Dark Under-Eye Circles Are Not the Devil
State of Skin is our monthlong exploration of what women love, hate, and need to know about their skin — from the most common concerns to the best kept secrets in beauty.
In my third grade school photo, I’m wearing a shy grin and a hot pink short-sleeved cardigan decorated with loopy flowers. My hair is pulled back into a smooth half-pony, and my eyes look like I just pulled an all-nighter. I was eight-years-old — dark circles came for me early.
Of course, I didn’t actually notice them until I was a teenager yearning to fit in. I grew up in a traditional Indian immigrant family that wasn’t too concerned with vanity. My mum has a bit of darkness around her eyes, like many women in my family, but she never encouraged elaborate beauty rituals. She’s also never worn much makeup. And although my darker complexion meant that I stood out next to her and many of my fair-skinned cousins, I wasn’t subjected to the intense shadeism common among non-white communities. Instead, I came by most of my beauty concerns, including a preoccupation with supposedly feminine rituals, from my friends and peers — pretty brown and black girls anxiously hovering in front of mirrors that were suddenly everywhere in our teenage lives. In those years, and even more so throughout university, covering up the dark circles around my eyes became part of the to-do list of being seen as a young, desirable woman.
The truth is, a lot of people have darker skin circling their eyes, but only some of us are made to feel a way about it.
Infraorbital dark circles, or periorbital hyperpigmentation are medical terms used to describe darkened skin under or around the eyes. Dark circles, as they are commonly known, are common among people originating from the South Asian subcontinent, like my family. They are believed to primarily affect people with higher levels of melanin in their skin — that is, anyone olive-toned and darker — but can be found in all races. There is no set age when pigmentation around the eyes begins to increase, though experts say that as people get older and their skin starts to thin the condition can be exacerbated. “Every human on the planet is susceptible to the four causes of dark circles: shadowing, increased pigmentation, blood staining, and visible underlying muscle,” says Dr. Tanuj Nakra, an oculofacial plastic surgeon and co-founder of AVYA Skincare, a melanin-focused product line. “All ethnicities with intermediate to high melanin levels are susceptible to dark circles caused by hyperpigmentation. [But] as a counterpoint, the very fairest complexions are predisposed to blood staining and visible underlying muscle tone.”
In a 2014 article for Teen Vogue,“The Makeup Problems Only Middle Eastern and South Asian Girls Understand,” makeup artist Kirin Bhatty wrote that dark circles are the primary beauty concern of clients from these communities. Later that year, tech CEO Anil Dash blogged about being confronted with “his own cultural context” — untouched dark circles on his face — after a TV appearance. “For years I’d had people work to lighten the circles under my eyes, and never once reflected on the fact that this is the way I naturally look,” he wrote. Dash credited his realization to something that writer Durga Chew-Bose shared in a piece about Mindy Kaling’s The Mindy Project. (Kaling apparently uses YSL’s Touche Éclat Brightening Pen for her own eye area.). “The amount of people that ask me if I’m tired all the time,” Chew-Bose wrote. “I barely wear any makeup, but when someone else does it, the first thing they do is put some white stuff under my eyes and smudge.”I’ve also been smudged — and I’ve smudged myself. I can track the last two decades of my life through products like MAC Studio Finish Concealer (too dry), Bobbi Brown Undereye Corrector (too orange), cult-fav product NARS Creamy Concealer (too wet), Becca Backlight Targeted Corrector in Papaya, and Sephora Color Corrector gel in Medium-Deep (both shades sadly discontinued). Working from home means I no longer feel the need to wear makeup on a daily basis, but for years I didn’t leave the house without dabbing something under my eyes. Then I’d squint at the mirror and decide I needed powder, blush, and brows to even it all out. Twenty minutes later, I was wearing a face broadcasting values that, in hindsight, I’m not sure were my own.
“Studies have shown that we are literally hard-wired from birth to be attracted to even-toned skin and bright eyes,” says Dr. Nakra. “But the global subconscious desire for more pigmented cultures to appear ‘more white’ as an ironic response to systemic racism cannot be underestimated. That being said, all cultures have valued even complexion since the earliest days of our species. On every continent we have found evidence of prehistoric cultures enhancing and manipulating skin tone with botanicals.”
A friend of mine, Navi, who is also of Indian descent, says she’s long resented her dark circles. “I used to be really obsessive about it,” she tells me. “Like, when I [was younger] I’d actually touch up my concealer throughout the day.” Navi would spend hours watching beauty tutorials on YouTube and experimenting with different concealers and correctors. “My mom and sister barely have any darkness around the eyes compared to me,” she says, “And so it made me self-conscious.” But her perspective is shifting. “Lately, after I wash my face in the morning I like seeing it all clean and hydrated. Sometimes I feel like adding the concealer makes everything look gray.” Focusing on skincare over makeup has given her more confidence, “and ultimately,” she adds, exasperated, “It’s like ‘who cares?’ There’s a climate crisis!”
Navi also points out that some people have darkness around their eyes that’s considered attractive, like Queer Eye’s Antoni Porowski, who is clearly not a brown person, (Porowski told Harper’s Bazaar that his dark circles are hereditary, and he uses Acqua Di Parma Moisturizing Eye Cream.) In 2018, Vogue published an article with the headline, “Why French Girls Skip Concealer — and Swear by the Surprising Charm of Under-Eye Circles.” White models and beauty mavens are quoted saying things like, “Dark circles under the eyes can be one of the most moving things on a human face,” and, “They make a fresh face look interesting.” I’ve yet to come across a description of dark circles on more melanated skin as anything but a problem to be fixed.
It’s important to note that dark circles can also appear on those dealing with chronic illness and disease, contributing to their stigma as markers of an “unhealthy” face. In her compelling new memoir The Undying, Anne Boyer writes about the pressure to appear healthy despite dealing with aggressive breast cancer. “An exhausted person, trying to look less so, will try, as trying is what she is good at,” Boyer writes. “She will put concealer under her eyes, add blush to her cheeks, do all the tricks the magazines and websites tell her will make her look less exhausted.” Generally speaking concealing one’s under-eye circles is encouraged in order to present as ‘healthy’ or ‘friendly’ or ‘attractive’ to others. The cultural shift toward more natural and inclusive beauty standards — from the faces on magazine covers and in ad campaigns, to the body positivity movement — means that those with dark circles have more space to consider their own features worthy. Still, Dr. Nakra says, “the psychogenetic impetus for enhancing the beauty of our eyes is not going to disappear soon.”
This made me think about how I often want to, but never ever wear kohl liner or lower-lash mascara for fear of racoon eyes, and how I’ll still put on a full face of makeup — Fenty Match Stix is my go-to concealer these days — when I know my photo might be taken. But most days, I’m out in the world bare faced; teaching yoga classes, riding public transit, running errands, and hanging out with friends. Unconfined by the cultural baggage of beauty, my eyes express more: crinkling with laughter, sprouting tears of sadness, widening with inspiration, and resting in contemplation. After years of ritualized self-scrutiny I feel closer in spirit to my innocent third-grade self, dark circles and all.