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Why new cosmetic surgery trends that 'pick and choose' from cultures raise cultural appropriation concerns

By Siobhan Marin, Tahlea Aualiitia and Anna Kelsey-Sugg for Face Value
Physician Yves Saint James Aquino says in the face of significant media pressure, the concept of 'choice' is worth interrogating. (Illustration: Michelle Pereira)

Who wins and who loses when beauty trends celebrate cosmetically altered looks that are ethnic — but 'not too ethnic'?


Growing up in Sydney, Petronie was taught to be proud of her Blackness.

The message was instilled in her by her mum and dad, who are from Zambia and the Republic of the Congo, respectively.

"They were always telling me that I'm Black and I'm beautiful, and just making sure I really believed that," Petronie says.

Though it was powerful, it still couldn't shield the 26-year-old model and influencer from pervasive western beauty norms.

In 2007, when US reality TV stars the Kardashians shot to fame, Petronie was one of the millions of people around the world who began noticing physical alterations in the sisters.

In particular, she watched Kim Kardashian's "nose changes over time".

And whenever Petronie used social media filters — which tweak facial features, often for comedic or beautifying effect — she noticed that some shrank the size of her nose.

By the time she was 21, Petronie decided she wanted cosmetic surgery, too.

"I wanted my nose to be a bit thinner and pushed up," she says.

Petronie says watching the Kardashians on TV made her consider cosmetic surgery.  (Image: Jess Pace)

But Petronie is acutely aware that while cosmetic surgery can erase some features like a non-Caucasian nose, it can also emphasise others, like big lips or almond-shaped eyes.

That cosmetic procedures allow people to capitalise on the desirability of those cultural features — while removing others — is a pop culture paradox, and it's impacting the steadily growing number of Australians who are opting for cosmetic procedures.

Many are weighing up the relationship between their culture and their appearance, in the face of trends that promote a look of ethnic — but, some argue, "not too ethnic" — ambiguity.

Adria Goldman is assistant professor of communication and digital studies at the University of Mary Washington in the US.

She says the term "Blackfishing" describes "an act of cultural appropriation where someone non-Black tries to present themselves as Black".

That could be through darkening their skin, adopting an Afro-centric hairstyle, or getting a more voluptuous shape, through photo editing or even butt augmentation.

"Oftentimes [it's] for profit or some other personal gain," she says.

Blackfishing is a criticism that's been levelled at the Kardashians, and other celebrities including Australian singer Iggy Azalea, British singer Rita Ora and American singer Ariana Grande.

Some accused of Blackfishing or of cultural appropriation have counter argued that in fact they are enacting cultural "appreciation", Dr Goldman says.

But, she argues, while intent is worth considering, ultimately it's not the point.

"A person can appropriate Black culture and say that their intention was not to do harm — but appropriating Black culture does do harm," she says.

It can reinforce "surface level" or "misinformed" ideas about Black culture.

"It's commodifying this culture with no gain to Black people."

Like Petronie, social media consultant Natasha also watched the Kardashians' appearances morph over time.

Natasha is Middle Eastern-Australian and was very insecure about her appearance when she was growing up.

"I never felt like I was the pretty girl, ever. And I think that was because … I was around mostly white people," she says.

By the end of high school, she had endured years of teasing about her looks. Yet, at the same time, reality TV was demonstrating that appearance isn't fixed.

"I started realising, oh wow, things can be changed," Natasha says.

So at 18 years of age, Natasha, who is now 26, began cosmetic enhancement — first lip filler, then rhinoplasty or a nose job — to alter what she calls her "ethnic nose".

But she says that modifying her cultural features has come at a cost.

While she publicly, and proudly, identifies as a woman of colour, she says she's been criticised online for having "absolutely no features that correlate with a woman of colour" and for being "white passing".

For Natasha, such statements diminish her personal experience. 

Natasha felt insecure growing up around kids who didn't look like her. (Image: Jess Pace)

"They don't know the torment I went through growing up," she says.

"I start to think it's my fault because I've changed my ethnic features.

"But it's so wrong."

Natasha says the comments also diminish the discrimination faced by her Aramaean forebears.

"My people have gone through so much persecution … and even my parents, moving to Australia [have endured] so much hardship," she says.

The criticism levelled at those who undergo cosmetic surgery to modify their cultural features is one that philosopher and physician Yves Saint James Aquino is familiar with.

He has studied the ethics of cosmetic enhancement, specifically blepharoplasty or double eyelid surgery, a procedure that is most popular in South East Asia.

Dr Aquino, who is also a research fellow with the University of Wollongong in New South Wales, says people who undergo this surgery are often criticised for "betraying their heritage" or being "a race traitor".

He argues it's a reductive position to take.

Dr Aquino believes that people, women specifically, "should be able to do whatever they want with their body".

But he also believes that "choice" to undergo body or face modification is a concept that "we have to interrogate" in the context of media, peer group and broader societal pressure.

"Even if no one's pointing a gun at your head, you live through all these pressures, all these directives … [so] is that an authentic choice?"

Physician Yves Saint James Aquino says in the face of media pressure, the concept of 'choice' is worth interrogating. (Illustration: Michelle Pereira)

One of those pressures is social media.

Dr Aquino knows of cosmetic surgeons who report that their clients want "to change their face based on specific [social media] filters".

He says other clients want to alter their noses because the angle of a selfie gives the illusion of an increased nose size.

"So it's a very weird, perceptual thing that's influencing their self-image … it's the way they hold their phone," he says.

Gemma Sharp has also noticed shifts in cosmetic surgery requests.

A clinical psychologist and Senior Research Fellow in the Monash Alfred Psychiatry Research Centre, Dr Sharp leads the Body Image Research Group.

She says there's been a move away from a "traditional facelift, which is used to 'rectify' ageing processes".

Rather, "preventative" procedures such as fillers are becoming more common among younger people.

Dr Sharp says the expansion of the sorts of people having procedures is thanks to reduced costs, increased availability and the normalisation of cosmetic surgery through the media.

In the last five years or so, there's been a sharp increase in the use of injectables (such as in wrinkle-reducing or lip-filling procedures) in Australia, and the Brazilian Butt Lift (BBL) operation, which "is the fastest growing cosmetic surgery in the world", Dr Sharp says.

At 2018, Australians were spending more per capita on cosmetic surgery than in the US, with anti-wrinkle (Botox) injections the most popular operation at the time.

Cosmetic surgery wasn't on the mind of 14-year-old Kina when she started posting selfies on social media.

For a long time, Kina, who has Indian heritage, only posted photos with filters applied to them.

At first, the filters were "cute hearts" or "a nice background", she says. "And I was like, that's lovely."

Then she realised the filters could also "slim down my nose … make my nose look upturned … make my lips and eyes bigger [and] my face slimmer" and "significantly lighten my skin".

"I looked like a white person," Kina says.

It began to change the way she thought about herself.

"I was just like, am I not pretty otherwise? It came to the point where I could not take a photo without a filter because I would look at myself and find all these little faults."

Kina started to ask herself, "Why can't my nose be slimmer? Why can't my lips be bigger? Why can't my face have more of a structure to it instead of being so round?"

She recognised the filters' "toxic" influence and today she tries to avoid them.

Fourteen-year-old Kina is worried about the impact of whitening filters on teenagers. (Illustration: Michelle Pereira)

But she's concerned that she and her peers are bombarded on social media with ideals about an "unattainable body".

"[The beauty ideal] is very much centred around white women having racially ambiguous features, like those big lips, the very Middle Eastern and South Asian brows and eyes, and Black bodies," Kina says.

"It's just very unsustainable because nobody actually looks like that."

And it sends a powerful message of inadequacy to teenagers online.

"If I went and asked younger girls around my age, 'Do you have insecurities? Do you hate anything about yourself?', so many girls will be like, 'I hate my body, I hate my face [or] how my lips look or [how] my eyes look,'" Kina says.

Kina says race, and racism, is front and centre of the problem.

"People will go, 'Oh, this part of your ethnic features? Ugly. But this part? I want this part so bad … Your nose is flat, that's gross; but your eyes, they're so pretty.'"

Dr Aquino describes this as a "mixed race" western beauty trend that privileges "racial ambiguity".

"All of a sudden, you're beautiful because you look ethnic, but not too ethnic'," he says.

"There is a certain range where we find things to be acceptable."

Dr Goldman says there's a powerful marketing opportunity within that range.

"One of the things about the Kardashians and about racial ambiguity in general is that individuals have the ability to sit in the middle of this white and non-white [identity], reaping the benefits, while avoiding the costs."

Petronie has noticed an increase online in the presence of big hips, big lips and big bums in young women, including among white women.

For her, it demonstrates an inescapable hypocrisy.

Sydney model and influencer Petronie says there are too many instances of cultural appropriation in western fashion and cosmetic surgery trends she observes online. 2022. (Image: Jess Pace)

"I find it interesting because [white people] were teasing us before because Black people had big lips.

"And now that's what you want.

"When you're not Black and those are Black features — the lips and even the hair, like braids — it's cultural appropriation," she says.

Petronie argues the act of assuming physical features or styles that are typical of a culture other than your own — full lips or full hips, or cornrows, for example — brings with it some responsibility.

If you emulate Black culture, she says, "then I want you to keep that same energy when it comes to issues that are happening within the Black community".

Stand with the Black Lives Matter movement, for example.

Rokeshia Ashley, an assistant professor at Florida International University who specialises in body image and modification, wants to move on from talking about the Kardashians.

She says plenty of Black women are now "taking hold of this conversation" and are "also using their bodies as social capital".

She points to public figures such as model Blac Chyna, entrepreneur Jai Nice or influencer Eliza Reign as examples.

Whether through modelling clothes or paid social media sponsorships, the women are creating revenue "how they see fit", she says.

Dr Ashley says rather than consider body modification — a term she uses to include cosmetic surgery as well as changes to hair or make-up — as inherently bad, we should be more "receptive and supportive to what Black women want to do with their bodies".

Black women's bodies "have always been governed", whether by slavery or health institutions, or through other means, Dr Ashley says.

"Globally, with anti-Blackness, we didn't have the opportunity to be able to say, 'This is what I want to do with my body.'"

Whatever that choice is today, she supports it, so long as it can be done safely and with all the education and information at hand.

Unlike some of her online critics, Natasha doesn't conflate her cosmetic procedures with her relationship to her cultural background.

"I'm very, very proud of being Middle Eastern," she says.

Natasha has spoken online about her cosmetic surgery procedures, which sometimes attracts criticism from other social media users. (Image: Jess Pace)

And she's happy today with her slimmer nose and other cosmetic modifications, which she says have "definitely made me more confident".

Petronie, on the other hand, decided against cosmetic surgery, and is also content with her decision.

Her nose job idea was discouraged by her partner and, after considering it for a while, Petronie agreed she didn't need it.

"[I thought], you know what, I'm just going to embrace my culture [and] embrace my nose," she says.

"This is a Black person's nose. This is not every Black person's … but it's who I am. It's part of my history, my background. So I think I will be keeping it."

This story comes from RN Presents: Face Value. Listen for free on the ABC listen app, or search for RN Presents on your favourite podcast app.

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