Lizzie Lee, star of

Mark Malijan

Eye On The Prize: A Filmmaker Explores Conflicting Desires Behind Asian Eyelid Surgery

When Jade Justad was 13 years old, she went to a makeup counter at the mall with her girlfriends. Everyone else was white; Justad has a white father and a Korean mother. The crease in her eyelid, more pronounced now that she’s 30, was less defined at the time. The woman at the counter did up all her friends first. Then she approached Justad, an apprehensive expression on her face.

“I can do this to open up your eyes,” she said finally. “And westernize them.”

“I’d never thought before that there was something wrong with my eyes,” Justad said by phone. “When I share that with other Asian women, they say: yup, that happened to me.”

Justad is fundraising on Kickstarter for her short film, Creased, about an Asian-American high school girl, Kayla, who is seriously weighing whether or not she should get double-eyelid surgery. The procedure, technically called a blepharoplasty, was the third-most popular cosmetic surgical procedure undergone by women in the United States in 2014. (The only two procedures to edge it out: rhinoplasties and facelifts.) Approximately half of people of East Asian descent have monolids; most non-Asians have double eyelids.

Here’s how it works, as Dr. Andrew Da Lio, a clinical professor and chief of plastic and reconstructive surgery at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine, explained by phone: “It’s a complicated surgery. You want to create an adhesion between the skin where the double eyelid is and what we call the upper-tarsus, the cartilage. Two things happen: in an Asian eyelid, there’s more fat than in the Caucasian eyelid; that fatty layer prevents a definition of the upper eyelid. There also isn’t that attachment between the skin and the upper-tarsus that creates that fold. A surgeon makes an incision in the upper eyelid, debulks fat, and sutures.”

It’s called the Flowers Technique, after the white surgeon who perfected it: Dr. Robert Flowers, who moved to Hawaii from Alabama in 1960 as a military surgeon and, because of Hawaii’s population, attracted a significant number of Asian patients on whom he performed his signature surgery.

The surgery itself “is not risky at all,” said Di Lao, who emphasized that the notion that “double eyelids in Asians are done to westernize the eye” is “a common fallacy.” Double eyelids are common, and “even in the Asian population, a double eyelid is considered more attractive than a single eyelid.”

Arguably the most famous woman to undergo and openly discuss double-eyelid surgery is Julie Chen, a CBS anchor and host on The Talk. On a 2013 episode of The Talk, she described how a former boss — in 1995, when Chen was a reporter at WDTN-TV in Daytona — told her that her anchorwoman dreams would never be realized because of her eyes. The then-25-year-old Chen revealed that the news director told her, “You will never be on this anchor desk, because you’re Chinese… Because of your Asian eyes, [when] you’re interviewing someone, you look disinterested and bored because your eyes are so heavy, they are so small.'”

Later on, a “big-time agent” told her, point-blank: “I cannot represent you unless you get plastic surgery to make your eyes look bigger.”

“Now it’s like, I sometimes wonder,” Chen said. “But I will say, after I had that done, everything kind of, the ball did roll for me.”

“It was upsetting to hear,” Justad said. “I’m really glad she shared her story, first of all. To hear her say that she was flat-out told that this feature that you have that is distinctly Asian is not palatable, it needs to be changed if you want to be accepted by mainstream audiences. You need to homogenize.”

Then Chen’s cohosts, none of whom were Asian-American, reacted to a before-and-after photo by confirming Chen’s insecurities. “The general response was, ‘Wow, you do look better! You look a little more awake, more engaged.'”

“It seemed like she still felt a little conflicted about it,” Justad said. “And it was being affirmed for her once again that she made the right choice to change this distinctly Asian feature of hers. And it kind of breaks my heart. I think about other girls watching that show, and what the message is that they’re getting.”

Justad wouldn’t reveal if Kayla decides, in the film, to go through with the surgery or not. And in real life, “I am conflicted, because I don’t have any judgment for anyone who decides to have the surgery done. It’s controversial surgery for Asian-Americans because, on one hand, some believe that it is an attempt to look white. On the other hand, you’ll have Asian-Americans who say, ‘No, I’m trying to look like other Asians. Why would you say I’m trying to look white?’ 50 percent of Asians don’t have monolids… So I think everyone is right and everyone is wrong.”

In Creased, Justad follows one 18-year-old girl “because it’s a very delicate time. You’re very image-based. She’s about to go to college, she’s about to reinvent herself, and this is something that’s been bothering her. She’s been teased. What I try to do in this script is present a lot of different sides. I kind of offer it up to the audience to make their own decision. Because I’m not interested in placing blame; I’m more interested in the reasons surrounding whether or not to go through the surgery.”

“What I want the audience to take away is the enormous pressure that this girl feels, both externally and internally, and how alone she feels in it,” Justad said.

Justad’s short film zeroes in on a particular life experience: that of an Asian-American high school girl living in a mostly white suburb, where “she’s surrounded by images of beauty that do not reflect her own face,” she said. “I’m looking at the surgery, but the wider issue I’m looking at is: what happens if you’re seeing all these images and subtle hints and suggestions that white beauty is king? At what point does a young girl decide that her life would be better if she were white? So I’m looking at, what happens when a young Asian girl wishes she were white? Which I think is a very difficult and shameful thing to talk about.”

Like Kayla, Justad grew up in a predominately white community. She does not have monolids, but her mother does, “So for me, it’s a very natural, beautiful thing.” She graduated from Boston University with a BFA in acting, but once she began looking for work, “I started realizing that I couldn’t go out for a lot of roles because of my race. I started thinking, okay, if I were white, I could try out for these roles, and I can’t. That’s just shocking to think about. And the feelings start to creep into your consciousness. I started feeling like, I would be prettier if I were white. And that was really shameful for me to think about. I didn’t want to talk about it. Because I have a lot of pride in being Asian-American. But that’s the cost of being completely assimilated into a culture where I simply see myself as an American girl, but I’m a woman of Asian descent. I start getting these messages that I’m still a bit of an outsider. And what 18-year-old wants to be an outsider? It’s a shameful thing to say you wish you were a different race.”

Justad decided to move behind the camera, where she could “address issues head-on [and] start to enjoy control in my own life. I wanted to choose the story. And as I get older and I think about one day having my own children, I want to be able to present them with more positive images. These are issues we should discuss openly and very, very compassionately. It’s a very sensitive issue that brings up a lot of emotions very quickly.”

Lee and Justad.

Lee and Justad.

CREDIT: Mark Malijan

“I think the reality is that we are a very aesthetic-oriented culture, and becoming increasingly so,” said Dr. Da Lio. “The internet has connected the world, so everyone knows what the standards of beauty are,” no matter where they live. “Asian people with single eyelids are hit at it from two aspects: their own culture has very attractive people with double eyelids, and the effect of media, which focuses primarily on the ‘western look.’ The western occidental look carries a high factor in terms of appeal, in trying to look a certain way.”

“The reality is, most people do have double eyelids, and most people do read western occidental fashion magazines,” he said. “And they want to look, not completely westernized, but a little more westernized.”

He added that “most surgeons would find it a red flag [if a patient came in and said], ‘I want to look Caucasian.’ That would be alarming to hear. But it’s not a concern to say, ‘I want my eyes to look a little more open.’ I think that’s completely acceptable, and within the realm of normal in Asian culture. And I don’t think double eyelid means occidental eye. It’s a little more occidental than a single eye, but it’s still Asian.”

How did this conventionally western standard of beauty get to Asia in the first place? Take the case of South Korea, which has been estimated to have the highest rate of plastic surgery per capita on the face of the Earth. After the Korean War, American occupational forces offered up free reconstructive surgery to disfigured victims of war. As Patricia Marx wrote in The New Yorker, “Particular credit or blame—you choose—goes to David Ralph Millard, the chief plastic surgeon for the U.S. Marine Corps, who, in response to requests from Korean citizens wishing to change their Asian eyes to Occidental ones, perfected the blepharoplasty. As Millard wrote in a 1955 monograph, the Asian eye’s ‘absence of the palpebral fold produces a passive expression which seems to epitomize the stoical and unemotional manner of the Oriental.’ The procedure was a hit, and caught on fast, especially with Korean prostitutes, who wanted to attract American G.I.s. ‘It was indeed a plastic surgeon’s paradise,’ Millard wrote.”

It makes sense, then, that Justad’s research indicated the hunger for this surgery is more common among Korean-Americans than in other Asian-American communities. An Asian-American studies professor at the University of Washington, who is Chinese-American, told Justad that “Chinese feel that our culture is big enough to stand up to western culture, and we don’t feel the pressure to conform.” Justad also interviewed a young Vietnamese-American woman who grew up in an all-white suburb — she and the only other Asian girl in her class were given the very creative label of “The Asians” — who debated getting double-eyelid surgery. Though she eventually decided not to go through with it, she told her Chinese-American boyfriend about the procedure; he attended a largely Asian-American school, and he’d never even heard of the surgery.

“It really solidified for me that if you are isolated from your ethnic community, you are more susceptible to feeling like you are inadequate based on your ethnicity,” said Justad, though she thinks that social media and the prevalence of Asian-American culture online — the YouTube stars, the monolid makeup tutorials, and so on — is helping a younger generation of Asian-American girls feel connected. “Otherwise, girls with monolids are left to their own devices.”

Justad sees parallels between double-eyelid surgery and the procedures other non-white women undertake. She was already working on the script for Creased when she watched Chris Rock’s 2009 documentary, Good Hair, which explores how African-American women perceive and style their hair and the multi-billion dollar industry that enables and encourages black women to go to great lengths to alter their natural hair texture.

“As an ethnic minority, [we’re both] taking what we’re told in different ways that the features we have that are very distinctly our own need to be brought more to the center. That we need to be, in a way, whitened,” Justad said. “I’ve heard the same stories of Jewish girls and nose jobs. I do see a common thread, which is: you need to homogenize. And these are features that get made fun of. If an Asian kid gets made fun of in elementary school, it was probably because of their eyes. So that becomes a feature that becomes fixated on.”

As with all things beauty-related, “women feel more direct pressure,” she said. “This pressure they feel, at this crossroads of race and mainstream beauty standards, that puts girls in a particularly tough position.”

Casting proved to be a challenge: “It was hard to find an actress with monolids,” said Justad. She went to L.A. to expand the search but ultimately found her star, the 18-year-old Lizzie Lee, in Seattle. Before her audition, Lee volunteered that she’d considered having double-eyelid surgery, and that someone had suggested to her that it “might be a good option” before she’d ever contemplated it herself. Justad said Lee doesn’t plan on pursuing a career in acting “in part because she doesn’t think there will be many opportunities for her as an Asian-American actress.”

Even girls who didn’t get cast, Justad said, reached out to her after the audition to thank her for making the movie. “They’d never seen a casting announcement asking for monolids.”

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