When I switched from public to private school in ninth grade, a new world opened up to me. In this world, my classmates on Chicago's North Shore drove BMWs to school, were heirs and heiresses and often received plastic surgery as birthday gifts. Rhinoplasty was by far the most common cosmetic procedure among my classmates. When a friend announced that she planned to get a nose job, I said that her nose was fine and asked her to reconsider.
My friend, who's Jewish, told me that nose jobs were a family tradition. Her mother, aunts and grandmother all had their noses done, and she would follow suit. Since so many girls at school had rhinoplasty, I stopped trying to talk her out of it. It didn't seem like such a big deal that my friend wanted the procedure, too. But when a Japanese-American classmate of mine said she was going to get her eyes done, my peers and I were bewildered.
There were few Asian Americans at our school, not to mention in the area generally, and we'd never heard of double eyelid surgery. The procedure entails making a fold in the eyelid to make eyes appear larger. I remember thinking of the surgery as a drastic measure to assimilate, but I now question that knee-jerk reaction. The reasons ethnic minorities in the U.S. elect to have plastic surgery can't always be chalked up to yearning to meet Western beauty ideals.
The impetus for double eyelid surgery is debated in the recent New York Times piece "Ethnic Differences Emerge in Plastic Surgery." Margaret Chin, a Hunter College sociology professor, told the Times that Asians opt for the surgery "to be part of the acceptable culture and the acceptable ethnicity…to look more Westernized." In contrast, Taiwanese native Dr. Steve Lee denied that assimilation is the catalyst for the surgery.
"One of the traits of beauty is to have large eyes," Dr. Lee said, "and to get that effect you have to have the double eyelids."
I don't agree that double eyelids are a must for beautiful eyes, but I do challenge the frequently touted assertion that Asian women who opt for such surgery do so to look white. Sure, some of them do, but can that blanket assessment be made to all double eyelid patients? Kathleen Zane argues otherwise in her essay "Reflections on a Yellow Eye" in the anthology Talking Visions.
The totalizing and dismissive assumption that Asian women who elect such surgery obviously desire to look/be Western has seemed too readily to essentialize Asians as degraded imitations and mimics," Zane writes. "Labeling Asian surgical clients as mere victims of internalized racism resulting from their enthrallment with the patriarchal gaze of Western cultural imperialism seems to further a divide between enlightened or true feminists and these 'other' less privileged 'natives.'"
Zane points out how it's problematic to say that double eyelid surgery patients want to look white considering that many people of color, including some Asians, are born with double lids. She also points how so-called Asian beauty secrets for nice skin and hair have long been peddled to Westerners in cosmetic advertising. No one, however, would accuse Westerners who buy products marketed to transform hair into the silky Asian variety of self-hatred. Moreover, Zane writes, there's a direct connection between cosmetic procedures and rites of passage in some Asian cultures.
Not simply matters of personal self-esteem, facial alterations can mark changes of social status, such as graduation, coming of age, or first full-time employment. The eyelid surgery may be sanctioned as appropriate preparation for moving to the next stage of one's life…
It also becomes more difficult to make the connection to eyelid surgery and internalized racism when one considers that other common cosmetic procedures among Asians include enlarging of earlobes (for prosperity) and turning the nose downward (for fortune), the Times reports. These physical features aren't associated with any particular ethnic group, proving that not every trait ethnic minorities covet is rooted in white Western culture. Thus, using whiteness as a framework to link the cosmetic practices of ethnic minorities to self-hatred is racist in and of itself. Whiteness, after all, may not factor into these practices whatsoever.