They say the eyes are the window to your soul. I’ve spent my entire life being told by society that my eyes are undesirable, unremarkable, “slanted” — does that mean my entire being is, too?
From a young age, I was encouraged by family members — expected even — to undergo cosmetic surgery to transform my monolid eyes into double eyelids. In South Korea, this surgery has transcended popularity to become almost a rite of passage for women; it’s talked about as casually as if you were switching out your glasses for contacts.
Double eyelid surgery is the most common cosmetic procedure requested in Asia. It rose to popularity during the Korean War in the 1950s and it was developed and performed by Dr. David Ralph Millard, an American military plastic surgeon, while he was stationed in South Korea.
At the time, monolid eyes were seen as a source of suspicion and deviance. Some of the first individuals to undergo this surgery in South Korea were Korean brides who were married to American soldiers. Seen as racial and cultural threats to the United States, many of these women were pressured into taking on Eurocentric facial features so as to be perceived as more acceptable by American society.
In a larger context, this pressure to assimilate into Western aesthetics was indicative of the power the United States had over Asia, in addition to the supposed pliability of other countries at the hands of the United States. Today, double eyelid surgery is the third most common procedure requested by Asian Americans.
As a Korean American woman, it often feels as though every decision I make about my appearance is directly intertwined with my race, gender, identity and cultural history. If I choose to alter my appearance, am I not shunning my Korean identity and placing the oppressor on a pedestal? But if I denounce going under the knife, specifically in regards to the double eyelid surgery, am I not also reinforcing the notion that anything that deviates from one’s appearance at birth is a deliberate attempt to hide or misrepresent one’s identity?
We accept everything from artificial tanning to makeup contouring as socially acceptable cosmetic practices that do not warrant suspicion of ulterior motive. On the other hand, almost every concept of East Asian beauty I’ve encountered, from getting plastic surgery to even hair dying, has faced criticism in one way or another. This double standard for beauty ideals brings to light how systems of race and power influence not only the beauty standards that are created but also those that are questioned.
A part of me wants to get the double eyelid surgery because, as is often advertised, it might make me more beautiful, less foreign-looking: a better version of me. But what does that even mean? A more white-looking version of myself? And why must I assume that I, as I am now, am flawed and need to change?
I recognize that the motivation one has for undergoing the double eyelid procedure today may not necessarily be to look more Caucasian. There is no one reason why someone might get the surgery, and in the end, the choice is up to the individual.
At the same time, it’s worth considering how the preference for double eyelids among Asian women is not random, inherent or natural. This standard of beauty is built upon a legacy of racially motivated science viewed through the Western lens, one that privileges the white body as normal, beautiful, the standard to strive for.
Growing up, I internalized many of the things that were told to me about my eyes. I grew to hate my eyes: their “poop brown” color, the monolid that none of my friends had, their supposed “almond-shape” (an ill-informed phrase commonly used to describe the “exoticness” of an Asian character’s eyes in literature, popular culture and even American Girl dolls).
It seems that my beauty, and how society chooses to measure it, has always been deeply and intricately entangled with institutionalized dynamics of race and power. My eyes are a battleground. My face is my flag and history. I demand the freedom to bring and put forth the beauty that I, the culmination of many generations of resilient Korean women, have to offer. I reserve the right to name myself, tell my own story, exist as I am.
And my eyes should not be the only judgment of my soul, either. My mouth has spoken truth to injustices that are occurring around the world. My ears have listened to others, taking in and learning from their life experiences. My hands have written, drawn and played the piano, opening up entire realms of creative possibility. My feet have carried me to where I am today and I am still going.
My body is my soul is my body is so much more. And because of that, my soul flies free.