The ‘Othering’ of Asian Eyes

Posted by Michelle Pham & filed under Identity.

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When Julie Chen revealed on The Talk that she underwent the popular double eyelid surgery to advance her broadcast career, her revelation went ablaze and opened up discussions on the implications behind Chen’s choice.

In her early 20’s, Chen had ambitious dreams of having more on-air time, but her news director said, “Let’s face it, Julie. How relatable are you to our community? How big of an Asian community do we really have in Dayton?’ ” Chen recalled. “‘On top of that, because of your heritage, because of your Asian eyes, I’ve noticed that when you’re on camera, when you’re interviewing someone, you look disinterested and bored because your eyes are so heavy, they’re so small.'”

Chen’s decision was extremely divisive to her family, leaving members of her extended family threatening to disown her if she went forward with the surgery. After committing to the idea, Chen’s immediate family financed and supported her throughout the duration of the surgery. For Chen, the conflict lay in whether or not going under the knife to look “less Chinese” was a repudiation of her cultural roots and identity.

For the most part, most of the commentary on Chen’s surgery has been positive. NPR reports, “Now, years later, Chen says she looks “more alert.” Her co-hosts call the surgery “fabulous.” Asian-American journalists and activists rallied against the pressure of assimilation that Chen endured, expressing outrage against the producers and agents who offered Chen ultimatums on her career.

However, many students I spoke to mentioned mixed thoughts about Chen’s decision. One student, mentioned, “Chen’s coming out about getting her eye surgery and its help to her career leaves me with mixed feelings. She doesn’t regret it, which isn’t a bad thing, but what type implications does this have for other aspiring Asian-American broadcasters who have similar aspirations? Are they supposed to give in to the pressure? Chen was in her early 20’s when she had the surgery so we can’t know if she was going to make it without the surgery, because she never gave her authentic face a chance.”

In the aftermath of Chen’s story, NPR ran an article on why American society describe Asian eyes as almond-shaped.

Growing up in Vancouver, having dark-brown eyes and ebony hair was a commonly accepted look. As an avid fan of the Baby-Sitters Club series, I share a similar sentiment to Kat Chow, the author of the NPR article:

“And then, most notably to me and many folks who grew up in the ’80s and ’90s, we find the phrase nestled in every boilerplate description of The Baby-Sitters Club’s Claudia Kishi, the token Japanese-American character. (If you were an Asian-American kid like me, who was one of the only, if not few, cool almond-shaped eyed gals in popular culture.)”

There was no language to describe the shape of my eyes in comparison to the standard of whiteness. The description of Japanese-American Claudia and her “almond-shaped eyes” seemed a poetic way of describing my own looks. When I grew older and non-Asian foreigners asked me how to define my eyes, I thought back to the pivotal moment in my childhood where I was given the language to describe my eyes as “almond-shaped.” But doing so, is it problematic and in essence, ‘othering’ a physical character trait?

So, is there even a need to define the shape of the Asian eyelid in different terms? Is describing Asian eyes as “almond-shaped” problematic or simply poetic license?

Let us know your thoughts.

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