Content note: Descriptions of racism and xenophobia, both current and throughout history, particularly against Asian people
By Joanna Ho
When I was younger, I used to look in the mirror and wish for bigger eyes and longer eyelashes. I remember pulling up my eyelids, trying to imagine what I would look like without the fold grazing the stick straight hairs trying to pass for lashes near my eyeballs. There was no chance at pretty with eyes like mine.
I’ve been asked how it’s possible for me to drive while laughing because I must not be able to see when my lids crinkle together. A college friend went to Taiwan over a winter break because her mom forced her to get double eyelid surgery. It’s impossible to count the number of times people have pulled their eyes into slants while taunting me or taking photos shared on social media.
In a society with a narrow definition of beauty, those of us who fall outside these standards internalize oppressive and harmful messages. We start out watching Disney movies starring princesses with eyes half the size of their faces, then move on to movies featuring similarly doe-eyed actresses. We are given—or forced to read—books that describe beauty through blue-eyed, golden-haired lenses, then watch the news to see anchors selected as much for their looks as their reporting. No matter where we turn, we are bombarded with impossible physical expectations. We who are not white, round-eyed, straight-haired, abled, size-two models learn from a young age that we are not, and will never be, beautiful.
Our understanding of beauty does not only run skin deep. Definitions of beauty are a result of white supremacy—ideology and systems designed to keep white people in positions of power. This messaging is not accidental; it has always been intentional. In Stamped, Ibram X. Kendi explains that Black skin was argued to be an “‘ugly’ deformity of normal Whiteness.” He goes further to describe Isaac Newton’s color wheel in which “‘The center’ was ‘white of the first order,’ and all the other colors were positioned in relation to their ‘distance from Whiteness.” These arguments are a few too many used to justify slavery and the continued racist practices against Black people.
The vilification of Asian eyes serves a similar historical purpose. This feature has been distorted and exaggerated to reinforce negative stereotypes in order to justify the discrimination and inhumane treatment of Asians in America including lower wages while building the Transcontinental Railroad, discriminatory housing practices (Chinatowns were formed because Chinese people were not allowed in white neighborhoods), heavy policing, anti-immigration laws, internment camps, and murder. Asians in America were portrayed to be disease-ridden criminals who were here to rape white women, pillage, and overrun the country. More recently, Asians have been demonized as the bat-eating cause of the worldwide coronavirus pandemic, or as racist government leaders call it, the China Virus or Kung Flu.
At the same time, Asian eyes were also used to spread a hyper-sexual image of Asian women, not unlike the stereotypes disseminated about Black women during slavery. This hyper-sexualization of Black and Asian women removes our humanity with the purpose of condoning rape and abuse. It continues to this day.
Narrow standards of beauty go hand-in-hand with the erasure of BIPOC cultures, stories, traditions, perspectives, and histories from the dominant narrative. From storybooks to school curriculums, social media to the silver screen, we are still taught that white is normal and important, while everyone else, if included at all, is “diverse.” Read: Other, extra, periphery, unimportant, or unusual. The beauty we’re taught to revere reinforces the marginalization of Black, Indigenous, people of color.
Beauty is not simply a superficial reading of proportion and tones. It is more than the shape of our eyes, the pigment in our skin, the way parts are arranged on our bodies. Our features are traits passed down to us through generations. They are the physical manifestations of our histories, cultures, stories, and families. My eyes were passed to me from my mom, an immigrant from Taiwan who raised two children on her own without a college degree. Her eyes were passed down from her mom, my Amah, a loving woman who was nearly blind her entire life, yet raised ten children through war and occupation. My eyes have been passed to my daughter, a fierce child who likes to squish raw egg yolks in her hand, and colors herself with a marker because it makes her a superhero. We cannot separate our bodies from our stories. Being taught to hate how we look is being taught to hate who we are.
I was in my early thirties when I realized that my eyes were not ugly. I was standing in line at a 7-11 while traveling in Taiwan and I picked up a random magazine to pass the time. As I flipped through, I was struck by its pages full of Asian women with features like mine. They were beautiful. This meant I could be beautiful too. Representation matters.
Eyes that Kiss in the Corners is a story about recognizing beauty and all it encompasses. It is my hope that readers with eyes like mine will be reminded of their own beauty and power. It is also my hope that readers with eyes shaped differently than mine will learn to value the beauty of eyes who kiss in the corners. Perhaps we can nurture a generation that will never experience the hatred of a slanty-eyed taunt.
Learning to recognize our own beauty in the face of relentless dehumanizing messaging is an act of tremendous strength and power. It means breaking narratives designed to silence us and disrupting systems created to oppress us. It means embracing who we are, where we are from, and who we can be. It is an act of resistance and revolution. I hope Eyes that Kiss in the Corners can help readers reclaim beauty and recognize the power they have to be this change.
Eyes That Kiss in the Corners by Joanna Ho, illustrated by Dung Ho, is out on January 5, 2021. Pre-order it here!
A young Asian girl notices that her eyes look different from her peers’. They have big, round eyes and long lashes. She realizes that her eyes are like her mother’s, her grandmother’s, and her little sister’s. They have eyes that kiss in the corners and glow like warm tea, crinkle into crescent moons, and are filled with stories of the past and hope for the future.
Drawing from the strength of these powerful women in her life, she recognizes her own beauty and discovers a path to self love and empowerment.
This powerful, poetic picture book will resonate with readers of all ages and is a celebration of diversity.
Joanna Ho is passionate about equity in books and education. The daughter of immigrants from Taiwan and China, she has been an English teacher, a dean, and a teacher professional development mastermind. She is currently the vice principal of a high school in the San Francisco Bay Area. And mom to two energetic kids. Homemade chocolate chip cookies, outdoor adventures, and dance parties with her kids make Joanna’s eyes crinkle into crescent moons. Forthcoming books include Playing at the Border: A Story of Yo-Yo Ma, illustrated by Teresa Martinez, The Silence That Binds Us, and One Day, illustrated by Faith Pray.
Dung Ho was born and raised in Hue Imperial City, Vietnam, where she studied graphic design at the Hue Arts University. She finds inspiration in nature—the beauty of plants, flowers, and leaves. She also loves to draw interesting characters with unique personalities. Now she lives in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, where she continues to learn and develop her art, something she loves doing. When she’s not drawing, she loves spending time cooking (eating), watching movies, and tending her plants.