Eyes wide open (Sydney Morning Herald)
10 May 2013. What's behind the trend for Asian people to have their faces "Westernised", wonders Benjamin Law.
(The eyes have it … Esther Kim after having her eyelids creased and lifted. Photo: James Horan)
What's behind the trend for Asian people to have their faces "Westernised", wonders Benjamin Law.
If Sydney-based cosmetic surgeon Dr Peter Kim were to rearrange my face, he would change only a few things. After examining me for less than 10 seconds, he says: "Eyes, nose and cheeks."
This is what I like about Dr Kim. He gets straight to the point. "First of all, the eyes," he says. "You have a double eyelid on one side. On the other side, you don't."
I'd been expecting this. My family has joked about my asymmetrical eyelids for years. It's something I've convinced myself is a lovable quirk of my face that means I can give that David-Tennant-as-Doctor-Who quizzical look without much effort. But maybe I've just been romanticising it. Really, my face is just lopsided.
(Original look … Esther Kim prior to having cosmetic surgery.)
Dr Kim puts a hand mirror in my palm. He wants to show me something
"Close your eyes," he says.
He places the tip of a long, needle-thin metal wand at a point above my right eyelid and holds it there.
(Mirror, mirror … cosmetic surgeon Dr Peter Kim. Photo: James Horan)
"Open your eyes," he says. When I open them, Dr Kim keeps the wand in place, then painlessly drags it across the length of my eyelid, like drawing a line in sand. Magically, my right eyelid now has a double fold and looks exactly the same as the left. "You'll look a lot more in harmony, by doing that," Dr Kim says. "Something like that will suit you well."
I blink and the new eyelid disappears.
"Second thing," he says, "is the nose. Your nose looks very short."
Brutal but true. I've got one of those classically flatter Chinese noses, the kind that makes it hard for me to wear sunglasses. Most just slide right off my face.
"What you want is for your nose to start there," Dr Kim says, touching the space between my eyes. "You've got to fill all this area with filler and your nose will look dramatically better."
"Uh-huh," I say, rubbing my nose self-consciously. "And what's the third thing?"
"The cheeks," he says. "Your whole face looks very flat. Plumping it up here will make your face more three-dimensional."
He shows me where on my cheeks he'd inject calcium-based fillers, then plays around with my profile in Photoshop. What I'm presented with is a subtly improved but immediately more handsome version of myself with a higher, straighter nose. The man makes a convincing case.
I've come to see Dr Kim because he's one of the few cosmetic surgeons in Australia who specialises in Asian clients, a niche but increasingly lucrative demographic in the local industry.
On average, Dr Kim performs around four procedures a day. Demand for his services - eyelids, nose jobs, facelifts, antiwrinkle injections, filler injections, breast implants, liposuction - has only grown since he opened his Chatswood clinic in 2008, and brochures at the entrance advertise some of the more popular procedures, such as Laser Skin Whitening Program ("Skin Miracle in 8 weeks") and Non-Surgical Nose Enhancement ("10 Minute Nose Job"). However, the most popular procedure among young Asian women is blepharoplasty, where a double fold is created on the upper eyelid.
On an instinctive level, I feel uneasy by the types of surgery offered. Whiten your skin! Elongate your nose! Enlarge your eyes! Isn't all of this just designed to make Asian people look ... well, white?
Dr Kim looks unimpressed by my question, then shows me two composite photos: one of an Asian man, the other of an Asian woman. Both are Photoshopped composites of the top 20 or 30 most popular entertainers and pop stars in South Korea right now. "This is what Koreans perceive to be a beautiful woman and this is an attractive man," he says.
Neither looks anything close to Caucasian. "It's going to be different in Taiwan; it's going to be different in mainland China," Dr Kim adds. "When you see a patient coming in here, believe it or not, most of them will bring in this type of photo."
Dr Kim's subtext is clear: no one comes here because they want to be white. Still, part of me isn't convinced.
I'm seeing Dr Kim for hypothetical advice, but 27-year-old Esther Kim is actually going ahead with double eyelid surgery. Today will be the first time she's had surgery of any kind, so she has brought her mother, Oksoon Moon, for moral support. On a scale of zero to 10, how nervous is she?
"Ten," she says, without hesitation.
Why is she doing it then? Esther explains that if she's honest, it's more her mother's priority than hers. "My mum, from when I was young, always told me that eye surgery was part of her dream." Both her mother and uncle have told Esther since she was a young girl that she could benefit from bigger eyes. Most of her female friends in Korea have had the procedure. Some of Esther's Korean-Australian friends are excited by the prospect of Esther's surgery, while a handful are worried. Some have even accused Esther of trying to look white, something she denies to them and me ("Of course not!").
For her part, Esther's mother looks quietly thrilled. Oksoon had her double eyelids done in Korea when she was in her early 30s, having always been unhappy with her single eyelids, which are typically considered common-looking and less attractive in Korea.
Oksoon explains that her husband - Esther's father - was blessed with big eyes and double eyelids from birth. Unfortunately for Esther, she inherited Oksoon's eyes. "My son," Oksoon adds, conspiratorially, "the same."
Oksoon comically pulls her eyes apart with her index fingers, making the international gesture for Ching-Chong Chinaman. (Yes, Asian people do this among themselves, too.) Mother and daughter laugh merrily at this terrible genetic ocular misfortune that has befallen them all.
"They keep suggesting, so I thought I might try," Esther says.
Dr Kim hands Esther a mirror and uses the metal wand on her eyes, pinpointing the ideal place for her new double eyelids.
"I don't try to create the double fold for her," he says. "What I do is try to find the most natural double fold in each patient. For her, the most natural double fold is ..."
Dr Kim runs the wand along Esther's eyelid.
Esther looks in the mirror, stares at her new eyelids and blinks. Then it's gone. She looks stunned, like she's seen an apparition.
"Have you seen yourself like that before?" I ask.
"First time," she says.
"What do you think?"
A long pause. Esther turns to me unblinking.
"I don't know," she whispers.
Dr Kim does it a few more times. Soon, Esther is admiring her future eyelids from different angles. "Not bad," she murmurs, smiling.
"If you said, 'I want it bigger', we could make it bigger," Dr Kim says. He gets Esther to close and open her eyes again. This time, he creates a far higher crease in her eyelid.
"This is what you'd look like with a Caucasian eyelid," he says.
"Argh!" Esther mock-screams. She turns to us with her strange new eyes and we laugh with her. She doesn't look Asian any more, but she doesn't look Caucasian, either. She looks ... extraterrestrial. Esther definitely doesn't want this effect. I can't imagine anyone would.
After Dr Kim maps and marks up Esther's eyes with permanent marker, a nurse comes in and rubs a handheld electrical device all over Esther's face that buzzes like an electric razor. Actual smoke comes off Esther's skin, like she is being slowly roasted. The nurse explains to me that this prevents infection. I nod, hypnotised by how Esther's face appears to be on fire.
Later, Dr Kim will tell me about the risks of this kind of surgery. "The risk of asymmetry is the biggest one," he says. "That's about a 3 per cent risk. For nose surgery, it depends on what type of surgery they're having. When raising the bridge of the nose, complication is 2 to 3 per cent." More complicated surgeries - like raising the bridge and making the tip smaller - bring a higher risk, with 5 to 6 per cent of patients needing a second corrective procedure. There can be crooked noses because implants can move. But Dr Kim says Esther's eyelid procedure is relatively low-risk, and in any case, his method is reversible.
"Okay, ready to start, Esther?" Dr Kim says.
"Yeah," she says, barely audible. "Okay."
And with that, Esther is taken to Dr Kim's operating theatre.
Using surgery to lessen distinguishing racial features is nothing new. "In the late 1800s, cosmetic surgery was primarily about making people white," says Laurie Essig, author of American Plastic: Boob Jobs, Credit Cards, and the Quest for Perfection. Essig says that when cosmetic surgery first became a commercial enterprise in the US, the demand was strongest among people and communities who weren't considered "fully white" in some way, such as Jewish people.
"With Jewish men, it was their ears," says Essig. "Detached earlobes were considered a sign of 'racial degeneracy' and imagined as indicating an 'African nature'. "
Even now, Essig adds, when you hear American cosmetic surgeons talking about a "natural look" or what sort of nose jobs are "good", they're usually talking about the same kind of aesthetic. "Northern European, upper-middle class," Essig says. "Very recognisably 'the white standard'. The Disney princess standard."
David Castle, professor of psychiatry at the University of Melbourne, has treated a few Asian-Australian patients over the years who have told him that they wanted to look "less Asian". He adds that it's less common nowadays, but some of his research - comparing attitudes between female university students in Asia and their equivalents in Australia - has suggested that anxieties over self-image can be amplified by culture. "Asians [living] in Asia had lower rates of concern generally," he says. "[Anglo] Australians had moderate levels of concern. Asians who moved to Australia to study? Their concern went up."
Dr Rhian Parker, a health sociologist at Australian National University, has done similar research looking at women in Australia from Middle Eastern and Jewish backgrounds, whose cosmetic anxieties focus mostly on the size and shape of their nose. Part of the problem, Parker argues, is that the women are minorities in a country where the dominant face is Anglo-Saxon. Constantly faced with an image of white beauty, these women often seek rhinoplasty. Asian women in Australia getting eyelid surgery is an extension of that, she says.
"It's [about] trying to meld into society. Looking less Asian is the goal. Fitting in is the goal. If they were still in an Asian society, they would be comparing themselves to their peers, rather than a different cultural body."
That might not be the entire story though. Esther grew up in South Korea and says she was always self-conscious about her eyes, long before she moved here. Of course, you'd also have to factor in Esther's mother's fondness for teasing tiny-eyed Asians, but Esther says she didn't instantly become self-conscious about her eyes when she arrived in Australia.
"Doesn't everyone in Korea have the same eyes, though?" I ask naively.
Esther shakes her head. Surgeons later tell me that 20 to 30 per cent of Korean people have naturally occurring double eyelids like Esther's dad, while everyone else has single eyelids like Esther, her mum and her brother. "When I visit Korea, all of my friends - their issues are about the face. They almost feel like eye surgery is not even surgery," she says. "It's more like make-up."
South Korea is now considered the world capital of cosmetic surgery, said to have overtaken Brazil in the number of procedures per capita. Eyelid surgery is a relatively common graduation present. Demand for double jaw surgery - where both upper and lower jaws are cut and adjusted to achieve the perfect V-line - is huge.
Dr Andrew Kim is another Sydney-based Korean cosmetic surgeon – no relation to Dr Peter Kim. ("People get mixed up with him and me, but I mainly do eyes, nose and hair.") Both are less qualified than plastic surgeons with specialist training. According to Dr Steve Merten, spokesperson for the Australian Society of Plastic Surgeons, any qualified doctor is allowed to perform surgery. "The cosmetic market is very lucrative so there are lots of doctors who do cosmetic surgery. And there's nothing to stop them."
"I'm doing just mainly cosmetic surgery," says Dr Andrew Kim. "I don't have plastic surgery training." He can reel off the names and produce photos of all his happy clients. One of them is Jack Bahng, a 44-year-old from Korea, who now lives in Sydney and works as a swimming club director and swim coach. Deviated cartilage in Jack's nose meant he couldn't breathe out of one nostril properly. He figured that if he was going to get his nostril fixed, he may as well go further and get cosmetic rhinoplasty, creating a higher bridge and more definition. He found Dr Andrew Kim through recommendations from the local Korean community, and after his wife got her eyelids done.
"I am so happy with my nose," Bahng tells me. "People think I look softer now. My nose was deviated [with a hump] and long. My wife thinks I have a better personality now. I think that's because I could only breathe through one nose so [before this] I was very irritable." All up, it cost around $10,000.
Another of Dr Andrew Kim's patients, Janey (not her real name), is now in her 13th day of recovery after getting a nose job. She has a European father and Asian mother (now deceased). Dr Kim warned her that increasing the bridge of her nose would make her look a little bit less Asian. "When he said that, it didn't really bother me," Janey says. Having been brought up in Australia with no Asian friends, Janey says she doesn't feel "all that Asian" anyway. Rhinoplasty wasn't so much about shedding her Asian heritage, but "now I'm looking more how I feel. [And] I probably feel more Caucasian than Asian."
"No one really comes in and says, 'I'd like to look like white people', " Dr Andrew Kim adds. "Not many."
He adds that he tends to avoid treating these patients. Part of it is because he suspects they have body dysmorphic disorder, a mental illness that manifests as debilitating concern and preoccupation over perceived "defects" in their physical appearance. His colleague, Dr Peter Kim, says the main reason he avoids such surgery is because he understands other people will think the patient looks weird. Years ago, he actually gave a woman very high Caucasian-style eyelids, something he wouldn't do now.
"The surgery went well and the patient was very happy," he says. "But every time they go out with their Asian friends, they all say, 'Oh, your eyes don't look Asian!' They get really stressed about that. Although that's what you want to look like, society, for some reason, doesn't want you to look like that."
To my ears, this seems to imply a disturbing question: if people want to change their racial appearance, what's so wrong with that anyway?
Back in Dr Peter Kim's surgery, Esther lies flat and her heart rate gently beeps away on the monitor. She's wearing a white robe, a baby-blue surgical cap and is covered in a green blanket the colour of boiled cabbage. She looks asleep to me at first, but then I realise she's conscious and can hear Dr Kim.
"How are we, Esther?" Dr Kim says. "Any pain?"
Esther sounds drowsy and vaguely drunk.
"Not yet," she says quietly.
Not yet - as if pain is inevitable.
Korean pop ballads start streaming out of someone's smartphone and then they get down to business. Dr Kim matter-of-factly flips Esther's eyelid inside out, a manoeuvre so fast it's as if her eyelids have hidden hinges. It's both the most gruesome party trick imaginable and something out of a Guillermo del Toro-directed nightmare.
Holding what appears to be a hooked needle with a fishing line attached, Dr Kim pushes the needle into the back of Esther's eyelid, feeds the thread through, flips the eyelid back down, then pulls the thread tightly. The pressure he uses to poke the needle through her eyelid is similar to pushing a knitting needle through a flat rubber balloon. He keeps doing this until the thread is stitched right across one eyelid, then starts on the next. At several points during the operation, Dr Kim pinches Esther's eyelid up like a tent and runs a cotton bud firmly between the inside eyelid and the eyeball. The operation takes less than 30 minutes. I am surprised at how little blood is involved, but still feel light-headed watching it all.
"We'll sit you up in the chair now," Dr Kim says. Esther's chair is raised electronically. Her hands are tightly balled into fists and held down with velcro straps. As the nurses undo the restraints, Dr Kim hands Esther a hand mirror to look at the result. It's like that scene in Tim Burton's Batman where Jack Nicholson has become the Joker and demands to see himself.
Esther looks into the mirror and lets out an involuntary, weepy-sounding, "Oh!"
Although she now has double eyelids, they are also swollen and angry-looking, like someone has piped thick icing into them. Dr Kim gives her the medical term for what she's seeing.
"You have what we call 'sausage eye', " he says. After three days, he says, she'll be able to wear make-up. In the next fortnight or three weeks, all the swelling should have gone down. The nurses lie Esther back down again and put a ziplock bag of frozen peas over her eyes. Laughing with relief, Esther tells me that she's surprised - the entire thing was easier than going to the dentist.
As for me, Dr Kim offers several quotes. If I want to get both my eyelids done (one a double eyelid; the other simply lifted higher), that will cost $2500. Injecting filler into my nose ("done under anaesthetic, with an FDA-approved gel that lasts for six to months") will cost another $750. Or I could get permanent, surgical nose augmentation, which will range between $4000 and $8500, depending on the nose I want and whether cartilage is involved. Sculpting my cheeks with filler to make it less flat: another $1500. Maximum total bill: $12,500.
Days later, I'm still examining my face closely in the mirror, feeling vaguely depressed. Would I look better with these procedures? Undoubtedly. Do I need to have them done? I guess not. Would they make me look Caucasian? No. Slightly Eurasian? Well ... maybe. And if I'm really honest with myself, I probably wouldn't complain if that were the outcome, either.
But the goal, I tell myself, wouldn't be to look white. No, that would be weird. Ridiculous. Instead, I'd still look Asian, but sort of white-er. Or white-ish?
Alarmed by what's going through my head, I step away from the mirror, put Dr Kim's quotes and Photoshop mock-ups in the bottom of a drawer, and tell myself that my quizzical, lop-sided face has its place in the world, too. Only problem is, I'm not entirely sure where.