As More Minorities Go Under the Knife, Some Fear Cosmetic Surgery Could Obscure Ethnicity

Number of minorities going under the knife has doubled in the past decade.

October 3, 2014, 2:52 PM

— -- Kendra Elia is on the hunt for the perfect face. She even flew from her hometown in Fresno, California, to New York City to undergo plastic surgery for the nose she’s always wanted.

“I just looked in the mirror one day and just maybe, you know, makeup's not changing anything. Not helping. Maybe it's my nose,” she said.

This will be her fourth attempt at rhinoplasty, but for the first time, she is having her surgery done by Dr. Oleh Slupchynskyj, who specializes in what he calls “ethnic cosmetic surgery.”

“We talk about ethnic cosmetic surgery -- we typically refer ethnic to African American, Asian, Hispanic,” Slupchynskyj said. “Those are the three big groups of ethnic patients, as opposed to either Eastern European or Caucasian.”

Plastic surgery is more popular than ever now. Numbers for racial minorities turning to cosmetic procedures have doubled in the past decade, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons. From 2005 to 2013, cosmetic surgery procedures performed on Asian-American patients has increased 126 percent, in African Americans, 56 percent and Hispanics, 84 percent.

Slupchynskyj says he sees patients of all races, though he admits that many of them seem to want similar looks.

“There's this influence that the consumer, the patient gets that's dictated by what magazines put in their magazines and how they Photoshop their models and their celebrities,” he said. “I certainly have a fair amount of patients that come and bring me photos of either Halle Berry or Beyoncé or any of the other super celebrities that are walking around either half-Caucasian, half-African-American nose or half-ethnic nose.”

Elia, who is biracial, identifies as an African-American woman. As she joins this growing number of patients getting procedures, her mother, Sylvia Barnett, worries that her daughter is losing her ethnic identity by changing her nose.

“I just always believed you work with what you have,” Barnett said. “I mean, there are other ways you can -- makeup, or, I don't know, other ways you can make yourself look better. ... I'm blessed. I'm proud of my blackness, always been that way, and I don't want to change a thing.”

Some critics agree, arguing these surgeries are masking deeper desires to erase ethnic identity. Martin Wong, co-founder of now-defunct Asian pop magazine, said that many surgeries like these are simply indicative of the shame patients feel about their ethnicity.

“I think the problem is even if they’re not purposely trying to cover up their race or their ethnicity or culture that’s the message they’re giving,” Wong said. “They’re telling other people I wasn’t happy with the way I looked naturally and they’re saying you know I want to look more like the supermodels on the cover of, you know, European magazines or North American magazines ... or comics.”

Some scientists believe that there is a scientific formula for the “perfect” face. In 2009, researchers at the University of Toronto conducted a study comparing different female features to what others deemed attractive and came up with a model. Some experts say it all comes down to symmetry, an equation averaging equal distances between features.

But some psychologists argue that this symmetry model is a Western beauty ideal that perpetuates a glorification of fair skin and narrow features, and doesn’t embrace faces like Elia’s.

“There has been a drive to uniformity in terms of dress in terms of culture in terms of appearance, so it’s not astonishing to me that various kinds of plastic surgery will be used along the Western model,” said Dr. David Rothman, a professor of social medicine at Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons.

Many cosmetic surgeons recall the days of yore when there was only one model for rhinoplasties that forced them to adhere to one, often Western standard, when reconstructing facial features. Now, Dr. Steven Pearlman, a cosmetic surgeon based in New York, said that surgery has advanced far past that point, pushing back against the notion that all surgeons force a standard look upon their patients.

“We don’t define the beauty, beauty is defined by the media, the fashion industry and by the public,” Pearlman said. “If you look at who’s on the cover of magazines, the most popular actresses, news broadcasters, look at their features.”

But even those images are often altered or Photoshopped. Most recently, Lady Gaga alleged her skin had been altered in the December 2013 issue of Glamour magazine. Singer Lorde accused Canadian magazine Fashion of altering her nose in its May 2014 issue, while Vanity Fair was accused of lightening Lupita Nyongo’s skin in its February 2014 issue. Both Fashion and Glamour denied the allegations, while Vanity Fair did not respond to an ABC News request for comment.

But Elia was determined to achieve the look she’s always wanted. For her, beauty has no price tag. The total cost for her fourth nose job was about $14,000, and, in total, she said she had around $40,000 worth of procedures done on her nose.

It has been a grueling process but she said she hoped this fourth time would be her last. It was a complicated surgery because she doesn’t have enough cartilage left in her nose from her several surgeries. Dr. Slupchynskyj had to take some cartilage from Elia’s ear to complete the nose job, but in the end, her surgery was a success.

Now, almost two months later, Elia is back in medical school at St. George’s University in Grenada and is doing well. “I don't have any regrets about any of my surgeries,” she said. “Don't regret this one.”

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