When I was not even 10 years old, I remember standing in front of my cousins’ bathroom mirror comparing eyelids. Kara*, my oldest cousin, had just learned about “Asian eyes**” from her classmates, and she’d come back home to share her findings with her younger sister-cousins. (We all grew up in the same house.)
As we poked and pulled at our three sets of young eyes, Kara explained that according to her (white) friends, “Asians have small, slanty eyes, and puffy eyelids that don’t look good in makeup.”
My younger cousin Lisa stared blankly at her own eyes. “But why do you care Kara? OH MY GOD are you wearing MAKEUP to school and mom doesn’t know?”
I watched Kara’s eyes roll in the mirror, “No, but haven’t you noticed how white people have such big eyes? Like, movies and books and stuff talk about how someone has ‘big blue beautiful eyes’? We have different eyelids and it makes our eyes small.”
“Does it make us see worse?” I asked, looking at Kara and Lisa’s glasses. I didn’t need glasses yet.
“I don’t know. But look,” Kara leaned into the mirror and tugged at the skin around her eyes. “Our eyelids don’t have the same folds as white people.”
Lisa and I copied Kara, because we copied everything Kara did.
“See! Look at Lisa! She has no folds. She just has one big eyelid, that’s why her eyes are so small and she sleeps with her eyes open. They don’t close all the way. She doesn’t have enough eye skin.”
Lisa did infamously sleep with her eyes open. (But for the record, I’ve seen white people do this too.)
“Ka-RA!” Lisa cried out and opened her eyes as wide as they could go then shut them tight. “My eyes DO close!”
Kara returned her attention to her own eyes. “I have a little bit of a fold. I have more white-looking eyes than you two. It’s supposed to be better.”
Looking at my own eyes, I didn’t know how to feel. My mom liked to tell the story about how when I was born, my left eye didn’t open for a whole day. Now my left eye was definitely different than my right eye. It still is to this day. Maybe only I still notice this.
“Ooh! Look at Louise” Kara’s pointer finger was inches from my face. Both cousins leaned in.
“She has one Chinese eye and one almost-white person eye!” And they laughed, and I laughed but it was forced.
My left eye had no fold. It was heavily lidded and a little bit smaller. My right eye had a slight fold and looked bigger, but still had a heavy lid. In that moment I really, really wished both of my eyes were my right eye.
“Do you see better out of your right eye?” Lisa asked seriously.
“I don’t know…” I pondered. “It does feel different.”
Thus began my complicated relationship with my eyelids.
In middle school, when we all feel like our flaws are being paraded around in high definition so that the highest bidder might win a chance to roast us, I was especially defensive about my eyes.
When the girls would congregate in the bathroom between first and second period, we’d artfully apply just enough makeup to sneak past the teachers (I went to a small, strict Catholic school) but still feel grown-up. Darlene had two older sisters who were pretty and popular and in high school, so she knew the most about makeup. She knew everything about the best drugstore powders and mascaras, and especially eyeshadow.
“You have to put it in the crease.” She’d instruct. Dabbing at her Wet ’n’ Wild or Covergirl eyeshadow trio in “Sand” or whatever. “It makes your eyes look bigger.”
Again with the eyes looking bigger.
I’d try to copy the girls (all of which were white) but instead of that pleasing shade that subtly made Darlene’s big beautiful blue eyes pop, I always ended up with a stripe of brown hovering on top of my eyelids. Like a shitty rainbow.
“Oh you can’t do that,” Darlene corrected. “You have bulgey eyes.”
But I refused to be defeated. I had one good eye! I had one white-person eye! I could make this work. At least on half of my face.
“Oh…” I’d say, “But really, if you look at this eye, it’s more normal.”
But try as I might, that one “normal” white-person eye still wasn’t quite right. The teachers always caught me — the shitty rainbows were like a beacon — and they would usually make me wipe my eyes clean.
How would the boys and girls love me if my Asian eyes were bare, bulgey, and not “popping”?
How could I be pretty in America if I didn’t have big beautiful blue eyes with two fully doubled eyelids?
High school got weirder. I was still in denial that I couldn’t somehow WITH THE POWER OF MY MIND make my left eye like my right. So many hours were spent with girlfriends in front of mirrors trying to copy their “in the crease” eye makeup, or trying to follow makeup tutorials in magazines that always insisted on finding the crease between your brow bone and eyeball.
The over-the-eye rainbows were brown, blue, black, green, and very sparkly in those days, but they were still just a badge advertising my denial about my eyelids.
When the boy I liked asked me, “Why do you do that to your eyes?” I figured I’d just forego double eyelids for double eyepatches and work the “blind pirate” look for the rest of high school.
While I didn’t go full eyepatch, I began opting for the “black eye” look where I’d just cover my entire eyelid in the blackest eyeshadow and eyeliner I could find. If you couldn’t see my eyelids, they might be double eyelids they might not, and we could all just make the assumption that fit us best.
I appeared to be a very preppy goth kid.
Around this time I learned that some of the other Asian girls in my high school taped their eyelids to create a double eyelid. I briefly thought about this, but it felt like a failure to me. Remember, I was still in denial that I actually had “real” Asian eyes.
Maybe I only needed tape on my left eye? My right eye was coming along nicely (in my head).
I just stuck with the black eyes.
Eventually I went to college and stopped caring so much. I still liked me a good, dark, smokey eye, but it became less about camouflaging my single-and-a-half eyelids; it became more about figuring out what made me feel good.
I adopted vintage rock-a-billy looks, sparkly Britney Spears looks (it was the early 2000s so help me), heavy eyeliner that would bleed up to my eyebrows. I never claimed to be good at makeup, but I truly loved it. I still do.
My world also got bigger in college. I met Asian-American women who had a love-hate relationship with their eyes like me, who taped their eyes, who dreamed of surgery to westernize their eyes permanently, who didn’t give a damn about how white people thought eyes should look.
Going to a medium-sized university in the midwest where I felt at once like I belonged and was also always an outsider, I found myself feeling new “FEELINGS” about my eyelids. Well, actually I started feeling feelings about how other people regarded my eyelids, and that feeling was anger.
When the student doing makeup for one of the plays I was in sweetly pulled up my eyebrow to “open” my (left) eye more and said, “God, you’d look so pretty with a more pronounced double eyelid.”
When a friend said to me, “You have such expressive eyes…for an Asian.”
When another Asian-American woman in my family said to me regarding eyelid surgery to create a double eyelid, “Asian-American women in the public eye need to look Asian enough to be sexy, but western enough to be beautiful.”
Throughout all this I started to dig in my heels.
No. No. No. Why does pretty for me, for Asian-American people, for non-white people so often come with a qualifier? For people of color, we are raised within those qualifiers and they can become our truth.
My friend Kay got her eyelids done. She doesn’t regret it, she feels happy, she feels beautiful. I do support her. We’ve talked about this a lot.
I know she did it for herself, even if the choice may have been influenced by a culture that will only accept her as beautiful in some very narrow terms. She acknowledges this too. But while tottering on what can be the precarious, radical ledge of caring for oneself while existing as a POC in America, choosing your armor can come with some compromises. I know I’ve made compromises other AAPI people may frown upon.
Kay is still undoubtedly Asian-American. She just knows how she wants to look.
Who am I to tell Kay how to Asian?
But I would be lying if I haven’t considered eyelid surgery as something of an affront to me. We alter our bodies for a myriad of reasons, but there have been times that I admit thinking, “Looking like me or my cousin Lisa or other Asian people with single eyelids was so unacceptable that you paid someone to take a knife to your eyes?”
In those flashes of anger I feel toward the person who had surgery, my anger very quickly turns to the culture we grew up in that did in fact tell us “how to Asian.” After 10, 20, 30 years of being shown a standard of beauty that you will NEVER ACHIEVE, who wouldn’t be a little warped? (This is not to say Kay or others who’ve had eyelid surgery are warped. Maybe I’m warped in the head. I probably am. I mean, I have lopsided eyes.)
After university I spent a few years on-and-off trying to be a movie star. “On-and-off trying” is not how you become a movie star. Well, maybe if you get discovered in a shopping mall food court, which was my main tactic.
I decided to shell out for new fancy headshots where the most successful actors in town got their fancy headshots. The photo session I paid for included makeup by a professional makeup artist.
Sitting in the chair the artist got to work on my face. She put potions and serums and putties on my face to smooth out my skin. She gave me eyebrows that were both the same shape. Before she started on my eyes, she looked at me in the mirror and asked, “So do you want a western eye or an Asian eye? With a western eye I could make your eyes look more deep set by sweeping…”
She kept talking about my potential “western eyes”. I might have started laughing.
Here I was, over a decade later, and if I made the choice, I could be paying a woman to paint essentially the same shitty brown rainbows over my eyes as I did in middle school. I knew what she was trying to do, she was trying to make me look beautiful for an audience who needed to also see me as beautiful so they could hire me. She was doing her job.
But now, unlike a decade ago, it seemed absurd.
“Um,” I interrupted her. “That’s OK. Let’s just stick with an Asian eye. That’s who I am after all, right?”
Featured image via Creative Commons
*All names changed to protect people’s privacy.
**Those are not my pretty eyes pictured. They are some lovely person’s eyes who let the Internet use a picture of their eyes for free.