My Eyelid (Is Not) My Identity

by on Monday, 31 March 2014 Comments

I have a nice colleague who once told me that she loved "Chinese eyes". I was as surprised as when I first heard from French tourists that Chinese have les yeux bridés. Whatever does that mean? Among Chinese, we think we either have double or mono eyelids, perceived to be hugely different. I was then shocked to read about the suggestion, from American and French presses, as well as from some English-monolingual writers of Asian origin who do not have much contact with Asian communities, that Asian women go through double eyelid surgery so that they can look more Westernized, or as a form of "internalized racism". That is a serious charge unknown to most Chinese people. It is not much help that the most vocal people to oppose this view tend to be connected to beauty industries. Even though statistically they know more Asian women who have gone through the procedure, their financial interest makes their opinion less credible. Since no one wants to be "spoken for" nowadays, I might as well say something about my eyelid and my identity. I will limit myself to the Chinese case whenever possible because I do not claim to know enough about all the Asian cultures.

Having double eyelids in no way makes a Chinese woman look Westernized. I have natural double eyelids and live in the "West", but no one has ever thought I bear any resemblance to a Westerner; on the other hand, I have met Vietnamese or Japanese who mistook me for one of their own. As far as I know, people have always preferred double eyelids in China, even during the decades of Mao Zedong's reign when no Western movies were allowed. Actresses in leading roles almost invariably have double eyelids, to the point that a few years ago, when a beautiful woman with single eyelids played the leading role in the film Under the Hawthorn Tree (2010), all my Chinese friends noticed the "momentous" change and wondered if mono eyelids were finally becoming fashionable. In fact, people as old as my father remember their parents also thought women with double eyelids were prettier. The pressure mainly comes from Chinese community itself. Double eyelid surgery is one of the most frequently performed procedures in China or Chinese communities elsewhere in the world. Contrary to some gruesome procedures, it is almost non-controversial. All of us know someone who has done it and people increasingly do not keep it a secret as the practice became more common. Since it is not rude among Chinese to give unsolicited advice, when a girl has mono eyelids, it is not unusual for some affectionate aunties (ayi) who are not really her aunts to tell her:

- You would be even more beautiful if you had double eyelids! It is really an easy surgery!

As someone who considers getting ear piercings (holes) too painful and settles for wearing only necklaces, I am the last one to advocate for plastic surgeries. I am glad to live now in a society where many people are or claim to be open-minded to different types of beauty, but we need to realize the challenge others face in their own cultural environment. It is easy to take the moral high ground and judge Chinese women who go through double eyelid surgery, but I can put myself in their place, because they can be my friends, my sisters and my daughters, and I know that my eyelid is not my identity.

Since my mother has double eyelids and my father single eyelids, it was through pure luck that I inherited the culturally more desirable feature. My younger sister, however, was born with monolids. Strangely, when she just woke up her eyelids would look double for a while, or when she rubbed her eyes, which she did more often than our parents liked. Maybe she had a hidden or very shallow crease. Then in her twenties, her eyelids became double even when she was not rubbing them or waking up. I noticed the change during a visit:

- Oh, they just became like this little by little! She said as if it were nothing.

Who would have believed that? But I did, and for many years. Then it dawned on me she might have done what many other women did.

- How...How did your eyelids become double? I tried to sound as casual as possible over the phone.
- I just got a surgery! It was so wonderful! She giggled like a little girl.

She already had a job, and an adoring husband. But so many women she knew were getting them, with stunning results. She chose the simple technique of "stitching threads", which leaves no scar, and with quick recovery time.

- Did it hurt?
- Not at all! And it took less time than a haircut!
- What...what did brother-in-law think?
- He was thrilled. I surprised him. He saw my double eyelids when he was walking upstairs, and liked them right away. Oh, it was the happiest day in my life!

It was the same old happiness, perhaps, as when Cinderella somehow got her party outfit. It did not occur to me to ask her if she internalized Western beauty standard, or if she betrayed our father's heritage. I knew the answer was no, and no.

The first time when I came upon an Asian woman (I could not tell her exact ethnicity) with single eyelids on a magazine cover either in France or in the U.S., I experienced a moment when "one hundred feelings mixed up simultaneously" (baigan jiaoji). Seeing a woman who would have had a hard time in a school dance in China look confident in her attractiveness revealed to me that perhaps in this world beauty might be somewhat relative and culturally constructed. It reminded me that it was beneficial to expand the range of our beauty tastes for the sake of our own and other people's pleasures. The realization made me feel bad for all the Chinese women with single eyelids who did not have the luck of being discovered and appreciated by Western lenses. But I also wondered if it could reflect a subtle form of orientalism: that is how Westerners think Asian women typically look.

Sometimes our poor eyes can only perceive what our heart or mind want them to see. A longtime Chinese diplomat and Francophile, who had spent years in France, wrote a book in Chinese about his wonderful impressions living in the Hexagon (Impressions in France, Falanxi yinxiang): one of his greatest pleasures while traveling there was to ask directions to "slim and graceful blond women with blue eyes". You wonder how long he normally would need to wait. I know that French women don't get fat (that is the title of a popular book in the U.S.), but it is safe to think that his pleasure would have been reduced at least by half if it had depended on talking with blond women with blue eyes (jinfa biyan, the Chinese stereotype of Westerners) in France, because he would have had at least equal chance of running into women with different eye or hair colors. Believing that single eyelids constitute a distinctive feature of Chinese women is not much different from thinking that French women typically have blond hair and blue eyes: what about the other (roughly) half?

Once single eyelids were made the distinctive mark of Chinese women despite the fact that a significant proportion of them naturally have double eyelids, any attempts to modify them through make-up or surgery can be viewed as an identity issue. We can observe an obvious double standard: when a brunette dyes her hair blond, a blond dyes her hair red or black, a curly woman straightens her hair, fair-skinned people sunbath or use tanning beds risking cancer to obtain darker skin, those widespread practices are not perceived to involve their identity even though they alter their natural look. Sometimes well-meaning people interpret too much through racial lenses. Instead of going as far as those who accused them of psychological projection or cultural imperialism, I would rather think they simply overlooked some important facts. My late foot-bound grandmother, who had never seen a single Westerner in her entire life, told me that "whiteness of skin covers a hundred flaws", which happened to be a common saying in China. In case you still think she was somehow influenced by Western standard, an influential poem from the Book of Poetry, written several hundred years B.C., describes a great beauty as having skin as white as "frozen fat". I do not know why my ancestors of the time preferred fair skin, but it was probably not due to internalized racism.

It is not my intention here to discuss the pros and cons of plastic surgeries, or its place in the continuum of things we do to embellish our appearance based on beauty standards du jour. Employment discrimination based on irrelevant and ridiculous criteria such as eyelids should be illegal, but then in a market economy, if enough kings/customers in certain places make their business decisions according to the perceived beauty of the vendors, it will be difficult to enforce such a ban. At the very least, when a Chinese woman decides to get double eyelid surgery, please do not assume that she is having an identity crisis or she is denying her cultural heritage. She most likely just wants to look as beautiful as her own mother or supposedly luckier "sisters" who constitute her reference group. The tapestry of our identity cannot be reduced to the shape of our eyelids, or whatever we do with them.

 

Drawing by Bendu

Jin Lu (魯進)

Born in Sichuan, China, I have studied French literature in Beijing, Boston, and Paris. I am currently a professor of French at Purdue University Calumet, USA. Joséphine Baker has two loves; I have three, or perhaps more? If you do not want to tear yourself apart, you need at least three things, and that gives you balance. I enjoy dreaming, reading and writing, among others.

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