“Asian” Eyes

I love my Japanese mother-in-law to the end of time. She is an amazing woman who has been (and continues to be) profoundly supportive when my own mother is notably absent. My son is also intensely close to her and identifies with her very deeply. But when it comes to race, there are clear differences in the way we think. Some of these differences are cultural. Some generational. Sometimes we find ways to talk about it (very powerful). But sometimes we don’t. One subject that has confounded me is the number of times she’s mentioned my son’s eyes. In the beginning she often observed that his eyes were Asian-shaped. Now, almost every time we see her she points out that he is developing an eyelid crease or “double eyelid” (which he didn’t have when he was born). But she’s got me reconsidering myself on this one. Eyes are clearly something she notices right away and thinks about a lot. But I don’t. Or…do I? Because the truth is many people easily identify me as mixed Asian and I’ve always assumed it was mostly because of my eyes. And now it’s happening to my son. The trouble is, when I ask myself what it is about our eyes that would identify us, I can’t describe it. I seem to be avoiding. And it certainly gives me an icky feeling on some level. Why is that? And what exactly are “Asian” eyes anyway?


(Image from InCulture Parent)

First, a disclaimer. The “Asian” eyes I’m talking about are a stereotype that don’t actually apply to many people with Asian heritage. Asia is a massive region representing over half of the world’s human population and obviously a vast variety of phenotypes. I’ve heard Japanese and South Asian, among others, greatly object to being teased for such eyes when they in fact don’t have them at all. What is the stereotype? We all know it. Smaller. Slanted. Little or no eyelid. Dark brown/black eye color. The slant is created in some peoples by the orbital bone sitting more laterally. The “single” eyelid, also known as an epicanthal fold, is skin of the upper eyelid that covers the inner corner of the eye from nose to inner eyebrow. It can be attributed to a narrower attachment of eyelid skin to eyelid, and/or to an extra layer of fatty tissue on the eyelid. Nevertheless, disclaimer aside, these are eye features which generations of AAPI children/people have been taunted for and which have been sourced for ethnic slurs and racist descriptors (e.g. “slant”, “chinky eyes”).

Because they are a phenotypic feature strikingly different than those of white-Euro descent, “Asian” eyes have historically been an easy target for racism. European male scientists who greatly influenced the racial classification system we know today often attached a stigma to them. For example, in the 19th century German anthropologist Johann Blumenbach held that:

“The fairness and relatively high brows of Caucasians were…apt physical expressions of a loftier mentality and a more generous spirit. The epicanthic folds around the eyes of Mongolians and their slightly sallow outer epidermal layer bespoke their supposedly crafty, literal-minded nature.”

In the same era, English physician John Langdon Down used “mongolism” and “mongoloid” to describe Down Syndrome because of what he observed were similar physical characteristics (e.g. epicanthal fold) to people from the “Mongoloid” (Asian) race (). He explained the syndrome as an evolutionary “reversion” or backslide from the superior Caucasian to the inferior “Mongoloid” race. Awful terms were eventually derived from Down’s erroneous assumptions including “mongolian imbecile”, “mongoloid idiot”, and “mongoloid deformity.”

Here in the U.S., discrimination against people of color has always been about sequestering whites and their privileges from “others”. Implicit in this practice is seeing “others” as different, foreign, ugly and lesser entitling whites to their special status while simultaneously releasing them from guilt or shame. For Asians, being “foreign” and “ugly” has foundationally meant, among other things, the shape of their eyes. Early anti-Asian sentiment America (aka “Yellow Peril”) was directed primarily towards large waves of 19th century Chinese immigrants, and later during WWII towards Japanese, who more commonly held some of the eye features described. And of course such prejudice was comfortably helped along by scientists like Blumenbach and Down. For instance, in 1941 Life Magazine infamously published “How To Tell Japs From the Chinese.” Notice the heavy scrutiny of phenotype and prominent mention of epicanthal fold. Also note while wartime propaganda was meant to distinguish friend (now the Chinese) from foe (the Japanese, the truth is it really did not abolish racial stereotypes about either group.


(“How To Tell Japs From the Chinese”Image from here)


What are the implications of this history? Though I do think there are notable exceptions, I’m sad to say not only do we still have a hard time viewing the “Asian” eye as beautiful but this unpleasant Western ideology has gone internationally viral.

In an alarming example, blepharoplasty (aka “double eyelid surgery”) has seen a boom amongst Asian populations here in the U.S. and especially in Asian countries. Blepharoplasty is a type of cosmetic surgery where the skin around the eye is reshaped to create an upper eyelid with a crease. According to the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery (ISAPS), in 2010 blepharoplasty was the third most common procedure performed world-wide (). It is a growing trend in Asia to have patients of all ages coming in to get cosmetic surgeries in an effort to make themselves look more Westernized. In 2011 CNN ran a piece about Western concepts of beauty invading Asia and revealed how girls as young as 12 were having surgeries to make their eyes appear rounder. In particular Korea has come under fire for shockingly high rates of plastic surgery and what has subsequently been unveiled as a longstanding, widely-accepted culture of surgical alteration. 1 in 5 women in Korea has had some form of cosmetic surgery compared to 1 in 20 women in the U.S. Korea is now synonymous with medical tourism, and has established itself as an epicenter for all sorts of cosmetic surgery many of which centrally revolve around Western standards of beauty.


(Image from The Atlantic)

After doing this research my husband and I took a good look at our own eyes for the first time. And I’ve been paying more attention to my son’s eyes too. Frankly it’s been a relief to give myself that permission. I didn’t realize how much I was tiptoeing around it. And maybe that’s the more important part. I SEE things now. I can see what traits we have inherited that would identify us to others. I see why my immigrant Japanese mother-in-law would be so conscious of an eye shape that has become internationally controversial. At the same time I also see why I, an American born and bred Asian, have unconsciously avoided a subject that has (and continues to have) such a long, painful history in this country.


~ You can read more of guest blogger Sharon Chang at her MultiAsian Families blog.


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