The old saying goes that “men never make passes at girls who wear glasses” – but a new cohort of specs-wearing stars is putting paid to glasses being equated with a lack of glamour. It’s about time, says Emily Reynolds.
Every year has its standout moments, but my personal favourites include Björk’s iconic swan dress, worn to the Oscars in 2001, Rose McGowan’s beaded, nearly-nude 1998 VMA look, and the sheer-topped dress Halle Berry wore to pick up her Oscar in 2002. It’s safe to say that I don’t particularly favour the subtle or the understated.
But this year, despite my deep and abiding love for an outlandish statement look, my favourite piece of red carpet fashion hasn’t been an outrageous dress or a bold piece of jewellery. In fact, it’s something far more mundane than that – a pair of glasses.
Glasses didn’t quite take centre stage at this year’s Oscars – but they certainly made an appearance. Stars including Meryl Streep, Lupita Nyong’o, Laura Dern and Rita Moreno all donned their specs this year. And I think it’s great.
I’ve been wearing glasses since I was about 10 years old, and for many years I hated them.
As a teenager, I begged my mum to let me have contact lenses. I wore them even when they hurt my eyes, even when my outdated prescription meant that I couldn’t actually see what was going on in front of me, and even when squinting to read what was written on the whiteboard gave me a near constant headache.
I felt that if I was wearing glasses, nobody would ever fancy me. Science seemed to back this up, with studies from the early Nineties showing that those who wore glasses were viewed as less socially and physically attractive. So it’s hardly surprising that not wearing specs was more important to me than almost any other part of my frankly ridiculous scheme to be appealing to boys.
It was a pretty comprehensive scheme, too. I’d take my ‘uncool’ winter coat off at the bus stop so nobody would see me wearing it, preferring to stand shivering cold until the bus came than to dent my (completely non-existent) sex appeal. I’d spend all day in uncomfortable shoes that blistered my feet because I thought they looked good. Despite being incredibly slim, I’d still buy and wear control underwear – in hindsight, a completely ridiculous thing for a 15-year-old girl to do.
But at the time, it made sense. Being uncomfortable didn’t feel like something I could opt out of – if it had, I doubt I would have done so anyway. Wearing glasses wasn’t even an option – I’d seen all the films featuring the ugly-girl-in-glasses trope, all of which followed a predictable formula. It went as follows:
- Teenage girl has frizzy hair and glasses. Nobody notices her, despite the fact that behind her specs she’s being played by a beautiful and preened Hollywood actress in her early twenties
- For whatever reason, girl receives life-changing makeover that necessitates her taking her glasses off
- She’s hot now!
It was obvious: glasses were not sexy.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become far less invested in adhering to the kind of rules that dictate how a woman “should” dress. I ditched heels, I scrapped my Spanx, I finally started dressing for the weather. I’m more concerned with feeling good – which to me, means feeling comfortable – than torturing myself in order to live up to a standard set for me by a culture that, frankly, finds women’s bodies unpalatable in their natural state. I also stopped being concerned with whether or not boys fancied me.
And I realised that – shock horror – women still do look good with glasses on. I now wear them every day and don’t consider myself to be unattractive or plain – although I do have a habit of picking profile pictures where I’m not wearing them, perhaps indicating that I’m not totally over some of those internalised beauty standards.
Look – I’m well aware that in an entertainment world currently dominated by #MeToo and #TimesUp, a few actresses wearing glasses on the red carpet is hardly the biggest issue in the world, and Meryl Streep looking cool in a pair of specs isn’t the feminist statement of the century.
Nor is the stereotyping of glasses-wearers as frumpy and unattractive the worst part of a pernicious and oppressive standard of beauty that prizes skinny, able-bodied white women as the ultimate iteration of beauty, elegance and grace.
I’m also aware that many women want to wear contacts or heels every day, or think the pay-off of discomfort and pain is worth it – and I’d never begrudge them that.
But in a world that shames women for almost every possible facet of their lives and looks, I know how small and seemingly facile things like being told glasses are nerdy and unsexy can have an impact on your self-image and self-esteem.
Looking back at the fashion choices I made during my teens and early twenties, I now see that they were largely characterised by me being uncomfortable – and all to appeal to boys I don’t even remember the names of.
I now value different things – my career, activism, my friends, my mental health, and how I feel about myself.
And most of all? I value, unlike that nervous 15-year-old squinting at everything she saw, actually being able to see.
Images: Rex Features