A monolid is a type of eyelid shape without a crease, most commonly a feature of Asian people. Traditionally, they have been denoted as “lazy” or “unappealing,” especially within East Asian cultures. Double eyelids, where the eyes are bigger and more defined, are socially desired facial features. These harmful beauty standards have leeched into normalcy, with even media meant for children succumbing to these expectations, the most notable example being Mulan.
I looked up to Mulan with the child-like reverence that told me that she was the perfect hero, with zero flaws: beautiful, brave, and selfless. Looking back now, those values still hold true, but I’ve noticed that there are definitely problematic undertones with the way Mulan was portrayed, most notably in the appearance of her eyes.
Mulan, released in 1998, is the animated Disney retelling of the original legend of Chinese warrior Hua Mulan (it has recently been remade into a live-action film, releasing later this year). In the film, Mulan disguises herself as a man to take her injured father’s place in the Imperial Army, to help defend China from the Hun invaders. Her individual battle to not only maintain her disguise but also prove she deserves her place among the other male soldiers is incredibly inspirational. As a consequence, however, her second identity, “Ping,” eventually becomes quite different from her actual self.
Whenever Mulan is animated as “Ping,” she has monolids, yet she has double eyelids whenever she is animated as just herself. Why does her eye shape change? Even if this may have been an instance of artistic license and wasn’t intentionally meant to be harmful, the implications are still there: that monolids are not feminine, or by proxy, desirable enough. The fact children have been inadvertently exposed to this kind of lesson, whether they consciously realize it or not, is rather disturbing.
The physical appearance of Asians has historically been weaponized and used against them. Racist caricatures would depict Asians with too-big buckteeth, yellow skin, and exaggerated, tiny eyes. These features were deemed revolting throughout multiple eras, from the Chinese exclusion era in the 19th century to Japanese internment during World War II. Their natural beauty was tainted by fear and hatred of the “other.”
What’s worse is the way monolids have been rejected even in Asian communities, particularly in the East. Asian parents compliment their children on having big eyes or ask them when they will be getting surgery to enlarge them. This kind of surgery, known as Asian blepharoplasty, has become commonplace. For example, millions of Chinese youth undergo the operation each year, and the market is expected to expand even further, according to the South China Morning Post. There is an unfair pressure placed on youth and particularly women as they face heightened scrutiny to resort to drastic measures such as using eyelid tape or plastic surgery – anything to “fix” their monolids.
Of course, the motivations for getting double eyelid surgery are also complex and not easily classified. There is a multitude of personal factors and reasons for changing your eye shape, some of which aren’t always because of beauty standards, and those reasons ought to be respected. People don’t need to justify what they do with their bodies. However, that does not mean that the far-reaching impact of these beauty standards isn’t harmful, and it is heartbreaking that so many young people grapple with accepting how they naturally look.
Ultimately, the lesson that Asian children grow up learning is that the way they look can and will be used against them. Mulan is an example of how far-reaching these standards are and how normalized they have become. While the film is a major cornerstone for Asian representation on the big screen – with a Chinese heroine honoring her family not by marrying well, but by saving her motherland – the little details and changes in Mulan’s eyes show just how corrosive the subconscious rejection of monolids and “Asian eyes” has become.
The real lesson children should be taught is that they don’t need to change anything about themselves, regardless of how big or small their eyes are. Even on the smallest scale, there is a whole world of diversity when looking at just eyes and their shapes. There are thinner eyes, bigger eyes, eyes with folds, eyes that are smooth.
It takes years to unlearn the emotional muscle memory of hating your own eyes. I was, in a way, one of the “lucky ones,” inheriting my mother’s big eyes and double eyelids. In actuality, however, that doesn’t make me luckier than anyone else. And my friends and peers with monolids aren’t unlucky either.
Featured image by Disney via Twitter