Monday, October 19, 2009

Eyes Wide Open: Surgery to Westernize the Eyes of an Asian Child

One of my colleagues told me about this article -- she teaches it in Bioethics. It is a horrific must-read:
The speaker was a proud father. To illustrate his comments about a piece of art that celebrated the wonders of modern medicine (and which he had just donated to a local hospital), he told a story about his adopted Asian daughter. He described her as a beautiful, happy child in whom he took much delight. Her life, he told the audience, had been improved dramatically by the miracle of modern medicine. When she joined her new Caucasian family, her eyes, like those of many people of Asian descent, lacked a fold in the upper eyelid, and that lack was problematic—in his view—because it made her eyes small and sleepy and caused them to shut completely when she smiled. A plastic surgeon himself, he knew she did not need to endure this hardship, so he arranged for her to have surgery to reshape her eyes. The procedure, he explained, was minimally invasive and maximally effective. His beautiful daughter now has big round eyes that stay open and shine even when she smiles.

* * *

[T]wo things separate this case from the run-of-the-mill medical case. First, no medical, psychological, or physical impairment triggered the need for a parental decision; the father chose the surgery based on his aesthetic preference. Second, the intervention itself permanently altered a feature that is to some people an integral aspect of identity. These points make a moral difference. Most parental decisions to treat a child medically or surgically are a response to a physical or psychological impairment, illness, or injury in the child. In those cases, some need of the child triggers the decision to intervene, and the parent is the best person to sort through the medically appropriate choices for the child. But when a parent modifies features of a child that have nothing to do with physical impairment but can be integral to identity, and bases that decision on his own needs or aesthetic preferences, he asserts physical control over the child's body in the same way that he might assert control over a piece of property that he can modify to his specifications.

* * *

The nature of the surgery makes the case especially troubling. For some people, the shape of the eye is an integral part of ethnicity, a component of identity. A change to it may, therefore, go deeper than the removal of a mole or the pinning of a child's ears. In choosing the surgery, the father took from his daughter the ability to make her own choice about her identity. His exercise of parental autonomy thus limited his daughter's potential autonomy in a critical way; it took away her right to make a decision central to her identity as an adult, a right that is, like others, central to an open future.

* * *

The fact that the father was a new adoptive parent makes his decision feel particularly egregious. Perhaps because adoption already involves an exchange, worries about ownership seem closer to the surface. As a result, the adoptive parent seems to have a stronger obligation to accept the child's individuality, especially if the adoption is cross-cultural or cross-racial.

A friend of mine tells of her mother's reaction to her adoption of a child from China -- out of the blue, her mother leans over and says in a confiding tone, "You know, you can get her eyes fixed." Her response -- "Her eyes aren't broken. There's nothing to fix." Good answer!

But this father? I don't have words strong enough to describe him. How horrific for his child. Not only has he made the choice to strip her of her identity, he's made an affirmative statement that her perfectly normal Asian features are broken, and need to be fixed. Yes, as the article notes, some Asian parents have this surgery performed on their Asian children, but the meaning is completely different when a white parent has his daughter's Asian eyes "fixed."


Dawn said...

There are no words.

Adelaide Dupont said...

As far as I've been aware, that surgery has been around for 15 years now. (Shocked me then too).

Chinese women would apply it to themselves to make their own faces more 'Western'.

But for a child ... no, no, no.

One could just as well use eye makeup. At least one can wash it off.

Anonymous said...

I can't get in without some sign-up.

Why would the father be allowed to mutilate his daughter? This what this operation on kids should be known as: mutilation. Fine for adults to make the stupid (IMO) decision, but don't foist it on the kids.

"You can get her eyes fixed"???Sorry I won't say the word again (ooops--there I go: *diversity*). Just too many stupid whitefolk living with too many stupid whitefolk 24-7. They all need to move. They all need to be slapped around. They all need . . . oh, forget it. I give up.

Heather said...

That is freaking unreal.

Anonymous said...

Seriously, Malinda--I want to read that article. Any chance you could post it?

Ann BF said...

One of the more upsetting posts I have read in a long while. Possible reportable as child abuse, seriously. Would you get a young child a nose job? Who does the homestudies on these crazies? I am hoping this was a case study made up to illustrate bioethics and not a real story. Any chance?

malinda said...

The sign-in is free -- I did it, and have only gotten the welcome email so far.

It's four screen pages long, a bit too long to post!

malinda said...

According to the author, it is a real case: "fn1.My description of the case is based on my best recollection of the doctor's remarks, but my memory of the details is spotty."

Mahmee said...

Does saying WTF?!!! or...I just threw up reading that, convey how I feel about this? What a horrifying human being. Blech. Now, I need to read your other post about cute pics. F-ing unbelieveable!!!!!!!!

Anonymous said...

Ok, I read it--I was able to get in for free. I hope she becomes the most angree adoptee ever and gives her father mountains of grief over this. Eventually.

Elizabeth said...

I heard about this article last year. I am still as nauseated now as I was then. I agree with the person who wondered how these nutcases make it through their homestudies!

Wendy said...

It makes you wonder if he is that arrogant or that clueless--most likely both.

Does anyone know how old this child was?

Sadly, I have seen this type of talk on yahoo boards in the past, not just creating a fold in the eyelid, but also changes to the lash line.

It is time a law of protection was made, just as in genital mutilation for girls. I don't see it coming soon as we are still not protecting boys from circumcision--shown in our times to be unnecessary.

I am wondering how long after adoption this was done. If shortly, how did the social worker follow up for post-placement?

triona said...

This is un-freaking-believable. Just when you think you've seen it all...!

Anonymous said...

My daughter needs additional surgery on her cleft lip to try to reduce the scarring. I can't tell you how I have danced around saying that it needs to be 'fixed', the word that seems the most natural in this situation. I did say that once, and she was very surprised - what is wrong with it? why does it need to be fixed? It really does need to be corrected, because it is pulling her lip and nose out of shape since the scar tissue can't grow as fast as the rest of her face. But I constantly have to find ways to say that it needs to be operated on without actually saying "it needs to be fixed".

redkitchen said...

OMG, that is disgusting!!! How could any father do that? That precious child was stripped of such an integral part of her identity! We're in the process of adopting a beautiful little girl from China & are hoping to travel around the first of Dec. In our original referral papers, she was described as having a beautiful smile that made her eyes "look like a line cutely." Do you know how eager I am to see that smile for myself? I can't wait to see my child, eyes and all!

a Tonggu Momma said...

I. Have. No. Words.

Anonymous said...

"Most parental decisions to treat a child medically or surgically are a response to a physical or psychological impairment, illness, or injury in the child."

This is not true. C*rcumcision is currently the single most common cosmetic surgery procedure performed on newborns in the US. Our society already gives parents the right to permanently alter their child's appearance and function without consent. I see the eye-widening procedure as being more benign, since it does not affect the child's vision.

Margie said...

Holy smokes. Literally makes me nauseous. How incredibly sad for that little girl.

Something else popped into my head when I read this that disturbs me. Although I'm sure there are cases out there in which Asian men have this surgery, or have it performed on their sons, I suspect (admittedly with absolutely no proof) that this is something that women do far more than men.

Which then means that not only did this father subject this child to his own subjective views of beauty, but he subjected her to the whole cosmetic surgery rat-race before she could even voice her own opinion.

Awful, absolutely awful. I wonder if his plan to do this came out in the homestudy.

L. said...

I came here from "American Family." My kids aren't adopted but my husband is a Japanese citizen so they are biracial.

Circumcision, because that’s what occurred to me when I read the post: Is what that doctor did really any different than what we did, when we had our first son circumcized? My husband is a Japanese citizen (uncircumcized himself), and he wanted his son’s penis to “look more American,” since he assumed he would be spending much of his childhood in America. To me, it seemed to be a meaningless snip (with topical anesthetic). But a few people over the years have actually told me that we should have lost custody for having such a barbaric, abusive practice done.

Jo said...

Why is the meaning completely different if an asian parent has their child undergo the same procedure? Making that differentiation based solely on the parent's ethnicity is racist in and of itself. You are projecting your own issues regarding ethnicity and your own value system upon this family.

Identity is not skin deep. The child's ethnic choice is not hindered in the least bit by the shape of her eyes. YOU are defining the child's identity by the shape of her eyes, not her father and certainly not me.

How is that cosmetic change of the shape of the child's eyes an "affirmative statement that her perfectly normal Asian features are broken, and need to be fixed"? You are making assumptions and purposely using inflammatory language to villainize the father. I do not approve of your writing strategy and do not appreciate being told what to think about the situation.

Anonymous said...

Jo said: "Identity is not skin deep."

Very true...our identity is what we are born with..and as adoptees, that identity is molded into what our AP's want us to be to fit into the family.

I don't care if it's the Asian parents, the adoptive parents or whatever, it wasn't their choice to make!!! It was the daughter's choice and now, that's been taken from her. Just like her identity.

My question is, why NOT villainize the father for his complete lack of regard for her feelings?

Anonymous said...

Name one good reason to alter my daughter's eyes and I'll listen to you, Jo. What is the REASON? Pinning back ears: get it. A nose job at 16 because the child wants it and is fully involved with the decision? I'd be OK with that. Plastic surgery for adults: completely their business. Fussing around with an eye shape that is aesthetically pleasing and part of one's physical heritage? Nope. Why mess with it? What's next?

Jo said...

You are projecting your own situation on this family. You are also assuming that the procedure was done with a complete lack of regard for the child's feelings. No one said that YOU should alter the shape of your daughter's eyes. Let me ask you, have you ever had school children stretch their eyes with their fingers while chanting "ching chong chop suey" at you? I certainly have. Do you think that being ostracized and berated by other elementary school kids for having slanty eyes would be a bit more damaging to the psyche than having a surgical procedure that millions (YES MILLIONS) of asian women undergo every year? I am not justifying the decision, I am merely pointing out that YOU DO NOT KNOW ALL OF THE FACTS.

I'm not making a judgement on whether or not the procedure was right or wrong. It's not my place to agree or disagree with the father's decision because I am not privy to all of the facts either. I do take exception to sensationalism and needlessly inflammatory language used to pre-emptively villainize someone. Give me the facts and let me make my own judgements.

When I read this article and your comments all I could see was the paraphrased statement "I am better than this father and will show it through my indignant words." However, this isn't about all of you, this is about her. Who are you to say that this wasn't the best decision for her?

malinda said...

LOL! Don't you think it's a little hypocritical to accuse me of using inflammatory language to villainize the father, and then call me a racist with my own hangups?!

When a white adoptive parent changes the shape of their Asian child's eyes, or when a white adoptive parent bleaches an African-American child's skin, or when a white adoptive parent insists that their light-skinned hispanic child "pass" as white, the adoptive parent is a racist. The adoptive parent is also REJECTING the child's ethnicity and/or race in a way that parents of the same race cannot because of the shared race.

You're anyone-who-notices-race-is-a-racist argument will not hold you in good stead if you are parenting a child of another race.

I am not a reporter, I am a blogger. I voice my opinions. There is no obligation that I "give you the facts and let you make up your own mind!" I suggest you go about digging out your own facts, and not order me to write to your preference.

Can you explain how UNNECESSARY plastic surgery is the best thing for a child? To help her avoid racism? Frankly, that's caving in to racism. That's seeking assimilation into the dominant culture.

If you've read anything else at this blog, you will know that my oldest daughter has been struggling with racial teasing at school, yes, the eye-pulling gesture among other things. If in response I were to give her surgery to "round" her eyes, I'd be telling her that all those teasing her are right -- her eyes are somehow something to be ashamed of, something to change. It would tell her that my love for her is conditional -- conditioned on her looking different from the way she looks now.

What that father did is unconscionable. If you don't like that opinion, so be it.

triona said...

Nicely said, Malinda.

If this girl chooses to change her eyes when she is of an age to make her own decisions, that's her business. The point is that her adoptive father took that choice away from her, and in such a way that lets her know in no uncertain terms that her Asian heritage is not acceptable. That she is not welcome in her adoptive family unless she is altered to suit their ideals. And she will know that underneath she is still Asian, and may wonder if that makes her "less-than" because obviously it's not acceptable to her adoptive family. (One wonders why they adopted an Asian child to begin with.)

Not a positive message to send, especially when girls have a hard enough time coming to terms with their identities without added baggage.

alien man?! said...

Thank you for bringing this topic to general awareness. I'm sick enough about parents in Asia pressuring their daughters to get eyelid surgery but, wow, to do this to a child in the name of "modern medicine" makes me want to puke. I've scheduled a blog entry for tomorrow morning and it will trackback to this entry. I hope you don't mind.

Anonymous said...

Attitudes like that of this adoptive dad and many others who are not plastic surgeons, have led someone like me to feel as though I need to have that surgery done to feel good about myself.

I'm a 22 year old KAD. I really thought most of the crappy aps were being weeded out now. It makes me sad to see that there are still people out there who believe it is their job to strip us of our cultural identity.

I also think what this dad did is merely a hugely visual (and extreme) representation of what a lot of IAP do to their transracial and international adoptees. There's the idea that they/we are blank slates and can be molded into any cultural identity that they want us to be. I really don't feel that's much different from keeping your child from their heritage, keeping their language from them, moving to a predominantly white area without a second though, never taking an interest in your child's culture...etc etc.

It's terrible to me how so many of us have been raped of our heritage, our culture, our IDENTITY and that it still continues today.

Anonymous said...

Malinda, ITA. This is the same argument for not allowing interracial or gay mariage because it will result in suffering from racism or homophobia. No argument. It never has been an argument. It is "caving in" as you said so well to the very thing that is at issue.

SDP said...

I think by far the worst part is that the father wasn't concerned with his daughter's feelings, he's just treating her as an object. That's a humanistic problem that precedes adoption and racial issues. And one thing is that, what if the girl grows up and feelings that her eyes are fake? Despite the troubles interracial adoptees already have with feelings of "authenticity", plastic surgery just adds another layer of needless complication.


Just as imposing surgery upon the daughter is caving into racism, not doing anything forcing the daughter to be a banner of social activism. In both cases it's using the daughter as a tool to promulgate the parents' own ideals. I'm more for the latter but I have to fess up to my own hypocrisy. I think it's a required sense of humility that necessarily comes with interracial adoption: you either live and deal with it, or you don't do it at all. Again...the problems resulting from adoption distract attention from the adoption institution itself.

I don't agree with comments that say that love triumphs all. Isn't that a myth adoptees have worked to dispell? I find it unfortunate that this opinion necessarily goes against the effort and compassion adoptive parents have, forgive me - but I don't think that all adoptive parents are 100% capable of making their children proud of themselves. Mei-Ling Hopgood talked about how she always had bangs growing up, and only let them grow out once she met her sisters, for example.

I don't agree with comments that try and speak for Asian women, saying that THEY do it to look more western. That's imposing our view of an east/west binary on a different culture. Then again, I don't really know how Asians view it. I'm just pointing out the double standard, regardless if Asian women really do want to appear more "western".

One weird example I have: I started to wonder why the hell I didn't go to Korean school when I was a child. I asked my parents this recently (because I wish I had "retained" the culture) and they say said to me, "you didn't want to go." Huh? Who knows "best" - the child, or the parent? I wish my parents had forced me to go...or by the logic of some comments here, I should, instead, be proud of who I am, or, in my case, I should be proud of who I am not? But then again I think learning a language is different than plastic surgery. Who knows, maybe it's statistically frequent that adopted Chinese girls that go to Chinese school become more confident in their looks than adopted Chinese girls that DON'T go to a school of their mother culture.

Anonymous said...

Horrible. If China had known his intentions, I would hope they would have stopped the adoption. I would also hope that if he applied to adopt another child from China, or any Asian country, his attempts would be thwarted for this reason.
Shame on him, a thousand times. We love our daughter's eyes, and all the rest of her, too.

Anonymous said...

Malinda that article was informative.

why do you say the meaning is "completely different" when a white parent does it than when an asian parent does it?

malinda said...


I think the meaning is different, though I don't think it's a good thing when Asian parents do it! I think the rejection-because-of-race implication is stronger when it is a white parent who alters his child's "Asian" eyes.

Anonymous said...

I just wanted to add a little something else to what I said earlier.

I've thought a lot about the eyelid surgery myself. I grew up with white parents who did not value my ethnicity and really did not teach me to take pride in my heritage.

I've hated my "stupid" plain eyelids and have been at odds with them since I first started to want to wear makeup and my adoptive mom acted as if we had the same kind of eyes.

I know what this dad did was wrong. I think it's despicable that society has made it seem as though we are all not good enough as we are. That we can't be beautiful the way we were born. But a part of me also would be slightly relieved if someone had helped me change the one part of myself I hate the most.

I honestly believe that this should have been HER decision, but I also don't think that it's as cut and dried as trying to make yourself look more western or assimilating into american culture.

To me, it would be about trying to reconcile to person I am to the outside world with the one on the inside who is not really asian, and not really white.

I know my viewpoint won't be popular, but I'm a KAD who has been thinking a lot about the surgery anyway lately.

Anonymous said...

If the guy was her real biological father, he would never do that. But oh, just because he's a plastic surgeon and he's donated to some hospital, and he's kind enough to want to adopt her (and kind enough to give her big eyes??)... he's an arrogant sob prick.

I'm total in shock someone would do this to a child???

Donna said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Courtney said...


missannie said...

I don't want to hear one more mention about "ethnic identity." That is utter rubbish. The way this girl looks is a result of heritage, genes she received from her biological mother and father. "Ethnicity" is nothing but a label for where a person looks like they might from nowadays. Actually, more like a freeze-frame snapshot of a century ago before globalization.

The reason what her adoptive father did bothers me is because, unlike circumcision, this is not a procedure that should be done as a baby. If the child grows up and wants to change her appearance as an adult, fine, but he took this choice away from her.

So in my opinion, the best thing for her is if he never tells her. That way she'll never wonder what she might've looked like. The face she establishes an identity with will be what she grows up seeing in the mirror.

triona said...

missannie--The only thing I can think of worse than what this man did to his adoptive daughter would be doing what you suggest and lying about it.

Because she *will* eventually find out and that knowledge will be even more devastating than the act itself. I speak from experience when I say that sort of lie is a sure-fire recipe for destroying an adoptive family.

fk said...

This is to Jo and anyone else who considers bullying to be an acceptable consideration for putting children under the knife...

Bullies do not bully because of any real reason - they bully because it makes them feel powerful. They will pick on anything that they can single out as being different to them: wearing glasses, having freckles, being short, being tall. No one is safe. If you looked 'perfect', you would probably get bullied for that! My brother got bullied at school - they called him "ching chong chinaman" even though he is caucasian; they were referring to the fact that he had lived in Hong Kong for a few years.

There is no easy solution to bullying and it can be traumatic. However, bullied or not, everybody wants to be something they are not at some time in their lives, usually based on what we have admired in other people. However, we all have to learn to live with who we are and hopefully come to love it. Often, the parts of ourselves we hate the look of as children can turn out to be our most pleasing physical characteristics when we are older. It takes time to 'grow into' our own faces and bodies. Surely we should allow that to happen before deciding to make drastic changes?

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Benny T said...

To say that someone's identity is based on how they look or what features they have is racist. A white man in South Africa can call him self just as African as a black man who lived there. A white man can move to China and cut all of his ties to this "western world". His new identity would be Chinese because it is what he chose. The features on his face did not choose for him.

As an Asian American myself, I believe my culture and identity to be American. Even though I have the features of an Asian, it is the clothes I wear, the food I eat, and the language I speak that determines my cultural identity.

To ridicule this man for wanting his newly adopted daughter to fit in with the rest of his family was a goo thing!He simply could have just not wanted her to feel left out, to feel that she didn't belong. Granted, he shouldn't have used the word "fixed".

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