Turning Brown Eyes Blue: Why the Idea Feels Off-Color

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A California company is touting a new laser procedure that purports to turn brown eyes blue. Even though the technology won’t be available in the U.S. for at least three years, the story is still causing a stir. For many, the idea of permanently re-draping the windows to the soul is awfully unsettling.

This is partly due to the notion, reiterated by scientists and sentimentalists alike, that our eyes help make us who we are. Eye color is one of those (supposedly) inevitable, immutable features that teachers use in lessons about Punnett squares and genetics: “Do you have a widow’s peak? Are your earlobes hanging free from the side of your head? Do you have brown eyes or blue?”

Having blue eyes, being less common, inevitably leads some students to puff out their chests with pride. But all eye colors are just inherited from parents and can be explained through intersections of dominant and recessive genes. Darker eyes simply contain more melanin, the same biological pigment that makes skin darker and is missing in albinos.

Still, scientists have latched onto eye color as a possible predictor of personality and behavior. Research has suggested that dark-eyed children are bolder than light-eyed kids and that light-eyed individuals are more likely to abuse alcohol. One study tried to use eye color as proof that sexual orientation is genetically determined, treating eye color as a genetic absolute that carries homosexuality in on its coattails. Another study even yielded evidence that dark-eyed hunters were more likely to go after doves. (Finally someone cleared up that mystery, eh?)

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But the scientific theories about eyes as a defining feature pale next to the cultural ones. On one level, the new laser procedure from Stroma Medical Corporation simply removes some melanin, taking all of 20 seconds; but on another, irreversibly changing one’s eye color is tantamount to dismissing family ties. In how many movies about orphans, for instance, has a child been told, wistfully, that he has his mother’s eyes? (Even Severus Snape got around to informing Harry Potter that he had his mama’s peepers.)

Opting to go from brown to blue pulls on cultural sensitivities, too. Stroma’s chairman, Gregg Homer, has been reiterating in interviews that brown eyes are equally as beautiful as blue: he just thought it would be nice for people to “have a choice.” But the switch feels like adherence to an old-fashioned, golden-haired, blue-eyed, Barbie-based notion of beauty. It suggests that we’ve failed to globalize our notion of what is attractive, and seems to work against the prevailing message we’ve been sending to young girls in recent decades — that beauty comes in all shades and sizes.

“The big thing for the last 20 years has been a growing diversity in beauty, a recognition that with black skin or Asian eyes, you can be as beautiful as anyone else,” says Geoff Jones, a professor at Harvard Business School. “That’s the major trend in the market.”

Meanwhile, blue eyes have become even more rare, due largely to America’s immigration patterns and the increasing number of children born to interracial couples. In 2006, a study found that 1 in 6 Americans had blue eyes, down from 50% of Americans born around 1900. Its rarity might make having blue eyes all the more appealing, but it’s this same demographic shift that has also helped lead us away from old stereotypes of American beauty.

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Inevitably, the preference of blue eyes to brown dredges up bygone notions of a superior Nordic race. This is not to say that the doctors behind the new laser procedure have Nazi sympathies. But one could imagine that, say, a Jewish woman opting for the surgery might become a lightning rod, particularly given the community’s history with plastic surgery: in the early 1900s, Jones notes, it was women who felt discriminated against because of their “Jewish noses” who popularized rhinoplasties.

This may all seem nothing more than academic handwringing for men or women who want the surgery. For many, mere aesthetics have little to do with family ties or ethnic histories. Still, people are unlikely ever to see eye-to-eye on this procedure — particularly as long as dark-to-light is the only option.

Katy Steinmetz is a brown-eyed reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @KatySteinmetz. You can also continue the discussion on TIME‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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