by Joshua James Amberson
In fourth grade, my aging teacher’s neat handwriting began to morph into a series of arcane, jumbled symbols, their formerly straight lines and perfect circles turning wavy and uneven. I wondered if Mr. Youngren was getting shaky as time went by, or if it was an issue with the chalk, or even the board itself. My confusion continued for weeks, maybe even months, unable to interpret the words in front of me and not understanding why.
Then one day, as I squinted, struggling to read the fuzzy brand of chalk our school insisted on buying, the obvious struck me: I needed glasses. Throughout my family—across my dozens of cousins, my aunts and uncles, my grandparents and great-grandparents—everyone except me and my two younger cousins had a pair. I hadn’t considered what that meant for me, or at least not allowed myself to consider it, but once I realized what was happening it became obvious that I had been doomed to it all along. Yet, even as the inevitable arrived, my fate handed down, I wasn’t ready to accept it.
This was an era where the makeover movie thrived. Through a simple style change, the status of a film’s character was suddenly elevated, their rise meteoric. Almost invariably, this included the character ditching their glasses, thereby showing the world they were not the unattractive loser everyone thought. With this simple deletion, girls went from gross to model-pretty and boys transformed from wusses into suave womanizers. Though my shy disposition and bargain-store clothing made me strikingly similar to the losers at the beginning of the makeover movies, my idols were baseball and basketball players—muscular men who were quick to anger and uniformly unencumbered by optical lenses. I watched Ami Dolenz in She’s Out of Control, Patrick Dempsey in Can’t Buy Me Love, and the message was simple: glasses not only symbolized ugliness, but also weakness.
Through at least the 1930s eyeglasses were classified as “medical appliances” in the United States, and were largely stigmatized as a visible sign of disability through the first half of the 20th century. Glasses historian Neil Handley notes that, “In many languages other than English, they’re often described as a prosthesis; an artificial part of the body, part of you, making you who you are.” A study that came out in The Journal of Social Psychology around the time I was born found that participants judged a male model wearing glasses to be “weaker and more of a follower than participants who viewed the same male model without eyeglasses.” While glasses typically solved a vision issue, making the wearer more capable, they also announced a lack, an underlying structural error.
I feared nothing more than announcing this error, this inner weakness. Glasses were social death for fourth graders in the early 1990s in rural Washington State. There were only two or three kids in each class with glasses and those kids always held a low social standing. I was already a chubby, awkward only child who lived in a trailer in the woods and was sometimes dropped off at school in a rusty mail jeep. Despite all the possible jokes that could be made at my expense, I’d largely learned to slip under the bully radar.
I had switched schools when the district rezoned after second grade, but my first few years were at a school deep in the country, populated by the children of farmers and rural recluses. The toys on our playground included large cement pipes made for sewer systems and wood pallets attached to springs. Fights broke out every recess, and kids got picked on for a variety of seemingly insignificant reasons—preppy clothes, nasally voices, odd gaits—but glasses were by far the most common cause. They were right there, perched, sticking out. You couldn’t miss them.
Before corrective lenses, both farsighted and nearsighted people lived with a disability. While farsighted people struggled with reading and close work, nearsighted people stumbled through a world without details—hazy shapes, blocks of color, streaks of movement. No one knows for sure when eyeglasses were invented, but the best guess is 13th-century Italy. The concept of looking through glass, crystal, or globes of water to assist with vision had been around since ancient times, but the glasses that became popular in Italy were the first we know of that were held to the eyes rather than the page.
These glasses were reading glasses, solely addressing farsightedness, and it wasn’t until the 16th century that glasses attempted to address nearsightedness at all. I often think about that wait—centuries passing, generations of families hoping for a tool to make their lives less difficult. What did it feel like to witness so many having their vision addressed while your far more debilitating issue went wholly ignored? Even when lenses for nearsightedness were developed, though, glasses were largely viewed—perhaps because of the social conventions established by reading glasses—as a practical tool to be used only occasionally. An early twentieth century article in New York Medical Journal says, “Wearing spectacles or eyeglasses out of doors is always a disfigurement, often an injury, seldom a necessity.”
Most of a century later, as a ten-year-old, I continued in this tradition of considering glasses a disfigurement. It didn’t matter that most adults I knew and loved wore glasses, because in my mind glasses were just one of many embarrassing liabilities that came with adulthood. Glasses on kids were simply different. My new school wasn’t as rough as my previous one, but I held on to the caution I’d learned. I was careful not to say anything that could be used against me, careful not to get too carried away when playing games and risk showing an unflattering side, careful not to advertise that I was being careful. Each Monday the symbols on the board were a little fuzzier than the week before, but I was resilient. I became adept at writing quickly, capturing Mr. Youngren’s words as they left his mouth. When I lost track, or when he wrote and didn’t speak the words at the same time, I copied notes from my neighbors. Months went by with no one the wiser.
Then one day Mr. Youngren asked me to read the quote he’d written on the board for the class. I balked, trying to pass off the responsibility to one of my classmates. When that didn’t work, I squinted, reading the words I could make out. “Should . . . that . . . and . . . to,” I said, conscious of how much the moment resembled an ABC Afterschool Special I’d seen a half-dozen times where the kid who can’t read is exposed in front of everyone. My classmates chuckled, my face and neck turned red, and Mr. Youngren, well aware of my reading abilities, said, “Would you like to move closer to the board?” I didn’t, but nodded, admitting defeat. I moved to the front of the room, read the quote, and soon found myself in a meeting with Mr. Youngren and my mom, discussing my need for glasses. All of the questions I’d worked so hard to never hear flowed freely. How long had it been going on? Why didn’t I tell anyone? Was I being picked on by other kids? I mumbled a string of noes and I don’t knows, trying to convince time to move faster, to escape the interrogation room and get back to blending in.
On the ride home, my mom casually suggested contacts. Not knowing anyone my age who had contacts, I hadn’t considered this possibility, but immediately celebrated the idea and assumed my problem was solved. But when I went to my eye appointment, the elderly optometrist told me that kids couldn’t properly deal with contacts until they were teenagers. I was a tidy kid who organized my room for fun; my mom and I both knew I could handle contacts. But to him, I was just another child who couldn’t be trusted with tiny, delicate pieces of plastic. As he told me I’d have to wait another four years—an eternity, in my mind—to get contacts, I looked to my mom with desperation, silently begging her to save me from this man and his foolish, antiquated ideas. But I inherited my fear of conflict from her and she shrugged her shoulders, giving me her apologetic look of defeat.
I imagine that as soon as eyeglasses came into existence, there were inventors and visually-impaired people dreaming of how to move past glasses into something less cumbersome and obvious. The long and painful history of contact lenses can be traced back to 1508 when Leonardo da Vinci created, as a way to potentially improve vision, a glass lens into which water could be funneled. Working off da Vinci’s idea in 1636, philosopher René Descartes proposed placing a similar glass tube on the cornea itself. But it wasn’t until 1801 that an English scientist named Thomas Young put the idea to use, making a basic pair of contact lenses that he glued to his own eyeballs with wax.
These early water-filled contacts barely addressed most vision issues, though, and it wasn’t until 1845 that English astronomer Sir John Herschel suggested taking a mold of the cornea and then applying “transparent animal jelly contained in a spherical capsule of glass,” in the shape of that mold, to the eye. In the 1880s, German ophthalmologist Adolf Fick—using similar principles, but apparently unaware of Herschel’s idea—wrote the treatise “A Contact Spectacle,” laying out how contacts could be used for visual improvement—information he’d acquired through experiments he’d conducted on rabbits’ eyes, his own, and those of a small, brave group of volunteers.
Having been denied contacts, I went to school the next day with a clunky pair of glasses in my backpack. As I built up my nerve, I noticed my teacher didn’t seem to care that I wasn’t wearing them. I soon realized that I was only expected to wear them in one situation: when taking notes off the board. So I just left them tucked away in my desk drawer and, when that time came, quietly slipped them out of their case, dipped my head as if checking for a lost eraser, and put them on.
But by middle school, this selective use became an issue. My vision, progressively declining, was bad enough that I couldn’t see further than a few feet in front of me. One day, I saw a human shape waving from down the hall. I peeked behind me and didn’t see anyone waving back, but decided waving was too risky. What if it was someone popular who had never acknowledged me, waving to someone else who had even less interest in my existence? The fallout could be catastrophic. So I put my head down and ignored the still-waving hand. Then a pair of doodled-on Converse All-Stars appeared on the floor in front of me, and I looked up to an angry version of my best friend Stephanie.
I tried explaining I hadn’t seen her.
“You looked right at me,” she said. “Then you looked away. That sent a pretty clear message.”
A few months later I went in for my annual eye exam and, even though I was still twelve years old, my ancient optometrist wrote me a contacts prescription as if it had never been an issue. I watched him write it, thinking about everything I’d endured, and how the solution was as simple as a few numbers and a signature on a small, unremarkable piece of paper.
The first to create a working example of the contact lenses Adolf Fick proposed was glass-eyeball maker F. A. Mueller in 1887. Mueller’s contacts were made of heavy blown glass and covered the entire exposed eyeball, rather than just the cornea. Unlike the rest of the body, which the blood oxygenates, the eye receives its oxygen from the air. Because these impermeable lenses cut off oxygen completely, just a few hours of use produced acute eye pain. Despite their drawbacks, these were the most common contacts until the 1920s. The invention of new plastics changed that, but it wasn’t until the 1960s that contacts began letting oxygen in to the eye, and not until the late 1990s—several years after my first pair—that contacts with high-oxygen permeability were widely available.
I barely had a chance to celebrate my contacts, or bemoan the pain they caused me, because soon after my mom took an interest in the way my neck was dotted with small lumps, similar to gooseflesh, as if it was permanently cold. Given how self-conscious I was about my appearance, I’d oddly thought nothing of it—my acne and impossible-to-control curly hair taking up the bulk of my concerns. But my mom worried I was having an allergic reaction, so dragged me to our small-town family practitioner.
What we both thought would be a straightforward appointment soon turned strange. We assumed he’d tell us to change the laundry detergent we used, or to get rid of shirts made of synthetic materials, but instead of focusing on my neck, he looked at my inner elbows and asked questions about my vision, his brow furrowed. He walked off, disappearing for longer than seemed reasonable, before returning with a bulky medical textbook. He held out a page, deep in the back of the book, with photographs of an armpit, the inside of an eyeball, and a neck that looked just like mine. “It’s something I read about in medical school, but never thought I’d see,” he told us. The goosebumps were actually called papules, and papules on the neck were a telltale first sign of a rare condition called Pseudoxanthoma Elasticum, or PXE, that affected the elasticity of tissue.
PXE presented visible symptoms at the soft places where the body bends—the neck, the inside of the knee and the elbow, the groin, the armpit. He pointed out where, in each of these places on my body, the skin was slightly wrinkled, adorned with tiny papules. None were as pronounced as the ones on my neck, but they were there. Having always assumed this was just what bodies looked like, I looked at these spots in horror, wondering what other parts of me were secret, freakish signs of an inner fragility.
Though not much was known about the condition, in some cases patients had progressive degeneration of internal organs, some suffered from gastrointestinal bleeding and blood clots. And everyone with the condition developed cracks on the retina called angioid streaks. While the cracks themselves didn’t cause any issues, they created a situation that could lead to severe vision loss. He sent us to Seattle Children’s Hospital, but doctors there knew little more than he did. One doctor summed up this lack of knowledge by telling me, “You’ll either never be affected by it, or someday you’ll go blind.”
One might assume that the threat of blindness changed something in me—brought some new appreciation for life, or snapped me out of the frivolous drama of whether to wear glasses or not. But it didn’t. The condition was just a fact, something that was for the moment held inside, largely invisible. Glasses weren’t. I put the condition as far out of my mind as I could and kept wearing contacts, even though they weren’t pleasant. I sometimes felt like I was living through a different era of contacts than everyone else. While my friends threw their contacts around, treating them like junk, without consequence, I treated mine like precious objects just to have my eyes reject their presence again and again. Still, I spent seventeen years trying to make contacts work for me, mostly out of a held-over fear that switching to glasses would leave me friendless and alone.
I want to say I switched to wearing my glasses because I was no longer concerned about appearing weak. Or because I entered my thirties and, through this milestone of maturity, I got over worrying about what people think. Or that the very real possibility of living with, not just a symbol of disability, but an actual disability, finally altered my priorities. But in many ways, it’s just that the culture changed. Glasses may be more fashionable now than at any other moment in their history. Celebrities and models wear them, and sales of frames with non-prescription lenses are at an all-time high. Elementary school kids wear them. Neil Handley, in his observations of changing social norms of glasses through history, traces the beginning of the recent cultural shift to the popularity of the Harry Potter movies. Thanks to that fictional child wizard, we now have a new generation who were raised viewing glasses as cool.
Oddly, for most of my life I’ve thought people who are not me look better in glasses. Even as I feared their social implications, I regularly found myself more attracted to people when they put glasses on. In an unconscious reversal of the movie plot I grew up with, I’m regularly unaware of others’ physical beauty until I see them wearing glasses. But for most of my life I wasn’t able to see myself in the same light. I put my glasses on and, looking in the mirror, saw the feeble buzz-kill I knew I was inside. I saw a guy who didn’t want to party as often or as long as everyone else, who liked quiet introspection more than big groups of people, and I deemed these traits unacceptable.
In most areas of my life, I’ve stopped worrying about strength, weakness, and the related remnants of male socialization that weighed so heavy on me for so long. And I’ve come to accept, and even like, the bespectacled face that looks back at me in the mirror each day. My glasses have become a part of me. But in some situations, I still worry about appearing strong. I see how certain old friends look at me differently now that I wear my glasses every day, how their ideas maybe haven’t changed with the culture’s, and I wonder why I care. In my head I argue that glasses aren’t a weakness: they improve vision and act as a shield for the eyes. It’s really the people without glasses—with their unprotected, vulnerable eyes— who are weak.
But just as glasses are a shield, they’re also a mask. A very slight mask, but they nonetheless change the shape of the face, disguise the wearer. Even as attitudes around their attractiveness change, statistics say that people who wear glasses in their online dating profile pictures get passed over more often because, according to sociologist Jessica Carbino, glasses obstruct people’s ability “to actually look at your face and be able to have people see your eyes, which are a very strong indicator of trustworthiness.” Maybe it’s because I’m a slow-to-open-up person who appreciates the humility of a little hiding, but I relate to David Shields when he writes that, “people not wearing glasses sometimes seem preposterously accessible, uncomplicated, unmysterious.”
Glasses are really just a tool. A tool we’ve turned into a complex symbol that shifts meaning with each new setting, with each passing year. When I reach for my glasses in the morning, I open their arms, bring them to my face, and absorb the weight of their history. I feel the relief they’ve brought to so many, the stress they’ve brought to countless others, and centuries of shifting attitudes sit heavy on the back of my earlobes, the bridge of my nose.
Joshua James Amberson is a Portland, Oregon-based writer and creative writing instructor. His work has appeared in The Rumpus, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Electric Literature, Columbia Journal Online, and Tin House, among others. He’s author of the chapbook Everyday Mythologies from Two Plum Press. He’s currently working on a book about eyeballs.
Image source: Wikimedia via Creative Commons