If I told you I underwent double eyelid surgery—the #1 type of cosmetic surgery in Asia—to make my eyes look more awake, would you believe me?
Before and after photos
Never mind that Asia is the largest continent on the planet, when people say “Asian eyes,” they generally refer to the almond-shaped eyes (which are not even almond-shaped) of Eastern/Southeastern populations. Within this frame of reference, people will often focus on two characteristics: the epicanthic fold and the eyelid.
The epicanthic fold is circled on each eye (source: Wikipedia)
The epicanthic fold is the bit of skin from the upper eyelid that comes down over the inner corner of the eye. Interestingly, 60% of people with Down Syndrome also have this feature, but that’s a different topic.
Then there is the infamous crease in the eyelid, which is absent in about 50% of Chinese and Vietnamese, and 75% of Koreans. Some say that it is “missing,” which I disagree with, as this would suggest a deficiency rather than a difference between Asian and Caucasian eyes.
Growing up in a small French town, my sister Estelle and I had learned to live among people who regularly commented on the shape of our eyes. (Little sister Julienne was born with double eyelids for some reason.) It wasn’t until Estelle and I came to Boston and made Asian friends that we were exposed to the outlandish idea of changing the way we looked.
Double eyelid obsession
High school friends showed us how to use a thin strip of tape and eyeliner to create that extra fold that would brighten up our faces. I watched Estelle experiment with this at home, but we agreed it was just too weird. Asian girls online share a myriad of ways to get rid of monolids, including not drinking water after a certain hour, sleeping with one’s head elevated, using anti-puff agents, and of course wearing that lid-tape during the day to hold the fold in place. One girl uses glue and lid tape every single day to face this “life-long battle.”
However, the one sure and permanent way of getting double eyelids is through surgery. You could look up blepharoplasty on Wikipedia—a type of surgery meant to correct or modify the eyelid—though you might not want to see the pictures in the article. They will make your eyes hurt. Asian blepharoplasty, also known as “double eyelid surgery,” is the most common procedure in many parts of Asia, particularly in Korea.
Why the war on monolids?
Julie Chen from CBS underwent double eyelid surgery to advance in her career.
According to one CNN report, getting your eyelids cut open not only means looking more beautiful but, in some parts of the world, it also means getting ahead in life. Imagine that? Master’s degree: Check. Peer-reviewed publications: Check. Double eyelids: Ooh… Sorry, but we cannot hire you at this time. News anchor and producer at CBS Julie Chen knows the pressure of having to “fix” her Asian eyes. Her superiors had made their message very clear. She had to choose between Asian blepharoplasty and stagnation in her career. “Because of your Asian eyes,” a boss told her, “I’ve noticed that when you’re on camera, you look disinterested and bored.” Sadly, she is not the only one. Many Asian Americans, especially those who work directly with clients or potential sponsors, have reported that their hooded eyes were often perceived as a lack of alertness. In a society where eye contact is a crucial part of effective communication, these people found themselves fighting an uphill battle.
Fashion magazines and designers have been making conscientious efforts to feature Asian models with monolids, perhaps to encourage little girls to appreciate the beauty in all eye shapes. Whether or not that’s working, I was told that people in Northern Europe have now been seeking to have their eyes “look Asian” through surgery. I will never understand. Also, I couldn’t verify this.
What I do know is that the vast majority of Asian Americans who go under the knife for the extra eye fold are adamant about their motivations. The procedure is not to erase their identity, and in fact they want to preserve it. Just like breast augmentation or a face lift, this has nothing to do with one’s cultural heritage. It is a cosmetic decision, a surgical way to achieve a desired look. We are kindly asked to not judge based on race.
My lid wrinkles
I did not use lid-tape or stop drinking water after 10 pm, and I certainly did not undergo double eyelid surgery (shivers). My lid wrinkles simply showed up over a period of several years. I got a semi-permanent fold on one lid first, and as it became more stable another fold became visible. Various online forums indicate that this is not an uncommon phenomenon. Several posters mentioned that this happened after a weight loss, though most people couldn’t explain this gradual change.
It was never my intention to do anything about my eyelids, but here are things I would have told myself if I ever did (also good for life in general):
- Don’t cry. Sometime in high school, I began crying on a regular basis (don’t ask). After a few years, the habit was reduced to a weekly occurrence, and I noticed that my semi-permanent crease was only visible if I had not cried the night before.
- Don’t stress. I get hives when I’m under acute stress. It took a while to figure this out, as I was chronically stressed for so long. This might have contributed to my eyelids being stuck in a constant swollen state. Think puffer fish.
- Don’t eat crap. My poor and unwise self had the habit of consuming nothing but a side of fries or a muffin for lunch, in a short-sighted effort to save money. More fat on your face will not do anything for your eyes, or your overall health.
I am not saying that if you are happy as a clam and fit as a professional athlete, you will magically go from monolid to double lid. I’ve only noticed that, for me personally, some unhealthy practices had contributed to the swelling around my eyes. At the end of the day, what I can stand behind is that, with mono- or double eyelids, a good dose self-esteem is probably the best thing you can ask for / work on.
Photos taken 9 years apart
Update: It’s been a few months since I last took a look at my blog and I just unearthed a few valuable comments that got lost in a sea of spam messages. I want to thank all those who shared their responses, and I sincerely apologize for not getting around to approving them until now!
The shape of Asian eyes has been compared to almonds by Westerners for centuries. iStockphoto.com hide caption
The shape of Asian eyes has been compared to almonds by Westerners for centuries.iStockphoto.com
Last week, Julie Chen revealed on The Talkthat she had double eyelid surgery to make her eyes look "less Chinese" in order to advance her TV career.
"[Her news director] said, 'Let's face it, Julie. How relatable are you to our community? How big of an Asian community do we really have in Dayton?' " Chen recalled. "'On top of that, because of your heritage, because of your Asian eyes, I've noticed that when you're on camera, when you're interviewing someone, you look disinterested and bored because your eyes are so heavy, they're so small.'"
Chen's decision to pursue surgery was a painful one that involved her entire family. Some relatives claimed they'd disown her if she got the surgery. Now, years later, Chen says she looks "more alert." One of her co-hosts called the surgery "fabulous."
When you talk about the shape of an Asian person's eyes, it seems that people are fixated on two separate things: eyelids and epicanthal folds. Epicanthal folds are the bit of skin on the upper lid near the inner corner of the eye. Chen's double eyelid surgery is designed to create the appearance of larger and rounder eyes.
The obsession with Asian eyes, especially the shape, dates back centuries. And it seems like the easiest way to describe an Asian person's eyes is by likening them to nuts. Specifically, almonds. Like many others, I've thought: Hey! My eyes aren't even shaped like these things. And comparing the eyes of Asian folks to almonds isn't even really accurate, according to blogger Claire Light. She superimposed almonds over the eyes of Asian and white people. Light concludes, exasperated: "People, do I have to spell it out for you? East Asians don't have almond shaped eyes. White people do."
But where does the phrase "almond-shaped eyes" come from?
Back in the late 1700s, dudes (most of whom were white), penned odes to the beautiful, exotic Asian women they stumbled upon in their adventures in the Far East. The Oxford English Dictionary cites the first reference of "almond eyes" as appearing in a 1786 issue of The Asiatic Journal, a hodgepodge collection of essays about all things Asia. The journal shares a letter that the "Persian of Abul Casim" wrote to a buddy about his ideal woman. He lists the qualities he wants:
"May the friend of my fool, and intimate of my affection, ever embrace the maid of his desire. I have learnt there is a fair abounding with innumerable goods of the choice kind, some of which I have a great desire for, and request you to purchase for me. ... The following is a list of what I request. The shape of the cypress, of a becoming height, ... two eye-brows, arched as the noon moon; almond eyes, as many as you shall see ..."
Here's a close-up stock photo that had, no joke, the description: "The almond eyes of an Asian girl." iStockphoto.com hide caption
Here's a close-up stock photo that had, no joke, the description: "The almond eyes of an Asian girl."iStockphoto.com
Emphasis mine. The nutty flattery goes on and on and on. In 1842, another traveler wrote for The Asiatic Journal about the beauty of women from Kashmir:
"I do not think that the beauty of the women has been overrated. ... they have usually a pair of large, almond-shaped, hazel eyes, and a white and regular set of teeth."
Mark Twain used a variation of that phrase in 1870, in his satirical essay about a "well-dressed San Francisco" boy who was sent to prison for stoning a "Chinaman." (Give "Disgraceful Persecution of a Boy" a whirl if you're interested in reading about the era following the California gold rush or the prevalence of yellow peril.)
"... 'So and-so' captured a wretched knave of a Chinaman who was stealing chickens, and brought him gloriously to the city prison; and how 'the gallant officer Such-and-such-a-one' quietly kept an eye on the movements of an 'unsuspecting almond-eyed son of Confucius' (your reporter is nothing if not facetious) ..."
This tongue-in-cheek description, with its marker of foreignness — the "almond-eyed son of Confucius" — contrasts sharply with the pejorative use of the phrase, as seen in William Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage (1915):
"Near them sat a Chinaman, with a yellow face and an expansive smile, who was studying Western conditions at the University. He spoke so quickly, with a queer accent, that the girls could not always understand him, and then they burst out laughing. He laughed too, good-humouredly, and his almond eyes almost closed as he did so."
Despite the messy past of "almond-shaped eyes," it's now referenced in the most seemingly innocent of contexts. Today, we find the phrase hanging out in the sales description of the American Girl Dolls' Asian-American character, Ivy, aka "Julie's best friend."
Ivy's marketing description reads: "The Ivy doll is 18" tall with dark almond-shaped eyes that open and close. She has straight black hair that can be brushed and styled to show her earrings." (She can also be dressed in a red cheongsam that's sold and labeled as "Ivy's New Year Outfit.")
And then, most notably to me and many folks who grew up in the '80s and '90s, we find the phrase nestled in every boilerplate description of The Baby-Sitters Club's Claudia Kishi, the token Japanese-American character. (If you were an Asian-American kid like me, you probably wanted to be like Claudia, who was one of the only, if not few, cool almond-shaped eyed gals in popular culture.)
For $110, you can buy a doll of Ivy Ling — "Julie's best friend" — and her "dark, almond-shaped eyes that open and close." American Girl hide caption
Claudia's physical description would inevitably go something like this, as excerpted from The Baby-Sitters Club: Dawn Saves the Planet:
"It's not hard to spot Claud. She dresses in ultra bright colors that look great with her jet black hair. She likes to wear outrageous earrings and hair ornaments that she makes herself. Claud is Japanese-American and has beautiful dark almond-shaped eyes and perfect skin, which is amazing to me because she's an absolute junk food addict."
So to be clear: The phrase emerged as a poetic description intended to capture what was perceived as the exotic beauty of Asian eyes. But now, it's a full-on cliché in and outside of literature.
Type a variation of "almond eyes" or "almond-shaped eyes" into YouTube's search bar and you'll be bombarded with video tutorials on how to make your eyes nut-shaped with a stick of eyeliner and some eye shadow. (Translation: How to make your eyes seem decidedly more "Asian" or "exotic.")
Some folks think that it's a positive thing to have eyes shaped like hard-shelled fruits, despite the phrase's exotic, meandering past. But I'm not so convinced.
So let's help toy marketers and writers find better ways to describe Asian eyes.
Suggestions? Let us know in the comments.