eye of beholder
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“How are they this time?” my housemate asks.

I’m on my fourth trial set of contact lenses, and I think that I have finally found a winner. Getting contacts sounds like a frivolous matter, but it’s something that I’ve wanted to do for some time. I tried to wear contact lenses when I was in middle school, but several attempts were unsuccessful. Despite having a fear of touching my eyes and astigmatism requiring thicker lenses that made putting in contacts difficult, I chalked up my failures to having small eyes.

It was easy to blame my small eyes because I already blamed them for other things. They hold the same narrow shape as my mother’s, common among East Asians. As a young girl, I didn’t realize that my eyes were different from my peers’ until someone pointed out the fact. My mother told me that during my first week of kindergarten, I ran into her outstretched arms in tears, lamenting being called “the Chinese girl.” It was the first of numerous experiences where I was labelled as “different” due to being Asian. I was a mixed-race girl with a Chinese Filipino mother, and I was the only Asian in my grade at each of the predominantly-white schools I attended.

What did this experience mean?

It was being a third grader and told to open my eyes wider on picture day.

It was the endless questions. Do you eat cats? Are you adopted? Where are you from? 

It was having a classmate tell me that my mom shouldn’t have been allowed into this country.

My eyes became a scapegoat for my insecurities. They have been, for the majority of my life, an indicator that I am different. That I am foreign, even though I am not. I hated the way my eyes crinkle when I laugh, therefore hated the pictures that captured me during my happiest moments. I was self-conscious when applying makeup during sleepovers, and I cried over Asian jokes that my classmates made. My ideas about eyes like mine were fraught with centuries-old concerns about attractiveness, enveloped in juvenile comparisons to my friends’ “prettier” eyelids. When I looked in the mirror, I felt animosity towards a physical characteristic that was out of my control.

When I was in middle school, I thought that contacts might make my eyes look larger. I believed that I could line my lids with eyeliner — never mind the fact that I had trouble at the time with things close to my eye — to make my eyes appear rounder and bigger and thus more beautiful. This related to the notion that the act of removing my glasses would also make me prettier — inspired by the classic “girl removes glasses and is suddenly revealed to have been beautiful all along” trope in movies such as “The Princess Diaries.”

Given my past lack of success with contacts, I was ecstatic to finally get them in and out successfully, which I’ll credit to persistence and greater experience with makeup near my eye. However, after the initial excitement over testing out contact lenses, I was forced to consider what this meant for all my middle school insecurities surrounding my East Asian eyes. The reality is, my eyes — both with glasses and without — have always been beautiful. 

Beauty standards in Asia have always been more complex than they’ve been given credit for. It’s harmful to say that all beauty standards are owed to Westernization and colonialism, as it trivializes the nuances between Asian cultures and dismisses the beauty standards held before Europeans arrived. It’s also ignorant, however, to pretend that Western ideals haven’t been incredibly impactful. The media and fashion industries in industrialized countries are largely dictated by white ideals, and the globalization of these ideals can influence how people discern standards of beauty. Thus, Western beauty standards can affect how young Asian and Asian-American women view themselves and their physical appearances. On the matter, sociologist C.N. Le notes that “within the U.S., Asian Americans are a visible racial minority group, and particularly young people and those who live outside Asian-majority enclaves and cities, feel palpable pressure to ‘blend in,’ to avoid being seen as physically or culturally different.”

Looking back, my insecurities were in conjunction with these indoctrinated ideals, in which I desired to assimilate with my white peers. Research has shown that there are negative consequences to internalizing such beauty standards, and they aren’t just limited to the eyes, impacting perceptions on body shape, nose shape and skin color. Beauty standards and styles surrounding eyes are still a hot topic, however, especially given the cultural appropriation present in trends like the “fox-eye” makeup look that was popular a year ago. The makeup trend consisted of applying eyeliner to make the eyes appear more elongated and slanted upward, with some people even pulling back their temples to exaggerate a “slanted” appearance. Celebrities and influencers such as Emma Chamberlain contributed to the trend on social media before being slammed by critics for cultural appropriation. Why? Some cosmetic experts saw the makeup trend as a recognition of Asian beauty, but many recognized it as being racially insensitive. Makeup used to create “slanted” eyes has historically been used to create offensive, satirical caricatures such as Mr. I.Y. Yunioshi in the 1961 film “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” while the eye-pulling gesture is far too similar to that used to demean and taunt Asians. East Asian eyes are not simply an aesthetic, and it seems strange that people fetishize something I used to be teased for in my youth. I can’t stop having East Asian eyes by washing off makeup, unlike those doing the fox-eye makeup trend.

The first time someone told me my eyes were beautiful — at least, someone besides my mother — I was taken aback. Hearing it is still jarring, and I occasionally, to this day, feel self-conscious about the way my eyes crinkle when I smile; however, I’ve realized that my eyes are part of who I am. I represent an Asian background that I’ve grown to love rather than resent. My background is beautiful, even if the Western-centric environment I grew up in led me to believe it wasn’t.

I used to agonize over the shape of my eyes. Contacts don’t make my eyes appear bigger or smaller like I used to believe they would, but I’ve realized that it doesn’t matter. Beforehand, gazing in the mirror without my glasses resulted in patches of colors and blurry shapes. Recently, for the first time in a decade, I glanced in the mirror and saw what I looked like without glasses. I stared at my reflection for longer than I care to admit, trying to recognize the stranger who stared back at me.

Despite disliking my own eyes, I’ve always thought that my mother’s eyes were beautiful in the depth of their gaze. Since leaving the confines of my small hometown, I’ve met more people who are Asian or mixed race like me. I’ve been working on confronting my internalized ideals of beauty, and, in the process, have developed an appreciation for the way my eyes kiss in the corners. Throughout the process of getting contacts, I’ve ended up looking at my eyes more frequently than I did before. I’m happy about it, and that makes me feel more beautiful.

Columnist Elizabeth Schriner can be contacted at eschrine@umich.edu