The epicanthic fold is a projection of skin between the upper and lower eyelids alongside the nose. It is a common racial characteristic among people with east Asian ancestry. This fold is present in fetuses and infants of any race, and its continued presence can be a sign of a developmental disorder, although this is not always the case.
The epicanthic fold is one of several distinguishing characteristics for persons of Asian descent, particularly those whose ancestors originated in the region from Tibet to Japan. It is also found in Pacific Islanders and Native Americans, who are believed to be descended from Asians, and is not unknown among people of European and African descent. Some scientists speculate that the epicanthic fold may have been an aid to vision for the people residing in or near the Mongolian desert, providing protection from either glare or airborne sand particles. This is only a theory, however, as the genetic background behind such racial characteristics is still not well understood.
Asian people faced systematic racism when migrating to nations such as the U.S. and Australia in the 19th and 20th centuries. The epicanthic fold, as a clear indicator of a person’s racial background, became the target of specific racist epithets. In the mid-20th century, some Asians and Asian-Americans actually elected to have plastic surgery, called epicanthoplasty, to eliminate their folds and make them appear more Western. Epicanthoplasty is a complicated procedure because of the risk of damage to the tear ducts. By contrast, the epicanthic fold is also seen as a sign of exotic beauty in America or Europe, where it is often a rare feature.
The epicanthic fold is sometimes visible during the early development of infants, no matter what their racial background. In non-Asian children, this will often vanish as the facial structure becomes more defined. If this does not happen and there is no racial factor to influence the epicanthic fold, it may indicate a developmental disorder such as Down’s syndrome. This is not always the case, however; concerned parents should consult with a medical professional. In the 20th century, afflicted children with this characteristic were sometimes called Mongoloid because of the epicanthic fold’s association with Mongolian ancestry. This term is now considered imprecise and possibly offensive.