Erasing my dark under-eye circles won’t change the fact of my Indonesian heritage.
I began to notice the discoloration under my eyes in elementary school. I remember telling my mother that I wanted to get surgery to remove them when I grew up. At the time, I suffered from severe insomnia. Before bed, I ingested a cocktail of melatonin and Benadryl to bring on drowsiness, but it rarely worked. I laid awake in bed for hours in the dark, staring at the ceiling, scared, anxious—sometimes I would pace the hallways or, more often, crawl into bed with my mother. For the majority of my life, I assumed the under-eye circles were the result of a sleepless childhood.
Dark under-eye circles are caused by a variety of factors and mine were certainly exacerbated by my lack of sleep: The thinning of the skin under the eyes reveals superficial blood vessels, an iron deficiency, and in South Asians, Southern Italians, and African-Americans in particular, hyper pigmentation, according to a 2008 New York Times article on the clinical and cosmetic efforts to combat dark circles.
My father emigrated to Pennsylvania from Java, Indonesia, by way of Holland, in the late forties. I understood as a child that my father was not born in America. He was foreign. He looked different, too: He had darker, redder skin than the other parents. It wasn’t until high school that I connected those facts about him with an identity: He is half-Indonesian, which makes me a quarter Indonesian. My dad never discussed that his background meant that he is Asian and that means that some part of me is too. He grew up speaking Dutch (Indonesia was once a Dutch colony), a language he quickly abandoned when his family came to America, and never insisted that I learn it myself. The only Indonesian dish he ever cooked in our house was gado-gado (peanut sauce), and he did not pass his skill in preparing it on to me, or insist that I try it.
Two of the central ways that families pass along culture and traditions to children: language and food. I missed both. The only piece of his Asian half that he did pass along to me are those rings under my eyes. His family came here to escape a post-war, post-occupation Indonesia in chaos. Perhaps he didn’t want to look back. But as a result of this gap in my knowledge, I didn’t conceive of any part of my physical appearance as being Asian until I grew old enough to form an independent identity.
But I was always aware of the difference in my face, that I do not look like other caucasian women—girls with bright skin around the eyes that makes them look radiant in photos. In middle and high school, I combed the aisles of drugstores looking for a miracle cure that would, according to various labels, correct hyper-pigmentation, even skin tone, reduce puffiness, and bleach away the circles. My latest effort is Vitamin K supplements, and an orange-tinted concealer that is supposed to counteract the blue tone in the skin under my eyes.
Beauty blogs suggest slices of cucumber or potato under the eyes, exercise, a good night’s rest, and to stay hydrated. There is no space for a South Asian girl in that narrative. Drugstore products especially are aimed at exhausted and overworked white women; they are the norm and everyone else is an irregularity. No one ever suggested to me that no amount of water and sleep could solve what I viewed—and sometimes still do, in moments of insecurity—as a problem. No one told me that this facial feature is common in many South Asian women. And no one corrected my assumption that it needed to be fixed.
Under these conditions, I have tried, for most of my life, to erase the single outward sign of my Asian-ness. The circles are dark and obvious. I’ve been told I look perpetually tired, by sympathetic friends and disapproving employers, even if I have, unbeknownst to them, slept the recommended full eight hours. In photos my eyes look sunken in and cloaked under a shadow, two-toned or bruised. I fantasize about having skin like Kendall Jenner—uniform and glowing. Such is the power of Western beauty standards: to destroy the confidence and body image of young women of color.
Recently, I’ve begun to embrace my Asian-American identity, but I do so with trepidation. Not because I am ashamed but because there seems very little on which to base that identity. I easily pass as white, I don’t speak the language of my ancestors, and I don’t cook their food. I’ve never visited Java (I’ve been to Bali twice, which is considered almost a different country), and as far I know, we don’t have any more relatives on Java. How can I call myself Asian-American when there is such scant visible evidence to prove it?
Being a person of color is more than just about DNA; it’s also an experience. As James Baldwin wrote in The Fire Next Time, “Color is not a human or personal reality; it is a political reality.” And because I move through the world sheltered by my fair skin and Western features, I rarely feel unsafe because of my race (though I do often feel threatened as a woman). Though my dark circles are the most obvious sign that I’m Asian, they don’t put me in danger. Feeling resentful about a physical characteristic I inherited cannot be in any way compared to the fear that you might be kidnapped or shot by a cop. Because I am exempt from that reality, I am in a position of power and privilege that I readily accept. All I can do is step back and offer my support and stand in solidarity.
I am trying to be more open about my identity, to spread my father’s story, in a political climate that is deeply hostile toward immigrants and refugees. My very existence points back to Asia. A small part of my DNA carries on a family bloodline influenced by years of oppressive Dutch colonization broken only by the Second World War. Honoring my father and his Indonesian family means owning my racial background.
White supremacy is also internalized; it makes minorities hate ourselves, the way we were born, the way we are meant to look. In an interview for Teen Vogue, makeup artist Kirin Bhatty said, “The number one concern I hear about from girls who are from either Middle Eastern or South Asian descent is that, no matter what, they have dark eye circles.” Young women of color are expected, from an early age, to figure out how to cover up their dark circles: Perhaps we have come to believe that our natural faces really are shameful and should be hidden so that we better fit in with the rest of acceptable society. As Jezebel once pointed out, “The anti-circle propaganda we hear (they make you look tired! and old!) could be subtly racist,” as the feature is most common in African and Asian people. Sometimes we whitewash ourselves.
Meanwhile, the dark under-eye circle has long been considered sexy on white women: Smokey makeup gives women sultry bedroom eyes that can be wiped off when they’re done playing dress-up. The Italian actress Sophia Loren is often offered as an example of how under-eye circles can look beautiful on women—after looking through pictures of Loren, I didn’t notice any circles, just a taste for charcoal-like eyeliner—but she’s still a bombshell European woman, hardly representative of the minority women of color who, on top of everything else, have tremendous trouble finding themselves reflected in the media.
Buzzfeed has also declared under-eye circles “sexy as fuck.” Their list includes some women of color—“badass” Michelle Rodriguez, and a resplendent Solange Knowles—but not a single Asian woman appears. Part of me doesn’t care: I don’t want to be validated by a society that has excluded and suppressed my perspective, experiences, and my body from the mainstream. We have always had to create our own corners. Trying to convince the world that circles are sexy or beautiful misses the point: I just want the natural way that I look to be accepted and normalized, without having to worry if it makes me likable.
But it would be also comforting to see Asian women take their place in pop culture, to finally put to rest the notion of women of color as outsiders, strange and exotic, always alien and unfamiliar, never allowed our humanity. If there is better representation of women of color in the media, there wouldn’t be such a disconnect between how we experience our bodies and how they are perceived, not to mention the benefits to our self-esteem and body image. For women like me, who are constantly looking for ways to rid ourselves of this feature, intentionally creating them with make up is nearly incomprehensible.
To curious strangers, I often feel as though I have to prove my ethnicity. They look surprised when I reveal I am Indonesian and Dutch (and some further unknown European mixture on my mother’s side), and there is mislabeling all around to go with their inquiries: Indian, or Native American maybe, or, or, or. Although the guessing mostly happens when I’m talking to a new man for the first time—they always feel the most entitled to the knowledge—I sometimes have to prove it to myself, too.
The question that I often ask myself—Am I asian enough?—has two parts. I have to answer it partly with what I know to be true in my blood and DNA, and partly with what I have experienced in the world. In my daily life, I have experienced microaggressions throughout my twenty-seven years that have made me frustrated and sometimes unbearably angry, but my racial identity exists almost entirely internally. I have no religion or recipes or language that connects me to it. Only this facial feature that I still struggle to accept. Perhaps that is not enough to claim an identity, especially if I can temporarily hide it with makeup. But erasing my dark circles wouldn’t change the fact of my genetics.
There is no one way to look or be Asian, and I am not defined by my race or even this one feature that points to it. While experiences of women of color do vary greatly, and mine are still valid even on the small scale that they occur, the mostly internal nature of my Asian identity is critical. I am Asian enough—just by existing—for myself, but I still must step aside in most conversations about the lives and struggles of women of color, though I do reserve the right to tell my own story, because appearance does matter. I hate the circles for how they make me look, but I love them too, for connecting me to my dad. Even when I obsessively compare myself to other caucasian women, or scheme ways to cover up my circles, every time I look in the mirror, I’m reminded of a heritage that makes me an individual. They are a part of me, whether I like it or not, and only when I’ve fully embraced them will I achieve true self-love. Until then, I’ll keep struggling to accept the skin I inherited, regardless of whether or not the world sees me as “Asian enough.”
Elisabeth Sherman is the food and drink editor at Matador Network. She lives in New Jersey.