May 28, 2001

The Eyes Have It

Why do so many Asian women feel the need to alter their eyelids?


The patient lies on the operating table, sedated on Valium. As she responds to instructions to open and close her eyes, a plastic surgeon begins the hour-long procedure, making crescent-shaped markings in ink on her upper eyelids. After administering a local anesthetic, the surgeon uses those marks as a guide to cut away excess skin and some muscle and fat beneath the surface, then stitches the wound closed. The operation is done, and another Asian woman has had the crease on her upper eyelids exposed or exaggerated in her quest for what she believes to be a better appearance. The cost: $2,000 to $3,000.

In Vancouver, Dr. Quintin Son-Hing, who has performed almost 9,000 such operations since 1979, says demand is still increasing as the city's Asian population grows. "I do four to six sets of the surgery each week," says the South African-born Son-Hing, who learned the Mandarin language only 12 years ago when he realized how many new immigrants wanted the procedure. Eyelid surgery, the most common cosmetic procedure among women in Asia, has become a major phenomenon in Canada.

Who is having it done, and why? Son-Hing says 99 per cent of his patients are female, from their 20s to 40s, and 75 per cent are wealthy recent immigrants from Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, South Korea and other parts of Asia. They are among the majority of Asians whose upper eyelids show no visible crease. Their motivation in seeking the operation, says Toronto filmmaker Ann Shin, is based on ideals of beauty widely held in Asia, including the appearance of bigger eyes that the eyelid crease imparts. "Among some Asian cultures," says Shin, who made a documentary on the subject last year, "women will encourage their girls to think about getting eyelid surgery in the way that parents might get braces for a kid or have an overweight child lose some weight."

But for all its acceptance in Asia, the operation has become politicized in North America. None of the women Shin spoke to for her film Western Eyes said they wanted to look "more Western," she says. But "when you step back a bit, you ask when the bigger eyes that they want became more valued in Asian cultures." And that, she adds, would be relatively recently, "with the influence of the Western ideals of beauty." Now, adds Shin, some young Asians in Canada wonder if the removal of a distinguishing racial characteristic means denying their heritage.

Son-Hing says that in 22 years of performing the operation, only two clients have asked to look more Caucasian. He resents the assumption that enhancement must mean trying to appear Western. What his patients ask for, he says, is a "natural" looking eyelid. But in Toronto, plastic surgeon Robert Stubbs, who has done at least 50 of the operations, says many Asian patients tell him they want a Western look. They want to get three things straight, he says: "How much it costs, when I can do it, and 'I want the Caucasian eyelid.' They also say they don't want it too pronounced."

Stubbs also says those patients appear to believe that Western physical features will help them get better jobs and to fit into Canadian society. "For women," he says, "beauty is power, and beauty plus money is double trouble." His clients, says Stubbs, may be more direct with him about their motives because he is Caucasian. Son-Hing may not hear the same thing, Stubbs suggests, because patients "may feel uncomfortable saying that directly" to another Asian.

Shin says her research suggests both surgeons are right, but represent the extremes of the clients' motivations. Some women have the operation done so subtly that its effects are barely visible; others opt for deep creases that definitely look Caucasian. The reasons they cite for getting the operation are complex and deeply personal. In some cases, they include scarring experiences of childhood racism or exposure as teens in Canada to images of what beautiful women were supposed to look like -- blond and blue-eyed. But they had one thing in common, Shin says: "They all said they were interested in looking better."


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