When I was in the second grade, I learned that I looked different from my classmates. In art class, Mrs. F, a bony brunette with green glasses, told us to turn to our partners so that we could draw each other’s portraits. “Look at the shape of their face. Is it circular or oval?” she asked.
I turned to the boy next to me, who was blond and freckled. He had a square face, I thought. I diligently tried to copy the straight lines of his cheeks.
“Now let’s do the eyes,” Mrs. F said. We watched as she drew a sideways seed with a circle in the center. She raised her pencil high, punctuating the air. “One very important thing to remember! See the line over your partner’s eye? That’s called a crease. It’s important to have the crease or your person won’t look real.”
“But Crystal doesn’t have any lines!” my partner yelled.
My hand flew up to my eyes. I wondered if he was lying, if something was wrong with me. I wasn’t embarrassed yet—that would come later. In that moment, I was only confused. Mrs. F stuttered as she tried to reel back her words. Her cheeks splotched red, and I understood that this was an awkward situation, that indeed something was different about me. Even then, I was disappointed by her reaction. She was the adult, and yet she had no quick answer to this boy’s claim, which he hadn’t even raised his hand for. She had made a mistake, and yet I felt as if I were to blame.
“Not everyone has a crease, that’s true,” Mrs. F said.
My classmates, registering her discomfort, stared at me. “That’s because she’s Chinese,” a girl across the room said.
I wanted to say that I was Korean.
I wanted to say nothing was wrong with me.
But instead, I touched my eyes. If I didn’t have a crease, did I still look real?
I became acutely aware of my otherness that day. As a seven-year-old, I knew I was Korean, but that had meant we ate different foods and spoke a different language at home. I hadn’t thought of my physical self as dissimilar from those around me. After that art lesson, I compared myself to the others in class. I watched brown-haired, hazel-eyed Ashley, who sat beside me and stole the lead from my mechanical pencils. Her skin was pinker and paler. My hair was shinier and slicker. And yes, she had creases over her eyes. How had I never spotted them before?
I asked my parents whether they’d ever noticed that some people had lines over their eyes. They didn’t have them, I pointed out. My younger sister and I didn’t either. My parents laughed, and my father explained what the crease was called in Korean—ssangapeul. “Your face is beautiful as it is,” he said. “You don’t need to worry that you don’t have any.”
Was I supposed to worry? I stared at myself in the mirror, examining the curve of my eyes and how my skin disappeared when I blinked, folding in. It seemed to me that when adults spoke of this crease, this ssangapeul, the understood sentiment was that to have one was better or more desired. This physical standard was not only reflected in my classmates’ faces, in my art teacher’s portraits, on TV, and in the movies, but in the way we used language to describe beauty as well.
By the time I was a teen, I was an expert at scanning people’s faces, always in search of eyes like mine. I devoured glossy magazines, ever mindful of the language we used to talk about beauty. The sections on how to apply makeup intrigued me most precisely because their audience never included me. Swoop eyeshadow up to the creases. Blend along the natural line. Pick a lighter shade for the skin above the crease. I imagined what my face would look like with this presumed “natural line.” Would bullies stop pulling their eyes at me then? Would I be considered beautiful? Or at least, normal?
Words have power, and especially in the realm of beauty, how we speak about ourselves is important. To have a crease was natural. To have a crease was to look real. You’re supposed to have a crease. Eyes with creases are just called eyes. Eyes without creases are given a name that sounds clinical, alien: monolid.
So what happens when you’re surrounded by language that presumes a part of your face is unnatural? You search for ways to fix the problem. Many people with monolids experiment with double-sided eyelid tape and special glue to create temporary creases. This particular makeup brand advertises their product as “perfect for hooded, droopy, uneven, or mono-eyelids,” which again shows the language we prescribe to eyes like mine. Imperfect, undesirable. There are tons of products to “fix” monolids, many of them strange, suspicious-looking tools like this glasses-eyelash curler hybrid, which claims to create semi-permanent creases when used every day. I know plenty of people who have gotten plastic surgery for a more permanent fix as well.
Growing up, I fluctuated between wanting to modify my looks and embracing them. My Korean-American friends and I pasted those slivers of double-sided tape onto our eyelids and blinked at each other. Were our eyes bigger and rounder? Were we prettier now? But for some reason, I never liked the sight of myself with those fake lines. Who was she, this girl with suddenly creased eyes? So forced, so strange.
In 2012, I got my makeup done professionally for the first time. My best friend’s brother was getting married, and we were invited into the bride’s suite. The makeup artist offered to do our faces gratis. I hesitated. “Why are you nervous? I know how to do Asian makeup,” the woman said. “I never get to practice though. Come on, it’s free.” She wheedled, and I complied. With my face raised, I asked her how she’d do my eyes as she brushed my cheeks pink. “The trick is to draw a dark line where the crease is supposed to be. You’ll look great.” Supposed to be? The woman smiled, oblivious.
Thankfully, the way we talk about and portray beauty in America has changed significantly in the last few years. The internet, especially, has provided a unique platform for those who are embracing and claiming their beauty. From YouTube tutorials on monolid makeup to #monolid self-love movements, it’s been exhilarating to see the ways we are expanding our definition of normal. In 2016, Broadly published an article about Asian makeup artists that are accentuating monolids rather than trying to westernize them with the creation of fake creases. Last year, Allure published “The Beauty of Monolids” about the personal experiences of five Asian beauty bloggers. BuzzFeed is a treasure trove of self-love, with articles like “22 Gorgeous Girls with Monolids” that my younger self would have cherished. Those words—beauty, gorgeous—may seem insignificant or even superficial, but to a young adult trying to understand their self-worth, it is transformative to see yourself represented and praised. More of these, I say to myself, as I open tab after tab. More, please. We need more visual representation of people with monolids in the media, but we also need to change the conversation around monolids as well.
Funnily enough, a strange thing started happening to me a few years ago: a crease forms along my left eyelid whenever I’m tired or stressed. The first time I noticed, I held a hand up to the right side of my face. So this is what I would look like, I thought. I saw the appeal—larger eyes, seemingly brighter. But I had come to love my face as it was, and this felt like a betrayal.
When I complained to a friend, she suggested using double-sided tape on my right eye. There’s no way to get rid of the left’s eyes new crease, so I might as well add one to the other, her reasoning goes. But I do not want that. It has taken me this long to understand that my monolids are normal, natural, desirable. I don’t want to let go of that now.
I rub my left eye, willing myself to be less tired, less stressed, less old. It doesn’t always work. I look in the mirror again and laugh. My ssangapeul eye and my monolid eye. Maybe I’m lucky. I get to have them both.
Crystal Hana Kim's novel If You Leave Me is out August 7, and available for pre-order here.