Every spring, like clockwork, I find myself sad and wistful as the days grow longer and warmer. Sure, in a few months there will be fireworks, barbecues, float trips, and swimming holes, but that also means ski season will be over. With winter’s barometric roller coaster coming to a screeching halt, there will no longer be storms to chase and no further need to obsess over weather reports. I dutifully wrap another layer of duct tape over my Kinco gloves, empty the accumulated candy wrappers from my bib pockets, and even tell myself that next year I’ll at least think about doing a few preseason squats.
What saves me from my warm-weather melancholy, however, are new product releases signaling the promise of the next ski season. Maybe I read too many reviews hyping the latest and greatest shiny swag, but shopping for new winter gear is what gets me through summer. And yet, buried among descriptions of waterproof-breathable membranes and debates on the playfulness of ski cores, there is often that one distasteful thing I see in catalogs that bursts my bubble: “Asian-fit” goggles.
While sizing and fit are undoubtedly important aspects of performance, no other product in the pantheon of outdoor gear is labeled so explicitly by ethnicity. And it’s not only limited to skiing; manufacturers of eyewear designated for cycling, driving, construction, general fashion, and even tactical use are all equally guilty of the faux pas. Indeed, the release of “Asian fit” as a label in the early 2010s was not without controversy. A 2013 story for Quartz about Asian-fit sunglasses included an interview with an assistant professor of anthropology, who focused on the cranio-facial variation in human populations and delved into the specifics of nasal-cavity structures of Europeans and Asians. The conclusion was that there were indeed anatomic differences, prompting justification for such eyewear. And it’s true, different ethnic groups have measurable variations in facial form. Research published by biologist Jing Guo in the Journal of Human Evolution that utilized genetic markers and 3D mapping revealed that “the nose, brow area, and cheekbones exhibit particularly strong signals of differentiation” between Europeans and Asians. (Eighty-nine participants who self-reported as being of European descent and 872 participants of Han Chinese, Tibetan, and Uyghur descent were part of the study.) These are the same morphologic features that determine how goggles, sunglasses, monocles, and all manner of eyewear fit different faces. And these same facial features even play into how well the now ubiquitous N95 masks fit and protect our health care workers.
But in 2021, have we not evolved beyond using racial or gendered characteristics to sell gear? The problem with Asian-fit goggles is not the product itself; it’s the atrocious naming scheme. To make sweeping generalizations about the physical attributes of a race, and then to label a product as such, is to single out the product and its consumers as outliers. As if to say, “Asians, you should wear these. Not those other ones, those are not for you. They were made for other people, with normal faces—not you.” Conversely, individuals of non-Asian ethnicities who share facial structures similar to Asians are disincentivized to even try on the very goggles that might offer the best fit. Guo’s research model, using high-resolution 3D facial images and over 30,000 discrete markers, was able to correctly identify 81 percent of individuals as Asian or European. Which means approximately 20 percent of the study group overlaps and shares indistinguishably similar facial features—and isnt’t being served by this categorization.
Labels carry context and judgement. Implicit social cognition is what psychologists describe as the cognitive processes that occur outside of our conscious awareness or control, including all the associated attitudes, stereotypes, and lingering biases. It’s why psychologists caution the use of labels in early childhood development; for example, being called “the bad kid” carries a very different meaning than having “done a bad thing.” It’s why health care professionals identify patients by name, not ailment, when discussing a case in medical records. The label “Asian fit” denotes an “otherness” to Asian and Asian American skiers in an industry that already chronically lacks diversity. Preliminary data from the National Ski Areas Association from 2019–20 shows that more than 88 percent of visitors to U.S. ski areas were white. And those ethnic demographics have not changed in the past ten years.
Instead of using race or ethnicity to label a product, eyewear makers should catch up to other segments of the industry and start using feature-oriented naming conventions. Climbing shoes are designed for different foot types that aren’t tied to race or gender, such as low-volume shoes. The biggest bike manufacturers have also gone beyond gender, no longer delineating between women’s and men’s models but choosing instead to emphasize fit and features. When it comes to eyewear, how about something cool and zippy-sounding, like “zygomatic fit”? Or simply “low-bridge fit,” à la Warby Parker?
In the grand scheme of things, goggles don’t matter all that much. Fresh snow, first chair, friends, and whether or not the Waffle Cabin is open are the priorities. But in this day and age, words matter. People matter. Continuing to label goggles and sunglasses as “Asian fit” is, at worst, divisive and exclusionary and, at best, just terribly lazy marketing. It’s high time that eyewear makers do their part to move toward a more inclusive outdoors.