by Tiffany Tao
I never gave my eyes much thought until I re-downloaded Snapchat a few weeks ago. It had been awhile since I last had the app, so I immediately spent an hour trying every single face filter and sending these selfies to my entire friend list. They were fun! Some of them contorted my face in strange ways, most of them changed me into a cute animal and all of them enlarged my eyes to some degree. Although superficial, I liked how these changes made me look and the replies I got seemed to agree—“so cute,” “how do we make our eyes bigger in real life?” “my kids need to be half-Asian so their eyes always look like this!”
Although casual and friendly, these responses brought me back to high school, when a contentious debate erupted between my sister Kaylee and I. Double-eyelid surgery is a hush-hush topic that floats around many East Asian households, yet is rarely spoken about out loud. The technical procedure, called a blepharoplasty, is a surgery that adds a crease into an individual’s eyelids, creating the appearance of larger eyes. This is popular because monolids, what you think of as stereotypically “Asian eyes,” are frequently degraded in pop culture, across the media, even by my own friends. And beyond casual jokes, having bigger eyes serves Asian women well in their professional lives—Julie Chen, host of CBS’s The Talk revealed that a boss early on in her career had suggested she would succeed if she got the procedure, and he was right. For many East Asian women, getting double-eyelid surgery is a rite of passage and a necessary part of coming-of-age, since we have spent our entire lives hearing that double eyelids are better for fitting in, that they look better, that they just are better.
So when Kaylee brought up that she wanted double-eyelids of her own, I immediately pushed back. It seemed unimaginable and insane to undergo risky surgery simply to feed into Eurocentric beauty standards. The way I saw it, the only reason the procedure was so popular was because some women weren’t confident enough in their heritage to keep their eyes “natural.” And giving into external pressure was simply falling victim to white supremacy—I couldn’t have a sister who did that!
But she (and my other family members and friends who have gotten the surgery) had their individual, very legitimate reasons for taking the actions that they did. To them, it had nothing to do with wanting to look white, but wanting to simply look “like more beautiful Asians.” There was no way that enlarging her eyes would mean that Kaylee suddenly didn’t appear, or feel, Chinese. She is Chinese in the mooncakes and stir-fried tomatoes and eggs and chicken feet she eats, the Sunday mornings she has spent copying characters for language school that afternoon, the qi-paos that my grandparents always bring back for us from Shanghai. Our identities are much more complex than our physical features and definitely cannot be encompassed in a single sweeping generalization.
I don’t think I’ll ever get the surgery—I like the way I look and am too squeamish to ever let anything sharp that close to my eyeballs—but I am coming around to the idea that Kaylee should have full agency to do whatever she feels comfortable with to her body. After all, our beauty choices are deeply personal and very much a site of resistance. For Kaylee, this may not come in the form of a firm boycott, but in being able to make her own decisions about her body and appearance free from outside pressure. If changing her eyelids grants her confidence and freedom, and comes packaged with a greater chance of career success in the Western world, then maybe there is no reason to completely villainize the procedure.
I am coming to understand that there is great complexity in these controversial culturally-bound practices, because power dynamics don’t necessarily flow in one single direction. For many women of color, it is the ability to exercise our own agency and control that is groundbreaking in itself. And even if I may not completely understand the desire to get surgery, I am recognizing that there are a multitude of experiences that I can’t fully speak to or judge, and that is completely okay.
As for Kaylee and I, I’ll probably continue to tease her about it—but while it would only be a small crease in our skin that separates us, there will always be so much more that holds us together.