Monday, March 5th, 2007
“Reading is Sexy” declares a sticker enclosed in Marissa Walsh’s Girl With Glasses kit, a promotional companion set to her quirky, pop culture-infused memoir Girl With Glasses: My Optic History (Simon Spotlight Entertainment). Other items include a zine full of four-eyed babes and a pair of plastic specs. For 34-year-old Walsh, wearing glasses isn’t just something she does every day, it’s a core part of her identity, something she’s returned to after a stint with contacts that made her feel “dizzy and naked.”
In Girl With Glasses (read an excerpt here), she takes readers through her first pair in third grade all the way up to her current favorite rhinestone-studded specs from hip New York boutique Fabulous Fanny’s. Giving a twist to the “what I wore” memoir (Love, Loss, and What I Wore or Target Underwear and a Vera Wang Gown), Walsh, who’s also the editor of Not Like I’m Jealous or Anything: The Jealousy Book (Delacorte Press) and co-author of Tipsy in Madras: A Complete Guide to 80s Preppy Drinking (Perigee), infuses her recollections with factoids like “GWGs tended to be teachers, librarians, editors, and comedians.” She names each pair (“The Too Cool for School Pair,” “The If You Can Make It There Pair”) and guides us through various schools, jobs, apartments, and relationships, where how she was seen was just as important as her own vision.
For Walsh and her modern-day cohorts, like the ladies of the band Partyline, wearing glasses is a shorthand for a certain feminist sentiment that Walsh says you don’t even need to actually wear glasses to subscribe to. Citing Tina Fey as a role model (but not a perfect one), Walsh recently spoke with Memoirville about her journey from pop culture historian to memoirist, why it’s easier to be a girl with glasses today, four-eye envy, what’s so beautiful about Ugly Betty, and how to kiss with your glasses on.
Where did you get the idea to do a glasses memoir?
I started the proposal probably in 2004. I write comic essays, so at first I thought I’d do a book of comic essays called Girl With Glasses. The glasses have become my trademark. I abandoned my contacts. People use it as a form of identification—she’s the one with the glasses.
Originally the book was gonna be Girls with Glasses, a cultural history of women wearing glasses. I started doing research and I thought each chapter would be a different type of girl with glasses. For example, one chapter would be librarians, one would be the sex fetish thing…all the different kinds of glasses-wearing that now seem to exist for women.
As I was working on it I realized it wasn’t me; I don’t write that kind of non-fiction. I write these very personal comic essays that are based on silly things that happened to me and this book seemed more like a serious non-fiction book, so I redid the proposal. My glasses wearing was a very small part of the original proposal. For any kind of non-fiction memoir type book, you just need that hook and it felt like glasses would be the hook. It became this timeline, the chronology of my eyewear. It became clear that each pair did represent that time in my life so there could be a larger discussion of what was going on for me, that could be universal, and that ended up being the proposal that Simon Spotlight was interested in.
How did you go about doing research? Did you have all your old pairs of glasses?
I have three or four pairs of the most recent glasses and then my old glasses I had actually donated to the Lions Club. They collect eyeglass donations for the needy. I save everything, and I had saved all my glasses and then I donated them all and was kicking myself for not saving them.
I had photos of myself wearing all the glasses and found all the photos and reconstructed the timeline. I had receipts from my eye doctor and things like that so I was able to figure out how I got each pair.
Is it better to be a GWG now than when you were growing up?
For people my age, there’s that universal theme of being a GWG in the late 70’s and early 80’s that everyone could really relate to—the junior high pair, that terrible big pair of glasses. There really weren’t any other kinds of glasses when you went to the eye doctor.
It’s definitely better now. There are so many more fashion options for glasses. Back then, the selection was really limited for some reason and now there’s so many more styles. Glasses have evolved into a fashion accessory. People who wear glasses want to look good in their glasses and want glasses that complement their look or whatever they’re wearing that day. There’s been a lot more attention paid to frames. Now you have Prada frames and Calvin Klein; every designer has gotten in on the glasses designing.
And because being a GWG is now a choice, there’s more attention paid to who is the kind of person who’s choosing to wear glasses? Because everyone knows you can wear contacts, they’re easy, they’re affordable. Back when I got glasses, contacts were expensive and they only had hard contacts. It was painful to wear them for a long period of time. The technology has come so far along that it’s very easy to become a contact wearer. Same with Lasik surgery. It’s obviously more expensive but if you have the money and you want to get that done, you can have that done.
My big example is always Tina Fey—we know that she doesn’t have to wear them, she’s making a choice as part of her identity and part of her look. It’s the same with Janeane Garafalo, Lisa Loeb…all these cool women saying, “I like my glasses.”
Do you wear them all the time?
I do. It’s evolved into me wearing them all the time. In my late twenties, I still had a pair of contacts that I kept and would put them in on special occasions. My contacts started to not feel comfortable physically, and I felt like I couldn’t see as well. It got to the point where it didn’t seem worth it to take off my glasses.
It seemed silly, like if you want to dress up you can’t wear glasses, which I bought into as a teenager, which doesn’t make sense. Frances McDormand was at the Oscars, where she was nominated for Best Supporting Actress, and she was wearing her glasses so she can see! It was this great moment.
It was nice having the option [of contacts], I guess, but it got to the point where it didn’t feel like me. I really feel most comfortable or that I’m most myself in my glasses.
Obviously it’s partly about your vision; you can’t see without them. But how much of your identity is about being a GWG?
I don’t know that I got into this in the book as much, but I think you can be a GWG without wearing glasses. It’s an identity, it’s more a temperament, there’s a certain type of woman…I went to Smith, and when I got there, I met these women who were teaching themselves to play bass guitar. All these women were smart and weren’t apologetic about it. It’s not only ’cause it’s a women’s college; I probably would’ve found women like that wherever I went to school. The attitude was “You don’t have to be a guy to start a band, we’re gonna start a band. You don’t have to be a guy to do improv comedy, we’re gonna do that.”
Being in New York, I’ve met similar women who are doing things they want to do. It’s about putting yourself into the world as yourself and saying “this is who I am.” Almost like, “Fuck you if I don’t conform to your idea of what a woman should be or what is beautiful or not.” That was a big lesson I learned at Smith, and hopefully that continued into New York. I think the GWG is the woman who’s reading Bust and Bitch magazine.
She’s a feminist?
She’s a feminist, her role models are people like Tina Fey, the first female head writer of Saturday Night Live, that traditionally is the old boys school of comedy. She went in there and took over and said, “I want to be on Weekend Update.” Now she’s created her own show in a very male-dominated world. And Janeane Garofalo, who’s out there with her politics, and is really outspoken on issues of body image and self-esteem. I just feel like she’s very vocal and out there with her feminist views, which I admire.
Does it come back to the idea of it being a choice?
It’s a form of self-expression, because there is this stereotype about women who wear glasses as being either prudish or uptight or smart and certainly, as with every stereotype, it comes out of some truth. Yeah, I worked in publishing, there were tons of editors who wore glasses. I worked at a library, there are a lot of librarians who wear glasses.
Women who choose to wear glasses are working against that stereotype. “It’s okay if you think I’m smart because I am,” and I think that’s interesting that people are just embracing it now and trying to own it more.
Do you think you’d be the same person even if you had perfect vision?
I don’t think so, I don’t think I would’ve been. I mention in the book that I was born a GWG even though I didn’t really need them until the third grade. I spent my childhood being a very serious overachiever type, straight A person, and everything was about getting the A and running for class president and doing everything I could to win that election. I was bribing the girls with homemade bookmarks, that I hadn’t even made, I had asked someone else I wasn’t even friends with to make them! I was going down this path of being Tracy Flick in Election.
Learning early on that perfection is impossible is an important lesson and to realize that actually it’s when you go off that path that you really learn more about yourself. I won that election in sixth grade but it probably would’ve been better to lose in terms of my development.
With the glasses, I became more of an outsider than I had been and I think it was important for me to embrace that different path. I wanted to be a cheerleader, that’s who I was in elementary school. Anyone who knows me now would say, “How could you have been that person?”
Do you have a favorite glasses memory you talk about in the book?
I try to cater what I read [at readings] to my audience. One gets a lot of laughs, about the whole problem of getting your eyes examined and you have to choose between A and B. The optometrist will ask which is better, A or B, and they flick that thing back and forth. I can never figure out which is better. I notice any glasses wearer in the audience completely understands that dilemma.
There’s one where I talk about the erotic nature of the eye exam. I’ve always had a male optometrist, and I always have this weird fantasy when the lights are off. It’s like he’s right there, inches from my face, looking into my eyes and I just feel like I’m gonna kiss him. It’s such a strange, intimate moment with a doctor where he’s touching your face. That one is surprising for people and then it’s funny if they have had that same thought but never articulated it. Once I start reading that, they’re nodding.
Why did you choose to focus on women? Is there less of a stigma to being a guy with glasses?
It’s much different for women just because it’s sex, essentially. When I was working in publishing (I worked for a publisher for teen books), I’d have to read all those teen magazines, like Seventeen, and they were full of ads for contact lenses. The ads would be like, “Last year Bob didn’t speak to me and I showed up this year with my contact lenses and now he asked me out for a date.” They were more subtle but that’s essentially the message: “If you get these Acuviews, you’ll have boys lining up to go out with you.” I myself bought into it in eighth grade, I got contacts and I never wore my glasses again until I got to college. In the book I say I hid behind my glasses. In high school nobody knew I wore glasses. It was a secret. As a result, I wasn’t really myself. Sure, it’s adolescence, who’s really themselves? But I wasn’t really true to myself, I wasn’t who I thought I should be, I was playing this part of who I thought you were supposed to be.
I think that men don’t have that same problem. Men are the ones who are supposed to be making the passes at the girls who are or aren’t wearing glasses. I talked in the book about this list called the rules for kissing with glasses. It’s totally possible to be kissed with glasses, and two people wearing glasses can kiss successfully. When you’re a teenager girl you just assume, if I have this windshield on my face, how is somebody going to kiss me? I have to make myself completely open and available so a boy will kiss me, or want to kiss me.
I don’t think that boys who wear glasses have the same issues; they’re not put into this category. For them it’s not about being attractive or not but for women…In every movie, that’s the trope. When there’s a makeover, the first thing that happens is they take away the glasses for the girl. In She’s All That, it’s a beautiful actress, she’s gorgeous with the glasses but they try to make her look “ugly.” Same thing with Ugly Betty. She’s a beautiful woman, she’s not ugly at all, she looks beautiful with the glasses.
I had a friend who didn’t need glasses, but wanted to get a fancy pair just to look cool. What do you think of non-prescription glasses as a fashion statement?
I think it’s interesting. A friend of mine from college did not need glasses and she told me in high school she had bought a pair of those ones with plastic lenses just to wear them because she wanted to look smarter, which I thought was funny. It’s so easy to make choices in your life when you have the option. When you don’t have the option, it’s like, why would you wear glasses when you don’t have to? You don’t need them! I think it speaks to glasses having a cultural moment right now.
We’re in this cultural moment where the geek thing is in, glasses are cool and people want to be part of that. They want to have that extra accessory at home, like having more than one watch, but I think it’s a completely different situation than people who actually need them.
You write in the book, “Some days I think my glasses are the only cool thing about me.” Can you elaborate on why that is? Do you think girls with glasses are “cooler” in some way than girls without them?
I was working in a corporate job, it was a publishing job but it was still corporate, and I didn’t feel like I was really being myself during that time. In that job I decided to get this pair of vintage frames, blue cat’s eye frames with rhinestones. To me it was a really big deal to buy these glasses; they were the most risky pair from a fashion perspective. I felt like they really stood out. People who choose to wear glasses like that are definitely making a statement. They want their glasses to be noticed. It was almost subconscious. I’m in this job and have to dress and act a certain way to be there, it’s really not what I want to do with my life, at least I can wear these glasses and they will signify for people I meet that there’s cool stuff going on, she’s just paying the rent with this job. It was almost like a signal.
I think there is something cool about GWG like Tina Fey, Janeane Garafalo, Velma from Scooby Doo, Harriet the Spy. We have all these great role models. I think the glasses represent their independent spirit and their strength.
Do you have any advice for girls just getting their first pair of glasses who may be apprehensive about it?
Bring somebody with you who you trust whenever you’re picking out glasses. If you don’t have contacts and you’re trying on glasses, you can’t see when you’re trying them on. It’s ridiculous that the one thing we need to see, we have to pick out when we’re blind. We cannot see ourselves in these glasses when we’re going to get new glasses, it’s just horrible. I always like to bring someone with me.
I also like to go to places where the people who work there know what they’re doing and they really are good at telling you what complements you and what suits you. The first time I went to Myoptics on Christopher Street and had these gay guys helping me pick out glasses was a far cry from Lenscrafters in the mall in suburban Boston. It’s a totally different experience when you’re dealing with people at the store who understand how important it is to make the right choice, because they’re experts at it. You have to try on a million pairs before you find the right one, you have to be patient and try everything. Don’t be victim to any current fashion because glasses last. I’ve had this pair for three or four years now and you could be stuck with the same pair of glasses for a few years, which is pretty tough if you don’t pick wisely, like if you were wearing all black when you picked them and suddenly became a color person.
On MySpace, I have a friend who is a GWG and found me through the book. She bought glasses online and then she got them and they were too small for her face. She just bought the frames and she couldn’t send them back. There’s all sorts of great online ways to buy glasses, but if you don’t already know what looks good on you, you do have to go in person. You don’t want to be stuck with frames that are too small or too big. It’s basically an extension of your face for however long you have that pair of glasses. It’s worth spending time on. You can always go to Mytopics and find the right pair and then do the internet research.
Do you have a favorite GWG icon? Are there GWG impostors?
There was a trend for a while in Hollywood that I think has abated a little bit. I hate to bring up her name right now, but I remember seeing Britney years ago before she got married, or a similar Britney type. They’d be out and about doing errands and they’d be photographed for Us Weekly wearing glasses. I‘d think to myself, Are those real? It was an obvious ploy to look a little smarter and have people take them more seriously. It was funny⎯you’d never seen them in glasses up till that point. It was this photo op, where someone said, “Wear glasses and carry the New York Times.” That always bothers me when I see that happen.
I’m disappointed with Tina Fey. She didn’t wear her glasses to the Golden Globes. It’s a problem I often see with GWG. She’s all glammed up and she leaves the glasses at home; that sort of bothered me. I don’t think Janeane Garafalo would’ve done the same thing. Lisa Loeb always wears her glasses, I’ve read that she needs them.
Tina Fey has made comments that are confusing about what she needs them for. I’m really pleased about the Ugly Betty phenomenon. America Ferrera doesn’t need glasses but I think the success of that show is really important. Girls Inc. has a campaign called “Be Ugly” and they have these great t-shirts out with little pictures of Ugly Betty on them. They’re trying to use the success of that show for teen and tween girls with self esteem issues.
I was really worried when I saw the ads for that show but when I watched it I was like. “This is great.” It’s obvious she’s the smartest person in that office and she really shines. I think it’s a great depiction of a smart, independent woman.
What’s your six-word memoir?
Four eyes are better than two.
Read an excerpt from Girls With Glasses.
Girl With Glasses: My Optic History is available now. Visit Marissa Walsh at marissawalsh.typepad.com and www.myspace.com/marissawalsh. Walsh will read as part of the Girl With Glasses Spextravaganza along with Tara Emelye of Cupsize on Saturday, March 31st, 7 pm, at Bluestockings Bookstore, 72 Allen Street, New York City.