Growing up as Chinese-Americans in the predominately white Bay Area of the '90s, Jenny and Willa Jin knew their eyelids were different. "If only you had double eyelids, it would make your eyes look bigger and you'd look better," Willa, now 21, recalls hearing her parents and family members remark.
Double-eyelid surgery, or blepharoplasty, was an oft-discussed subject in the Jin household. Both sisters were born with monolids — an eye shape characterized by a lack of crease. When Jenny, who is now 28, was 18, their mother offered to pay for double-eyelid surgery. "I definitely didn't feel like she was pressuring me," says Jenny. "It was more giving me the option and letting me know it would be okay if I wanted to."
So, in the summer of 2006, a few months before Jenny started her freshman year of college, she flew to China, where the procedure is less expensive. (Willa, then 11, came along for moral support.) The two sisters, who once had nearly identical eyes, are now set apart by a subtle piece of skin. Yet Willa, who has often been asked if she wants to get the surgery, too, has never taken the leap. Willa and Jenny's story highlights the gray area of family, physical alteration, and cultural pressure.
According to the sisters, double-eyelid surgery is fully accepted in Asia. "There's less stigma around plastic surgery and almost none around double-eyelid surgery," says Willa. "It was encouraged by my Chinese mother and grandmother." Things may be shifting in the the U.S., too: According to a study conducted by the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, blepharoplasty is the second most popular plastic surgery procedure following rhinoplasty (nose surgery) in this country.
Jenny's blepharoplasty lasted no more than an hour and only local anesthesia was used. "It was really freaky," she recalls. "Imagine being fully conscious and having your eye region numbed, but being fully aware that surgeons were essentially sewing up your eyelids." She went home that same day, swollen lids and all. "It looked like someone punched both of my eyes," she says. After a week of healing, her stitches were removed and her new double lids were revealed. "I was super excited! I could do so much more with my makeup," she recalls. "I still felt like I looked the same, just with a subtle alteration."
Although monolids are most commonly associated with those of Asian descent, the trait is seen on European and African faces, too. Many critics view double-eyelid surgery as a desire to conform to Western beauty ideals. "I don't think my mindset was that I wanted to look less Asian or more white," Jenny says. "It was more that I thought double eyelids would enhance my face."
Still, it's hard to ignore the cultural aspect. Like natural hair, stereotypically Asian features, like monolids, aren't considered conventionally beautiful by today's standards, says Willa: "It plays into the Western dominance over the rest of the world, not just in beauty standards but in other ways, too. No matter what, even subconsciously, it's still an influence."
An awareness of sociocultural pressures have not insulated Willa against them. "I have felt a certain level of shame in my life. Everyone around me was telling me I needed to look a certain way to be beautiful," she says. In high school, when she was first beginning to dip her toes into the makeup world, she was frustrated by the number of YouTube tutorials that catered to double eyelids. "I always felt like I wasn't the norm," she says. Today, age and wisdom have informed her decision to abstain from the surgery. "Over the past couple of years, I've become a lot more comfortable with myself," she says. "I was born this way, so why should I try to change it?"
For her part, Jenny never regrets her own decision to go under the knife. "I had something done to positively enhance my features and it's made me more confident," she says. She makes the distinction, though, that surgery is not a panacea for low self-worth. "For people who feel like there's something wrong with them, plastic surgery is not going to completely solve your problems," she says. "It's more beneficial to people who are already comfortable with themselves, but just want that extra boost."
The question remains: How does Willa feel staring into her own sister's double-lidded eyes from her own unaltered monolids? "At this point, I can't remember what Jenny looked like before. I was young, I just accepted it." At the end of the day, she continues, "It's a personal choice. If getting double-eyelid surgery makes someone feel more confident, I don't feel like there's anything wrong with that. Who am I to shame someone else for doing something for themselves?"
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