Every day last week I wore glasses instead of contacts, and someone I already knew asked me what was your name, again?
She just wanted to be sure that, yes, it was indeed me.
Let me establish: I know that I look very different with glasses on. I know that in high school for one year I wore large, white statement frames. And I know that when I returned to wearing contacts a girl in my art class came up to me and cupped my face in her hands, studying the map of my features, so foreign to her. She said, “Wow, can you just move your hair a bit to test the difference? I mean, you just don’t even look like the same person!”
I had worn my contacts for so many weeks in a row that this last Easter Sunday my eyes gave up trying to accommodate the little pieces of film. See: I have worn prescription lenses since I was seven, and contacts since I was thirteen. I started wearing contacts because of sports. Eighth grade, and still unsure if striped shirts were okay under my white field hockey jersey, I played a grueling fall season nearly blind. Our goggles were not wide enough to accommodate glasses, so I finally asked to get contacts. That spring, I ran a season of track with this glorious, newfound absence on my face. Then I quit organized sports all together.
So sports left, but the contacts stayed.
I sometimes still use exercise as an excuse to wear my contacts, even though this usually means I step straight into the shower after a run, washing my face with my contacts in, and then fifteen minutes later feeling an unbearable dryness in my eyes.
Uncomfortable as this is, I can’t say it was worse than how I felt walking into Dillon Gym several times last week. Let me establish: I hate going to the gym. For reasons unrelated to my physical exertion. Something about the racehorse farm feel (and smell) of everyone’s machines working at the same time—something about the unspoken competition—and of course, the potential of seeing attractive people there.
I hate seeing attractive people (when I feel unattractive. That often means I hate seeing attractive people when I am wearing glasses.)
As I walked down the aisles in Stephens Fitness Center, past sweating Intel ISEF Finalists and red-faced published poets, I shrank a little into myself. I have long recognized a particular difficulty focusing and making eye contact with others when I am wearing glasses. I wonder if this is because glasses are not only a physical barrier between the world and myself, but also a visible one. Why is it, then, that something meaning to bring clarity to my vision actually further separates me from those with whom I am interacting?
At lunch last week, I told my friend about my acquaintance double-checking my identity because of my glasses.
My friend, an Asian-American male known around campus for wrecking Asian-American stereotypes, then explained to me why he continues to wear glasses. And not statement glasses, but wiry, metal—“nerdy”—ones.
“People used to tell me: I didn’t expect you to sound like you do, looking the way you do,” he said.
Within Asian-Americana, there exists a stark divide in perception and then in treatment between “cool Asians” and “school Asians,” and one of the first, prominent, apparent hallmarks of a “school Asian” is glasses. And not statement ones.
This binary between “school” and “cool” is something even my own parents, haters of dim lighting and monthly contacts prescriptions, acknowledge as well, if only implicitly. My parents use the phrasing of “that kind of Asian kid” or “another kind of Asian girl” to try and understand the dissolving categorizations of minority stereotypes. They only mean well. But to the family friend’s daughter who wears thick reading frames and her unwashed hair parted in the middle, they say: their daughter is a different kind of Asian girl, not that school. And to the neighbor’s daughter who wears miniskirts and has highlighted her hair with chestnut: their daughter is, again, a different kind of Asian girl: not that cool.
“That’s why I still wear glasses,” my friend concluded. “You go into an interview and the white man on the other side of the desk expects you to sound one way, act one way, and when you don’t—well, that’s when it all shatters. That’s when people start learning.”
For girls, wearing glasses when one owns contacts also has implications of not being put-together.
Once, a good girl friend of mine came to the dining hall wearing one of her usual stunning outfits. Heeled boots and a fringed scarf and striking glasses frames. I said, “You look great!” which she quickly refuted, holding up a hand: “No, no, not at all.” She picked at her glasses. “Do you see these? I’m a mess today.”
I’m a mess today? She was more put-together than the five other girls, all without glasses, sitting at our long table. But I completely understood her—I have also been the perpetrator of the same words. Modifications might include, “Oh, no, it’s a glasses kind of day.” One of my other closest female friends says she feels “lazy” wearing glasses when she knows she could be—should be?—wearing contacts.
So this idea of “being a mess” as a woman leads me to acknowledge another notable aspect of last week, that is: I also consciously decided to forgo makeup.
The same friend who often feels “lazy” for settling for glasses eloquently expresses how I was able to forget makeup for seven days: “I find it easier to go without makeup when I wear glasses, since it kind of feels like I’m wearing a mask.”
Instead of attention on my acne scars or my unlined lids, gazes focus—and then stay—on the glasses. Why is it that something which is supposed to help us see better, more clearly, actually ends up functioning as a mask?
This past spring break, I went on a service trip to Brooklyn. One of my students wanted to write her college essay about her development of self-confidence, and how she had overcome bullying as a child. As I read over her draft materials I kept searching for something that could function as a hook. “People love that kind of thing,” I told her, almost sheepishly. “We have to have an entry point. Maybe even a metaphor.”
“They used to call me four-eyes for wearing glasses,” she had written.
I looked at her face. “Is that why you no longer wear glasses?”
She shook her head. “No, I stopped wearing glasses because I kept breaking them.”
“Do you wear contacts now?”
“No. My mom and I tried to see if I could get my eyes better by not wearing anything. I don’t wear contacts, and I see perfectly fine now.”
I marveled for a second, almost embarrassed by my -6.25 prescription in both eyes. Then I put my finger down. “Write about this.” I handed the papers back to her. “About how taking off your glasses actually helped you ‘see’ yourself more clearly for who you are.” We broke into stupid grins at each other. “People love that kind of thing!”
People love that kind of thing!
When famous poet Andrea Gibson came to our school earlier this year, they hosted a workshop. They asked us to write a love letter from our least favorite part of our bodies to our favorite part. I wrote this assignment as a letter from my hips to my eyes. I thought: of course I hated my wide hips. I thought: no doubt I loved these beautiful eyes—these eyes that crinkle at the corners when I laugh, these eyes that dance in previously unseen colors under good lighting.
I have a lot of body parts I dislike: my hips are too wide, my back too bent, my arms too weak, my knees too knocked—in Gibson’s words, I commit massacres on my body every day, simply by hating it—but I didn’t realize until last week that perhaps I do not love my Chinese-American eyes as much as I thought I did.
On Saturday night I went to the Street wearing glasses and no makeup and bearing two to-go packs of unsalted almonds in my pocket. I wondered if this was the peak of my youth.
As the night came to a close, we were waiting on the Terrace pool table while my friend searched for her coat. My other friend leaned drowsily into me, relating: “That guy over there came up to me in the lobby and said ‘Hey, you’re cute,’ to my face,” she told me, laughing. “Didn’t do quite as well as the aggressive lesbian on the dance floor, though!”
I suddenly marveled that none of that had happened to me tonight: none of the expected attempted waist-grabs. No aggressive assertions of my attractiveness (to which, it seems, girls also now have to say “thank you.”). As I opened my first pack of almonds and began eating them with deliberation, I found myself smiling—slowly, at first, and then wildly.
I had to wake up early the next morning for a meeting. Groggy from less than five hours of sleep, cold from a sudden weather change, and pissed because breakfast is the most important meal of the day, I trudged across campus before ten AM rose that Sunday. I thought about calling dining services to propose breakfast hours before brunch begins on weekends. As I reached into my coat pockets for my phone, I found instead my second, unopened bag of almonds. I was wearing contacts again. I held an almond up and examined it against the overcast horizon.
Almonds. Almost the same shape as the eyes my parents gave me.