Years ago, I noticed an old friend wearing glasses for the first time. When I asked her if she’d just decided to forgo her contacts, she replied that she had, in fact, not. She didn’t own contacts, you see, and the frames she wore held nothing but non-prescriptively bent glass. They were on her face for fashion, nothing but.
As a glasses wearer of over two decades, this did not sit right with me. And I told her so, in dramatic and particularly expletive terms.
But, maybe I was wrong. She’s not alone in her fashion sense: A bunch of NBA players typified the trend in 2012, when they did pressers with lens-less, Urkel-esque frames. And unless one’s situation is particularly dire, no one really has to wear glasses anymore; alternatives like contacts and LASIK are there for the choosing. So what’s going on when we, the poor-sighted, continue to don glasses?
"If the eyes are the window into somebody's soul, [glass wearers] are putting some obstruction in the way,” says Dr. Neil Handley, the curator of the British Optical Association Museum at the College of Optometrists. “That’s going to be problematic for some.”
"What were these secret weapons they had on their face? Are they trying to capture my soul or something?"
Know that old “first impressions” saying? When you see a wearer of glasses walk into a room, superficial judgments begin formulating. Are they fashionable? Are they conservative or flamboyant? Are they clean, or do they let grease smudge their lenses? Whatever communication takes place is filtered through these impressions. And while those gut-checks are surface level, there are also more deep-seated evaluations occurring. For example: Are they trustworthy?
This is where things get complex. If you believe people with glasses are more intelligent—numerous studies back up that people believe in this stereotype—you may also think that person is more trustworthy. But, if the frames are obstructing their eyes in an overt way, that may morph into distrust. “Glasses cover not just the eyes themselves, but the surrounding tissues, the cheekbones, the frown lines,” Handley says. “These are all indicators of what you mean and are trying to say.” Hide them, and that’s a hurdle that lens-free faces don’t have to jump over.
The point is, you don’t see glasses and think nothing. Full-rim glasses give off less attractive, yet more intelligent, vibes when compared to rimless glasses or non-spectacled faces. In light of the latter impression, job interviewees have been shown to perform better when wearing glasses. And in the realm of amateur, non-peer-reviewed studies, one 17-year-old ended his suffering at the hand of bullies by taking cues from Corey Hart and donning his sunglasses at night. But while everyone thinks something about those wearing glasses, what that is has shifted.
When constant-use glasses were first introduced at the start of the 18th century—before, eye assistance was relegated to occasional-use monocles and, presumably, power-squinting—spectacle wearers were mysterious folk. “What were these secret weapons they had on their face?” Handley asks. “What is this person doing with this device on? Are they trying to capture my soul or something?” (“There was a suspicion that was similar to Google Glasses today,” he says. I don't know if you've yet had the pleasure of attending a party with a Google Glasses wearer, but that sense of suspicion certainly jives.)
That was the beginning of other feelings surrounding glasses as well. Early spectacles were made specifically for reading purposes, so there was a greater likelihood that the person wearing them was educated. Hence: People wearing them are more intelligent. But, as tends to be the case when someone’s disabilities are prominently displayed, negative feelings began to emerge as well. Enter: the bullies.
“No matter how clever you think you are, reading all of those books has made you weak-eyed,” Handley says. “That was the perception. People thought you could damage your eyes by being too bookish.”
(In 2012, Handley analyzed the changing social norms toward glasses wearers throughout history. One revelation was that while Hitler wore reading glasses, images of him doing so were censored by the Nazi Party for fear of his authority being weakened.)
But then, something happened: Glasses became cool.
But glasses are medical devices, first and foremost. Putting them on for fashion alone feels like faking a wheelchair-bound injury at a theme park to jump to the front of the line.
Handley traces it to “10 to 15 years ago,” which not-so-coincidentally aligns with the world being introduced to a certain magician-in-training. “Now the kids in the school yard want to look like Harry Potter,” he says. Which, drawing a straight line, leads us to the sickening reality of the genetically blessed wearing lens-free frames. But what happens if/when the fashion goes out of style?
My friend, Meiyee Apple, recently underwent LASIK surgery after decades of wearing glasses. “I felt I was losing part of my identity since I identified myself as a cool glasses person,” Apple says.
(One somewhat hilarious reason she hesitated on the decision: Her phobia of disgusting showers. As in, glasses gave her the ability to intentionally blur her vision and keep her from having to see gross shower things. “Now that I don't frequent gross showers, it aided me in my decision,” she says. Which, I suppose, is the positive of wearing glasses: You do have a choice in your eyes’ effectiveness.)
Apple's choice to ditch the frames has shifted how people perceive her. “When I see people that wear glasses all the time and then they don't, I think something is missing," she says. "I feel people think that about me.” It’s also changed the amount of time she spends in front of the mirror. “I didn't wear make-up as much as I do now because now you are seeing all of my face,” she says.
Handley backed this glasses-as-make-up reading by analyzing my own hipster glasses, which have bold, black frames on top and clear rims on the bottom, giving me the look of someone with quite dominant brows. “The same way a woman might pluck her real eyebrows and draw them in with make-up, you're doing the same thing with your glasses,” Handley says. “You have make-up on without realizing it.”
Ironically, Apple’s decision has affected her work as an actor. “The large hip frames allowed me to either stand out or give myself a specific ‘look,’” she says. “So I had an eye doctor turn a pair to clear plastic so I can wear them to auditions. It’s a look that is in right now.”
Most studies focusing on glasses deal with outside perceptions, but what goes on from the inside-out? Seeing the world through a small piece of glass has to change one's perception of that world.
If you want to play armchair psychologist, there are all sorts of ways to extrapolate the effects. Having reality framed as if it were a movie or television show could give wearers an emotional distance from what's being experienced. And being forced to carry around a flimsy piece of vital equipment means spontaneity is relatively non-existent; finding a place to store glasses is the first mood-destroying step when it comes to every act of physicality, whether it's jumping in a lake or, say, something more amorous. Oh, and if you want to get Freud-ish, there's an awful good chance someone's poor eyesight wasn't caught until grammar school, meaning whole developmental stages took place in a blur, but without the person knowing things weren't supposed to be blurry. That's probably got to have some effect.
There are also the more substantive concerns. “Literally your world is framed,” Handley says. “Sometimes it's a narrower world as a result.” The gaze of the glasses wearer is focused forward more often, since that's where the lens is centered. If they need to look to the side, they do so with their whole head rather than turning the eye itself. “You are restricting your vision in one sense, but the alternative is not wearing glasses.” There's also the lesson that Jack Nicholson's Joker taught us. “You're not going to take part in a fight with your glasses on,” Handley says. “You behave more cautiously because you don’t want to break them. It causes people to stand back from confrontation.”
What’s perhaps most interesting is how some who wear glasses pictures themselves. “If they're at a family wedding and need to have the photo taken, [some] take their glasses off, because their self-perception is as a non-glasses wearer,” Handley says. “They feel that's the real them looking at the camera.” (The photo that goes with Handley's own bio, it should be noted, shows him without glasses.) It’s heady stuff. Despite going through most of their day wearing glasses, many glasses wearers picture themselves as having perfect 20/20 vision when constructing their self-image in their mind’s eye.
And that’s perhaps why I take so much issue with lens-free frames. Glasses can be fashionable, sure, the same way someone can spruce up their crutches or get a few amateur artists to draw messages of inspiration on their arm cast. But glasses are medical devices, first and foremost. Putting them on for fashion alone feels like faking a wheelchair-bound injury at a theme park to jump to the front of the line.