Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Double Eye Lid Surgery – What's The Big Deal?

Korean-Americans have a fascination with double-eyelid surgery. For some second generation Korean-American females, it is considered a rite of passage to undergo the surgical procedure at the age of eighteen. I remember on the eve of my sister’s eighteenth birthday, our mother told my sister that money had been set aside to pay for the elective surgery – if my sister wanted the procedure. Our family did not grow up with a lot of money, with little to no savings to speak of. The mere fact that our parents had specifically earmarked money for the sole purpose of an elective surgery spoke volumes. The normative subtext of our mother’s statement becomes clearer situated in this context: you should get this surgery.

In Medicalization of Racial Features: Asian American Women and Comestic Surgery, Eugeina Kaw offers a descriptive account of the phenomenon of double eyelid surgery, and its social implications. Kaw provides a thorough analysis of how and why Asian-American women feel compelled into getting plastic surgery, mainly for reconstruction of the nose and the eyes.

Her views on the strict racialization of facial features and what this racialization leads to, hinges on three key aspects: (i) the “cultural and institutional structures” of a society (namely the medical field and media), (ii) the effects of a consumer orientated society, and (iii) the “internalization of racial and gender stereotypes”. Kaw further argues that these different aspects work together in order to influence Asian-American women into feeling the need obtain a more “American” look.

Let me first begin by posing a two-part question: does the medical field and cosmetic field work in conjunction to create a particular definition of beauty and if they do, how and why do Asian-American women buy into the mold of beauty that defines the “Asian” look as undesirable?

Kaw argues that the medical field, in conjunction with a consumer orientated society, does in fact shape the way people in a society come to think about what it means to appear beautiful. Eugeina Kaw believes that Asian-American women learn to associate the characteristic Asiatic facial features with negative traits such as: passivity, dullness, a lacking of expression, and slow wit. As a result of Asian-American women correlating their facial features (flat nose, “slanty eyes”) with negative traits, they “strive for a face with larger eyes and a more prominent nose,” which Kaw argues can be understood as wanting a more “American” face. These associations that Asian-American women make can be attributed to the fact that they have been continually exposed to racial stereotypes through two main socializing agents: family and media.

For example, when my sister was a junior in high school, my aunt and mother persuaded my sister to get the double eyelid surgery during her summer visit to Korea. My sister said at that age, she was easily persuaded into getting the surgery because she personally believed that “American” looking eyes were more attractive than the shape of “Asian” eyes. It seemed as if her readiness to accept the surgery stemmed from her over-exposure to American media and the transmission of cultural values that my aunt and mother held (family as a socializing agent).*

The strength of this cultural learning is only reinforced by the manner in which the medical field perpetuates these racial ideologies that influences Asian-American women to associate negative traits with their natural facial features. Although, the medical professionals never hint at the fact overtly, it is subtly implied in the way doctors describe “Asian” facial features. Terminology and phraseology such as “the absence of of the palpebral fold produces a passive expression which seems to epitomize the stoical and unemotional manner of the Oriental”, expresses the view that medical knowledge is based off of “scientific rationality”. By referring to science as their justification for such characterizations, and using medical terminology, they protect themselves from racial criticisms by hiding behind the “veil of objectivity” of the medical field.

If we were to embrace the view that Asian-American women are being subtly influenced into conforming to the Western standard of beauty, what possible solutions are there to regain autonomy and empowerment? Referring back to my sister, as she became more knowledgeable in the field of sociology and Asian-American studies, her views on double eyelid surgery drastically changed. She began to despise the fact that she had undergone the surgery, and realized her decision to get the double eyelids was heavily influenced by problematic external factors. 

*I recognize that I may be editorializing here, in an attempt to shoehorn my sister’s experiences within Eugeina Kaw’s framework. 


Aoife Mee said...


Thank you for such an interesting and thought-provoking post! I, personally, had never heard of this double eye-lid surgery trend until you first mentioned it in class. I find it amazing how people all around the world aspire to western beauty ideals, when the vast majority of western women don't even reflect those ideals themselves.

In my last blog I discussed how the promotion of the "ideal body" in western society has led to unhealthy body images for women even in western society. This has encouraged many women to take drastic action to alter their physical form, such as undergoing cosmetic surgery (like you illustrate), going on extreme diets and in the most extreme cases, developing severe eating disorders and mental health issues.

I find it particularly worrying that cosmetic surgery procedures are not only on the rise, but are actually becoming normalised in so many cultures around the world.

Suzanne Connell said...

Great post Glen!

Like Aoife, I too had never heard of double-eyelid surgery until you described it in class. I was shocked and saddened to hear of the overwhelming pressure placed on many Korean-American women to undergo this elective surgery in order to achieve this fabled ideal of western beauty. There seems to be a whole plethora of procedures from double eye-lid surgery, to skin bleaching to its converse of skin tanning, not to mention a whole host of cosmetic surgery procedures that re-inforce a completely fictitious fact in the minds of many women; that you're just not good enough.

Although it's not on par with the extreme and permanent nature of double eye-lid surgery, your post made me think of the pressure for young girls to be tanned in Irish society. The celtic complexion is very fair, freckled, with pink undertones and extremely likely to burn if exposed to strong sunlight. Paleness isn't embraced by the young women of Ireland. It has connotations of looking ill and ugly mostly, so the remedy is to either slather on layer upon layer of fake tan or begin using harmful sunbeds (that are proven to skyrocket one's changes of skin cancer) to achieve a healthy golden glow. I'm generalising here, but many young Irish women subliminally link being tanned with being healthy, happy and beautiful. It doesn't help that Instagram and other social media platforms propagate this idea by continually conditioning us into thinking that I might look like the beautifully toned, bronzed and beaming Instagram model if I just change the colour of my skin. It seems to me that there's a pressure in almost every society to achieve a particular standard of beauty that isn't naturally attainable, and I view this as highly problematic and unnecessary in a world where we face significant pressures from almost every direction.

B. Williams said...


Thank you for sharing your sister's story. I must admit, it was very sad to read about the pressure you sister felt, not just from the medical establishment but from women in your family, to get this double-lid procedure done. I think back on how I would have felt as a teenager had my mother enthusiastically suggested a plastic surgery procedure to permanently change the way I looked. As a young woman, your body image and self esteem can already be so precarious and so contingent on how you feel others perceive you. The social pressure imposed by peers is strong in and of itself... but criticism from family members would be particularly hurtful. Your sister's story is especially impactful since, after given time and the opportunity to reflect, she ultimately regretted the procedure.

Reading more about the Korean obsession with plastic surgery, I found that girls as young as 12 are commonly having double-lid (and other similar procedures) done. While I am not inherently against plastic surgery, I do find it troubling that these procedures are being done on young women who have not yet gone through adolescence, don't necessarily understand the cultural imperialism at play, may lack a full understanding of the surgery's risks and implications, and haven't had chance accept themselves and develop appreciation and respect for their body as it naturally is.

Joterias! said...

Glen, thank you for your insightful post! Although it’s depressing, it’s also fascinating how culture indoctrinates us into believing that certain phenotypes, looks, and presentations of self are better than others. Your post reminded of Sammy Sosa, a renowned, retired baseball player, whose recent pictures shocked the Latinx community. The pictures show his skin noticeably lighter. Sammy, who was born in the Dominican Republic, seems to have to erased his Afro-Caribbean ancestry with a skin cream that “has bleached [him] some.” And when asked about his appearance, he added, “I’m not a racist, I live my life happily.” (

But what Sammy doesn’t acknowledge, however, is that his happiness comes at the expense of his young fans of color, whose skin color Sammy assailed by his actions. Perhaps Sammy’s decision to continue bleaching his skin warrants sympathy if he was driven by internalized self-hate. But he must also be held morally accountable for engaging in actions that further self-hate in our communities—POC (person(s) of color) communities. And there is something particularly soul stinging about celebrity POCs reifying Western/Anglo/European beauty standards by bleaching their skin. After all, the majority of mainstream media already does enough to repudiate POC bodies and images. I think the same could be said of double eye lid surgery. We should encourage our Asian brothers and sisters to embrace their physical features.

Moreover, I agree with your implicit point that knowledge colors how we think of body modification procedures like double eye lid surgery—as in your sister’s case. Which begs the question: what duty, if any, will we as educated professionals owe to younger generations to ensure they are media literate and can resist prevailing standards of beauty? Perhaps we need to keep reminding ourselves that our world would be a very boring place if we all looked the same.

Omar de la Cruz said...


While I knew vaguely about double eye lid surgery, I never would have guessed just how popular it is. While it's unsurprising that people would bend over backwards to try and fit in to our society's skewed beauty standards, I find it surprising that it's so common place to set money aside and simply expect that all women will go through with the surgery. Your post doesn't mention how old your sister was when your mom and aunt convinced her to have the surgery while on vacation but it seems to imply that she was rather young. I find it crazy that cosmetic surgery at a early age can be so normalized. I guess it just goes to show the power of societal influence. I know all about how society shapes what we consider beautiful but I never stopped to wonder how the medical profession does. I guess through the medical profession people have a tool they can use to morph themselves into someone who looks more "beautiful." I'd definitely be interested in reading more about the role the medical profession plays in all of this.