Recently, I drove my teenage brother to pick out a new pair of glasses. After almost half an hour of poring over the crowded shelves, he finally found a pair he loved. They were half rim, black and gold. “These are exactly what I was looking for,” he told me excitedly. We sat down on one of the overstuffed black leather chairs to wait for him to be fitted.
“I just hope they’re not women’s,” he added. I told him he was being ridiculous. “They’re just metal and plastic. If you like them and you feel confident in them, then what does it matter?” He nodded, never taking his eyes off the round mirror as he turned his head this way and that, smiling slightly as the light flashed off the gold wire rim.
Enter the older man working the store. He sat down across from my brother and immediately reached out to take the glasses off his face. “Oh, no. You don’t want those,” he said. He pointed to the rounded corners, the top of the frame. “See?” he said. “Too feminine.” I was stunned, speechless. Here was the embodiment of all my brother’s fears, and turns out, he had been absolutely right. There was some secret signal, some code in what I had genuinely believed to be unisex glasses that the man picked up and tagged as female.
The man walked over the case and came back with several other frames with boxy and dull gray wire, sharp corners all the way round. “Try these,” he ordered. My brother was silent, and I saw a curtain snap shut behind his eyes as he obediently put each frame on his face, never once smiling when he looked at himself in the mirror.
That well-meaning yet incredibly damaging interaction just reaffirmed what I already knew about gender norms: they are everywhere, they are toxic, and they continue to propagate.
Somewhere along the line, softness, curves, and rounded corners in glasses frames translated into femininity, while sharp edges and dark, plain colors became signals for masculinity. The subliminal messaging is clear: men carve their way into the world while women slide into it. It’s easy to talk about how this is damaging to women, how it limits our future opportunities and damages our psyches.
But we can’t forget to talk about how toxic masculinity affects men, especially kids like my brother.
Because it’s not just picking out glasses for him: masculinity and fear of appearing female shape countless aspects of his life. Even if he chose to ignore the salesman and buy the “feminine” frames, he would have had to face suffocating judgement from that man and countless like him.
Our experience in the glasses just reaffirmed for my brother that:
- You will be judged for any choices that are unconventional.
- Anything that could be perceived as female is to be avoided.
I stayed silent throughout the experience, not trusting myself to speak in a manner that would not result in us receiving a lifetime ban from Eye Optique. When we got to my car, I was shaking with anger.
“That’s not right,” I told my brother. “He can’t say those things. He can’t make those decisions for you.” He shrugged. “I know,” he said. His resignation broke my heart. After another minute, he added quietly: “I didn’t even like the glasses we ordered.”
Most of the time, the tiny aggressions of the day get washed away in the tsunami of evening news as we fight for progress and a platform to stand on in a society that seems reluctant to grant us either.
But I think that the small events are worth exploring, worth remembering.
Sometimes, the greatest damage isn’t inflicted in one day, but over a lifetime of having an identity shoved down your throat, whether it be related to your gender, race, sexuality, or any other facet of being. We don’t watch the news when we’re kids or read extensive literature to learn what role we are expected to play; we learn it from our parents, from our teachers, and from glasses salesmen.
This is why it’s important that we remember to fight mundane battles, like changing the sign on a bathroom door or the label on a dress: because our lives are governed by ordinary interactions. Small, sustained victories eventually add up to lasting change.
Or, conversely, irreparable damage, to our generation, and the one following us.
At the end of the day, the glasses don’t matter. The intention does.
Every kid should have the right to smile when they see themselves in the mirror, to choose the frames from which they want to see the world. If we work to remove those labels, work to remove the constrictions and restrictions from their identities, we might be able to see a generation truly bloom. At the very least, it would make life a little easier for all of us by giving us the freedom to choose how we define our own identities.
Personally, I think the world could use a little more sparkle.