When we talk about Asian eyes, we talk about slantedness, roundness, smooth monolids and deep eyelid folds. But what we’re also talking about is Westernization, beauty standards and self-acceptance.
To talk about Asian eyes is to have a unique lexicon. There are clinical terms ― like the epicanthal folds. There are secret tools and routines ― like eyelid tape. And there are hushed ways to talk about permanent changes — like “getting your eyelid surgery.”
For Asians and Asian-Americans, eyes are the literal portal through which we perceive beauty standards ― and they’re often the physical feature we use to measure ourselves against these benchmarks.
In America, there’s a history of Asian eyes, racism and disenfranchisement. Propaganda signs at the time of Japanese-American imprisonment during World War II or when the Chinese Exclusion Act was in force during the 19th and 20th centuries depicted characters with hyperbolized slanted eyes to dehumanize Asians. And these stereotypes persist today.
Asian-Americans who spoke to HuffPost expressed everything from dissatisfaction to ultimate acceptance of their eyes and appearance. Their feelings about Asian eyes were fraught with centuries-old, cross-continental beliefs about attractiveness. They described a confluence of factors informing how they see their eyes ― including a history of war, Westernization, an unforgiving media and unattainable beauty standards.
Below, hear from 13 Asian-American men and women about slants, folds, taunts and self-acceptance.
These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.
Cindy, 38, Korean-American, from Illinois
Basically, all I wanted to do when I was younger was get old enough to get eyelid surgery, marry a white guy and change my last name immediately.
“Because we’re Korean, my mother said when I was young, ‘You’ll get your eyelid surgery and your eyes will look bigger.’ So I really got these comments from the person who would normally champion your beauty. It goes to show Westernized beauty is something Asians are very mindful of.
I don’t think this idea of Western beauty is necessarily in the forefront of people’s minds. It’s very institutionalized. Lighter skin and big eyes are coveted because that’s gone through generations of being the default — even if we don’t know the roots of why we want to look like that.
Basically, all I wanted to do when I was younger was get old enough to get eyelid surgery, marry a white guy and change my last name immediately. I would sleep with eye tape on every night, hopeful it would make my eyes get bigger. I’d wake up and be disappointed.
The way I look is now part of who I am. I wouldn’t change it. But I know I’m still affected by this, because when I look at my daughter, I do love that she’s half white and has fair skin and has creases in her eyelids. And I think, ‘Why do I feel this way?’ If she didn’t have them, it’s not something I would have ever talked to her about. I want to be a mother who celebrates their child. It’s more that my own insecurities are relieved in that she has fair skin and Western features.”
Sita, 34, Korean-American, from Indiana
I just felt like people’s standard of beauty would be far from what I am ... But part of this is history. We had this outlook that we had to Westernize or we’d face war.
“I grew up in Korea but moved from Seoul to Indiana my sophomore year ― and you can imagine, I was the only Asian. White friends would say things like ‘Wow, you don’t have any eyelashes. Wow, they curl down.’ Once, a guy said to me in college that my best feature was my face, and I had a hard time believing it. I just felt like people’s standard of beauty would be far from what I am.
Some of what we feel about our looks has to do with how we were invaded by Japan, which was attached to Western ideals and culture. Korea had to let go of culture and traditions because they were held to it by a gun. Part of this is history. We had this outlook that we had to Westernize or we’d face war. So when we get made fun of, maybe it’s because we have been quiet — because we have had to be.
We’re also self-deprecating and can seem like we lack confidence. Asian people have inner strength, but it doesn’t always flourish as confidence. Our strength is very introverted. So basically, partially because of what had happened in the history of Korea, and partially because in Korea, confidence is a gained merit and not a given merit, it took me a long time to appreciate my own beauty. I was focusing on what I didn’t have rather than knowing what I have.”
Gloria, 23, Chinese-American, from California
I used to use Scotch tape to make my eyes bigger. Then I said, ‘Hey, this is your face. This is how you look.’
“Chinese people and a lot of Asians don’t love single eyelids. I have double eyelids. My eyes are really round and people would say, ‘I wish I had eyes like you.’ But there are two sides to a coin, and my mom would say, ‘Your eyes aren’t big enough.’ People just see things differently. I totally validate any kind of feeling around it.
Asians tend to internalize a lot of things and not talk about the real issue. There’s no denying among the Asian community that we uphold white features. I used to use Scotch tape to make my eyes bigger. Then I said, ‘Hey, this is your face. This is how you look.’ I wouldn’t deny it could be related to this idea of white worship, which ultimately has to do with white supremacy.”
Joon, Korean-American, 21, from New Jersey
I never thought much about my eyes until I started exploring my gender identity. When I started experimenting with makeup and watching YouTube tutorials, I rarely found any makeup gurus with monolids like mine.
“I’m from Fort Lee, New Jersey, a town recognized for its robust Korean population. So growing up, I was never the only Asian person in my classroom. That being said, I was made aware of my Asian eyes every time I left the confines of my town. I specifically recall an incident where I was visiting family in Pittsburgh. A group of boys around my age pointed at my sister and me and stretched their eyes with their fingers to mimic ours. We shrugged it off though ― we had cuter style!
I never thought much about my eyes until I started exploring my gender identity. When I started experimenting with makeup and watching YouTube tutorials, I rarely found any makeup gurus with monolids like mine. Too often, we see European beauty models who have the perfect canvases for eyeshadow. Yet, the Eurocentrism of beauty standards has both undermined and exoticized Asian beauty for far too long.
Thus, as someone who used to feel so ugly in their Asian body, creating bold smoky eyes on my Asian monolids has empowered me in a way I’ve never thought imaginable. Plus, I think smoky eyes look dopest on Asian eyes.”
Tien, 23, Vietnamese-American, from Texas
It all goes back to intersectional feminism and messaging to women that there are so many types of beauty and ways to be you.
“I used to wish I would wake up and have circular blue eyes and long eyelashes. I was the one Asian kid in my class and I felt a sense of self-hatred because I was different than what guys thought girls should be like. In middle school, a guy said ‘I think you’re cute, but your eyes are small.’ I think he was trying to say, ‘I think you’re cute, but you’re Asian and that’s different.’ He was white.
In college, I became more open to other viewpoints, and it helped how I saw myself. Being able to read more Asian people’s stories about how they saw themselves woke me up to feeling like I was beautiful.
It’s definitely been a growing process. People want large eyes, and that’s a result of imperialism and colonialism ― Western trends have touched us in many ways, but have also taken away from our own culture. When it comes to looks and acceptance, it all goes back to intersectional feminism and messaging to women that there are so many types of beauty and ways to be you.”
Stephen, 49, Korean-American, from Pennsylvania
It’s also amazing to me how one can tell Asians apart by their eyes.
“I was pretty ambivalent about my eyes, except for as a teenager, when my mom or other relatives would call out that I was missing the eyelid fold that most Koreans have, or try to have. Those comments would always be when other adults and kids were also around, and thus a point of total awkwardness ― on top of the usual teen angst.
As a kid, it was pretty common for people, including total strangers, to use their hands to pull their eyes into tiny slits and shout insults like ‘Chink,’ ‘Hey, Bruce Lee,’ or anything in an absurd stereotypical Chinese accent.
I don’t think that much about my own eyes, though. I love staring into my wife and daughters’ eyes or even photos of their eyes. It’s also amazing to me how one can tell Asians apart by their eyes.”
Ji Sub, 24, Korean-Canadian, from Korea/Canada
Guys can skim by without looking great. Women get more criticism for not being as light or having smaller eyes.
“Yeah, I’ve been called a ‘Chink’ or told that my people eat dogs. When I got to the U.S., someone called me a yellow monkey. Having gone to school in Vancouver, they’re a little more conscientious because everyone’s culture is a bit more equal. Everyone has an immigration history that’s intertwined.
Growing up in an Asian household and being male, there’s a big difference in how males are perceived. Guys can skim by without looking great. Women get more criticism for not being as light or having smaller eyes. They have the weird pressure of getting your eyelids done.
I don’t think wanting to have bigger eyes is just a Western effect. Korean people like pretty-looking guys versus American macho guys. So it’s unfair to say Asians are copying Western culture. Maybe it’s about curiosity and fascination. There’s a sense of wanting to get away from what everyone is doing and what society thinks is normal. So maybe we want to try this different look, but it doesn’t mean we want to be like white people.”
Han, 33, Chinese-American, from New York
People called us 'Chinky eyes,' and it was then that I really realized there are visual differences that define us.
“Growing up, I went to school with all Asian people, but in junior high school and middle school, that’s when I felt like a minority. That’s when people pretty much identified me based on certain traits. People called us ‘Chinky eyes,’ and it was then that I really realized there are visual differences that define us. It made me feel a bit more self conscious about my appearance.
I also have two different eyelids. My optometrist asked if I wanted to fix it. If she had asked me way back then, in high school, maybe I would have considered it. But now I think, ‘That’s just me.’”
Julie, 47, Korean-American, from Pennsylvania
My eyes are large by Korean standards, although now they are much smaller as my eyelids droop with age.
“I always liked my eyes, to be honest, because I grew up receiving lots of compliments from other Korean people about them. My eyes are large by Korean standards, although now they are much smaller as my eyelids droop with age.
When I started getting racist invective hurled at me in elementary school about being ‘Chinese,’ ‘Japanese’ or a ‘Chink,’ I was hurt but also confused. The kids making fun of me didn’t seem to be able to see that my eyes were not narrow and did not slant up at the corners ― as their mean faces on which they pulled back the outer corners of their eyes suggested.
And oddly, I actually envied my friends who had the narrower eyes with the hidden upper lid because their eyes seemed more beautiful and classically ‘Asian.’
To be honest, a lot of Korean people are obsessed with large eyes. I don’t think it’s necessarily a sign of internalized Western standards of beauty. They just really think big eyes are attractive, as people in many countries do, I suppose. When our second daughter was born, I was struck daily by the beauty of her eyes. They were hooded and narrow, but black and unbelievably bright and shiny. They were shaped like apple seeds or tiny fish. She’s a teenager now, and these days, the shape of her eyes reminds me of a drawing of a dove.”
Leo, 25, Chinese-American, from California
It doesn’t help that fashion and beauty advertising outside of Asia still primarily features white models.
“I grew up in East Los Angeles and honestly didn’t think much of my eyes, other than being my way to see. However, I do remember other Asian kids getting teased because of their narrow eyes. Other kids would pull their eyes back to the narrowest possible position and stick their tongues out at the Asian kids. I regrettably did not stand up for them, but in retrospect, I wish I did, because they were getting discriminated against for something they had absolutely no control over.
It doesn’t help that fashion and beauty advertising outside of Asia still primarily features white models. For instance, rarely do you ever see an ad that highlights an Asian person’s eyes, unless it’s for a product that will enhance how they look ― like longer lashes.”
Joyce, 36, Chinese-American, from Australia
One thing I like about my eyes is that the dark pigments intensify the depth of my gaze.
“I knew my eyes were different from quite a young age ― appearance, as well as where eyes will lead you. I remember being dragged to an optometrist at age 12. I had not complained about vision issues, but my parents just knew I would need glasses. Genetically, this is true.
One thing I like about my eyes is that the dark pigments intensify the depth of my gaze. Culturally, it is quite common to not look into the eyes of the person you’re having conversations with, so when you are gazing into an Asian person’s eyes, it really mean something.”
Phil, 24, Chinese-American, from Illinois
Those who are considered more 'conventionally attractive,' meaning 'conventionally Western,' get further ahead.
“Thankfully, I don’t think I was bullied enough to really hate my eyes, or my Asian-ness in general, but I definitely felt a sense of [otherness]. That I was an outlier and my eyes were the first ‘giveaway’ that I couldn’t mask myself in whiteness.
I certainly embrace my eyes more so than I did when I was younger. I think some of that self-acceptance comes with age, and some of it comes from understanding that my appearance is tied to a larger sense of identity and a heritage I’ve grown to understand much more.
But still, many Asians strive for assimilation, and those who are considered more ‘conventionally attractive,’ meaning ‘conventionally Western,’ get further ahead, so can you really blame Julie Chen for getting double eyelid surgery or Chloe Bennet for removing Wang from her last name?
Embracing your eyes is tough and doesn’t happen overnight. Specifically as a Chinese-American male who also identifies as gay, being Asian has a lot of connotations when it comes to sex and dating that I continue to work through.”
Paulina, 23, Taiwanese-American, from Oregon
I used to draw myself with blonde hair and blue eyes! I wished I looked that way. It’s now easier to accept my differences, as people are becoming more celebratory of what makes us different.
“When I was younger, I wanted to have blonde hair and blue eyes for a good deal of time. I used to draw myself with blonde hair and blue eyes! I wished I looked that way. It’s now easier to accept my differences, as people are becoming more celebratory of what makes us different.
I accept my eyes for how they are now, rather than spending time wishing they looked like someone else’s anymore ― and that feeling, at least, makes me feel like they are beautiful.”
- This article originally appeared on HuffPost.