When I set forth to write something on Westernized beauty standards and Asian identity, my ideas kept circling back to the one topic I was the most hesitant to write about. For myriads of reasons, that topic is a complex issue. It has defined my life in deep-rooted ways. It has a multifaceted history in the world, as well as in my own life. It has always been my greatest source of self-consciousness, self-loathing, and self-awareness.
The monolid. Scientifically, they are called epicanthic folds. It means that a skin fold of the upper eyelid covers the medial canthus, or inner corner, of the eye. Colloquially, they are called “Asian eyes,” because they are predominantly associated with Asian features, despite the fact that they are found on people from all different types of ethnic backgrounds and that only about half of all (East) Asian people have them.
I am one of these people. This is not a story that ends in complete self-acceptance — at least, not yet. This story does not go, “Once upon a time, I hated this part of my body, but now I have come to realize that it is part of what makes me beautiful.” No.
I want to be completely real with you here. Most of the time, I think I’m pretty damned beautiful, although my physical appearance is not usually my main concern. (Let me tell you about my intellectual insecurities and emotional shortcomings another time, ha!) However, this one aspect of my exterior — my eyes — still continues to fuel my denigration of myself. They are phenotypic characteristics that are easily racialized.
These eyes are the most evident marker of my ethnic background. I would say “genetic,” but both of my parents, and three of my four grandparents, have double eyelids. Luck of the draw, I suppose? My eyes are the main reason I am othered, exoticized, and marginalized.
They are the reason I’ve had slurs thrown at me since the first grade.
They are the reason people, no matter where I am, always ask me where I am from.
They are the reason that everything about me demands an explanation — my American accent, my white-passing partner, my college degree in English Literature and Creative Writing.
They are the most likely reason why I am shouted at on the street.
They are the most likely reason why sleazy men in bars expect meekness from me, as well as why colleagues and superiors in professional settings expect meekness from me.
It still strikes an aching chord in my heart every time some ignorant person pulls their eyes back into slants in front of me. Sometimes it comes from malicious folk who intend to offend. Most often these folk are people from my own culture — Americans. Sometimes, it comes from people who simply don’t know better. After all, I am an East Asian person who is living and working in a country where the only East Asian people are once-in-a-blue-moon tourists and actors in Kung Fu movies. Even so, the intention is only part of the equation.
Listen, well-meaning people. Your commentary on my eyes is not necessary. (Really, ask yourself if your commentary on anyone else’s body is necessary and compassionate. If not, then shush.) And pro-tip to all: prefacing your commentary with “I don’t mean to be offensive” is not actually a functional disclaimer.
“Well-meaning” people have asked me if I can see as well as “normal” people. They have tried to argue with me that the act of pulling one’s eyes back to talk about Asian people is not actually offensive because it’s “true.”
In these circumstances, I have always stood my ground and answered as empathetically as I could. I have used linear logic, steeped in academic terminology and a socio-political lexicon. I have drawn on the language of social justice that I know so well. I have explained the history behind specific acts of racism — cited sources, quoted thinkers, and referenced texts. Yet, I have never, until now, admitted this: these things simply make me feel either ugly or exoticized.
I don’t want to have an objective discussion on this subject. There are many great sources that you can easily access via the Internet. I don’t want to write an article coming down on either side of double eyelid surgery: do Asian women get it because they want to look like white women or do they get it because they want to look like more beautiful Asian women?
Human actions and motivations are more complex than binary categories can ever allow. I don’t even want to write about the everyday implications that my eyes are not beautiful — from “makeup tips” to media representation.
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I want to talk about the idea that self-love is complicated and challenging. I want to talk about how, despite the fact that I champion self-love in my work and writing, the reality of it is arduous. Self-love is not some glorious space of unending enlightenment. It is not a place you reach upon pure reflection and will. It is tiring and hard. It is valuing yourself even when others do not.
Let me tell you — it is thriving even when you feel the world pushing you down. It is greeting a student with a smile and a kind explanation, even after they’ve addressed you with a rude gesture. It is summoning the arenas in life in which you are strong and mighty even when men in the café whisper crude references to Vietnam War movies. It is confronting the fact that no matter how much I understand objectively about the oppression of beauty standards, there will be times when I will inevitably feel hideous and foreign.
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Remember when I said that this story would not end in happily-ever-after self-acceptance? Well, it still won’t, but it will end with a revelation. Self-love is a lifelong journey. It takes constant work. I might not ever feel secure in myself the way I want to, but as long as I remember this, I can keep fighting the fight.
Listen: any self-consciousness, self-loathing, or self-awareness that seems to come from a body part does not actually come from that body part. It comes from society’s Eurocentric beauty standards that, in turn, come from a long and deep history of white supremacy, misogyny, colonialism, and imperialism.
My eyelids are not the source of my shame and fear; all of these systemic issues are. I am not a couple of creases away from self-love. However much I lament the way the world sees how I see, I know that the solution is not so simple. The story has not ended yet. I will spend the rest of my life struggling with and learning about beauty and identity.
[Headline image: The photograph shows a young Asian-presenting woman with her hands cupped against each side of her face and her bare shoulders visible. She has dark hair with bangs parted in the middle, and she is looking into the camera and smiling. Behind her is a light blue background.]