As a little girl she'd gaze at herself over and over in the mirror. Something was different about her face, that much Pamela Brew knew. What exactly, however, eluded her. She scoured beauty magazines and played with makeup, searching again in the mirror and trying to decipher the cosmetics secrets of the models in the pictures.
"Finally I figured it out--why I could never do the same things," recalls Brew, 36, a fourth-generation Chinese Japanese American. "Finally I pinpointed it: 'Oh, I don't have this crease across my eyes.' "
By 10, she was determined to get one. More than two decades later Brew realized her childhood dream when Dr. Ronald S. Matsunaga, a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon, gave her what only 15% of Asians are born with: double eyelids, or a crease between the brow and lashes.
"I feel I'm a lot more attractive now," says Brew, a project manger at Mattel Toys who used to handle Barbie and today labors in the Cabbage Patch.
"I don't have to second-guess where my eye shadow goes--something a Western person would take for granted. I wanted big and beautiful Caucasian eyes, like the models. Having a fold creates a world of difference."
"Westernizing" eyes has long been a popular practice throughout Asia. The standard method is Bookoochai, named after the Singaporean physician Boo Koo Chai, who developed it more than 30 years ago in the cultural wake of the American occupation of Japan and the Korean War. Stitches passed along the length of the eyelid form a scar that creates a false supratarsal fold. On this rim of the Pacific, however, doctors have been developing more refined techniques with more durable results.
During a typical operation, the surgeon makes an incision in the eyelid where the fold will go, removes fat from the lid, stretches its skin and reconfigures the muscles that lift it. It takes about an hour for each lid. The swelling, though, may take six months to completely subside.
"We can take an Asian patient and with only double eyelid surgery make her look Eurasian," says Matsunaga, who charges about $3,500 for the procedure, which constitutes nearly half of his practice.
These days, plastic surgeons such as Matsunaga and Dr. Andrew Choi in Koreatown are performing more surgeries than ever--about five a week for Matsunaga and up to seven a day for Choi during his busy season when high schools and colleges are closed. (Most of the patients who undergo the procedure are women.)
Matsunaga, who in November presented a paper describing his technique to a national seminar on the latest advances in plastic surgery, says surgeons from such unlikely places as Georgia and Tennessee have been asking about Asian eyelid surgery. And the spring 1996 issue of the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery's journal will be devoted entirely to cosmetic surgery for Asians.
Don Nakanishi, head of UCLA's Asian American Studies Center, attributes the demand for double eyelids in part to demographic changes and increasing Asian American affluence. The Asian American population, which was 1.5 million in 1970, has doubled in each subsequent decade and is projected to reach 11 million by 2000. Nakanishi also notes the effect of an immigrant predilection for Westernization and savvy marketing by surgeons.
"I've heard that in the Korean American community this surgery is a gift that parents offer their daughters when they graduate from high school or college--if you can use the word 'gift,' " Nakanishi says.
To many Asian Americans, the practice of cosmetic eye surgery sustains the dominance of a white ideal of female beauty and suggests that the world, literally, must be seen through Western eyes.
"Is the solution to all our problems to imitate and mimic the West?" asks UCLA anthropologist Kyeyoung Park.
To filmmaker Pamela Tom, a fifth-generation Chinese American from Monterey Park, the message is clear: "I'm not acceptable. Our looks are not as good as white women's looks."
Her 1990 film "Two Lies" follows a fictional teenager as she resists maternal pressure to undergo surgery and, Tom says, "confronts her self-hatred."
This scenario is familiar to Jung-Eun Sun, a UCLA senior born in South Korea who came with her family to L.A. when she was 8. In her conversations with women friends, she says, eyelid surgery is a recurrent topic--who's done it, who's thinking of doing it, whose mothers want them to do it.
"Our mothers want us to be beautiful because being beautiful is one requirement for getting married. Big eyes are supposed to make you beautiful," she says.
"I think it's really, really sad," says Sun, who's never considered cosmetic surgery despite her mother's suggestions. "I have many friends who have done it and I just feel horrible about it. . . . There's nothing wrong with wanting to be accepted into this society, so I don't feel angry toward my friends, just toward the society because it's a reflection of the many problems we're dealing with."