Spectacles aren’t considered just a device created for us to see the world with greater clarity. As amazing as that fact alone is, they are also regarded as a status symbol; an expression of identity; a cruel reminder of ageing; or a tool that liberates someone from a lifetime of disability… our relationship with spectacles, is extraordinarily complex.
Putting together a list of the most significant inventions of the past two millennia, the influential Newsweek Magazine, somewhat surprisingly, featured spectacles at the top of its list.
The reason? They have effectively doubled the active life of everyone who reads or does other fine work. In the words of a New York psychologist, glasses “have prevented the world from being ruled by people under 40”.1
Attitudes through the Ages
The first glasses were thought to have appeared in the Italian city of Pisa in about 1286. We’re not exactly sure, because the inventor is unknown: “…this world has found lenses on its nose without knowing whom to thank.”2
Our patients have a much more emotional relationship to glasses and we can help them through that…
Dr. David Fleishman, an international authority on the history of eyeglasses notes that early Florentine glasses were “prized possessions of churchmen, wealthy scholars, artisans and high-class individuals of the medieval world”.
But by the end of the 15th century, their value had dropped and “spectacle peddlers” selling glasses from baskets were “common sight on the streets of Western Europe”.
Dr. Fleishman, who curates a comprehensive online museum and encyclopedia of vision aids
(www.antiquespectacles.com) said in the Far East – where spectacles were brought in by European merchants and missionaries in the 15th century – eyeglasses reflected “social status more than a need for vision correction”.
“The larger the spectacle the more influential the man,” he said.
Throughout the ages, glasses have been linked with personal attributes. As an example, Dr. Fleishman points to several artistic anachronisms, including a 17th century Italian painting, depicting the baby Jesus playing with eyeglasses, and a fresco in an Italian monastery, painted in 1352, which depicts Cardinal Hugh of Provence (1200–1263) wearing a pair of rivet spectacles.
“The Cardinal died before glasses were invented but the painter added spectacles to his fresco as a sign of old age and scholarship,” Dr. Fleishman explained.
Nerd? Or Nerd Cool?
In more recent times, many of our attitudes to glasses have been negative. They’re frequently associated with socially awkwardness, or with physically unattractiveness. As American author and poet Dorothy Parker once famously quipped: “Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses.”
Lois Lane was never interested in the bespectacled Clark Kent. Diana Prince wore glasses; her love interest only had eyes for Wonder Woman. The recent craze for “reality” television has spawned a number of “makeover” shows – a key part of the ugly duckling’s transformation to swan frequently involves the replacement of specs with contact lenses.
On the other side of the scale, the right frames can make the wearer seem hip and edgy: Buddy Holly’s trademark black rimmed glasses sparked a ‘nerd cool’ trend that is still copied today.
The opposing viewpoints are reflected in academic studies. In one academic trial, photos were taken of models with and without spectacles. Participants were then instructed to rate each photo on several personality traits. While wearing glasses, the models were rated higher in intelligence, dependability, industriousness and honesty.
Other studies have exposed negative associations with glasses. Men wearing glasses are viewed as weaker and more of a follower, than those who don’t, for example.
Optometrist Jenny Saunders, who is a consultant to the ophthalmic industry and has studied the psychology of people wearing glasses, said people’s attitudes to glasses are influenced by several things, including their age, fashion, and the reason they’re getting glasses in the first place.
Ms. Saunders said for many people, the first time they need glasses is as a presbyope. For these people, glasses – like grey hairs – are signs of ageing.
Presbyopes, commonly, will initially deny their need for glasses, compensating for their failing sight by holding reading material at a distance, increasing the font size on their smartphone or computer, or working under bright light. Some forsake interests, such as reading or sewing, rather than adapt to their changing eyesight, Ms. Saunders said.
Mired in denial, these are often the people who will pick up a pair of off-the-shelf magnifying lenses from the local chemist. After all, booking an eye examination at the optometrist is tantamount to admitting to the problem.
Optometrist George Skoufis, who has his own practice in Sydney’s trendy Paddington, said some customers will remain in denial for up to five years before conceding their need for spectacles.
“I have customers who… have stopped reading altogether. They will tell you they just don’t want to read anymore, but it really about not being able to accept that they can’t see so well,” Mr. Skoufis said.
On the other hand, eye health professionals find people with a real visual need for glasses welcome them.
“I remember a little six-year-old girl who had a lot of astigmatism,” Ms. Saunders said. “I ordered her some glasses but was worried about how she was going to go but she couldn’t see, so she loved these glasses.
“Similarly, I saw some babies – twins – who were extremely long-sighted and really needed lenses to see. I really thought they wouldn’t keep them on, but their mother said they wouldn’t take them off!”
Over the years, mivision has spoken with many eye health professionals who have visited third world countries to provide basic vision care where none exists.
Ms. Saunders said in the western world, the age of patients also has a lot to do with how patients accept their need for glasses, a point also made by child psychologist Kimberley O’Brien, the Principal Psychologist at the Quirky Kid Clinic in the Sydney suburb of Woollahra.
Ms. O’Brien said preschoolers tend to accept the need for glasses the most easily.
For older children, she suggests that, if at all possible, the best time to introduce glasses for a school-age child is over a holiday period, so they have the opportunity to wear them and gain confidence, before returning to school.
“But that’s something that needs to be balanced against the visual needs of a child – because there’s also a stigma associated with being called to sit at the front of the class because you can’t see,” Ms. O’Brien said.
Ms. Saunders said by the time a child reaches eight or nine, glasses will have a stigma, but by the teens, attitudes change again, and glasses become a fashion item.
Mr. Skoufis said some children, particularly girls, even insist on wearing glasses when there is no medical need. “One of the first questions I will always ask, is: ‘Has your best friend got glasses?’
Everyone agrees, though, that when a patient hits 40, glasses are an unwelcome sign of ageing eyes.
“What it often comes down to, as optometrists, we are thinking about symptoms and how to fix them. Our patients have a much more emotional relationship to glasses and we can help them through that,” Ms. Saunders said.
Presyboia, Mr. Skoufis says, is the “first thing in the ageing process that gives such a disabling symptom”.
He said the profession needs to pay more attention to this psychological reaction and start “hand holding” newly diagnosed presbyopes in the frame room. Helping someone find the right frame that suits their personality, as well as their face, will go a long way towards helping people embrace spectacles, he said.
Ms. O’Brien said people’s attitudes to glasses bring self-esteem issues to the fore.
Fashionable children’s frames have contributed to more children accepting glasses more readily, and overcoming negative stereotypes about wearing spectacles.
“Children do now wear them as a fashion statement – I can think of some children who feel quite confident in who they are with their glasses on,” Ms. O’Brien said.
Glasses as Identity
For some people, spectacles are an integral part of their identity or public persona. Think of such disparate characters as India’s Mahatma Gandhi, American film great Woody Allen, housewife superstar Dame Edna Everage, and former Australian Prime Minister John Howard… hard to imagine them without glasses.
Today’s red carpets are awash with spectacles: Geoffrey Rush, Johnny Depp, Brad Pitt, Kate Beckinsale, Ashley Olsen, Hillary Duff, Tina Fey, Josh Harnett, Katy Perry, Leonardo DiCaprio, Annette Bening and Samuel L Jackson have all shown us the right pair of frames can look sensational. But these celebrities manage to escape being stereotyped in the same way. Glasses reflect and enhance their personality, rather than become inextricably linked to identity.
The secret, according to Mr. Skoufis, is to encourage patients to buy more than one pair of spectacles, or even alternate spectacles with contact lenses.
“If you have one set of glasses that becomes your personality. If you buy more than one, it prevents that from happening, because people don’t see you in the same glasses all the time.
“If I want to go somewhere and not be seen, if I want to be incognito, I wear contact lenses. People don’t see me without my glasses. They think: ‘It can’t be George, if he’s not wearing glasses’.”
1. ‘The Power of Big Ideas’, Newsweek Magazine, 11 Jan 1999.
2. Vasco Ronchi, 1946, quoted in ‘Eyeglasses Through the Ages’ at: www.antiquespectacles.com/history/ages/through_the_ages.htm (last accessed 14 February 2012).