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Making faces racial: how plastic surgery enacts race in the US, Korea and Brazil

by Alexander Edmonds & So Yeon Leem

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Engaging with debates about the re-emergence of the race concept in science, this article opens up facial plastic surgery’s expertise of racial phenotypes to inquiry. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork and analysis of medical discourse, it analyses how this expertise is made and put into practice in three nations with large cosmetic surgery markets: the US, Korea, and Brazil. Plastic surgery has drawn on the scientific knowledge of race from fields such as anthropology and anthropometry to make racial features (nose and eyes) into an object of medical intervention. Race has been enacted differently, however, in the three national contexts we discuss according to the changing politics of difference and beauty ideals. While contemporary surgery attempts to sidestep the ethical problems raised by earlier scientific racism and whitening practices, it continues to pathologize non-white racial features by operating on traits it sees as “excessive” or merely typical, rather than beautiful.

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