A weird and wonderful thing happened to me this past year. On a morning that started with me dreaming too long and sleeping too late, I broke a promise that I had made myself shortly before entering high school. That day, not only did I fall victim to a finicky coffee maker and my inability to find a matching set of socks, but as I went rooting around in my drawer for a new pair of contact lenses, I realized that yesterday’s expired pair had been my last set. I quickly weighed my options. On one hand, I could spend the day surrounded by blurry fragments of human beings, constantly asking what had been written on the board, unable to attach a face to the voice calling my name from across the hall. The other option was to do the unthinkable and wear my glasses.
I should say, I don’t hate glasses. Their miraculous power to allow me to see the world in crisp sharpness and clarity by looking through what is essentially two translucent disks is not lost on me—nor does my issue does not stem from the way they look on others. I’ve always thought that the people on the billboards advertising glasses looked incredibly sophisticated.
The issue is that, at eleven years old, when I got my first pair of glasses, I only ever saw them depicted in a negative light. Other than in real life (and who pays heed to real life at eleven?) and on Hakim Optical billboards, I simply didn’t see glasses in any positive manner. In pop culture glasses are viewed not as the magical tool that allows me to see green dots on trees for the leaves they are, but as something that makes the wearer unattractive and a “dork”. This only gets worse if you examine movies and shows geared towards pre-adolescents. Every character in these shows is seemingly two dimensional and rarely has more than three similar adjectives that can be used to describe them. Apart from everyone’s favourite wizard Harry Potter, there are very few examples of anyone wearing glasses in the media who isn’t depicted using the outdated term “loser”. The clichéd transformation from unattractive nerd to popular “it girl” is often done by little other than the removal of a pair of specs.
On my eleventh birthday, I decided that I was old. I was leaving elementary school for middle school, I was allowed to stay home alone, and I could no longer display my age on ten fingers. I’ve always looked younger than I actually am, so while in my head I was tremendously aged and experienced, in reality I appeared to be around nine. At eleven I thought I understood that beauty is more complicated than simply the exterior of a person. I had heard those words in school assemblies and from concerned adults who assumed, probably correctly, that young girl’s images were corrupted by the media. I whispered those words to myself while staring in the mirror but I didn’t understand them. I still haven’t internalized that concept, I don’t think anyone ever does, but I know I grasp it more now than I did when I was first hearing it. Beauty is not as simple as metal and clear lenses, wrapped around one’s head, nor even, is it as straightforward as what a person looks like. Just as buildings are not made up simply by their frame, beauty in humans stretches deeper, to the interior. Yet, constantly I see it reduced to the external surface. Maybe the question of beauty is simply too complicated to be answered in a half hour comedy geared towards pre-teens. Perhaps this is why writers tend to fall back on superficial stereotypes that are the equivalent of flashing neon signs to a public that is accustomed to them. I learned quickly: the girl with glasses and braces is a loser, the blonde one is either stupid, or mean, and, most importantly, the thin, classically beautiful, non-glasses wearing girl will always get the boy.
My first time receiving glasses was both terrifying and thrilling. I was anxious about being teased, but excited because new is always exhilarating especially when you’re eleven. Putting them on changed the way I saw everything. I understood the enormous capability resting on the bridge of my nose and decided I didn’t want to take them off. My world was quite literally transformed under the scope of my new glasses and I could see every detail of it.
I changed my mind when I got to school. Middle school was when I learned that people could really see me and that they might not like what they saw. Once you enter into the second decade of your life, it stops being about how adorable you are and starts being about how grown up you look. Middle schoolers are more vicious and obsessed when it comes to pretty than most adults are, and for me, it wasn’t just about the glasses, it was about every part of me. I fixated in on the glasses because accentuated everything that was wrong and felt like a barrier, blocking any chance of being considered “beautiful”.
It’s an awkward age. You’re not quite a teenager but you’re also not a child. You’re growing and changing at a rapid pace and you feel like everything is about whether or not you fit into the narrow definition of “attractive”. I quickly realized that I did not fit that description, and it didn’t help when I got braces a few months later. I still remember my best friend at the time telling me she felt sorry for me. When I asked her why she responded: “First you got glasses, now you have braces. You’re so unlucky.”
I started noticing that nearly every single “unappealing” girl in pop culture had some combination of glasses or braces or both. I thought this was a tremendous injustice. Maybe that girl just wants straight teeth and to watch TV without sitting a metre away from the screen. I shared this opinion with my friends, and while they assured me that my glasses and braces looked good, they gave me the impression in vague, veiled terms, that I was an exception not a norm. Despite their assertion, that of course I looked beautiful, I didn’t feel it. Instead I felt transparent. I felt like everyone could see how awkward and uncomfortable I felt. On the arbitrary “hot lists” scrawled across the bathroom stalls, that middle school pre-teens give so much weight and consideration to, I never found my name.
By the time I turned twelve I didn’t want my glasses anymore. But I didn’t like the helplessness that came from not wearing them either. I decided that the solution was contacts. As a person who was not good with anything to do with eyes, I spent nearly two years struggling to attach the lenses. The day I finally did was near the end of middle school, when, after thirty, painstaking minutes of me alone on my bathroom floor with a mirror, surrounded by eyelashes I had accidently pulled out, I inserted them into my eyes. I promised myself then that I wasn’t going to wear anything other than contacts outside of the house again. I wanted to feel beautiful.
That brings me to this year, when on my terrible morning, I was forced to wear my glasses. A few weeks prior to that day, after careful examination of the most outgoing, fashionable people I know, I concluded that if you wear something with confidence, you look good in it. I kept that in my mind as I went into school that day, and lifted my chin up to walk, in such a way that I hoped exuded confidence. I was still translucent, but the kind of translucent that welcomes the world’s eyes, instead of leaving me vulnerable to judgment.
As I braced myself for my friends to see my glasses a surprising thing occurred: nobody cared whether or not I was wearing them. I don’t mean that in a bad way, they took notice of the change and complimented it, but it wasn’t like how I remembered wearing glasses to feel. I didn’t have a nagging feeling that eyes were following me everywhere I went and, while I felt insecure at first, and made some ill-advised, self-deprecating jokes, by the end of the day I hadn’t felt like an awkward, unattractive girl once. The next week, I had a headache so I opted for glasses, and once again, it wasn’t the colossal, world-ending event I had built it up to be. The following month there was a dress down day and I wore my glasses simply because they accentuated the outfit that I chose.
It’s funny, because in my head, the day I wore glasses to school again would be the day that I went back to feeling like an uncomfortable stereotype. Turns out, it was just a regular Tuesday in October. I still enjoy the freedom my contacts provide, but I am no longer waging war with my specs. I’m aware that putting on glasses may not seem like a big deal, but it was monumental to me. The day I put on glasses again, was the day I began to stop hiding and start embracing the transparency that comes from having even a shred of confidence in this world. I started to let myself be seen the way I wanted to be seen, not the way I thought I needed to be. This year when I put on glasses, I let myself be translucent.
Abby is a sixteen year old writer from Toronto. You can follow her here.