“Light eyes are romanticised in my culture – but I've learned to appreciate my ‘boring' brown eyes"

Welcome to Beauty Feels, a series exploring the different ways in which beauty routines and rituals can provide emotional support and aid journeys of self-discovery.

Lighter eyes are idealised across societies, which often posit brown eyes on the most ‘boring’ end of the spectrum. Through lockdown, journalist Sadia Nowshin faced her childhood insecurity and discovered a newfound appreciation for her own brown eyes.

If there’s one cliché that I’ve never been able to relate to, it’s “eyes are the windows to the soul”. It’s a lovely sentiment when those windows are a shade of ocean blue, looking out into cloudless skies. Or a mix of emerald greens and silvery greys framing a soft sunrise. But when the glass is a monotonous block of almost-black, so opaque that you can’t see anything through it, who’s going to be drawn to that view?

Since childhood, I’ve harboured resentment against my eye colour. So dark brown that they almost blend into my pitch-black pupils. It’s boring to be one of between 55% and 79% of people with the feature.

In the rare moments of good English weather, I’d brave the bright sun spots that would linger in the edges of my vision to watch them turn a slightly more noteworthy shade, blinking against the blinding light before it became unbearable. I read countless young adult novels which described the captivating blue eyes or striking hazel hues of the female protagonists. ‘Boring’ brown eyes were hardly a fitting feature for the main character, so I felt doomed to live the role of the witty sidekick, stuck with features that meant I could blend into the background when no longer needed. 

Sadia Nowshin grew up believing light eyes were more ‘desirable’.

Alongside the popularity of light eyes in the media I consumed, attitudes within my own culture added to the discontent. In south Asian culture, particularly across Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, children with light eyes are furtively blessed with prayers of protection in case an envious stranger spots them and decides to cast a dreaded nazar (curse) of bad luck.

Their rarity garners complimentary attention, but the root from which much of this admiration stems is a cultural glorification of Eurocentric features. The idealisation of western beauty standards feeds into the issue of colourism rampant across South Asian societies, where dark skin colours and Asian-identifying features are portrayed as ‘undesirable’.

While skin colour is the main component of colourism, eye colour plays into the dynamics, as anything that matches the perception of the western standard of beauty is idealised.

We see this in the skin lightening products available on supermarket shelves, promising a fairer complexion within weeks. We also see it in the comments of the older generation, for whom the saturation of a person’s brown tones often defines their beauty. A generation that laments when a baby’s fresh skin deepens into the caramel hue of their heritage. 

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Colourism is so entrenched in the subcontinent that it drives inequality. As the bottom end of India’s caste system often worked jobs in the heat of the sun, darker skin became associated with a lower social status. By contrast, lighter skin is seen as the sign of higher castes and power. European colonialism reinforced this binary, and darker skinned people continue to face discrimination on that basis.

While skin colour is the main component of colourism, eye colour plays into the dynamics as anything that matches the perception of the western standard of beauty is idealised. That means that the features that make you look obviously South Asian – dark brown eyes, unibrows and darker skin, for example – are the polar opposites of what the same cultures perceive as desirable.

There are multiple Instagram filters that claim to offer you the ‘perfect eyes’, which overwhelmingly define the standard of ‘perfect’ as bright blue

But it’s not a fixation exclusive to South Asia: that romanticisation of light eyes is prevalent across social media, too. Recently, the #prettyeyes hashtag took over my TikTok For You page, where users zoom into their eyes using the front facing camera and then transition into the higher quality back camera to highlight the intricacy of colours.

The hashtag, which has accumulated over 96.4 million views, features stunning combinations of blue and greens as the algorithm pushes the videos that more people liked to the top. But the rare videos featuring brown eyes are often captioned with a self-deprecating note that the result doesn’t match up to expectations, a disappointment I discovered when curiosity made me try the trend out for myself – and made me immediately delete the draft. 

Sadia Nowshin tries the ‘Perfect Eyes’ filter on Instagram.

This trend isn’t the only one to idealise lighter eyes. Last year, teens were warned of the risk of blindness after a trend had them staring straight into the flashlight of their phones in the misguided hopes of watching their brown eyes turn blue.

And the fixation doesn’t end on TikTok: countless Instagram and Snapchat filters created to ‘enhance’ your appearance will lighten your eyes as part of the ‘improvement’. There are even multiple Instagram filters that claim to offer you the ‘perfect eyes’, which overwhelmingly define the standard of ‘perfect’ as bright blue.

After a childhood of wishing I had a more unique shade, I eventually accepted that my eyes would never be my favourite feature. But in lockdown, when masks shielded our faces and eye contact became indispensable, they became the centre of attention. I spent more time staring at myself while perfecting my eyeliner, and chose eyeshadow shades that accentuated the colour I had always wished away. And then, my perceptions started to shift. 

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I’d like to think that people feel naturally comfortable in my company. While pondering how I hoped others perceived me, the colour of my eyes suddenly felt fitting. Light blue eyes draw on the calm of the ocean, a fresh breeze that makes you stop to take a refreshing inhale. Greens and hazels encompass a spring meadow, dusted with dew and dappled with the start of the morning. But what I realised, as I gazed into the depths of my own irises while swiping a golden shimmer on the lid, is that deep browns evoke warmth.

They’re the comfort you feel when you’re cosy indoors, listening to the rain beat against a window. They soak up the sunlight to soften chocolate into gold, as if honey captured behind the deep brown melts out to the surface. And they’re a homage to my ancestors, for whom the melanin offered protection as they squinted against the sharp sun over Bangladesh.

We tend to value what’s rare as most attractive, which accounts for why the uncommon shades of lighter colours are idealised across cultures. But if there’s one thing that the past year has taught us, it’s that there’s beauty to be found in the everyday and even the most outwardly mundane experiences can be romanticised. Finally, I realised that it’s about time I applied that same appreciative energy to myself, too. 

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Main image: Sadia Nowshin

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