Is Beauty in the Eye(lid) of the Beholder?

Kat Chow, NPR, November 17, 2014

“So your crease is up here, so it’s probably about a 6-millimeter crease,” plastic surgeon Dr. Laura Phan tells me in her office. “It’s very nice, um, for Asian eyes,” she says, hesitating over that last descriptor. Phan points to the inner corner of one of my eyes as I hold a small, plastic mirror. “It’s more pronounced on your right side,” she says, referring to my epicanthic folds.

Having this crease means I have double eyelids. Among people of East Asian descent, about half share this trait, along with most of the world’s non-Asian people. The other half of the world’s Asian population has monolids.

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There’s a surgery you can have to get double eyelids, and that itself is controversial. It’s called an Asian blepharoplasty, the Asian part referring to who gets it, the blepharoplasty part referring to more general eyelid surgery. While the procedure is generally cosmetic, it’s really important to stress that there are medical reasons why people seek Asian blepharoplasties–their lids are too heavy and obstruct vision, for instance.

According to the American Society Of Plastic Surgeons, it’s one of the most common surgeries for Asians in the U.S. In 2013, 6.2 percent of procedures Asians sought were blepharoplasties. (Overall, women of color have been getting plastic surgery at increasing rates, ASPS president Dr. Scot Glasberg tells me. Costs–and stigmas against getting plastic surgery–have minimized.) But these numbers aren’t necessarily precise, I’m told by Joanne Rondilla, a lecturer at Arizona State University who has researched race and cosmetic surgery. Rondilla, who worked as a makeup artist for more than a decade, says it’s hard to measure how many people go to nonboard-certified surgeons, or head to Asia, where plastic surgery is in general more prolific and less expensive.

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‘The Curse Is Being Removed’

In February 1895, an unnamed special correspondent for the Los Angeles Times wrote about this surgery in Japan.

“In their efforts to acquire recognition in the civilized world, the Japanese have found their greatest barrier in the unmistakable mark of their Mongolian origin,” writes the unnamed author. “The prejudice against Mongolians is undeniable, and among the Japs, the slanted eye being its only evidence, the curse is being removed.”

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Moving farther through the 20th century, much of plastic surgery’s modern rise can be tied to war: It was born as a way to fix disfigurements from combat. Experts also point to World War II–and American and European militarization of Asian countries–as the driving force that helped make cosmetic surgery more pervasive elsewhere.

Look to the 1960s in Vietnam, and you’ll see newspaper reports that indicate the needle was swinging toward plastic surgery because of American occupation there. A Time interview with two Vietnamese surgeons says Vietnamese bar girls sought blepharoplasties to catch the eye of American soldiers.

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On the CBS show The Talk last year, host Julie Chen revealed that she’d had the surgery earlier in her career. Chen recalled something an old boss told her when she was a TV reporter cutting her teeth at an Ohio news station. “He said . . . because of your heritage, because of your Asian eyes,” Chen said, “sometimes I’ve noticed that when you’re on camera and you’re interviewing someone, you look disinterested.” (Chen notes that her career took off after she changed her eyes.)

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