I had my eyes tested for the first time in the fourth grade. After telling my parents that I had difficulty seeing the board from far away at school, the local LensCrafters presented itself as the solution to my problem. I walked into the store with assumed 20/20 vision and exited with a pair of small pink-and-black-rimmed frames. I was officially a girl with glasses.
At first, I was ecstatic to be a part of the elite group of the visually inferior; having glasses made me feel like I was a component of something much bigger than myself. Yes, I wasn’t a full-time wearer like some of my other peers, but at least I had glasses. I finally owned something that would distinguish myself from everyone else—I was cool, in my mind.
It wasn’t until the sixth grade, when I began wearing my glasses full time, that I realized glasses—and particularly women with glasses—weren’t portrayed to be as cool as I thought they were. I had begun to notice everyone who wore glasses around me. I compared the way I looked to the way prominent members of the media looked. Around me, all the pretty girls had perfect vision. In front of me, all the celebrities I followed seldom sported spectacles. On TV or in the movies, only the nerds wore glasses, and they were ridiculed for it. Where did I get the impression that I was cool or pretty with my imperfect vision? It was a delusion of childhood to think such a foolish thing, and I continued to analyze the display of glasses, and women who wore them, in the world around me.
One of the most common tropes I picked up on was that women were prettier without glasses. Whenever there was a makeover scene in a movie, the “ugly” girl almost always wore frames. Her awkward lanky limbs and crooked teeth would complement the acne and spectacles skewed onto her face, all temporary obstacles standing in the way of her beauty that was really there all along! It’s the nerd girl trope that appears every now and again but sticks with us far beyond the time it takes to transform her in the movie. Mia Thermopolis, of course, is a memorable example of the magic of contacts and a hair straightener. Her dramatic transformation from a frizzy-haired, bespectacled girl to a literal princess is something that has stayed with me far longer than the specifics of the movie ever did. Every time I look in a mirror, I think to myself, Could I really be that much prettier if I ditched the specs and de-frizzed my hair? The answer, of course, is no—The Princess Diaries is in no way a model on which to base our reality, but the message it sends about beauty is something I just can’t shake.
It’s more than the makeovers, though. It’s the subtle stereotypes and expectations that girls, and people in general, with glasses, are insanely smart nerds who can solve any fix they’re put into. Growing up, the only character with glasses that I could remember influencing me was Velma Dinkley, of the Scooby-Doo franchise. I didn’t want to be her—I found myself aspiring to be more like Daphne, a beautiful, non-glasses wearing girl—but I was drawn to her anyway. She had a particular habit of losing her glasses whenever the action reached its height, and still, she’d have the answers and insight on how to solve every mystery the gang encountered. The thing that made me the most nervous, however, was how capable she was. Velma wore glasses. Velma was the smartest one of the group. Was that how I would be perceived? She almost seemed impossibly good at what she did, and I wasn’t sure I could ever reach that level, should I actively rank myself against the fictional character. As much as I wanted to be a popular damsel, I knew I fit better into the humble nerd role, simply because of one feature of my face. The expectation that arose from that stereotype may have had subconscious pull over my academic career, but I know from middle school on, I’ve been called smart and competent, so much so that I decided to campaign to be “proudest nerd,” my eighth grade year, because I was afraid that I wouldn’t get voted for any other superlative.
The idea that you have to be something—ugly or nerdy or dorky, all because your vision is less than perfect—has weighed heavy on me throughout my adolescence. I’ve wished for ages that I could see someone on screen who wore glasses, not because wearing them made them ugly or sexy or nerdy, but because they genuinely needed them to see their world. The plot device of glasses and their ability to degrade looks or increase intelligence is tired and played out, and this glasses-wearing girl is dying to see someone on screen who does not feel pressured to be anything because of their vision situation.
I still have doubts about my beauty. I don’t think that I’m as desirable as other girls because of the plastic constantly adorning my face. I’ll still Google things like “how to be pretty with glasses,” and “are glasses on girls pretty?” just to scope out online answer forums to get the same advice and results each time: accept yourself, love yourself, there’s always the sexy librarian fantasy. Each time I come out of a web search like that, I end up feeling like I shouldn’t have gone through the trouble of Googling those questions. The answers are always the same, and at the end, I’m still wearing my glasses. So, honestly, I wouldn’t trade my specs for the world. Yes, it’s hard to feel beautiful all the time, but it’s harder to go through life without seeing a thing. Maybe one day I’ll get contacts; maybe one day I’ll truly see glasses as something beautiful. Ultimately, though, my glasses are a part of me, and they do distinguish myself from everyone else. I may not always like them, but my glasses make up who I am, and I wouldn’t trade that for anything.
By Sophia Moore
Photo from Refinery29