In the Eyelids of the Beholder

by Joanna Cornell:

My cousin Bao Bao was always the pretty one of the family. Tall, skinny, and with fair white-skin that all Asian girls covet, she never had problems finding a boyfriend. But according to her and the rest of the family, she had one egregious flaw: her single eyelids. Bao Bao’s single eyelids weren’t merely a minor imperfection on a beautiful face: They were a blemish, an embarrassing defect that bothered her for years, until she finally opted for double eyelid surgery on her 18th birthday.

Unbeknownst to most Westerners, Asians envy the beautiful creases that grace Western eyelids, the delicate folds that enlarge the eyes and give people more “spirit.” This obsession has led to the rise in popularity of double eyelid surgery, a procedure that reshapes the skin around the eye to create a perfect crease. The surgery costs a mere 2300 RMB (about 340 u.S. dollars), well within reach of China’s burgeoning middle class. Recent technological advances have simplified the procedure to the point where the surgeon only needs to use a needle and medical thread to reshape their patient’s eyes—and self-image.

Mainstream Chinese society objects to breast implants and other “drastic” forms of beauty surgery, but eyelid surgery has established a reputation as a minor cosmetic procedure—almost like getting your ears pierced. Fei Liu, a university student, commented, “It seems like every other girl I know has gotten the surgery; it’s not a big deal.” Other patients offer a medical justification for the surgery. Another young man who asked to remain anonymous was 15 when he got double eyelid surgery: “My eyes were always too small and my eyelashes too long, and they would irritate my eyes. Getting double eyelids made sense,” he said.

While the actual number of surgeries performed annually is unknown, one Hangzhou doctor estimates the number is as high as 1.2 million in China alone. The practice is also common in Japan, Korea, and other Asian countries.

Now, it’s my turn.

I was aware from a young age that my eyelids were not perfect. Sometimes they were double, sometimes they were single, and sometimes one eyelid was double while the other was single. The slight asymmetry in my face never concerned me, but it bothered my mother, who naturally had beautiful double eyelids. Although she was vehemently against hair dye, nail polish, and all other “unnatural chemicals”, she never failed to comment on my less-than-perfect eyelids. My past visits to China were always too short to spend a day getting surgery, but this time I had no excuse.

Stepping through the mahogany doors and into the marble entryway of one of Hangzhou’s many beauty hospitals, I was met by a beaming receptionist in a pink qipao-like dress. When I told her I’d like to get double-eyelid surgery, she pulled out a sleek, silver notebook and asked for my name, age, and phone number. Sensing my hesitation, the girl smiled and assured me that the notebook was completely private. Slowly, I signed my name.

The girl escorted me to a waiting area, and pointed toward room two. Carefully decorated ceramic bowls and traditional Chinese paintings decorated the hallway. A few posters of attractive European models hung from the walls, advertising skincare products and contact lenses.

In just a matter of minutes, the doctor called me in. Dressed in the same pink dress as the other girl, she quickly examined my face, pulled the skin around my eyes in a few different directions, explained the basic procedure, and asked if I had any questions. What are the risks involved? There are none. What if I don’t like my new eyelids? Highly unlikely, but if necessary, the surgeon will redo them. What happens when I get older and my skin starts to sag? Just get the surgery again. You ask too many questions, just trust us.

Like the millions of Chinese before me, I had a decision to make. Should I conform to the Asian standards of beauty and get double eyelids? In a country where the rise of materialism has gone hand-in-hand with growth in GDP, women face increasing pressure from media and society to fit a pop-culture mold.

I finally made up my mind. Keeping the doctor’s business card in my hand, I smiled, picked up my purse, and thanked her for her time. Just before walking out the door, I tossed the card aside: Double eyelid surgery may be right for someone like Bao Bao, but I won’t be coming back.

Joanna Cornell ’12 is a Economics and East Asian Studies double major in Saybrook College. Contact her at