On a recent Friday night, I found myself doing the very last thing I should’ve been doing on a Friday night: feverishly drafting a list of every beauty product I hadn’t yet tried that could–maybe, potentially, if I were lucky–hide my dark circles.
I had vanquished a unibrow, acne and perpetually dry lips–everything I was told was cosmetically “wrong” about my face. Except this one. My dark circles have been a part of my face ever since I can remember. It was only when I was 13, the age when you start to pick apart everything about your body, that I began to notice they weren’t a feature everyone had. They aren’t as dark as those of some of my friends and family, but they are the darkest part of my face—and they grow darker when I’m low on sleep. I remember being thrilled when I found out, around the same time, that I needed glasses as the frames would hide the darkness.
For years, I silently obsessed over them. But it wasn’t until a few months ago that I found the magic product, a caffeinated serum solution to dab under the eye with the express purpose of “reducing eye contour pigmentation and puffiness.” It had been recommended to me so many times by so many friends that I had to try it. It made a significant difference in the month that I used it religiously day and night, taking weekly selfies to prove the change to myself. But here’s the twist: I didn’t like my face without the under-eye darkness it had carried for three decades. It wasn’t my face.
In the way wrinkles are a kind of documentation of the laughs we’ve had, and sunspots of the places we’ve been, my dark circles were a record of, yes, the lack of sleep I’d had, the hangovers that had taken a toll, my unforgiving bone structure—but also my South Asian heritage.
Darker-skinned people are more prone to general hyperpigmentation anywhere on the body, like dark circles or blemishes, according to a Mayo Clinic analysis. That discolouration appears more prominent because we have more melanin. I can’t name a single individual in my family who doesn’t have dark circles. In a 2014 Teen Vogue story, make-up artist Kirin Bhatty notes that the “number one concern” she hears from Middle Eastern and South Asian teenage girls is about their dark circles.
So much of that is due to how we frame it. Think of any health, beauty or lifestyle magazine, and I can guarantee you they’ve got a list of products or treatments to help you “get rid of your dark circles once and for all.” I know because I’ve bookmarked and tried so many—to my wallet’s great concern.
So why, when I finally found a potential solution, did I not run with it and write about that–”Stop looking! The magical product you need to get rid of your dark circles once and for all has finally arrived”–instead?
I realized when I saw the same supposed defect on other men’s and women’s faces, I found it endearing—romantic even, as a kind of sophisticated bedroom eye. There’s a confidence to sporting them so nakedly. Not just on the women who dared to post no-makeup selfies like Mindy Kaling and Zoe Saldana, but my friends. In fact, the deeper set the eyes and the darker the circles, the sexier I found this feature to be. It made me crave them until I remembered, oh yeah, um, I have them.
I’m not alone in that. Dark circles are considered a beauty and fashion staple for the French, and have been for a century. Think Jeanne Moreau, Françoise Dorléac, Léa Seydoux and Clémence Poésy, the latter of whom recently said to Vogue that her mother “didn’t understand concealer” and therefore taught her that “dark circles under the eyes can be one of the most moving things on a human face.” As a matter of fact, she added, a face without them can be “quite boring.”
With my realization that I actually preferred my face with my dark circles than without, I posted a selfie to my Instagram stories. I declared a rare moment of “you know what, I love my dark circles today.” Maybe I just needed a little final convincing. Within the hour, a torrent of friends and acquaintances had responded, all of them women of colour, telling me how they had recently fallen in love with theirs, and how I had given them the convincing they needed. Half of them sent selfies, beautiful darkly circled selfies. It was as if we were all somehow on the same self-love precipice at the same exact time.
Maybe because a string of other historically “ethnic” features, from bigger curves to thicker eyebrows, have recently gone from being condemned by Western beauty standards to coveted. Perhaps dark circles could be next. But why wait for society to arbitrarily decide what it once and often told us needed to be hidden is a symbol of modern beauty?
It certainly isn’t a step back to just straight-up love a good under-eye concealer. The freedom is in the decision on how you want to present yourself to the world, without letting it decide for you.
I wish I could say I don’t feel a little sting on the days I choose not to wear make-up and someone inevitably gawks at my dark circles and unlined eyes and asks if I’m sick or tired (which, by the way, is never a nice thing to say, even if it’s true) as if they’re an accessory to my resting bitch face. But, on most days, I love that that the little hint of death calmly resting beneath my eyes echoes exactly what I might be feeling without me having to say it–whether I am actually tired or if it’s just my genes that day. Those deep wells are where my pain and my experiences lives. Without them, I just wouldn’t be me.
Posted July 2019, updated July 2020.