Is it medical gaslighting when your doctor says you're too ugly to wear glasses?

Tracey Folly

Boys don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses,’ he warned

My childhood was literally a blur. I couldn’t see much further than the tip of my nose, and even that was a struggle. My fondest childhood memories are from summer vacations. There was nothing better than being home from school, lying on my stomach on my bed, and reading library books with my nose pressed to the pages.

It was the only way I could see the words.

I remember the exact aroma of the battered hardcover copy of Ship of Fools I borrowed from the local library and read one hot summer in my bedroom. My room wasn’t air-conditioned. Beads of sweat rolled down my face as I read the yellowed pages. I could smell the ink and moldy paper with every breath.

My nose was so close to the book I’m surprised the ink didn’t stain my skin, but I had no reason to believe holding the book that close wasn’t normal. If anyone in my family noticed anything unusual about my reading style, they didn’t think to mention it.

That following September, my homeroom teacher advised my mother I should see an optometrist to evaluate my vision. An informal eye test in the school nurse’s office had shown that I might have impaired eyesight.

My mother didn’t believe her because I’d never complained that I couldn’t see. Nonetheless, she made an appointment with an eye doctor who kept a human skull on the mantel in his office.

One of my least favorite parts of my annual checkup was the massive model of a human eyeball that I could see from my seat in the examination chair. It was larger than a beach ball and featured realistic but oversized veins running along the sclera.

To my younger self, that mammoth eyeball was both revolting and terrifying. I didn’t understand what that giant eye had to do with me. I just wanted to return home to a face-full of the latest book I was reading.

At my first appointment, the doctor asked whether I had any trouble learning at school due to my impaired vision. I told him that I did not.

Then he asked whether the teachers allowed me to sit in the front row or move closer to the chalkboard when I needed to take notes. I responded in the affirmative. They certainly did.

His last question was whether I wanted glasses.

Of course, I didn’t want glasses. Who wanted glasses? I was already being bullied as it was, and it didn’t seem like the addition of eyeglasses would make a short, chubby, and excessively hairy student any less of a target.

I told him that I didn’t want glasses.

He seemed satisfied. “Boys don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses,” he said. “I don’t want you to wear them.”

I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about, but he was a respected adult. So, I nodded my head in agreement.

“Pretty girls shouldn’t wear glasses,” he said. "The other kids probably pick on you enough already without them," he added with the sound of pity in his voice.

I got the message loud and clear: I wasn’t pretty.

I didn’t understand for years exactly how poor my eyesight was. In my mind, my vision was perfectly normal. As a child, I had been examined by a professional who said he would hate to make me wear glasses. I took that to mean I didn’t actually need them. I could always sit or stand closer to anything I needed to see … if it was important enough.

This was simply how I imagined it worked. If you wanted to see the blackboard, you needed to approach the teacher’s desk and copy the notes from there. If you wanted to read a book, you brought the book to your face or your face to the book.

Watching television? Better sit cross-legged in front of the screen. I couldn’t even see a movie theater screen properly. It simply wasn’t big enough. I always sat in the front row.

Everything was flat. Colors were dull. Objects didn’t have clear lines of separation; they softly blended into one another. I had no reason to believe my experience was atypical.

It wasn’t until I was nineteen years old and working at my first job that my boss suggested to me that I might need glasses. I had graduated from high school at that point, but I had never attempted to attain my driver’s license. If I had, that probably would have given me a clue.

At my job, I often omitted the numbers following the decimal point when entering dollar amounts into the computer. This happened because I couldn’t see clearly no matter how hard I squinted and brought the paperwork to my face.

“Do you need glasses?” my supervisor asked me one day. “Because I think you do.”

I didn’t agree, but I made an appointment to prove her wrong.

The first time I wore my new glasses in public, I was amazed. It was like the entire world went from two dimensions to three for the first time in my life.

The difference was just as dramatic as putting on a pair of 3-D glasses to watch a movie at IMAX. I walked up and down the aisles of the local grocery store and marveled at how the bottles of ketchup and mustard looked alive and vibrant enough to have lives of their own.

The novelty of being able to see clearly for the first time in my life wore off surprisingly fast. Clarity quickly became less important than going back to a life without glasses. I didn’t like the way they looked, and I was afraid the boys wouldn’t either.

Hadn’t my childhood optometrist warned me all those years ago?

“Boys don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses.”

Out of necessity, I wore glasses to work, and later for driving. Otherwise, I resumed squinting my way through life. Every time I picked up my hated eyeglasses, I remembered the doctor who said I didn’t really need them … not if I wanted to be pretty.

In 2016, I underwent LASIK. Thanks to the procedure, I finally have 20/20 vision.

Prior to the procedure, it was 20/200, and that's how I learned that my doctor had prioritized his perception that I'd be even uglier with glasses than I was without them over my need to see the world around me.

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Writing about relationships online since 2009.

Boston, MA
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