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Why Oakley’s “Asian fit” sunglasses aren’t racist, just science

Let’s just say it: There are a lot of different kinds of noses out there in this beautiful world of ours.

And yet, it’s still somewhat surprising that Oakley churns out a line of wraparound sunglasses tailored to the contours of Asian consumers—marketed under the not-so-subtle moniker “Asian Fit.”

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In fact, it’s common currency within the eyeglass industry that frames fit certain ethnic groups differently—and in particular, that they fit Asians differently from Europeans.

How differently? Well, it’s hard to get a precise sense. Descriptions of varying facial features among ethnic populations tend to be done somewhat delicately. Women’s Wear Daily wrote of such frames last year (paywall):

“Asian-fit style is built up slightly so the frame sits higher on the bridge of the nose, which is typically more shallow than on a Caucasian face.”

Back in 2008, Oakley brand manager Andy McSorley put it even more obliquely:

“This helps to lift the sunglasses off the face of a person with a shallower nose bridge and higher cheekbones.”

It’s not just Oakley. (For the record, Oakley was purchased in 2007 by Italian eyeglass giant Luxottica, which also owns Ray-Ban.) Women’s Wear Daily reports that spectacle-maker Oliver People’s has been making these kind of frames since the late 1980s. Luxottica’s Italian eyewear rival Safilo started modifying frames for the Asian market back in the late 1990s.

But in an effort to side-step the clunkiness of Oakley’s “Asian Fit” branding, Safilo opted to stay mum on marketing its Asian line of frames, according to W Magazine:

“The last thing we would want to do is offend them. We’ve debated this internally a thousand different ways. I mean, what’s the right word? Asian fit? Custom fit? Special fit? Alternate bridge? We haven’t come across something everyone feels comfortable with.”

But are Asian faces different from other faces? Is it even possible to say that definitively? And if you can say it, well, should you?

Well, as, it turns out, yes, yes, and yes.

“Asian individuals tend to have more of a flatter face with the cheek bones very projected compared to the typical European,” says Mark Hubbe, an assistant professor of anthropology at Ohio State University, who focuses on cranio-facial variation in human populations.

Yes, part of Dr. Hubbe’s job is essentially to measure the nooks and crannies of human heads. As an academic pursuit, that may sound something like phrenology—that creepy 18th- and 19th-century pseudoscience that stressed measurements of the skull as a way to build racist human hierarchies. But it’s not. Measurements of skull dimensions are legitimate tools that help track the development and evolution of fully modern humans, who emerged from the primordial mist roughly 50,000 years ago.

“We’re not trying to show differences,” said Hubbe. “We’re trying to understand what caused these differences and what’s the evolutionary history behind it.”

And when it comes to tracking differences, the schnoz is perhaps one of the most potent weapons in the anthropological arsenal. That’s because having the right nose for a given climate could be the difference between life and death.

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Scott D. Maddux, Robert G. Franciscus, Todd R. Yokley

Schnoz science

It shouldn’t come as a big surprise that the nose and the nasal cavity play a crucial role in breathing. But anthropologists say variations in nose size and skull structure can be explained in part by the fact that the warm, oozing interior of the human honker and head play an important part in regulating air and body temperature.

In cold, dry climates, a long, tall skinny nose and nasal cavity are thought to provide the most runway to warm up and humidify the inflow of cold, dry air, cutting the risk of respiratory infection. In extremely hot climates—such as equatorial Africa—a broad, short nose and nasal cavity are thought to be the best way of ventilating excessive heat from the human head, says Robert Franciscus, a University of Iowa professor of anthropology, who has spent years studying cranio-facial variation with a special focus on the nasal region. “The bottom line is the mid face of the skull does show some fairly predictable differences,” Franciscus says.

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Tall noses tend to be the norm in cold, dry climates.Scott D. Maddux, Robert G. Franciscus, Todd R. Yokley

But for a long time, Asian noses, which on average have a much flatter nasal bridge, were somewhat befuddling for Franciscus. His research had led him to believe that a more pronounced nasal bridge would be more what you’d expect for the cold, dry conditions of northern Asia. Which is one reason why his most recent thinking downplays the importance of respiratory adaptation as a prime determinant of the external shape of the nose among different groups. The internal nasal cavity appears to be much more important, he says.

“If you look at Asian noses internally they are long and high and narrow, exactly like what you would expect for European populations,” Franciscus says.

Typically atypical

So the evolutionary jury is still out on why Asian and European noses tend to differ outwardly. But it’s important to realize that these measures of “typical” face shape are only statistical averages. Even within geographically isolated populations, there are often extremely high levels of variation, and similarly, two people from two different completely different populations could look pretty similar. For instance, Asians may typically have flatter faces than Europeans, “but that does not mean all Europeans will look distinct from all Asians,” said Hubbe.

So this brings us back to our original question about sunglasses. How much of the Asian Fit frame phenomenon is merely marketing? And how much is it a response to an actual need?

That’s actually quite easy to answer.

“It’s not marketing at all,” said Bassel Choughari, who covers Luxottica and Safilo—among other companies—as an equity analyst at German capital markets firm Berenberg Bank. “Because they don’t really tell people that this is an Asian fitting.”

In other words, while the Oakley site in English that we pictured above is aimed in part at US customers, the vast majority of “Asian Fit”-style glasses are sold in Asia. And manufacturers don’t really take great pains to highlight how the frames have been adjusted for local cranio-facial norms. In Asia, they’re not “Asian Fit” glasses. They’re just glasses that fit.

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