DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.

"They want to look white"

Why double eyelid surgery is such a widely debated phenomenon


In my survey of students, an overwhelming number responded that they believe people choose double eyelid surgery in order to “look more white” or “assimilate to western standards of beauty”.

In the study, “Medicalization of Racial Features: Asian American Women and Cosmetic Surgery,” anthropologist Eugenia Kaw addresses just why a “western” look might be so important or so widely sought. Through interviews with 11 Asian American women and five surgeons, Kaw is able to find common themes in language and associations regarding single eyelids as they relate to race.

[The women] all stated that an eyelid without a crease and a nose that does not project indicate a certain ‘sleepiness,’ ‘dullness,’ and ‘passivity’ in a person's character. ‘Nellee,’ a 21-year-old Chinese American, said she seriously considered surgery for double eyelids in high school so that she could ‘avoid the stereotype of the 'Oriental book-worm' ‘ who is ‘dull and doesn't know how to have fun.’
(Kaw, 79)

Though the group of interviewees stated that they were proud to be Asian American, denying that they wanted to “look white,” their responses here reveal that physical traits considered characteristic of their race have been associated with broader undesirable qualities. (Kaw, 79)


Kaw cites that the model minority stereotype promotes concepts of “dullness, passivity and stoicism” in reference to people who are “hard-working and technically skilled but desperately lacking in creativity and sociability.” (80) These racial stereotypes are then internalized and the facial features associated with these traits are felt to be “defiling.”

For the women in my study, the decision to undergo cosmetic surgery was never purely or mainly for aesthetic purposes, but almost always for improving their social status as women who are racial minorities. (Kaw, 78)

Kaw analyzes the words of the physicians she interviews, finding that they use a vocabulary that places Asian characteristics in an undesirable position.

[The doctors’] descriptions of Asian features verged on ideological racism, as clearly seen in the following quote from "Dr. Smith."

“The social reasons [for Asian Americans to want double eyelids and nose bridges] are undoubtedly continued exposure to Western culture and the realization that the upper eyelid without a fold tends to give a sleepy appearance, and therefore a more dull look to the patient. Likewise, the flat nasal bridge and lack of nasal projection can signify weakness in one’s personality and by lack of extension, a lack of force in one’s character.” [Emphasis added]

By using words like "without," "lack of," "flat," "dull," and "sleepy" in his description of Asian features, Dr. Smith perpetuates the notion that Asian features are inadequate.
(Kaw, 81)

Medical texts, too, have been notorious for attributing negative behavioral or intellectual characteristics with Asian physical traits, and though those published since 1970 have been more careful about making such associations, there is still a tendency to “describe Asian features with metaphors of inadequacy or excess.” (Kaw, 82)

Kaw concludes that the cosmetic surgery Asian American women undergo (most commonly double eyelid surgery and heightening of nosebridges) is heavily shaped by gender and racial ideologies. Whether or not the women are aware, they exist in an environment that validates the investment of money and time in surgery, despite the inherent risks associated with the procedures.

“Undergoing cosmetic surgery…becomes a means by which the women can attempt to permanently acquire not only a feminine look considered more attractive by society, but also a certain set of racial features considered more prestigious. For them, the daily task of beautification entails creating the illusion of features they, as members of a racial minority, do not have.” (Kaw, 80)

Kaw, Eugenia. “Medicalization of Racial Features: Asian American Women and Cosmetic Surgery” Medical Anthropology Quarterly, New Series, Vol. 7, No. 1, (Mar., 1993), pp. 74-89.


DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.