Annie* comes from a small California city known for its affluence, and—for the Bay Area—its rather skewed demographic makeup: 15 percent Asian and otherwise almost entirely white. She spent her high school years clad in Abercrombie, surrounded by friends and a number of admirers. And one summer, on a routine family trip to Korea, Annie made the choice to undergo double eyelid surgery.
“She came back and everyone said, ‘Oh, she looks so different now.’ They said she was cuter,” a classmate recalled.
Does Annie’s background story matter? Perhaps it is everything, or maybe it means nothing at all—but as a Korean American teen who chose to surgically alter her epicanthic folds, Annie has undeniably become part of a recognized trend in the Asian American community. Asian American women are looking to blepharoplasty, or eyelid plastic surgery, in numbers far greater than their “occidental” counterparts.
Figures support that blepharoplasty is growing in popularity throughout Asia and the United States: in 1997, 159,232 patients in the U.S. underwent the procedure. By 2006, this number had increased to 209,999. After further research, I will be sure to include statistics representing Korea and China, nations that have become popular destinations for Asian Americans seeking the double eyelid. There, consumers find potentially better quality, or more Asian-specific surgical techniques at a lower cost than American physicians offer. (Though eyelid surgery specialists are not a rare find in Southern California: check out www.drmeronk.com/asian/asian-eyelid-epicanthal.html, featuring a non-Asian doctor who attempts to explain the difference between Asian eyelid surgery and “occidental” eyelid surgery.)
Hypotheses as to why Asian and Asian American females are choosing this procedure vary, yielding a similarly diverse range of community responses. Some criticize those who undergo the transformation as wanting to look “more western” or “more Caucasian”, shunning their Asian heritage. If this was the case with Annie, her having grown up in a predominantly white community may have been a causal factor in her choice. Can the Asian eyelid surgery trend be attributed to Asian Americans being steeped in American culture and media images?
A Korean American friend who grew up in the same Bay Area town says that the desire for “larger, rounder” eyes comes from a Korean belief about facial features: eyes that are more slanted are associated with deceptiveness or shifty character, whereas “bigger eyes are just…better,” she said. If this is true, the motivation to undergo plastic surgery is not necessarily connected to a Caucasian aesthetic ideal. She continued that cosmetic surgery in general has become an essential part of modern Korean culture. Those who hope to make it to celebrity status, whether in television or music, are expected to have undergone some sort of procedure. Eyelid surgery, my friend said, is so common and comparatively minimal in Korea that it is sometimes not considered a surgical operation at all. But perhaps it is impossible to look at modern “Korean” conceptions without considering globalization and the resulting, much broader cultural milieu from which these ideas draw influence.
When the Asian American teen returns from a trip to China or Korea with changed eyelids, her peers are sure to notice and their reactions will certainly vary. Just like any other sort of cosmetic plastic surgery, blepharoplasty gathers all of the usual criticism or praise and comes with the same expected high costs and recovery tribulations. Yet unlike breast augmentation or liposuction, it carries an additional aspect of being tied strongly to ethnicity. It is reported that 15 to 20 percent of Asian individuals have the “double eyelid” that is common among people of non-Asian descent. Is an Asian American woman’s choice to change her eyelids a statement about her feelings surrounding Asian identity? Maybe she doesn’t know the answer herself.
*Annie's name has been changed.