Julia Redmond and Rhian Skirving, “Change My Race” (2013)
This SBS production is a disturbing enquiry into a new trend known as “deracialisation” in which young Australians of Asian, African and Middle Eastern background are undergoing often drastic forms of plastic surgery to look more Western or Caucasian and fit a narrow Western ideal of beauty. Actor Anna Choy presents and narrates this documentary that’s part investigative journalism and part personal journey into what it means to be Australian and to be accepted as Australian or not, based on one’s looks. Through interviews with surgeons, young women yearning to look less Asian and more Caucasian, a counsellor and a feminist commentator, Choy confronts the extremes to which people are willing to risk their money and health, and perhaps future happiness, to go under the knife and conform to an ideal that for the most part is unrealistic and dictated by a small group of powerful men in distant lands.
After a quick introduction in which she dissects the Australian standard of feminine beauty, Choy whisks off to South Korea and visits the trendy Gangnam district (the place that singer Psy pokes fun at) of Seoul where some 500 plastic surgeons specialise in facial reconstruction that makes Korean women look more Western. The baby-faced look with large double-lidded eyes and a V-shaped jawline culminating in a neat pointy chin, typical of K-pop girl singers (many of whom may have had similar surgery or whose features are altered in magazines and music videos), is popular throughout South Korea. A commentator Choy visits says that facial reconstruction in South Korea took off after the country began opening to the West in the early 1990s after the downfall of the military government and women’s magazines that focused on diet, beauty and looks proliferated.
The rest of the documentary revolves around three young Australian girls who come under pressure to change their looks. Kathy, a Vietnamese-Australian girl, is pushed by her parents into a nose / chin / eyelid job; a girl of Thai ethnicity adopted by an Australian family jets off to Bangkok for breast augmentation surgery followed by a holiday; and a girl of mixed Sri Lankan-British ancestry talks about being bullied at school in the remote Queensland town of Mackay for her dark looks and using skin-lightening cream during her teenage years to be more acceptable to her peers. Along the way Choy visits a counsellor who has seen many young Australians wrestling with identity issues because of their non-Caucasian appearance and talks to a feminist commentator about the role that Western ideals of beauty play in society and how these heavily saturate people’s subconscious feelings and minds. Also interviewed briefly is an African pharmacist in Australia who admits she sells skin-lightening creams to black Afro-Australian customers though she’d rather not: the creams often contain dangerous substances like steroids which have the potential to ruin people’s health and even kill.
The program moves fairly briskly and has time for Anna Choy’s personal reminiscences about what it was like for her growing up Asian in a country of non-Asian faces and how this has deeply affected her sense of identity and confidence. The film bogs down during scenes of Choy’s own self-interrogation and her emotional reactions but quickly picks up its main themes again. The documentary does a good job of emphasising that a global power elite dictates acceptable beauty standards to women around the world through the global fashion industry and the media and subsidiary industries like cosmetics and skin care that prop it up. On the other hand, the film is not exactly about advocacy journalism so there is no call to arms against a network of industries, organisations and figures who work together to brainwash men and women alike into accepting an unrealistic and narrow notion of beauty and achieving that beauty.
The really sobering aspect of the documentary is the suggestion that Australia as a multicultural and tolerant society is less so than it believes itself to be and that this tolerance is very fragile. Australia as a society is not confident in itself and of its place in the world. Due to global economic, political and social forces beyond its control, Australia is likely to feel less confident and more confused about its identity and its role in the world, and those people who because of their appearance don’t fit an ever more narrowly defined notion of what it means to be Australian are likely to feel the brunt of mainstream Australian frustration and anger resulting in prejudice, discrimination and violence.