optical illusions: the media & women who wear glasses

I found out that I had a lazy eye when I was in preschool. At the time, I didn’t know what this meant – all I remember is being held down at eye appointments so I could be still for eyedrops, and screaming when met with the brief stinging sensation on my pupils. By kindergarten, I was bespectacled and thus began my ongoing sixteen-year relationship with glasses, and battling the stereotypes associated with them. I’ve always refused to get contacts, because my glasses play a significant role in my identity.

Growing up, I was never called “four-eyes” or any other generic nickname regarding the plastic frames on my face. I was only immediately (silently) branded a nerd based on assumptions about my appearance, a label that has followed me for as long as I’ve been wearing glasses, and got worse when I started high school. At the end of each summer during my elementary school years, my mom would take me to get my long, thick blonde hair chopped into a bob. Pair my glasses and chin-length hair with polo shirt dresses and you have the epitome of early 2000s child fashion, before I discovered the pink-sequined hell that was Limited Too.

yikes

My headshot for the casting director of Weird Al Yankovic’s “White N Nerdy” music video

For years, there has been a harmful stigma that the media associates with women who wear glasses. There is the Makeover Montage, in which a female protagonist feels invisible and unattractive and is treated as such until she lets her hair down , ditches her cardigans, buys a hair straightener, and gets contacts. Sound familiar? Just watch the first forty-five minutes of The Princess Diaries. The image of Paulo (the beautician) saying “Contacts” and snapping Mia’s wire glasses in half like a twig is burned forever in my mind. I remember watching the movie for the first time when I was six years old, and once the new Mia Thermopolis emerged, glasses-free, I remember thinking Wow, she’s so pretty! As did the rest of the world.

But it’s not only the film industry that sends a negative message to girls and women about glasses and their association – television is responsible as well. The Big Bang Theory (which I despise and find unfunny and disgustingly sexist) portrays two different “nerdy” women. There’s Amy, a neurobiologist, and Bernadette, a microbiologist (both have a Ph.D. in their respective fields). The show is very careful in the way they differentiate these characters – Amy is dressed in mismatched, frumpy clothing, portrayed as cold and masculine, while Bernadette is blonde, has a high-pitched voice, and wears more flattering, feminine outfits. Amy is treated poorly by Sheldon because of her intelligence, while Bernadette isn’t taken seriously because she chooses to embrace her femininity. Why this show has been on for nine years is beyond me.

For the longest time, I thought I wasn’t pretty because I wore glasses, or that other people wouldn’t think I was pretty because of them. I remember this one time the summer before fifth grade and a group of my girlfriends were sitting around a table at the American Girl Cafe in New York City, drawing questions from a tiny box. One of us read the earth-shattering question out loud Would you rather be pretty or smart? All of my friends answered “smart” and I said “pretty” without even thinking about it first, and my mom immediately scolded me for my answer. But it wasn’t my fault. I was conditioned to believe that I couldn’t be pretty if I wore glasses. I was the only one in my group of friends who wore glasses every day, and at the time I was starting to get a body that I didn’t want and felt awkward and awful.

But now I see how fucked up that question is – Would you rather be pretty or smart? Why should we have to choose? Why should you make pre-teen girls think that they have to be one or the other and that they can’t be both? Why did I have to  grow up with media that told me I had to have a makeover (that included getting rid of my glasses) in order for my peers to like me and the boys I had crushes on to notice me?

High school for me was especially bad. I moved back to my hometown my freshman year, and was picked on relentlessly on and off for four years. I was tiny, blonde, and had glasses. There were lots of other girls in my school who matched that description. Plenty of other girls had glasses too, prescription or not. But I was being singled out. I didn’t understand it. To this day I still don’t, and wonder what I did – was it the way I dressed? Was it the specific type of glasses I was wearing? Assumptions were made about my grades and intelligence – yes, I cared about school, and still do – academia is a huge part of me and I love learning, but I was a mediocre student at best. I strongly prioritized English and struggled with Math and Science. I’ve always been that way. I had people telling me “I bet you’re a genius, I bet you have a 4.0, where are you going to college……..Harvard?” For class projects people who’d never even talked to me would sign up to be in my group because they assumed I would be doing all the work, because of the way I looked, glasses and all. And I did care about my appearance, but felt the same as Bernadette from The Big Bang Theory – I wasn’t being taken seriously, especially by my guy friends, because I wanted to be feminine and intelligent at the same time. For prom, I was so scared to go the whole night without my glasses on – I wanted to look and feel beautiful, it was my Mia Thermopolis moment that I’d been ridiculously fantasizing about for four years.

Now that I’m out of high school, I’m realizing that more Millennial women are going into more competitive fields, and being recognized for their intellectual achievements. And the media is progressively more accepting of women who wear glasses; it’s even becoming a fashion statement. But we still have a long way to go. It’s important for girls to know that they’re beautiful, with or without glasses, and that they are more than just one word – they do not and should not have to feel pressured to sacrifice one component of their lives for another. My only hope is that in the future, we as women have more positive connotations associated with wearing glasses, and more realistic representation for our daughters.

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