Borrowed beauty? Understanding identity in Asian facial cosmetic surgery

Med Health Care Philos. 2016 Sep;19(3):431-41. doi: 10.1007/s11019-016-9699-0.


This review aims to identify (1) sources of knowledge and (2) important themes of the ethical debate related to surgical alteration of facial features in East Asians. This article integrates narrative and systematic review methods. In March 2014, we searched databases including PubMed, Philosopher's Index, Web of Science, Sociological Abstracts, and Communication Abstracts using key terms "cosmetic surgery," "ethnic*," "ethics," "Asia*," and "Western*." The study included all types of papers written in English that discuss the debate on rhinoplasty and blepharoplasty in East Asians. No limit was put on date of publication. Combining both narrative and systematic review methods, a total of 31 articles were critically appraised on their contribution to ethical reflection founded on the debates regarding the surgical alteration of Asian features. Sources of knowledge were drawn from four main disciplines, including the humanities, medicine or surgery, communications, and economics. Focusing on cosmetic surgery perceived as a westernising practice, the key debate themes included authenticity of identity, interpersonal relationships and socio-economic utility in the context of Asian culture. The study shows how cosmetic surgery of ethnic features plays an important role in understanding female identity in the Asian context. Based on the debate themes authenticity of identity, interpersonal relationships, and socio-economic utility, this article argues that identity should be understood as less individualistic and more as relational and transformational in the Asian context. In addition, this article also proposes to consider cosmetic surgery of Asian features as an interplay of cultural imperialism and cultural nationalism, which can both be a source of social pressure to modify one's appearance.

Keywords: Asia; Cosmetic surgery; Ethnicity; Identity; Medical ethics.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Asian Continental Ancestry Group* / psychology
  • Beauty*
  • Blepharoplasty / ethics
  • Face*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Rhinoplasty / ethics
  • Surgery, Plastic* / ethics
  • Surgery, Plastic* / psychology