The Dark History Behind Double-Eyelid Surgery



In 2016, a research report from HSBC projected that blepharoplasty, more commonly known as the double-eyelid surgery, would balloon to a whopping 800 billion yuan ($118.8 billion) market in 2019 — and that’s only in China.

The cosmetic procedure, popular among East Asians, has arguably gone beyond a subject of local taboo to international controversy, especially in the realm of South Korean entertainment, where many actors and K-Pop idols have admitted to undergoing it.

Images via Wikimedia Commons / People bios (original photos) and Cymru.lass (derived work) / CC BY-SA 3.0

However, the fact that double-eyelid surgeries have seen a steady increase in recent years suggests growing acceptance, at least in Asian countries. Interestingly, attitudes in the West appear to be a different story, considering how the procedure came to be in the first place.

In 2007, Tyra Banks came under fire for “attacking” a Korean-American woman who had chosen to go under the knife. The African-American celebrity claimed that the woman was trying “to look more Caucasian.”

“You and I are the same,” Banks told the woman, named Liz, as she pointed at her own artificially-straightened hair. “I know I’m not going to look white with a hair weave. But it’s still one step closer to [looking white]. And your eyelid is one step closer. Do you understand?”

Banks delivered her statement with absolute certainty, but was Liz actually trying to look more White? She said no, yet Banks’ assumptions may be rooted in the procedure’s history.

 

It is commonly believed that the double-eyelid surgery was first introduced in 19th-century Japan, but it was during the Korean War in the 1950’s when it became popular in Asia, according to scholar Taeyon Kim.

Dr. D. Ralph Millard, an American military plastic surgeon, developed and performed the procedure while stationed in South Korea, taking part in a public relations campaign that sought to show “the American’s benevolent face to the Koreans.”

The first Koreans who underwent the surgery are said to have been war brides who married American soldiers. According to Kim, eyes without the crease, medically known as the superior palpebral fold, were dubbed “slanted” and regarded as a sign of deviance.

 

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“Surgically altering the ‘slanted’ eyes became a mark of a ‘good’ and trustworthy Asian, one whose modification of the face provided a comforting illustration of the pliable Asian, and served as evidence of the U.S. as the model and Asia as the mimic,” Kim wrote in her 2005 dissertation.

Years after the Korean War, Millard wrote why Koreans without the crease can be problematic, “The absence of the palpebral fold produces a passive expression which seems to epitomize the stoical and unemotional manner of the oriental.”

 

In the years around the Korean War, Korean military brides were regarded as racial and cultural threats to America. For this reason, many women opted to undergo double-eyelid surgeries to make themselves look more acceptable. The pressures that were placed onto these war brides to become Westernized was a method of asserting dominance while demonstrating America’s power over Asia as well the “malleability” of other countries.

As a result, the women appeared “less threatening” to the Western audience. Kim acknowledged this history, “While it is primarily beauty that motivates [modern-day women’s] desire to alter their eyes, this beauty is built on a legacy of a history of Western science and race that privileged the white body as the normal, beautiful body.”

 

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For many East Asians today, getting a crease is far from trying “to look more Caucasian.” Aside from simply wanting a more “defined” appearance, many undergo the procedure for practical purposes, such as increasing job prospects.

“I’ve never had anyone asking me if I underwent the surgery in order to look more White,” Song Ji-hye, a Seoul native who underwent the procedure at 19, told the Korea Herald in 2015. “I’ve never seen anyone who underwent the procedure for that reason, either. It sounds absurd to me. Caucasians are not the only racial group of people who have double eyelids. If anything, I think those who undergo the procedure want to look like fellow Asians who have naturally creased eyes.”

Song’s comment holds weight as half of the world’s Asian population have the crease, according to NPR. Banks should have also believed Liz when the latter insisted on having the procedure to prevent her eyes from drooping.

Costs of double-eyelid surgeries vary depending on complexity across facilities, with estimates ranging from $2,600 to $7,900, according to figures from Dazed. As more people opt to go under the knife, prices can only be expected to become more competitive.

 

Featured Image (left) via YouTube / Fenty Beauty By Rihanna

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