There's Nothing Wrong With My Eyes

Human Rights

Alyssa Lai grew up thinking she was pretty but noticeably different from most of the blonde, blue-eyed girls native to her San Jose, Calif., neighborhood.

This fact was not lost on her mother, father and grandmother, who had emigrated from China. Five years ago they offered to get her plastic surgery, specifically, blepharoplasty, for her 14th birthday. Commonly known as "Asian eyelid surgery," the procedure entails stitching a permanent crease into the eyelid.

Her parents told her that when her eyes were rounder and more Caucasian-like, her eyes would look even "prettier."

After quite a bit of soul searching, Lai opted to decline the surgery. The pain of the surgery, which can be intense for a few days to over a week, was only a small part of her decision to keep the eyes she was born with.

"To be beautiful you don't have to look beautiful in a Caucasian sense," she said.

With eyelid surgery the fastest-growing type of plastic surgery in the Asian community in California and across the country, numerous other young women are facing the same decision. Approximately 75 percent of all Koreans and 50 percent of all other Asians are born without the double eyelid crease.

At the cost of about $2,000, a rapidly growing number of young girls – both in Asia and the United States – are opting to have the crease surgically added.

U.S. Women Grapple with Ethnic Issue

But unlike their peers in Asia – where blepharoplasty is the No. 1 cosmetic procedure – young Asian-American women who consider the surgery are more likely to grapple with the idea that the procedure will also alter their ethnic identities, according to Dr. Charles Lee, a plastic surgeon in Los Angles who specializes in blepharoplasty.

"There is more resistance to the procedure here than in Asia," he told Women's eNews.

Lee said he has seen an increase in his practice for each of the past eight years. He noted that the surgery has long been popular for Korean, Japanese and Vietnamese women and this year the number of surgeries for Chinese-Americans have increased.

"In Asia, people don't see it as ethnically altering the same way they do here . . . But we believe we are just trying to make them look prettier. Just a prettier Asian eye, not a Western eye."

Lee acknowledges, however, that the surgery's popularity has risen along with the advance of Western culture and fashion.

"The increase is due to more exposure to Western goods, culture and makeup in China. It has been that way a long time in Korea and surgery there has been popular since the 1950s."

Golden State Transformations

In California, groups of all ethnicities have vied to transform themselves into a Caucasian standard of beauty. Jewish women undergo rhinoplasty, or "nose jobs," and African Americans have undergone the same, along with lip reductions and skin lightening.

Despite an era that seems, at least superficially, to celebrate multiculturalism, these procedures suggest that many women still nonetheless experience physical characteristics that indicate ethnicity as negative features. For Asians, ethnically defined by their unique eyes, eyelid surgery is a particularly dramatic example.

The Alexandria, Va.-based American Academy of Facial, Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery reported that 125,000 blepharoplasty procedures were performed in 2000 in the United States.

The numbers are highest in California, where both the Asian and plastic surgeon populations are growing rapidly. A study by the American Academy of Facial, Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery also indicates that facial cosmetic and reconstructive surgery increased exponentially among minorities from 1999 to 2001. It has more than quadrupled among Asian Americans, compared to a just 34 percent increase among Caucasians.

Carrie Ching, the Chinese-American editor of New York based Monolid Magazine, has led a mini-crusade against the surgery, evidenced by the magazine's provocative name.

"It's unfortunate that for many Asian-American women there's peer pressure and pressure from parents to assimilate to white culture," Ching said. "We're just living in an environment that pollutes the culture."

Martin Wong is editor of Giant Robot, a Los Angeles-based magazine for young Asian-Americans that focuses on art and culture. He believes that the impulse behind the surgery is coming from the older generation of Asian women, particularly the new immigrants who are pushing their children to assimilate.

Criticized as 'Self Mutilation'

"Double eyelid surgery is unnatural and people who do it are buying into a beauty myth that is not Asian-based. It's really just self-mutilation and a lot of it sadly is interjected by parents and their ideas," Wong said. "It's heartbreaking that these young girls don't have cultural pride; that they're ashamed of who they are and how they look."

Many Asian-Americans say that the idea that double-lids are beautiful and single-lids are ugly is reinforced by the beauty standards projected by Hollywood, television and beauty magazines. Few Asian celebrities are still single lidded, they say, noting that even Jackie Chan, action adventure superstar, has had the surgery. They also note that Asian-American women represent less than 3 percent of all actors in Hollywood's movie history.

"Everything you see in the media is big blue-eyed blondes and for Asians the ideal look seems to be to look more Eurasian, more westernized with big eyes," said Ellen Hwang, editor-in-chief of Jade Magazine, a New York-based magazine that caters to Asian-American women. "Here in the U.S., even more than in Asia, the models and movie stars you see and that girls want to emulate are Caucasian. Yes there is a Lucy Liu," she said, referring to the Asian-American actress and model, "but most models are Western. And young girls often want to look like those models."

Perhaps reflecting the intensity of emotions surrounding the surgery, no woman reached by Women's eNews who had the surgery was willing to be interviewed.

Rethinking Privilege

San Diego native Shin-Yu Wang, 19, who is Chinese by descent, was born with double-lidded eyes. "When I found out that other people wanted them and I already had them I felt privileged," she said. "I have been affected by growing up in San Diego in a white world. When you look at magazines and TV and the media in the U.S. you see gorgeous women, but you don't see gorgeous Asian women. You see white women because that is how beauty is portrayed in American culture."

Wang, who goes to the University of California, Irvine, which has a 50 percent Asian-American population, speaks for a large group of Asian women on her campus.

"Being white is also often portrayed as being 'cooler' than being Asian," Wang said and went on to explain a concept that only Asian-American women would have to consider: being a "Twinkie," or – like the mass-marketed sugary dessert product – a person who is regarded as yellow on the outside and white on the inside. Some Asian-American girls, said Wang, consider it a compliment. But she finds it offensive.

"Asian girls that are Twinkies are just trying to assimilate," said Wang. "They are just trying to fit in and belong, but I don't think it's cool. Young Asian girls now have a very tough time dealing with the ideals of beauty they see in the media and in magazines. I think it is important for Asian women to keep their culture and learn to appreciate themselves."

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