No, Asian Eyelid Surgery Is Not About Looking More 'White'

Ha Ji-won korean movie star plastic surgeryAPKorean movie star Ha Ji-won, who is rumoured to have had eyelid surgery.

New York Magazine’s Maureen O’Connor recently delved into the world of ethnic plastic surgery in a piece titled “Is Race Plastic? My Trip Into the ‘Ethnic Plastic Surgery’ Minefield” (it’s worth reading the whole thing).

She spoke with plastic surgeons and the people they have operated on about the different “ethnic” features coveted in plastic surgery. One of the more common surgeries she wrote about was double blepharo­plasty, often called “Asian eyelid surgery,” and its intense racial implications.

The procedure received a lot of attention last year when Chinese-American talk-show host Julie Chen admitted on CBS’ “The Talk” that she had had the procedure done back in the ’90s after her former news director because of her “Asian eyes,” he had “noticed that when you’re on camera, when you’re interviewing someone you look disinterested and bored because your eyes are so heavy, they are so small.”

Even before then, CNN, Reuters, and other publications had done exposés on the procedure, and media outlets had covered everything from eyelid tape or glue (which creates a temporary crease in the eyelid) to eyelid trainers (which claim to make a permanent crease in the eyelid).

The oft-repeated theme was that Asian people were having this plastic surgery to look more “Western.”

But the vast majority of people who get this procedure aren’t trying to fit a Western ideal at all, but an Asian ideal. They’re not interested in having Caucasian-shaped double eyelids — they want a more open, more alert-looking eyes with a subtle crease that has always been appealing in their own culture.

Not only are the desired shapes fundamentally different, but so is the surgery itself. According to the Asian Plastic Surgery Guide, Asian eyelid procedures don’t suck out fat (or as much fat) as cosmetic eye procedures on Caucasians, which are commonly done on older individuals whose eyelids have become droopy due to age.

Asian eyelid surgery, on the other hand, is often performed on younger individuals to simply create a subtle crease — sometimes with just a few carefully placed stitches — that makes the eyes appear larger.

Under the umbrella of “Asian eyelid surgery,” there are a few different techniques. One of the most common is the suture technique, which costs less and has a quicker healing time. It takes less than an hour for a doctor to place a few well-aimed stitches that compress the eyelid into the ideal shape. The downside is that it’s a less-permanent option, and patients may have to get the procedure done again.

There’s also the incisional technique, which is more customisable, but more expensive method with a longer recovery time. In this type of surgery excess skin or fat is cut from fuller eyelids, which makes the results permanent.

Asian eyelid surgery before and afterREUTERS/Nir EliasA combo picture shows Zhang Ding Ling, 23, before (top, November 4, 2007) and after (December 5, 2007) her so-called ‘double eyelid surgery’, which adds a crease to the eyelids to make the eyes appear larger. Zhang received the procedure as a present from her parents for her 23rd birthday.

But the end results of both types of surgery are more subtle than Caucasian blepharo­plasty surgeries. O’Connor spoke to Dr. Robert Flowers, a white plastic surgeon who has been doing Asian eyelid surgeries since the ’60s, about the difference in procedural outcomes (emphasis ours):

Flowers advocated subtler surgeries, pointing out that naturally creased Asian eyelids — which he estimates occur in perhaps half of Asians — are not the same as Caucasian lids. Compared with Asian eyes, the white eye is more deeply set and the crease tends to run more parallel to the lash line. Asian creases may be narrow or nonexistent at the inner eye — the goopy pink corner may be covered by downward-angled skin called an epicanthic fold — but flared up at the outer edge, creating an overall tilted eye shape.

So with all evidence to the contrary, why do we keep insisting that the impetus behind this procedure is to look Western? While writing her article, O’Connor said the people who most consistently believed Asian eyelid surgery was an effort to look more “white” were white themselves. She wrote:

Was that a symptom of in-group narcissism — white people assuming everyone wants to look like them? Or is it an issue of salience — white people only paying attention to aesthetics they already understand? Or is white horror at ethnic plastic surgery a cover for something uglier: a xenophobic fear of nonwhites “passing” as white, dressed up as free-to-be-you-and-me political correctness?

Deciding to get plastic surgery is an intensely personal decision. Everyone’s motives are different, with plenty of complex reasons behind them.

It’s time we stopped pretending otherwise.

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