Recently, I was on Instagram when I saw a photo of activist Ameya Okamoto and her sister posing and slightly pulling their eyes back. Her hashtags and caption are what caught my attention:
“#myBODYisnotyourcostume #myBODYisnotatrend… it took me years to be proud of these NATURAL #foxeyes and It makes me so so SO sad to see wypipo posting photos doing the same pose (pulling their eyes back) that kids used to do to make me feel bad about my asian-NESS. OKAY so it’s 2020 and NOW it’s cool to have these foxy eyes… I’ve had them forever. No trend needed,” she wrote.
I then scrolled through the photos she posted in addition to the one of her and her sister, each one containing a white influencer posing like a model while pulling their eyes back. I don’t have a Tiktok and I don’t follow a lot of beauty influencers—so I was not as familiar with the ‘fox eye trend’ as others may be but a simple Google search gave me all the information I needed. I was appalled.
I found out that there are many (primarily) white influencers and celebrities who have caught onto the ‘fox eye trend’, or ‘fox eye challenge’, which entails using makeup to create almond-shaped or even hooded eyes lifted at the corners. The more nefarious aspect of the ‘fox eye trend’, however, is the pose: the women will use their fingers to pull back their eyes to create an even more dramatic almond-shape or “Asian” eye. The trend, initially popularized by influencers like Alexa Demie, Dixie D’Amelio, and Melody Nafari, is now being taken on by other influencers in what seems to be the sucker-punch to the Asian community.
In 2011, Refinery29 questioned if taping one’s eyes back to look Asian is the new Blackface. There has been widespread outrage at beauty influencers, like Emma Hallberg, who was accused of cultural appropriation and Blackfishing (which has been an issue at large in the online beauty community). In a study conducted by Akeia A. F. Benard in 2016 entitled, Colonizing Black Female Bodies Within Patriarchal Capitalism: Feminist and Human Rights Perspective, Benard argues that the way we view WOC in the media—especially if in a degrading or demeaning way—upholds colonialism and perpetuates racism in the forms of hypersexualization and fetishization against women who are BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color). Therefore, Blackfishing, Culture Vulturing, and trends like the ‘fox eye challenge’ may not only be cultural appropriation, they may also be fueling racism—if not being downright racist to begin with.
The act of pulling one’s eyes back to look “Asian” is a form of appropriation, one that mocks the facial features traditionally associated with East Asians. This kind of appropriation, unfortunately, is nothing new to most women of color (WOC). To better understand the difference between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation, the terms were well-defined by Kelsy Holmes in Greenheart. She wrote, “Appreciation is when someone seeks to understand and learn about another culture in an effort to broaden their perspective and connect with others cross-culturally. Appropriation on the other hand, is simply taking one aspect of a culture that is not your own and using it for your own personal interest.” Something that is important to note (because I’ve seen it circulating in the Twitter-verse), is that some Asian people like the idea of their eyes being “trendy,” because they feel like their features are finally being recognized as attractive.
One Asian man said in a South China Morning Post article, “I feel like we’ve become the cool kids – we used to want [to be seen as more white], but now it’s the opposite, especially because of social media.” However, whether people are divided on the makeup look and whether or not it should be thought of as appreciation or appropriation, there has been more universal condemnation when it comes to the pulling back of one’s eyes. NextShark notes that “Our trauma should not be your trend,” and even likens the makeup look to Yellowface that was done in Hollywood, with white women, such as Katherine Hepburn, adopting “Asian eyes” while playing East Asian women. It is necessary to understand that appropriation can be harmful to the people whose lived experiences are turned into a stereotype for consumption by another group of people who do not appear to understand or care.
WOC are used to having their body parts and/or culture appropriated by (primarily) white people simply for aesthetic purposes. The reality is that these “trends,” like the fox one, can be seen as beautiful, cool, adventurous, and even inventive in Western culture—as long as white women are the ones doing them. On WOC, it’s instead a source of shame; something to belittle and humiliate. When this look is no longer trendy, white influencers can rub off their makeup, grow in their brow hair, and move on to the next thing. For the Asian community, however, the trend is a reminder of the racist taunts we heard as kids (kids pulling their eyes to look “Asian” and chanting, “Chinese, Japanese, ooly ooly squish!”), and the jokes that we continue to hear as we grow up (like being asked, “Can you even see anything?”). Trends like this reinforce the notion that certain features and attributes are trendy on white women while being ugly on Asians. And as white beauty profits off of this trend, Asian people will still be bullied for their naturally occurring features.
I’ve also witnessed people on social media question why it’s considered okay for a Black woman to wear a blond wig, but it’s not okay for a white woman to wear cornrows, or why East Asian women are allowed to have surgery done on their eyes to add a second lid, but white women who tape their eyes back to appear to have elongated monolids receive backlash. BIPOC women often face immense pressure to whitewash ourselves. Our desire to be “white” springs from societal necessity, not because of trendiness. Beauty standards in America have always changed in terms of body type, oscillating between curvy, thin, tomboy, even skeletal, but the bodies that create and dictate the beauty trends have always been white.
Sad as it may be, Southeast Asian women who use skin whiteners, East Asian women who get plastic surgery to have wider eyes and thinner noses, Black women who wear wigs or straighten their hair every day, may be doing so because of societal pressure to be “beautiful”—which is synonymous with whiteness. It’s not the same as a white woman who tapes her eyes back to do the ‘fox-eye trend,’ or who paints her skin darker to appear biracial because it’s “in” right now. For WOC, it can be a necessity to appear more white (to land the job, secure the loan, get the lease for the apartment, be generally thought of as “beautiful”), whereas, for white women, the desire to look “exotic” is merely a beauty trend to hop onto at the moment.
Someone who articulates this issue perfectly is Tressie McMillan Cottom, Ph.D. She is a writer, sociologist, and associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Information and Library Science and her “research spans higher education, work, race, class, gender and digital societies.” In her stellar essay collection entitled THICK: And Other Essays, McMillan Cottom writes about beauty in her aptly titled essay, In the Name of Beauty. She starts the essay off by critiquing white American pop stars who, when they feel the need to be sexy or hip, appropriate nonwhite cultures—namely, Black culture—to complete what she calls, “the pop star toolkit.”
She relays how problematic this is because it reinforces a stereotype about the nonwhite culture being appropriated. She then argues that these actions are further damaging to nonwhite cultures because, by definition, nonwhite women cannot be beautiful—at least, in the Western, capitalist sense of the word—and any beauty that nonwhite women “achieve” is in proximity to whiteness. She writes in THICK, “As long as the beautiful people are white, what is beautiful at any given time can be renegotiated without redistributing capital from white to nonwhite people.”
McMillan Cottom’s arguments made me think about many of the compliments that I’ve received as a mixed-raced woman: About how my eyes are almond-shaped but not mono-lidded, how my hair is curly but not too curly, how fair my skin is, how I look like an “Asian Snow White.” Many compliments that “reverberate in my inner ear as if surgically implanted there,” to quote Joan Didion, are compliments about how I am ethnic—but not too ethnic. I’m just close enough to whiteness for my ethnic-ness to be palatable, cute, even exotic. But my beauty is all in relation to my proximity to whiteness. This realization (that WOC are judged on their beauty based on their “whiteness”) paired with cultural appropriation, degrading or racist imagery, or even a white beauty influencer making her eyes look “foxy” or over tanning her skin to appear multiracial, perpetuates exoticization, fetishization, and hypersexualization of WOC and our cultures. It does not advance BIPOC’s standing in the Western world of beauty. It only provides an “aesthetic” that benefits white beauty.
In the beauty industry, because whiteness is considered to be the baseline for what is beautiful, many white women view themselves as if they are blank canvases. They feel that they can move fluidly from one look to another, almost as if they are choosing an outfit to wear for the day. We’ve seen Ariana Grande go from “Culture Vulturing,” appearing biracial or nonwhite in music videos and adopting a “Blaccent”, to being freckled, blonde, and white on the cover of Vogue. Miley Cyrus went through that “dangerous phase” (which was just basically stereotyping and appropriating Black culture), to effortlessly going back to a Country Western style. We all know about Gwen Stefani’s “Harajuku Girl” phase and her use of Japanese women as puppets.
Then, there are artists such as Rina Sawayama, who has lamented about how many people have assumed she would be making J-pop music just because she is Japanese and who—despite living in England for the last 25 years—is not eligible for the British Mercury Awards because she is not of British or Irish descent. Nonwhite women are immediately put into a specific, often stereotyped corner, while white women are able to move freely from space to space. People, of course, should be able to evolve—whether that be musically, stylistically, and/or in terms of their likes and dislikes—but they can do so without stereotyping or appropriating another culture. The fact that it is more or less socially acceptable for white women to parse out and select which body part or culture to adopt as if selecting a pair of shoes, is where the danger lies.
This is not a call to “cancel” anyone. Cancel culture has proven to be unproductive, and there is a lot of evidence that suggests that although people may do offensive things such as appropriating another’s culture, they do not intend to be hurtful. Many do not set out with the intention to appropriate or perpetuate racism. In a Medium article, entitled, A Beautiful Disaster: Cultural Appropriation in Online Beauty, the author writes, “[There are] two possible intentions behind the offenders’ actions. The first is what society typically assumes, which is genuine deviancy… The second motive possibility would mean that all of these racist comments and actions are unintentionally performed out of complete ignorance.” Based on the apologies and claims of ignorance by many of the offenders, it appears that they are more likely to be in the second category. So, it could be inferred that these influencers do not have malicious intentions when they pull their eyes back with their fingers or darken their skin with makeup.
However, intent is not enough anymore. The Black Lives Matter movement has made many aware that willful ignorance can be just as damaging as intended hatred or racism. It is not enough anymore to use ignorance as a defense. We must continue to learn, unlearn, and evolve. We must remember that nonwhite bodies are not costumes for white people to slip on and make fashionable. BIPOC cultures should not be considered “trendy,” even if ignorance or good intentions are behind the decision; especially when it can be argued that making a culture or race “trend” allows for exploitation by white beauty, while further perpetuating racist stereotypes and fetishization of BIPOC. Like Okamoto wrote in her Instagram post, “If we let poses [like the ‘fox eye trend’] that are questionable pass, then we make it more okay for people to be blatantly racist.” Let’s say no to the ‘fox-eye trend’ and other trends like it, let’s say no to making cultures into costumes and let’s allow BIPOC the space to feel beautiful without white beauty deeming them to be so.