For many East Asians with monolid eyes, the prospect of double eyelid surgery looms over us. We are bombarded with images of doe-eyed girls, confronted with shelves stocked full of double-eyelid tape and glue, and, occasionally, presented with the surgery as the ultimate birthday or graduation gift. Regardless of whether we choose to undergo the surgery, the double eyelid always exists at the back of our minds as an undeniable beauty standard.
But the question stands, who’s beauty is it?
The Innovation of Double Eyelid Surgery
Double eyelid surgery was first developed in Japan in the late 19th century by M. Mikamo, with the earliest reported procedure being performed in 1896 (Sergile and Obata, 1997). Mikamo estimated that 17 to 18 per cent of the Japanese population had monolid eyes, determining the double eyelid to be the norm (Sergile and Obata, 1997). He therefore viewed the single eyelid as a ‘disease’ or a ‘defect’ and sought to recitfy it through surgical procedures (Sergile and Obata, 1997).
Mikamo used sutures to create a fold in the eyelid. The fold would lay 6-8mm above the eye, mimicking the ‘normal’ Japanese eyelid (Sergile and Obata, 1997). His procedure emerged after Japan opened their doors to the West in the 1850s after over 250 years of cultural isolation (Fakhro et al., 2015). Women who were previously isolated at home and instructed not to concern themselves with physical appearance began to take up work in schools, factories, and hospitals (Sergile and Obata, 1997). His procedure therefore coincided with a time of rapid cultural change and, as individualistic values became more acceptable in collectivistic Japan, allowed women to attain what was deemed a Japanese standard of beauty.
However, as Western influence grew after the Kanto earthquake in 1923, surgeons such as Hata and Maruo reportedly performed procedures that deepened the fold and extended it further up the eyelid, more closely mimicking the Caucasian eye (Sergile and Obata, 1997). While misguided, Mikamo’s original purpose of curing a ‘defect’ was quickly corrupted by Eurocentrism.
The Popularisation of Double Eyelid Surgery
The surgery was popularised in South Korea in the 1950s by Dr Ralph Millard, an American plastic surgeon who was part of the continued American presence in Korea after the war (Millard, 1955). The surgery promised to transform the eye, as Dr Millard put it, from ‘oriental to occidental’ and many chose to undergo the surgery to achieve the ‘Western’ look (Millard, 1955).
For some, such as a translator who believed his slanted eyes prevented Americans from trusting him, economic reasons drove their desire for ‘round-eyes’ (Millard, 1955). Others were in pursuit of beauty, as Millard noted that due to American presence, the ‘occidental look has become more and more in vogue’ (Millard, 1955).
As Asian women started to travel to the US with their new American husbands after the war, the procedure served as a ‘deorientalising’ tool (Millard, 1955). As Dr Millard was working in Korea, similar procedures were also being performed in Japan and in Hong Kong, exhibiting the rapid growth in popularity in this post-war context. Millard estimates that over 10,000 Japanese women had married American soldiers and returned to the US (Millard, 1955), while later records show that at least 6,000 Korean women had done the same (Yu and Phillips, 1987).
As Korea continued to be perceived as a threat in America, Korean women who underwent the surgery were able to not only fit in visually but could also show deference to the American way of life (Millard, 1955). David Palumbo-Liu argues that such changes alleviated American anxieties by showing the ‘malleability of Asia’ and the subsequent power of the US (Palumbo-Liu, 1999). The double eyelid surgery, therefore, served as a visual representation of the assimilation Asian women underwent in order to marry an American soldier, live in the US, and raise American children.
Where to from here?
While the surgery originated as a means to achieve the ‘normal’ Japanese eye, it quickly transitioned to a ‘deorientalising’ tool, changing Asian features to appease the Western gaze. But, it would be wrong to assume that those who undergo the surgery today do so to appear Western.
This common misconception was highlighted in 2007, when Tyra Banks attacked an Asian American woman on her show, accusing her of using the surgery to appear more Caucasian. On the contrary, the double eyelid has become an East Asian beauty standard, perpetuated by East Asians.
While these standards may be rooted in a Eurocentric, Western idea of beauty and carry unfortunate ties to racist and assimilatory values, it is important to acknowledge that no beauty standards exist in a vacuum. Just as Western beauty standards have fluctuated to revere the curvy, tanned body, taking influence from patriarchal and classist ideas, Asian beauty standards have adapted to the various external influences at play over the past centuries.
Our attitudes towards double eyelid surgery should therefore reflect its history. Monolids should be viewed for what they are, a normal facial feature of East Asians. Even Mikamo’s original goal of curing a ‘defect’ should be condemned, as monolids are estimated to occur in 50% of the East Asian population (Lu et al., 2017). The surgery shouldn’t be viewed as a given, gifted and expected by all as the key to beauty or normalcy.
Simultaneously, it should be accepted as a very common part of the Asian experience. While we should acknowledge its history of racism, we should also understand that people now choose the surgery for very different reasons, economic, medical, or simply to fit into East Asian beauty standards.
Unlike what Millard and countless others have written about the monolid, it is anything but dull, tired, and expressionless. Just as beautiful as the double eyelid, it serves as a window through which we perceive our unique Asian experiences, as we navigate both Eastern and Western standards of beauty and ways of being.
Fakhro, A, H W Yim, Y K Kim, and A H Nguyen 2015, ‘The Evolution of Looks and Expectations of Asian Eyelid and Eye Appearance’, Seminars in Plastic Surgery, 29, 3, pp. 135-144.
Lu, T Y, K Kadir, W C Ngeow, S A Othman 2017, ‘The Prevalence of Double Eyelid and the 3D Measurement of Orbital Soft Tissue in Malays and Chinese’, Scientific Reports.
Millard, R 1955, ‘Oriental Peregrinations’, Plastic & Reconstructive Surgery, 16, 5, pp. 319-336.
Palumbo-Liu, David, (1999), Asian/American: Historical Crossings of a Raical Frontier, Book.
Sergile S and K Obata 1997, ‘Mikamo’s Double-Eyelid Operation: The Advent of Japanese Aesthetic Surgery’, Plastic & Reconstructive Surgery, 99, 3, pp. 662-667.
Yu, Eui-Young and Earl H. Phillips, (1987), Korean women in transition: at home and abroad, Book.