecting.

Grose finds the flaunting of bellies — or at least the media’s treatment of it — to be extremely objectifying.  The NYT article relates the history of celebrity demi-moorepregnancies, mentioning Demi Moore’s famous Vanity Fair cover from 1991 as a turning point that brought bellies into the open. It talks about a “revolution” that empowered celebrity women to appear at award shows when they were visibly pregnant and seems to take the position that this is universally liberating, especially now that there are more fashionable options. Grose points out that an essay by Renee Ann Cramer cited in the article draws a very different conclusion. In that essay, “The Baby Bump is the New Birkin“, Cramer writes:

Tabloids and glossy magazines watch and judge these pregnant bodies. Given that celebrities provide models of fashion that everyday women try to emulate, the sexy new baby bump establishes standards of pregnant and post-baby female beauty that are unattainable — perhaps even undesirable — to most. What’s more, press coverage of celebrity moms predictably replicates tired tropes and existing power gaps in class, race, and gender.

Looking at a media culture that reeks of TMI and TMZ, I’m inclined to say, “Who cares?”, but the answer seems to be “almost everybody but me”. Baby bump speculation sells magazines and raises hit counts, encouraging us to evaluate the celeb as a mother-to-be, not as woman, a person, or on the basis of whatever qualities brought her to the public eye. Let me throw in a plug for a professor at my alma mater, Erin Meyers of Oakland University, whose recent book Dishing Dirt in the Digital Age: Celebrity Gossip Blogs and Participatory Media Culture analyzes the digital obsession with celebrity gossip and who has looked at the “bump watch” in particular.

Celebrities aside, some of the comments on Grose’s article suggest this is part of an oversharing trend that extends to posting photos of urine-sensitive pregnancy tests with positive results on one’s Facebook page. Think of Janelle Taylor’s The Public Life of the Fetal Sonogram: Technology, Consumption, and the Politics of Reproduction. It’s not uncommon to get a first glimpse of a friend or relative’s child long before birth as a shared sonogram image. When I researched the social construction of pregnancy in the virtual world Second Life, among the phenomena I considered were products that give the fetus a more active role. These include transparent belly or uterus add-ons that show the growing baby (giving the pregnancy a whole new level of visibility) and some known as “tummy talkers” that simulate monologues by the fetus reminding the mother to eat properly and rest, expressing love, or warning others nearby to be careful not to push into Mommy. Though these are not universally used, they’re common enough that dozens of brands exist.

Celebrities set trends but they also follow them; if they reveal their pregnancies in ways that ordinary women might, the scrutiny and judgment they receive is magnified. Grose felt that she garnered unwanted attention when she was visibly expecting. I can’t guess whether she shares that feeling with the majority of today’s American  mothers, though signs point to women inviting others to bear witness to their pregnancies earlier and earlier in their progression. The female body remains a battleground for agency, no matter how famous one happens to be.

The early days of autism

Temple Grandin has a new book out this year —The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the Spectrum — and Slate has an excerpt: The Autistic Brain: The origins of the diagnosis of autism — and the parental guilt-tripping that went along with it. It’s only a couple pages, but it’s an insightful look at how the culture and level of knowledge at the time can lead to radically different diagnoses and treatment approaches.

Not familiar with Grandin?  Here’s the first part of a mid-2000s BBC documentary about her, which was how I was first introduced to this fascinating woman:


You can watch her 2010 TED talk, “The world needs all kinds of minds” (which is also the name of a 2012 documentary about her that is available online). And if that isn’t enough, there are clips online from the HBO biopic Temple Grandin, starring Claire Danes, which won seven Emmys.

Ever since Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down came out in 1998, Lia Lee, the epileptic child of Hmong refugees, has been the most famous cautionary tale in America of the cultural gap between patients and their doctors.  After a short life lived almost entirely in a vegetative state, Lia Lee passed away at the end of last month.  The New York Times has a brief summary of her experience caught between two radically different understandings of her condition, and the impacts of her case on medical training and hospital policy.

Lia Lee in 1988
(c) Anne Fadiman via The New York Times

Film series on mental health in Indonesia

From Raluca Szabo:

This looks amazing.  From the facebook blurb, which claims this is the first film series on mental health and illness in the developing world:

“Afflictions: Culture and Mental Illness in Indonesia” is a 6-part series of ethnographic films on severe mental illness in Indonesia, based on material drawn from 12 years of person-centered research by writer/director Robert Lemelson. The trilogy, which follows 6 individuals of different ages and backgrounds, explores the relationship between culture, mental illness, and first-person experience. Purchase the DVDs at: www.afflictionsfilmseries.com

I will definitely be trying to acquire this one for classes.