On chasing the Eurocentric ideal

Identity

Image Description: Close up of the ‘fox eye’ makeup trend

I have two main theories about East Asians who dye their hair blonde. The first is that it’s not just blonde hair, but that they want to stand out by any colour necessary. Although it’s of course true that anyone can want to change their hair colour, I do feel that there’s a difference for ethnic minorities, the vast majority of whom are born with black hair, whereas white people’s hair can vary from ‘hazelnut brown’ to ‘strawberry blonde’. It’s definitely something that I’ve thought about doing myself, especially during lockdown.

However, if you approach the trend with a little cynicism, perhaps there’s a more sinister side to this: rather than standing out, are we trying to blend in? Is this the next step in our assimilation into the West? I see this in other young Asian people around me who dye their hair varying tones of brown, in what looks like an imitation of European shade range. Maybe I’m reading into things too much. Perhaps people are just dyeing their hair because they want to, without being subconsciously motivated by any racialised beauty ideal. They probably are.

Okay, so let’s leave hair dye aside. Let’s talk surgery. Commonly known as ‘double eyelid surgery’, East Asian blepharoplasty is an aesthetic procedure that is popular in Taiwan, South Korea, and even Northeast Indian states such as Assam. About half of the Asian population is born with monolids, something which many of the other half aspire to and will often undergo surgery to obtain. However, when I discovered the origin of the trend, I was appalled.

Being hated by other people for your race is one thing. Trying to alter your natural form for the same reason is quite another.

It was popularised by an American surgeon, David Ralph Millard, during the Korean war. He was stationed there to treat burn victims and ended up testing the procedure on Korean sex workers so that they would be more attractive to GIs; he claimed that a ‘slant-eyed Korean interpreter speaking excellent English, came in requesting to be made into a ‘round-eye’’, and he felt obliged to help the man. When Millard returned to the US, he published two papers: ‘Oriental Peregrinations’ in 1955 and ‘The Oriental Eyelid and It’s Surgical Revision’ in 1964. He writes that the Asian monolid ‘gives the effect of an expressionless eye sneaking a peep through a slit, a characteristic which through fact and fiction has become associated with mystery and intrigue.’

Other people of colour have similar experiences. For example, in 1947 Clark and Clark conducted an experiment with 253 black children between the ages of three and seven. The children were shown two identical dolls, one black and one white. Approximately two-thirds of the children indicated that they liked the white doll better, in spite of their own skin colour. Kiri Davis recreated this experiment in 2005: her results were the same. 16 of the 21 preschool-aged black children involved in the experiment still chose the white doll. When asked to show the doll that ‘looks bad’, one subject – a young black girl – chose the black doll, but when asked for the doll that looked like her, the girl first touched the white doll and then reluctantly chose the black doll.

Being hated by other people for your race is one thing. Trying to alter your natural form for the same reason is quite another. The knowledge that eyelid surgery and skin bleaching are popular trends pains me, but I think that the pursuit of these ideals can affect us more than we realise. In the past few years, as I’ve grown increasingly aware of my appearance and the way in which I present myself, I’ve found myself trying to recreate European features. They may sound like small things – a bit of nose contour, some liner to enlarge my eyes – but in reality, it’s the erasure of my ethnic features. In other words, even though I don’t consider myself ignorant of the influence of Western beauty ideals, I’ve still been trying to make myself look more white and less Chinese subconsciously.

The pursuit of Eurocentric features doesn’t just impact our self-esteem; it affects the livelihoods of working adults.

The funny thing is that white people are now trying to recreate my features. The fox eye trend has taken off in the past few months – and I’ve not enjoyed it at all. Not only are people like Emma Chamberlain adopting the exact same pose as my childhood bullies in the name of ‘looking snatched’, cosmetic doctors are now offering plastic surgery to create narrower, more slanted eyes. Let me get this straight: you’re having surgery to imitate the biological traits of East Asian people? The same ones you made fun of when you were at school?

It’s not just playground bullies. Julie Chen is the daughter of Chinese-American immigrants. She’s been the host of Big Brother in the US since its debut in July 2000 and is the longest-serving host of any country’s version of the show. She’s also been the moderator of the CBS show talk show The Talk for eight seasons. However, when working at an Ohio news station earlier in her career, her boss told her that her ‘Asian eyes’ made her look ‘disinterested and bored’. Later, an agent said they wouldn’t represent her unless she had surgery to enlarge her eyes; once she did, her career took off. The pursuit of eurocentric features doesn’t just impact our self-esteem; it affects the livelihoods of working adults.

What’s even more interesting is that when she declared this on-air on The Talk, the women around the table immediately voiced their support. Sharon Osbourne exclaimed ‘Fabulous!’ and then said ‘It was the right thing to do.’ Sheryl Underwood said ‘You represented your race, you represented women, and your colleagues.’ While I’m glad that Chen wasn’t berated for her decision, I do think that the description of the procedure as ‘the right thing to do’ says a lot about the lengths we expect people of colour to go to in order to fit in.

One last thing. I’m not criticising anyone who feels that they have to change the way they present in order to assimilate better. Julie Chen is now very successful and, although I don’t know much about her, I’m glad to see a Chinese person thriving on American television. This kind of societal pressure isn’t the fault of any one person, and it certainly shouldn’t be blamed on a person of colour. But I do think that we should be examining where our beauty ideals come from and whether we’re subconsciously – or consciously – pressuring people of colour to erase the biological features which make them different from white people.

  • ABC News. (2006, October 11). What dolls can tell us about race in America. ttp://abcnews.go.com/ GMA/ story?id=2553348& page=1#.U Jh36cXR7TA
  • Clark, K., & Clark, M. (1947). Racial identification and preference in Negro children. In T. M. Newcomb and E. L. Hartley (Eds.), Readings in Social Psychology. New York, NY: Henry Holt.

Image Credit: @foxeyemakeup via Instagram