Eyes wide shut: Dangers of the cartoon beauty craze
Lady Gaga's cartoon-style eyes have sparked a dangerous craze for the doe-eyed anime look, with teens buying large circular lenses on the internet reports Susan Daly
The outrageous Lady Gaga has set quite a few trends in her brief time at the top of the pops, from metal-spiked shoulder pads to precision-cut peroxide bobs.
We didn't see this one coming though: fans have now fallen for her wide-eyed look in her Bad Romance video. In the bathtub scene, Gaga flashes huge peepers in the tradition of doe-eyed Asian anime characters. The look was also channelled in a popular photoshoot the singer did to celebrate the 35th birthday of Hello Kitty.
While computer-generated imagery and liberal use of eyeshadow on closed lids was used to create Gaga's saucer eyes in the video and the photoshoot respectively, devoted female fans have been trying to emulate the look with super-sized contact lenses imported over the internet from South Korea, Japan and China.
Known as 'circle lenses', they are larger than average-sized contacts and extend beyond the iris over the whites of the eyes to make the iris look freakishly big.
The Association of Optometrists in Ireland warns that the lenses can starve the eyeball of oxygen and lead to serious infections, and even blindness.
The look is hugely popular in Asia where it fits in with the 'ulzzang' ideal of beauty. Ulzzang literally means 'best face' in Korean and encompasses a street style in which eyes are the main focus, with girls using circle lenses, eyeliner and lots of fake eyelashes to highlight them. They team the dramatic eyes with fair skin, again just like anime characters.
The female characters in anime and manga cartoons have been drawn with large eyes since they became popular in the 1960s. Japan's best-known anime artist, Osamu Tezuka, felt they better expressed emotion and femininity.
Asian girls associate the wide-eyed look with youthful beauty. That mindset has been compounded by the more recent notion that rounder, Western-shaped eyes are more desirable than their traditional almond shape.
Some have resorted to more desperate measures to get the look. An Irish ex-pat living in Tokyo notes "they are obsessed with having big eyes over here. A lot of the girls glue their eyelids to show more of their eyeball -- they can't even blink properly".
Now, as with karaoke, hi-tech gadgetry and so many other pop-culture trends, the bug-eye craze has transferred back westwards. More than nine million people have viewed US make-up artist Michelle Phan's YouTube demo of how to get the Lady Gaga anime look.
"In the past year, there's been a sharp increase in interest here in the US," Joyce Kim of Asian pop fansite Soompi.com told the New York Times earlier this month. "Once early adopters have adequately posted about it, discussed it and reviewed them, it's now available to everyone."
It is illegal for anyone in the US, as in Ireland, to sell contact lenses of any description without a prescription.
However, there are countless websites based in Canada, Holland, Asian countries and other territories where such restrictions don't apply, and they will ship circle lenses to anywhere in the world for an average of €5 a go.
It's not illegal for Irish consumers to buy these lenses, nor for these sites to sell them to us -- but it does mean that the consumer doesn't ever have to see an eye doctor and this is what worries optometrists.
"They can't be sold in Ireland but it's so easy to get them over the internet," says Lynda McGivney-Nolan, optometric advisor at the Association of Optometrists in Ireland. "They are being bought without prescription, without being fitted properly to the eye. You can't even be sure what materials are being used to make them. Do they contain dyes that are going to leak into the eye?
"Wearing them reduces oxygen to the cornea and that can affect sight," says Linda. "Then because people are not shown how to put them in properly, there is a huge risk of bacterial infections. Some of these infections can be severe enough to cause corneal meltdown. If you're very lucky, you might be able to get a corneal graft. If not, you could go blind."
Looking at a selection of the websites selling these circle lenses, these risks are not immediately evident. A few contain small sections on eye care.
Prominent Korean website e-circlelens.com writes in an email to Weekend that the circle lenses they sell are indeed bigger than regular lenses, but that "this is also true for other major brands' colour lenses as well
"We ask our customers to receive prescriptions from their eye care specialist before placing an order, and advise them to receive proper care advice from them... (btw, our products are all KFDA approved.)"
Even if young women and teenage girls know all the dangers, will that stop them buying into this latest eyewear craze?
A few years ago, as Etsuko points out, coloured lenses to intensify your baby blues were all the rage and they too could be bought, completely unregulated, over the internet.
"I even heard about a fleeting craze for this contact lens that had a chain attached to it with a little diamond on the end," says McGivney-Nolan.
"I can't even begin to imagine why you would stick that in your eye."