Have you ever walked through a shopping mall at Easter or Christmastime? Without a doubt, in the middle of the mall, you will see squirming young children dressed in adorable outfits accompanied by exhausted adults all waiting in an obnoxiously long line for pictures with the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus. If you are brave enough to walk past and follow that line, you’ll see a photographer, undoubtedly with a squeaky stuffed animal, funny outfit, or bubbles–trying to get said squirmy children to look at the camera, and smile.
My mother used to take me to get these iconic photos taken when I was little, and every single time I was placed on the Easter Bunny or Santa’s lap, my mother would tell the photographer the same thing, “Don’t make her laugh because her eyes will close.”
Now, before you think that my mother was a horrible person for saying such a thing, one needs to understand where she was coming from. These pictures were not cheap, and she was right; whenever I would laugh really hard, my almond-shaped eyes would close, thus resulting in a very expensive photo of a cute asian toddler seemingly sleeping.
I was adopted from South Korea when I was 6 months old. My adoptive parents are not Asian. My mother comes from a very solid Hungarian background, and my father is some mix of English and Welsh.
Growing up, my parents never hid my adoption from me. From what they say, they talked to me about being adopted since before I could even really understand what it meant. Since we lived in a small town in Upstate NY with virtually no diversity, my mom did what she could to try and give me a chance to connect with other Asians. There was a play-group for adopted Korean children that was run through the Korean American Student Association (KASA) at SUNY Binghamton, and she would take me to their events throughout the better part of my childhood. While there, the college students would do cooking activities, picnics, bowling trips, storytelling, skits and other fun things with us kids in an attempt to teach us a little bit about Korean culture.
Other than the KASA, my interaction with anyone who was Asian, let alone Korean, was virtually nothing. In fact, I never came into contact with anyone who was anything else but White.
Once I got a little bit older, maybe early elementary school-aged, I started to notice my Asianness. I always knew that my parents were not my biological parents, but it actually never really occurred to me that I didn’t look like them until other kids started to point it out to me. They would innocently ask why my skin was a different color than my parents’, or they would inquire about how my parents came to be my parents. Even teachers would pause and be caught off guard at open house when my mother would introduce herself as, “Shene’s mom.” At best, many of them assumed that my father was White and my mother was Asian. None really even considered that adoption was a possibility.
Once I got to middle school and fell into that wonderful phase of adolescence, all of my questions, confusion, and insecurities were only augmented by puberty. At this point in my life, I really struggled with being adopted, where I fit, and my identity (more to come on that in a later post). However, being a 12-13 year old girl, the area where my being the only Asian in a sea of White caused the most struggle was makeup.
Not just any makeup mind you–eye makeup.
I have so many distinct memories of going over to friends’ houses and taking trips to CVS to buy makeup in middle school. We would pick up the newest edition of Seventeen or Cosmogirl, flip through to find the latest makeup trends, and then buy whatever the article suggested. Once we returned to the house, we would take turns doing each other’s makeup according to the looks in the magazines.
I loved makeup (and still do). I would always volunteer to do my friend’s makeup first because I relished in the art of mixing shades, highlighting their best features, trying new colors etc. To me, it was like putting paint on a blank canvas. But when it came time for them to return the favor, they would all say the same thing when it came to my eyes, “I don’t know how to do this look on your eyes. You have no lid.”
Okay, so what they really meant was that I was (am) monolided, not that I don’t have any eyelid at all, but we were 12.
Whenever this happened, I felt so embarrassed. I didn’t know what to say because truthfully, I didn’t know how to do my eye makeup either. If only they knew how many countless hours I spent at home in my bedroom with my kit-and-kaboodle full of glittery eyeshadows and teal liquid liners (it was the 1999) trying to make my eyes look like the doe-eyed models that graced the covers of the magazines, only to be met with tears and a whole tissue box used to wipe away the hundreds of failed attempts.
Every article or tutorial on “How To Master The Perfect Smokey Eye” was geared toward women with a double-fold, so when I followed the instructions step-by-step at best I would look like a raccoon, and at worst, I would look like I had two black eyes.
I never outrightly talked with my mom about how I was feeling because I think I assumed she wouldn’t be able to help since she too had double-folded eyelids, but I think that at some point she realized that I was insecure about my eyes. I would often say, “I can’t wear/do that look because my eyes don’t open or are weird/stupid” and her mother’s intutition kicked in.
She started taking me to makeup counters in BonTon and Kaufman’s to have the women working there do my makeup for concerts or recitals, thinking that since they were in the beauty industry they could help. But time and time again their hand at it was no better than my own. I would politely say, “It looks great, thanks!” when they were finished, and then get into the car and sob, “Why can’t anybody do my makeup?” There were many times we would need to rush back home before an event so I could wash my face and de-puff from crying.
At this time in my life, kids were also cruel and my eyes became the butt of a lot of jokes. They’d often tell me to “open my eyes” or ask if I could see the same amount as everyone else. Sometimes I would beat them to the punch and say things like, “Oh, I didn’t see that. It must be because my eyes don’t open haha.” Other times, I would be annoyed and snootily respond, “I don’t know if I see less. Why don’t I pop your eyeballs out of their sockets so we can trade and find out?”
Around freshman year of high school, I gave up on the smokey eye look. I just told myself that it wasn’t in the cards. After years of practicing, I finally found a way to do liquid eyeliner in a neat, perfect wing. Doing so made my eyes look bigger and more open. This became my go-to look.
But little did I know at the time, that this winged eyeliner became a mask of sorts, and definitely a crutch. I wore eyeliner everywhere, and I was insanely uptight about it looking perfect. I would panic if it smudged, and god forbid my parents try to rush me out the door before my eyeliner was on. At sleepovers I would get up before everyone else and sneak to the bathroom to put on my eyeliner before the other girls could see me sans wing. Even when I got to college and would travel with the marching band while sleeping on the gym floor with everyone else, I would always make sure that my eyeliner was on point.
On the rare occasion that I would forget, usually people would point out that something looked different. “You look different today. You look…tired or stoned.”
“Great,” I would think. “Not only do my eyes look ugly, but now I look tired or high without eyeliner. Wonderful.”
My eyeliner had become an obsession because quite honestly, I thought that I was ugly without it.
This unhealthy relationship with my eyes continued well into my mid twenties when I met my husband. At the point when we moved in together, I could no longer keep up my eyeliner routine. It just became too much to wake up before him and run to the bathroom to “put on my face” before he could see me.
I was so nervous the first time that he saw me without it. I braced myself for a comment. Not necessarily a mean one, but just some remark that something was different, yet one never came. In fact, not once did he ever mention noticing a difference. Finally, my eyes didn’t seem to be the focal point of my face, and more importantly, they didn’t even matter.
As I started getting used to walking around the house sans liner, it felt like a weight was slowly lifting from my shoulders. It sounds silly, but having the freedom of being able to rub my eyes if I was sleepy or watch a tear-jerker without compulsively fixing my makeup was liberating. It blew my mind that something so seemingly trivial could have such a profound effect on my overall happiness.
The less I wore my liner, the more I got used to seeing my face without it. And as the years went on, I grew more secure with my naked eyes. Part of this was because I just matured and became less insecure. Another part was because the people around me also matured and kept their comments to themselves. Additionally, being in my first committed relationship where my race was never ever a topic of conversation, made me feel like I was just…me. Not someone who was a token because she was Asian.
It’s been almost five years since I went my first full day without eyeliner. In fact, I hardly wear it at all anymore unless I’m dressing up. To be honest, I laugh when I think about how much faster my makeup routine is in the mornings without needing to draw those two perfect little lines. But my eyeliner saga is about so much more than just…eyeliner.
Wearing eyeliner for me was symbolic of everything that is wrong with this world when it comes to accepting, promoting, and embracing diversity along with the influence of beauty standards.
When I think about how my teenage years might have been different had I grown up now, in the age of “Crazy Rich Asians”, “To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before”, Jean Wang (extrapetite.com), and Jen Chae (FrmHeadToToe), and Korean skincare routines, it makes me both sad and hopeful.
Yes, we have come a long way as a society when it comes to representing Asian women (and men) in Hollywood and in print media. Girls and women like me are now able to watch mainstream movies with actresses whose eyes look like ours. Thanks to influencers and bloggers such as Jean Wang and Jen Chae, we can learn where to buy clothes that are small enough for some of our extra petite frames, and we can watch tutorials on how to master the smokey eye look for monolids, but the progress has been slow and is still not enough.
If I should have a daughter, I hope that she has eyes that look like mine, even just a little bit. I hope that she nobody ever tells her to “open your eyes” or asks her if she can see less. I hope that she never experiences the same moment I had when I was 29 years old on my honeymoon in Thailand—the moment when I stepped into Suvarnahbumi International Airport, turned to my husband and said, “Oh my gosh! All of the beauty ads have women that look like me!” I hope that she is robbed of that moment because she is able to grow up without feeling like she is underrepresented. I hope that the world and beauty industry advertise that she is beautiful just the way she is. And when she turns 12 and wants to start experimenting with makeup, I will be happy to show her how to do the perfect winged eyeliner. But if I’m being honest, I hope that she never feels she needs to ask.