“I don’t want to change how I look! I want to be me forever!” Round tears magnified her big, blue eyes. “Promise you won’t make me wear glasses,” she sobbed into my chest. It was bedtime and we had recently returned from an eye appointment that had not gone as my 4-year-old daughter (nor I) had planned.
I knew that trying to explain to my daughter that wearing glasses would not change her would be as difficult as convincing her that unicorns are not real. In my daughter’s 4-year-old mind, if you strap a horn on a horse it becomes magical; and if you put glasses on a girl she becomes unfamiliar. I wasn’t thrilled at the idea of her bright eyes trapped behind circles of glass, either. So instead of explaining that she will still be herself, I tried to comfort both of us: “I bet there are tons of awesome pink pairs! It’s just like jewelry! You love jewelry! You’ll look so cute!”
“I don’t want to be cute! I want to look like me!” And with that I was silenced. I just hugged her tightly and told her she wasn’t silly to feel the way she felt.
I did understand why it was a big deal for her. But what I couldn’t understand was why it was hard for me, too. After all, her older brother started wearing glasses when he was 5. With him, I went through a brief panic: Would other kids make fun of him? Would he become shy and insecure? But that quickly changed. He was hipster smooth in his frames. As it turned out, he would sleep in his glasses if he could, he loved them so much.
My son rallied to cheer her up. “Taylor Swift sometimes wears glasses!” he told her, but she stayed firmly in the negative. We Googled “Princesses in Glasses” and image after photo shopped image appeared: Elsa, Arielle, Cinderella…all wearing chic frames. My daughter was not fooled. And neither was I. Not one princess really wore glasses and these princesses were not bespectacled while they danced in their beautiful gowns, escaped murderous witches, or found their fairy tale prince. They didn’t have to wear glasses while practicing pirouettes in ballet class, painting rainbows in junior kindergarten, or playing Barbies with friends. But my daughter would.
After taking to Google, I noticed a significant double standard. No wonder I was having a harder time adjusting to my daughter needing glasses than I did with my son. Many fictional boys’ role models wore glasses: Superman (Clark Kent), Cyclops, and Harry Potter to name a few. But I couldn’t find one fictional female in my daughter’s repertoire. (Except apparently Belle in one scene. I did my research.)
But we can’t live in a fantasy world all the time, and my girl and I needed to face reality, whether we liked the story line or not. So off we went on the quest for the perfect frames.
“She can wear contacts when she’s 9,” the optometrist told me as my daughter batted off pair after pair while pouting, scowling, and doing her general best to be very un-cute. We came home empty handed.
That night putting her to bed I tried a different approach. Princesses aren’t everything, after all. I opened a new book about an adorable, talented young artist who wore glasses. I had her cover her left eye. “What letter do you see?”
“It’s too blurry,” she told me. “But it doesn’t matter because I can see perfectly with both eyes open.”
“’To be an artist, you have to notice everything,’ says Louise,” I read. I turned to my daughter: “Her glasses help her see the world so she can draw beautiful pictures. Just like yours will help you.” When I finished the book, turned off the lights and snuggled close, she said to me, “You can get me glasses, but I’m not going to wear them. If I change my mind, I’m allowed to. But I get to decide.”
Though it may have appeared defiant, I knew this was a breakthrough. I told her I understood. If she believed glasses changed who you were, then she needed to feel like she had control. I needed to guide her toward a pair that she felt confident wearing.
A few days later we tried another optometrist office specializing in kids’ glasses. Frame after child-sized frame covered every inch of wall space. She sat down in front of the little desk mirror.
The woman helping us set down a huge heap of pink, purple, and sparkly frames. “What do you think of these?” she’d ask before placing each pair on my girl’s little face. If she shook her head no, we set them aside. There was no doubt about it: She was in charge. Finally, she found a pair that was just right: square and hipster-ish like her big brother’s, but in a light purple color that brought out the vibrant blue in her eyes.
A week later we returned to pick them up.
My daughter put them on herself. Her big eyes got bigger. Her pink mouth gaped open. She scanned the room for what seemed like the first time ever. “I can see everything!” she gasped. And as if it were a circus trick she kept slipping the glasses down her nose to measure the “before and after” difference.
She wore them the whole way home. She wore them while she ate her macaroni and cheese. And she gently set them down beside her bed when she went to sleep. Still, I wasn’t sure how the next morning would go: Would she want to wear them to school? Would she put up a fight? Would she be scared? Shy? Nervous? As she slept, I drafted an email to her teacher, telling her it would be my daughter’s first day wearing glasses. Please, I asked, can you make sure everyone is kind about it? Please make her feel comfortable. And please, whatever you do, don’t say she looks “cute.” She definitely does not want to be cute.
But it turns out I was nervous for nothing. In the morning I found her snuggled with her brother on the couch, drinking a smoothie, watching Wild Kratts. Wearing her glasses. “Did you put them on her?” I asked my husband. “No,” he replied. “She had them on when I got her out of bed in the morning.” After school, she got in the car and announced, “Everyone liked my glasses. And nothing was blurry.”
Maybe she had it right all along: Glasses actually did change who she was. As my girl wore those pretty purple frames she held her head a little higher, her eyes twinkled a little brighter, and she pointed out all the fine details she could now see.
After all, if a horse only needs to attach a horn to become a unicorn, then all a little girl needs to do to see the magical world around her, is to put on her glasses.
Sara Stillman Berger is a writer and mother based in Chicago.
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