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What color are my eyes? It depends.

Around the world, heterochromia has been pegged to everything from witchcraft to gravitas. So why doesn’t anybody notice it?

By Margaret Eby

The night before the test for my driver’s permit, just a few days past my 15th birthday, I was particularly nervous about one question I knew would be posed at the suburban Alabama DMV. It wasn’t about stop signs, or when to yield, or anything else that would allegedly prove that I was capable of safely operating a motor vehicle. It was what I would say, when, inevitably, the clerk asked me for my eye color.

The answer, for me, is complicated. I have a condition called “heterochromia iridium,” a fancy medical term for the fact that I have two different colored eyes. My right eye is blue. My left eye is divided almost exactly in half diagonally: half of it brown, the other half blue.

The particular variation I have is called sectoral heterochromia, but it’s close enough to complete heterochromia — two irises of different colors entirely — that it’s noticeable, if you’re looking for it. Heterochromia is fairly rare in humans; about 200,000 people in the United States have it. It’s more common in certain breeds of dogs and cats. For years, my stock joke has been something to the effect of “me and a bunch of huskies have it.” But in my head, I’ve kept a long-running tally of fellow heterochromatics. There’s Alexander the Great, Kate Bosworth, Mila Kunis, Henry Cavill, and Jane Seymour. My friend Max in college, with whom I started a Facebook group called “Hella Heterochromatic.” Not David Bowie, though everyone brings him up — he had different colored eyes thanks to a permanently dilated pupil caused by a childhood injury, a distinction that maybe only someone born with heterochromia would care about.

At the DMV, I had a list of names at the ready, as well as a brief explanation of what heterochromia was — basically, just a genetic fluke that bunched melanin into one eye, like a birthmark. In most cases, heterochromia from birth, which I have, isn’t a symptom of any disease, though the condition can signal trouble if it develops later in life. I don’t think it affects my vision differently, but then, I’ve only had my own vision my whole life, so who knows.

I dated someone for four months before one day, in amazement, he looked at me and asked if I had changed my eyes recently. (How?)

Historically, heterochromia has been viewed with some suspicion. In some European pagan cultures, in places like Lithuania, heterochromatics were known as “hag’s children,” after the belief that different colored eyes were caused by a witch replacing one eye at birth. The 2009 horror movie “The Unborn” revolves around a young woman who develops heterochromia as she experiences a series of supernatural events. Even without the occult baggage, being “odd-eyed,” as the colloquialism goes, provides some built-in symbolism. The Greek historian Arrian described Alexander the Great as having “one eye dark as the night and one blue as the sky” — his ocular coloration seemed to add to his sense of gravitas. David Bowie used his heterochromia-adjacent condition to enhance his otherworldly appearance in photographs.

For me, most of the time, heterochromia is a non-issue — just a fact of my appearance, like having freckles. The people I casually interact with on a daily basis, like baristas, friends of friends, or cashiers, take no notice. I’m fortunate that way; as a straight, white, able-bodied, cisgendered woman of relatively average appearance, my body is mostly unremarkable to strangers.

But every once in a while, my eyes make me different. I catch someone staring at my face for what feels like an incredibly long amount of time. There are questions, comparisons to favorite cats, even requests for photographs. The most common one I get is, “Did you know that you have two different eyes?” This was annoying to me when I was younger — yes, I’m aware, as the possessor of these eyes — but now strikes me as funny, as if you could accidentally change your eye color the way you can stain an outfit with overzealous application of ketchup.

What’s more surprising is how many people I’ve known for months and years who notice my heterochromia very suddenly. I dated someone for four months before one day, in amazement, he looked at me and asked if I had changed my eyes recently. (How?) Eyes and eye contact have such a central part in our communication, but often it’s a placeholder. Can you name the eye colors of all your closest friends? I don’t think I could, even though I’ve spent a lot of time looking into them. Unless you’re in some kind of sustained dreamily-staring-into-each-other’s-eyes scenario, it’s a detail that’s not all that important to retain.

Which is something I should have thought about before going to the DMV. As it transpired, I had radically overestimated how much the clerk would care. After passing the driving test, I attempted to explain this quirk of my identifying statistics to her. “They’re mostly blue,” she shrugged, after I rattled off a couple nervous sentences about how actually they’re blue and brown and is there space for that on the license or does it count as a lie if I omit it? “Let’s just say blue,” she declared. Fair enough.

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Margaret Eby is a writer based in Brooklyn and author of South Toward Home: Travels in Southern Literature.

 

Illustration by Mar Hernández

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