As a person with primarily European ancestry, I am not often forced to confront the ways in which my perceived racial identity differs from what is socially acceptable. At first glance, I look like your average white bread: light skin, brown hair, brown eyes. Every so often, though, I get a question asked with the hesitancy of someone who knows they should probably stay quiet: “Are you…Asian? Like, a little bit?”
As much as I love to hear the oft-neglected genes from my father’s side of the family recognized, the question used to bother me. Like, a little bit. From a friend’s brother when I was six to countless randoms throughout my life, people have found creative ways of pointing out the differences in my eyes. They are small, by Eurocentric standards, and almost black. For most of my life, my eyelids didn’t crease.
For those not well-versed in eye anatomy, the crease is the part of your eyelid that folds into itself when you open your eyes, and smooths out when you close them. Many people with East Asian ancestry do not have a natural crease or double eyelid and instead have a monolid. This was all fine and dandy until racism and sexism got together in the 1950s and threw a party in Korea.
According to the Korea Herald, double-eyelid surgery, or blepharoplasty, was first introduced in Japan in the late 1900s. During the Korean War, people with monolids were seen as deviant and untrustworthy. They were dubbed “slanted” and their eyes became a symbol of their perceived emotional coldness and inscrutability. Surgical alteration of the “slanted” eyelids to resemble those of white Americans was believed to be a favorable correction of those unwanted personality traits. It demonstrated that Koreans were pliable and could be changed to match what was socially acceptable.
So that’s horrible, but of course, it gets worse. Double-eyelid surgery was popularized and “perfected” by American plastic surgeons in Korean war brides, women who married American soldiers stationed in Korea. The thinking was that these women posed a threat to the U.S., where interracial marriage was still illegal, and needed to be “Americanized” to reduce that threat and meet the needs of their husbands.
Unfortunately, double-eyelid surgery has only increased in popularity since then, even in the United States. Western beauty standards have changed the standards of beauty for people of East Asian descent, whether we realize it or not. Not everyone who undergoes double-eyelid surgery does so because they want to “look white,” at least not consciously. But our discomfort with monolids is rooted in Eurocentrism and ultimately racism. Natural double eyelids in East Asian people are seen as superior to monolids. When people alter their eyelids to look “more awake” and “bright-eyed,” they also perpetuate the fear of being perceived as “exotic,” emotionless or just plain different.
I don’t mean to bash people who choose to get this surgery. For the most part, I have been spared the enormous cultural pressures that cause 20% of South Korean women to undergo some form of plastic surgery, often when very young. In the terrible game of assimilation, they are the victims, not the perpetrators. The fault lies with the people who developed this surgery and believe(d) it to be necessary.
When I was a teenager, I watched a video where beauty Youtuber Michelle Phan explained how she gave herself double eyelids using tape and glue. As a burgeoning makeup artist, I immediately latched onto the concept as a way of transforming my “boring” eyes into ones I believed to be more beautiful. If that’s not an internalization of Western beauty standards, I don’t know what is. I spent the next three years with my eyelids covered in scratchy tape or layers of special glue. The result? My eyes are permanently double-lidded, no longer a clearly visible testament to my ancestry.
When I think back to this period of my life, I remember how insecure and lost I felt. Changing my eyes represented the small bit of control I could wrest from the uncontrollable tide of change in other areas of my life. If I could do it all again, I might choose differently knowing what I do now.