Last year, I learned about the existence of buccal fat removal, a plastic surgery procedure that sucks the fat out of your cheeks, giving you more defined cheekbones. It’s rumored that a number of celebrities have gotten this procedure, from Miley Cyrus to Lea Michelle to Bella Hadid. Chrissy Teigen was open about getting the procedure done and seemed happy with the results.
The goal, as far as I can tell, is to achieve a facial shape like that of Olivia Wilde or Keira Knightley.
My gut reaction: This shit is racist as fuck, especially for Asian women. But something inside me also felt vindicated.
A history of (my) face
There’s no easy way to put this: there’s something wrong with my face. Although no one has come out and said, “Your face is too wide” or “Your face is too fat” or “What the fuck is wrong with your face?”, there have been subtle (and not so subtle) signs through the years.
There were the Chinese friends who told me at 13 how beautiful I would be if my face were a little bit thinner, that with my hair braided someone would see me on 人生的道路 (the road of life) and fall in love.
There was the guy from OkCupid at 25 who sketched my square jaw on a napkin and asked, “Have you ever cut someone with your face while making out with them?”
There were the Asian aunties who commented approvingly that actually, my face wasn’t too wide, as I drove them home from LAX.
There was the moment I looked in the mirror in my early 20s and was filled with spontaneous loathing, wanting to cut off the sides of my face, hack off the excess, get rid of my cheeks, my jaw, everything.
I want a girl with a face that could cut glass.
My dad is Chinese and my mom is white, but it seems like what is wrong with my face is distinctly Asian. Through research on this piece, I discovered that there are two forms of ethnic plastic surgery that I would be a great candidate for—not just buccal fat removal for my chubby cheeks, but also jaw reduction surgery for my wide, masculine jaw. [“Maylin, how is it possible for your face to be both too round and too square?” Do not go down the plastic surgery rabbit hole, I repeat, DO NOT.]
That’s what a trend does, gives you language for something that you’ve always known was wrong with you, like a TikTok filter that shows you the hottest, most yassified version of yourself—what you could be without all your flaws.
There’s something refreshing about buccal fat removal, in the same way there’s something refreshing about the Chinese auntie who will criticize your face—to your face. That’s what a trend does, gives you language for something that you’ve always known was wrong with you, like a TikTok filter that shows you the hottest, most yassified version of yourself—what you could be without all your flaws.
But this is not about me (or my face). As Sabrina Strings lays out in her book Fearing the Black Body, the history of fatphobia is the history of anti-Black racism. White women embraced thinness as a way to set themselves apart from the perceived gluttony and overindulgence of Black people.
There can even be an upside to insecurity, as Black, fat and trans theorist Da’Shaun L. Harrison explores in their book Belly of the Beast: The Politics of Anti-Fatness as Anti-Blackness. Instead of seeing body positivity as the solution to body negativity, Harrison embraces insecurity as a way to divest from the violence of fatphobia and anti-Blackness. It’s not about learning to love your face or body—an individualistic project of self-growth and healing. It’s about recognizing the violence of white-centric beauty standards. Fighting fatphobia is not about personal empowerment—it’s about destroying the systems that harm and kill Black, fat bodies.
It’s not about learning to love your face or body...It’s about recognizing the violence of white-centric beauty standards. Fighting fatphobia is not about personal empowerment—it’s about destroying the systems that harm and kill Black, fat bodies.
While Asian people can benefit from being perceived as white-adjacent, they can experience pressure from both white and Asian culture to be thin. On the one hand, there’s intense pressure in Chinese culture for women to be slim and feminine (hence the need for a delicate jawline). On the other hand, white culture fetishizes Asian women as hyper-feminine (therefore, small and slender) sex objects, desirable but dehumanized.
With buccal fat removal, fatphobia comes not just for the body, but the face. Is your face too fat? There’s a fix for that. As one Beverly Hills plastic surgery practice notes, potential patients might suffer from “full-looking cheeks and midface bulging” that can’t be fixed with diet or exercise. The site adds: “This condition can make the client appear chubby, even when the rest of the body is slim and toned.”
In case you’re wondering who this procedure is being marketed to: The three clients featured in before and after photos all appear to be Asian women. The three models with “chiseled,” “slender” faces, however, are all white.
The three clients featured in before and after photos all appear to be Asian women. The three models with “chiseled,” “slender” faces, however, are all white.
Fearing the round face
I don’t blame anyone for getting buccal fat removal, just like I don’t blame anyone for being born into a world ruled by racist beauty standards rooted in the cis-hetero white male gaze. An educator friend recently told me that some teen girls have continued to wear face masks at school—not because of the risk of Covid, but to avoid cruel remarks from teen boys about their faces.
How could I possibly claim that conforming to conventional beauty standards won’t make someone’s life better? I can’t. I personally wouldn’t get the procedure, but that doesn’t mean I don’t see the potential benefits of having a thinner face.
Some teen girls have continued to wear face masks at school—not because of the risk of Covid, but to avoid cruel remarks from teen boys about their faces.
It’s frankly cringe to talk about my own face this much, but the alternative—asking Asian female strangers, acquaintances or even friends, “Have you ever felt like there was something wrong with your face?” seems worse.
When I told my sister I was writing about buccal fat removal though, she had her own stories, including an ex-boyfriend of Chinese descent who told her that wearing her hair on the top of her head would “lengthen her face” (fuck that guy).
Scouring the Internet for information on buccal fat removal only seemed like a continuation of my own personal facial microaggressions. While some people decried the procedure as making people look worse, one person said that it seemed to make the Asian women in the before and after photos look better. On TikTok, commenters praised the “snatched” jawline of an Asian woman who faithfully does gua sha every day. Thank you, she said, so grateful, her hard work paying off.
‘He only likes Asian girls’
Fatphobia and anti-Blackness are also features of Chinese culture—but at least it’s more obvious. In majority white contexts, I have been tokenized as “exotic” (read: Other). In my experience, white women do not perceive you as a threat unless you lay claim to something that they believe they are entitled to (like the attention of white men).
“Oh, he only likes Asian girls.” Translation: He has shit taste in women.
Ultimately, beauty is about power—where do you fit in the social hierarchy? It’s simply one more way to enforce the superiority of whiteness.
In Tressie McMillan Cottom’s New York Times column about “The Enduring, Invisible Power of Blond,” Cottom tangles with white women on TikTok who are weirdly obsessed with the idea of being a “real blonde.” Real blondes in this context want to have their aesthetic cake and eat it too, insisting that being a real blonde (being blonde at birth despite not being naturally blonde as an adult) has nothing to do with race or status.
I don’t think that many people—white supremacists excepted—would come right out and say that blonde women are superior to non-blondes, just like they wouldn’t come out and say that white people are superior to non-white people.
You are simply meant to understand that this is true and act accordingly, to read the underlying contempt in “He only likes Asian girls” and understand that you are inherently inferior.
In the exotification of beauty, you are beautiful because you are different, but because you are different, you can never actually be beautiful (at the top of the social hierarchy). Asian women in this sense are a foil to white beauty, to the familiar, to the known.
To be blonde and thin is to be beautiful without qualification. In the exotification of beauty, you are beautiful because you are different, but because you are different, you can never actually be beautiful (at the top of the social hierarchy). Asian women in this sense are a foil to white beauty, to the familiar, to the known.
Frame this, asshole
Ironically, 300 words of SEO copy on a plastic surgery website has done more for how I view myself than years of self-affirmation ever could. Racist beauty standards spelled out for the algorithm make explicit what I could only infer from random comments about my face.
When I was 13, I thought I was so ugly, I might as well shave my head. Instead, I had short hair for a few years in my teens, then long hair for over a decade. My hair was like a shield. I felt like I should push my hair forward to slim down my face, but I always hated the feeling of it when I did.
Everything from my earrings to my glasses to my hair were meant to frame my face (Sidenote: No one with a face cut like a multi-sided dice is ever told how to “frame their face,” I fucking guarantee it.)
My hair was like a shield. I felt like I should push my hair forward to slim down my face, but I always hated the feeling of it when I did.
You get the idea: Hiding, slimming, trimming the face, cutting it down to the bone.
When I did finally cut my hair short, I loved it. My face did not magically balloon 10 sizes. I ran into a guy who knew me when I had long hair and he gave me the once over.
I knew what he meant. But what if it didn’t work?
Him: Oh, I see that you have defied patriarchal beauty standards by cutting your hair. It is short now, but it does not make you ugly.
Me: Thank you! I appreciate you have taken the time to run my face through your inner “hot-or-not” filter and to judge that I am still appealing to the white male gaze.
Actually, I wanted to scream WHO FUCKING CARES IF IT WORKS. FUCK YOU. I DON’T GIVE A SHIT IF YOU THINK IT WORKS OR NOT. GET ME THE FUCK OUT OF HERE.
As Toni Morrison famously said:
The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of this is necessary. There will always be one more thing.
By talking about what's wrong with my face, I feel like I’m breaking a taboo, that the only acceptable narrative is a personal journey of self-acceptance, “How I learned to stop hating myself and love my square jawline.” But that’s not what I want for this piece. Here’s what I want: for fatphobia to die in a fucking fire, to not be a part of this status system at all. I understand why I wanted to shave my head when I was 13, why Harrison wants to destroy the world.
Here’s the secret about buccal fat removal: There will always be something wrong with my face. There will always be one more thing.
Published on May 3, 2023
Words by Maylin Tu
Maylin Tu grew up in Portland, Maine, and Beijing, China. After attending Bible college in Fresno, California, and getting her BA in English from William Jewell College in Liberty, Missouri, she settled in Los Angeles, where she writes about dating, identity, and pop culture.