How Young Asian Makeup Artists Are Challenging Beauty Industry Norms

"The mark of progress is to have makeup people and makeup products that want to accentuate Asian features—not make Asian women look white."

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Oct 7 2016, 6:51pm

Screenshot via @workingwithmonolids on Instagram

Growing up in Jakarta, Indonesia, Francesca Tanmizi wished she had a different set of eyes than those she was born with. As a young girl, she used products like eyelid tape and eyelid glue.

"I definitely grew up hating my eyes," Tanmizi says. She has monolids, also known as epicanthic folds, an eye shape where the lids cover the inner corner of the eyes, making them appear to have no crease; this is a common feature among people of East Asian and Southeast Asian descent. "I used to look in the mirror and say, 'I think I can see a crease if I look at it from this angle. If only it'll get bigger!'"

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When she was a teenager, Tanmizi considered going under the knife for an Asian blepharoplasty, also known as double eyelid surgery. The cosmetic procedure, which involves removing excess skin and fat, creates a crease on one's upper eyelids to make eyes appear larger. According to the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, eyelid surgery remains in the top three procedures in the world, behind breast augmentation and liposuction. In 2015, a total of 1,264,702 eyelid surgeries were performed across the world. It's also the most popular form of cosmetic surgery in South Korea, with 101,985 procedures done last year.

According to Tanmizi, her desire for the surgery was the result of pressure from her relatives and peers, who made her feel as though having a double eyelid would make her more beautiful. Her attitude around her appearance started to change when she was 16, following a negative experience working with a makeup artist. "My aunt was helping open this chain of makeup stores and they needed a model for the makeup artist to practice on," she recalls. "My makeup artist actually threw a tantrum and she yelled about how unfair it was that she got somebody with my eyes. She wanted somebody with 'normal' eyes."

Another makeup artist working that day immediately came to Tanmizi's defense. "He just snapped at her and told her, 'As a makeup artist, if you expect your client's face to work for you instead of the other way around, maybe you're in the wrong profession." He went on to teach Tanmizi makeup techniques that complimented her features. For her, it was a revelatory moment: That day, she says, she started embracing her eye shape, rather than hoping to conceal or alter it.

Now 28, Tanmizi runs an Instagram called Working With Monolids, where she posts daily makeup tutorials for nearly 20,000 fans. She started the blog as a way to review products and show girls how to do makeup for different eye shapes. She says the name of her blog started as a joke, because she always lamented over how hard it is to work with monolids, but now she sees it as celebratory.

"I'm hoping that, with more and more monolid girls doing their own makeup, people won't think it's weird," she says.

Pam Sugiman, the Dean of Arts at Ryerson University, whose research focuses on gender and race, says that a lack of makeup products geared towards people with monolids has contributed to women's desire to modify their features. "Most makeup products are not for Asian eyes," she says. "The mark of progress is to have salons and stylists, makeup people and makeup products, that want to accentuate Asian features—not make Asian women look white."

Tutorials like the ones Tanmizi posts are groundbreaking for precisely this reason, according to Michelle Cho, an East Asian studies professor at McGill University. Cho notes that there aren't a lot of women with monolids featured in mainstream media, which contributes to the popularity of double eyelid surgery.

"In Korea, many people openly admit to having plastic surgery and understand this as a form of self-improvement or self-investment," Cho says. "Getting double eyelid surgery sometimes has less to do with 'beauty' and more to do with class status; the presumption is that if you don't get the surgery you must not have the means, since it's such a common and normalized procedure."

However, Cho adds, social media is changing current attitudes around beauty standards. "With the plurality and growth of media sources, like blogs and platforms like YouTube, people can create media directed towards particular subgroups within the public, like makeup tutorials for monolids," she says. "This makes monolids normal and desirable. There's a reason why YouTube has been such an important platform for Asian-Americans and other minority groups—it's filling in for the inadequacies and lack of diversity in broadcast and cable television."

Kar Yi Lim, who works as the beauty editor at Mochi magazine, says that she struggled with not having access to images of models with her eye shape as she was growing up. However, seeing K-Pop stars such as Son Ga-in from Brown Eyed Girls and Ahn So-hee from The Wonder Girls eventually made her more comfortable with her appearance.

"Those two were very clearly monolidded ladies," Lim says. "It was nice seeing those different kinds of styles, in contrast to a lot of the famous pop stars who had very prominent big eyes."

Through her work with Mochi magazine, Lim hopes to create a more diverse representation of beauty and style, in part by highlighting the work of bloggers like Tanmizi, who are encouraging others to embrace what they have.

As for Tanmizi, she's flattered by the positive reactions to her blog. However, she's still the target of racist comments on her Instagram—people still suggest she do double eyelid surgery and tell her that if her eyes weren't that small, "maybe her makeup would be less shit."

"I'm more flabbergasted than hurt, because I can't believe people still do this in 2016!" she says.

She adds that young girls still email her asking for advice on whether they should get double eyelid surgery. "Usually I tell them, 'If you're even having doubts, don't go through with it," she says. "Don't do it because of peer pressure. It's a horrible, horrible feeling,"