Vintage Sexism: Through the Looking Glasses

Image via Tumblr user sadburro.

This one goes out to our readers far and wide, far- and near-sighted. Raise your glasses if you’ve ever been called, “four-eyes,” “geek,” or “brainiac,” or, if you’ve ever been told that your eyewear makes you look smart or studious. When you’re wearing those very things that help you to see, how do you feel that others see you?

In honor of Geek Week, this edition of Vintage Sexism explores some classic and modern notions about what wearing glasses says about a woman.

Vintage Sexism: Girls in Glasses
Image via TeenAngster.

Let’s focus in on the “Glamor Glasses” article above. An actual line from it states, “…many women who have to wear glasses feel just as self-conscious as men who have scars.” You don’t have to take too hard of a look at a few of these old ads and clippings to see the messages in plain sight.

Vintage Sexism: Girls in Glasses
Newnes Home Management article (top) via Scott’s Abode. Harlequin ad (bottom) via Flickr user clotho98.

According to this black-and-white Harlequin ad, you’d better be sure your glasses don’t make you look ‘owlish,’ bookish,’ or ‘just plain dull.’ Meanwhile, the Newnes Home Management article above it reassures you that if you must wear glasses, don’t feel ashamed. Both suggest a view that if you’re stuck with less than perfect vision, you’re going to need some help to look and feel like a perfect ten.

Vintage Sexism: Girls in Glasses
Images via Modern Mechanix.

The article “Men Do Make Passes At Girls Who Wear Glasses” insinuates that as long as your frames are fetching, you’ve got a better shot at being noticed (in a good way). That’s a little different than what some of the others are saying, but it’s still delivering some serious self-conscious vibes. And over time, in film and television, as well as in both print and commercial advertising, media has really made a spectacle of the bespectacled. Attention is often drawn to a female character’s glasses, yet the character herself is often completely overlooked — that is, until she sheds them. There’s that overdone, magical movie moment when the nerdy girl unpins her hair and removes her glasses and voila! She’s suddenly a stunner. Remember She’s All That? Excellent example:


That’s nothing new, though! Even screen sirens like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford played unglamorous ‘ugly ducklings’ who underwent such transformations in the classic films Now, Voyager and Humoresque. They had to lose that one part of themselves to reach an awakening and learn to be who they really are. For further reading about this, check out Mary Ann Doane’s essay, “Film and the Masquerade: Theorising the Female Spectator.”

Vintage Sexism: Girls in Glasses
On the left, Bette Davis in Now, Voyager via The Gentlebear. To the right, Joan Crawford in Humoresque via Not Coming to a Theater Near You.

All these portrayals imply that wearing glasses can make you look or feel nerdy, unnoticeable, or at the very least, self-conscious. Do you believe this attitude still exists today? How do you feel about it, personally?

Me? I’m rather fond of my frames, and I’d eagerly sport any of the vintage styles shown in these ads! What do you think?


About Cindy

Pun intended. Cindy loves dreaming up witty quips and groan-worthy wordplay. In fact, you could say this girl just wants to have puns. As an avid fan of the written word and a librarian at heart, she also loves used bookstores, especially ones that harbor cats. A lover of all things old, she takes every opportunity to nerd out on nostalgia.

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  1. Avatar
    blueeyedbookworm 07/19/2012 at 11:51 am #

    I’ve worn glasses since grade 3. In high school I caved to peer pressure and got contacts (I was already considered the “smart girl” from my grades and wanted to lessen the brainac stereotype by not wearing glasses). In university I went back to glasses because honestly, it meant sleeping in 5 more minutes. I love my glasses. I feel sexy when I wear them.

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      Carolyn Griffith 08/02/2012 at 2:42 pm #

      That’s like the story of my life. However, I do tend to wear contacts more than glasses because I need a new pair :). Now I just need to find a cute vintage pair to fit my 50’s style! 😀

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    Al 07/19/2012 at 1:17 pm #

    Honestly I don’t wear my glasses nearly enough because they are fiddly and I hate having stuff on my face. BUT I think I look okay in them! I keep trying to convince my husband to wear his glasses at home (he keeps them at work) because I think guys in glasses are HOTT but so far I’ve had no luck.

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    Tara 07/19/2012 at 3:33 pm #

    Cute article. I’ve been wearing glasses since 2nd grade, and now wear them more often because contacts bother my eyes. I’ve embraced the style that comes with wearing a vintage pair of plastic glasses and match them with my clothes. 🙂 People seem to think I’m “cool” but really I’m just blind as a bat.

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    Jessica 07/19/2012 at 5:23 pm #

    I love my glasses! I feel sexier and more confident with them gracing my face. I do agree with the articles that the right pair makes you look amazing, but the writers are a bit heavy-handed with the whole “oh, dear you’re still pretty even though you have to wear those.” I wasn’t aware that I should feel ashamed of my stylish face accessories, because I feel ten times more special when they’re on. My contacts only go in when required, as in sports or sunglasses days, but I plan on getting prescription lenses put into my favorite shades and then I’ll always be styling. 🙂

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    Maya M. 07/19/2012 at 6:26 pm #

    I find it funny that nowadays, the trend in my high school seems to be girls, (and guys alike), wearing fake glasses. I was teased endlessly about my “Harry Potter” glasses all throughout primary school, and although I ditched the round glasses style, I kept my frames instead of getting contacts. Now I’m asked all the time if my glasses are real! I think that glasses are cool, like an extra piece of jewelry for your face, and I’ll always keep my best friends exactly where they belong; on my nose.

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    Jen 07/19/2012 at 6:36 pm #

    I’m a librarian (who wears glasses), which is a whole other kind of stereotype. I live in Portland (Ore.) now, where “all the hot girls wear glasses.” 🙂

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    Meli 07/19/2012 at 6:49 pm #

    I definitely thought that this type of thought was out of date. I love my glasses, and feel so much better in them. My only regret is that I can’t wear cheap sunglasses! Then again, I was watching a recent disney channel movie with my sister and there was a scene where everyone laughed at the girl for putting on glasses, as if it instantly made her a dork. Since when??

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    Erin 07/19/2012 at 10:26 pm #

    I think I will start wearing mine more often! My husband tells me how good I look, but I don’t believe him. Maybe now I should just embrace it.

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    C 07/20/2012 at 5:17 am #

    I like my glasses and usually choose them over my contacts. I’ve also met at least a couple guys who think girls look good in glasses, so that probably makes it easier to like them. My roommate actually wears contacts with vanity glasses sometimes. I make a point of wearing them at work because people do perceive me as more intelligent when I wear them. Sometimes it’s nice to show off my eyes by skipping them, though.

    With regard to the vintage perspective, Humphrey Bogart’s character in “Big Sleep” actually asks a bookshop girl if she needs her glasses. When she ditches them, he reacts…positively. Glasses are a very interesting theme in “How to Marry a Millionaire”. Marilyn Monroe’s character constantly ditches her glasses because “guys seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses,” and, therefore, constantly runs into things and makes comical mistakes. She winds up with a guy who likes them, but he’s also a bit dorky and bespectacled himself, but they like each other :).

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    Cecilia 07/20/2012 at 10:29 am #

    I’m such a geek that the first thing I thought when I saw this article was, “What is that font?!”*

    I recently found a vintage textbook from 1962 called “Modern Fashion.” It is a textbook on grooming and fashion for those women pursuing “Mrs.” degrees. Some of the advice is horrifying, but the snide swipes at girls with glasses are the worst. Glasses and freckles are listed under “flaws” along with acne, facial hair, and halitosis. Although the book claims that squinty girls are unattractive (and get awful wrinkles!), they are still encouraged to ditch their glasses for dates and other co-ed social functions.

    *Seriously. If anyone knows the name of the font used for “Geek Week”…

  11. Avatar
    Yasemin 07/20/2012 at 1:02 pm #

    Maybe it’s just me, but most of the ads above seem to simply be trying to help the women wearing glasses feel better about themselves! They don’t say “If you wear glasses, you’re a nerd”, they say “You don’t have to feel like a nerd, look at these awesome options!”, presumably because of the general view towards women in glasses at the time. They show that women don’t have to be confined to basic glasses and that they can have fun with their style. With exception of the last portion about portrayals in movies, these don’t seem all that bad to me!

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    Amber 07/20/2012 at 3:56 pm #

    When my husband met me he went on and on to his friends all night about how he FINALLY met a “punk rock librarian”. He loves my glasses and so do I. I got them when I was in 4th grade (in the early 90s) and I got them because I thought they were neat-I don’t think I actually needed them. I have never worn contacts because my glasses make me feel great about myself!

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    Nicola 07/20/2012 at 4:01 pm #

    I do actually like wearing my tortoise-shell style specs. My boyfriend tells me that I look like a teacher with my hair up and my glasses on, but seeing as that is what I do I don’t mind 😉
    I also remember being called a “sexy librarian” in yr 12. (I used to wear my skirt on my waist – where it was supposed to sit – and my blouse tucked in, and I had black framed glasses).

  14. Avatar
    Shiloh 07/20/2012 at 8:49 pm #

    “How To Marry A Millionaire” was helpful though, it was actually quite a theme- How Marilyn Monroe was self-conscious about them but was assured that they were fine by her future husband.

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    Hannah 07/21/2012 at 8:19 pm #

    I think often advertisements just reflect attitudes of the time, they’re not the ones inventing them. One can’t blame the advertisers for pitching the product in a way that they saw best at the time. Of course it looks odd to us now, since we bring different experiences and perspectives to it, but I’m sure that 50 years from now there will be many things about our current culture that people in the future will think are backwards. Maybe we’re right about some of the ways we criticize history, but at the same time, we are approaching the same artifacts with very different perspectives and contexts. Maybe at the time these advertisements came out, the only glasses options available to women were really ugly, in which case they probably did feel self conscious, and with as good a reason to feel self conscious as any. I don’t know. I’m certain I’m not fully aware of the historical context, but I think sometimes people are quick to judge and look down on people from a long time ago just because their society was constructed differently or they had different attitudes, without fully understanding the reasons or implications of those attitudes or constructions. People in history were just as smart as we are now, they just lived in different contexts and thus sometimes came to different conclusions.

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    Monica 07/22/2012 at 6:07 pm #

    I’ve had glasses since I was in first grade, but now as a high schooler I’m considering switching to contacts. I was not called four-eyes or anything similar often, but it did happen once in a while, and definitely hurt my feelings when I was a little girl. I also do think that girls with glasses tend to get stereotyped as the bookish, nerdy, dull girls. Don’t get me wrong- I AM a total nerd, and I embrace my nerdiness- but I don’t think it’s fair that no one really looks beyond that. I’m one of the top students in my grade, and I think that most people in my class tend to think of me as ONLY being the “smart girl”. And while that is part of my personality, it is definitely only one aspect of it.

    Also, I think it’s amusing that glasses are supposedly now “cool”. But it seems like glasses are only cool if they’re fake. If you have real glasses- you’re a nerd, and not worth anyone’s time.

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    Blythe 07/23/2012 at 11:24 am #

    I have two pairs of glasses–one pair is fun and red, and one is more practical and black. Honestly, I often play up the “glasses mean smart” stereotype (I know, I’m shameless) to get librarians/teachers to be nice to me, and to have a visual shorthand for being intelligent. And it works, so those stereotypes are definitely still in play.

  18. Avatar
    Erin 07/25/2012 at 9:35 pm #

    I genuinely don’t like wearing my glasses for my own reasons. Contacts don’t get smudges on them (Seriously, I have to wear glasses most of the way down my nose to avoid eyelash smudges), they don’t feel uncomfortable on hot days (I like my purple plastic frames, but they are sweat-making), and it’s really easy to wear sunglasses. But it bums me out that people on the whole treat me better when I am wearing contacts, because seriously, I’m the same person. I’m not head over heels for the people wanting me to be a “sexy librarian” when I’m not wearing contacts, though. I’m well-read and professional, and I’m a burlesque dancer, but no one element sums up who I am and I’m not on this earth to be someone’s trope fantasy anyway. It’s a downer that every choice I make is so politicized and sexualized when really, I’m just living life like a normal person and doing whatever is going to work for me today.

  19. Avatar
    Lorri 07/25/2012 at 11:02 pm #

    Most of what I would have said has already been mentioned by previous commenters, but I’d like to add that whether my glasses add to it or not, I look and am about as bookish and nerdy as a person can be, and there is nothing wrong or unattractive about that. 🙂

  20. Avatar
    Chelsea 07/27/2012 at 8:28 pm #

    Where I live, wearing glasses still influences how other’s view you. People automatically assume I am very smart because I wear glasses. I am defiantly not stupid, but I am not exactly a genius either. Most people I know wear contacts if they have a vision problem. I usually wear my contacts because I do not really like my glasses in general. But, its not like I hate them so much or anything- they just get a little annoying. Some glasses can be very cute! Next time I get them, I will make sure I love them to pieces!

  21. Avatar
    Simone Brulee 08/06/2012 at 5:59 pm #

    There are still ads like this now, I saw a contacts ad in one of my new Teen Vogues that had a girl at a dance sitting in glasses looking dreamily off to the side with the caption “Someday he’ll be asking me to dance”. Implying that girls with glasses never get asked to dance.

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