“Why don’t you have eyes? That’s not normal,” a stranger explained to me as I stared back, mouth slack in a mixture of confusion and blind anger. He continued pressing on about the curious case of my eyes, oblivious to my discomfort, and tried to lean in for a closer look. I leaned away from my position behind the customer service desk, putting as much distance between this stranger and myself as possible. A fellow volunteer told him to leave.
After he did, she turned to me and wryly asked, “What was that all about?”
I mumbled something like “Who knows,” but of course I knew — he was looking not at my eyes, but for my eyes, a crude reminder of my race and the way it’s expressed in my face.
Various riffs and takes on this question — “What’s up with your eyes?” — have trailed me my entire life. The short answer: My family’s from China, and so I have “Asian eyes.” Though most people can intuit exactly what that means (even if they won’t admit it openly), in more PC parlance, my eyes sometimes have monolids, which are generally attributed to about 50% of people of East Asian heritage.
If you Google monolids by their formal name, “epicanthic folds,” clumsy related questions like “Why do Asians have slanted eyes?” and “Do Chinese people have eyelids?” come up. Both Western and Eastern beauty industries separately favor big, wide-open eyes. So my own eyes, often narrowed or obscured by monolids, have been a source of scrutiny, shame, and frustration — and, only recently, something resembling pride.
Even nowadays, as the body positivity movement encourages people (especially women, and especially cis white women) to accept their perceived flaws, racialized features like monolids are still treated like something to (politely) correct or (crassly) mock. I’ve encountered the makeup artist who, Asian herself but double-lidded, casually told me that there was no point in bringing my eyeliner down into my inner corner because that part would never show up anyway. Or the “just joking” friend who shared an anecdote about getting her Asian friend to open his eyes as wide as he could. (The punchline: “Hey, I really can see more!”)
Going further back, there’s this fun pop culture memory: Miley Cyrus made news for pulling her eyes into slants in 2009. Media reports at the time seemed shocked that anyone could possibly be so crude in this day and age; clearly, most of those reporters had never grown up with Asian eyes in America.
My monolids are inescapable, the thing that has always instantly and distinctly defined me as “Asian” — even though I’ve sometimes had two double lids instead, or one monolid and one double lid. My eye shapes changed, and still do change, based on factors like how much sleep I’ve gotten, whether I’ve been rubbing my eyes, or whether I’ve been crying.
When I was younger, I didn’t notice the difference between my eye shapes, but as I grew older and began to see and hear the “Asian eye” jokes, I understood: I was Asian, and was teased for my Asian eyes. People with double lids, even if they were Asian, didn’t get teased in that way. I sometimes had these covetable double lids, but they wouldn’t stay; what could I do about it?
My first possible solution was makeup. I bought my first eyeliner in high school; some cursory internet research led me in the direction of gel eyeliner, applied with an angled brush. In my unskilled hand, the gel glommed all over my eyelid like an oil slick, but when I wore it out, something magical would happen: I could indeed see a clear definition around my eyes in photos.
Yes, the eyeliner looked extreme face-on; yes, because I didn’t prime my eyelids or apply the liner cleanly, it slid and smeared all over, often giving me a lovely “jilted bride” face by the end of the day. And yes, I always internally understood that when I had double lids, the eyeliner, and thus my eyes, and thus I, looked “better.” But it was a solution, albeit an imperfect one.
The second possible solution didn’t present itself until several years later. Starting with her Lady Gaga/"Bad Romance” transformation video, I began watching Michelle Phan’s YouTube channel, particularly her makeup tutorials, religiously. Then one day, she posted this video, in which she revealed that she, just like me, had once had two different eye shapes. But her eyelids were both double now; how did that happen? The answer, she explained, was eyelid tape — she’d “trained” her eye to hold a double lid. And from there, the jig was up: I was introduced to the world of formal eyelid correction.
I can’t help myself; the first thing I pay attention to when I see an East Asian celebrity’s face is what kind of eyes they have. Most of them, particularly from younger generations, have double lids. The fact that many of the West’s most prominent Asian figures are actually biracial (and thus more likely to have double lids) isn’t lost on me.
But it’s notable how many idols born and bred in East Asia also have double lids, even though, genetically speaking, they should be split 50/50 between having monolids and double lids. And that’s because of the prevalence of eyelid surgery in those countries.
In recent years, Western media has taken notice of the rise of eyelid and other facial plastic surgeries, and many people credit that to the increasing influence of Western beauty standards in East Asian nations. The West’s influence on beauty standards is certainly strong: According to Cho Kyo's book The Search for the Beautiful Woman: A Cultural History of Chinese and Japanese Beauty, eyelid type wasn’t tied to beauty in East Asia until the modern era — the ideal centered on the much more nebulous quality of “lucent irises.”
That has changed. The first Asian eye-centric eyelid surgery was performed in Japan, notably on a woman with one monolid and one double lid. Now eyelid surgery is, in some Asian and Asian-American communities, a rite of passage. Herein lies the rub. Whatever the “true” genesis of modern East Asian beauty standards like this or skin lightening, these “preferences” are now unspoken but internalized within many Asian and Asian-American communities.
I’ve heard of parents offering eyelid surgery as graduation gifts, seemingly using the surgery as a way to signal arrival into adulthood and, more insidiously, a life of meeting and measuring up to middle- and upper-class diasporic standards. (After all, even “cheap” eyelid surgery is still an elective, and not insignificant, cost.) This mirrors other cultural traditions in which parents try to ease their child’s entrance into adulthood, or the larger world, by “correcting” something that could be seen as a literal physical barrier, such as the old idea of the routine nose job for Jewish girls.
Though my own parents have never indicated anything but indifference about my eyelids (and my appearance in general…something to think about another time), in my more resigned moments of beauty standard consciousness, I’ve given fleeting thought to what I could do to “fix” my eyes.
I could head to Korea or Taiwan for a “holiday” and get the procedure done. (It’s easy to research this, given the amount of testimonials available on the internet.) I could try out eyelid tape or its more ominous cousin, the eyelid trainer, or even strategically, studiously, hand-fold my lids for long periods of time.
These moments pass. Pursuing beauty is work and money, and most of the time, I am simply too lazy and too cheap to follow through. But when I look at my un-made-up face in a photo and cringe, I sometimes wonder if my reaction is just the usual self/image disconnect, or if it’s because I’m looking for something that isn’t (and perhaps never will be) there — that meaningless, but clearly defining, crease. And, most disconcerting to myself, I wonder if I would actually be happier if I did find it.
A recent piece on monolid makeup tips is one of the first I’ve read that actually suggests full-on monolid “acceptance,” but its careful, considered language is a rarity. Most monolid makeup tutorials are about “opening up” the eyes — innocuous phrasing on its own, but tacitly coded to suggest the visual depth of the double lid. When I try to articulate the difference to non-East Asian peers, they feign understanding or offer condolences.
I still don’t really know how to express the many mixed messages I receive from others and send myself. I feel pride in my ancestry and the racialized face I carry out into the world, but surgery is only as unnatural as you deem it to be.
Are racialized features so sacrosanct that changing them means you don’t have pride in your heritage, and the way it’s expressed in physical characteristics? (No.) Do I bear ill will toward Asian people with double eyelids, whether from birth or from surgery? (No.) Do I think eyelid correction is the end all, be all of East Asian people’s various beauty obsessions? (Definitely no.)
Though I’ve mostly made peace with my body and the more subtle ways it expresses my race, I cannot quite say the same of my face. That doesn’t stop me from applying eyeliner (now with a pen, and a steadier hand), nor does it stop me from scrutinizing if and how the majority of that eyeliner “disappears” when I look straight-on at the mirror. My reflection both is and isn’t what I wish it were — the first impression, the avatar of my self, the thing that marks me as a target for racialized insults and gives me visual authority when I speak on matters of race.
After all, it really boils down to that: race as experience, race as culture, race as a marker of Otherness at some times and a marker of belonging at others. That is something that can never be captured in a mirror or a photo or in any one physical feature. I couldn’t, and wouldn’t, change that; after all, it ultimately doesn’t matter to anyone else what I do or don’t do to my eyes. They are Asian because I am, and no matter what other representations I see, this imperfect, perfect iteration is me.
When I go to the Japanese beauty store where I get my eyeliner, I still sometimes pause in front of the rows of eyelid tapes and trainers and the “instruction” diagrams posted up next to them in cheerful script. “We’re here for you if you need us,” they seem to say. I know, and walk away.