Stigma, privilege and contact lenses

by CarlD

Here in North Carolina there’s a peculiar conjunction of weather conditions, my metabolism and tennis that strikes during the winter months. We get these incredibly humid yet quite chilly evenings; and when I run around and get sweaty, my glasses steam up. Instantly, repeatedly, despite applications of everything from spit to “Cat Crap,” an industrial-strength anti-fog product. This is inconvenient for seeing the ball, which is a condition of competence in this sport, so I have finally broken down and gotten contact lenses. Ew, sticking stuff on my eyeball. But cheaper and probably less repellent than joining an indoor tennis club.

Well, like many eggheads who used to read books under the covers with a weak flashlight and continue to do most of their visual work up close, I’m nearsighted. Not a candidate for bifocals yet; my glasses correct for distance and mess up my near vision, so when I’m reading I put my glasses up on top of my head, one of those odd old fart mannerisms kids get a kick out of.

This does not work, however, with contacts. And I have to wear them some in preparation for my second appointment for the optometrist to confirm the prescription. And it’s been raining, so no tennis. So here I am squinting at the computer screen and the syllabi I’m reviewing, with my head swimming; laughing at myself and thinking about what a privilege vision is, not to mention the option of correcting it, and for no better reason than to play a game marginally less badly. What a life.

What does privilege mean here? In many ways I feel like I live better than medieval kings. Flush toilets are a particular favorite. Not growing my own food or making my own clothing. Entertainment beamed at me from every angle. The wisdom of all humanity a few clicks away. Whether these things make life better is debatable — our self-help literature attests to our relative misery, and Paleolithic cave painters may have been the most deeply satisfied humans in history — but many of the billions of humans now living without my amenities seem to think they’re pretty desirable.

In fact, ‘privilege’ is a way of attaching judgment to desirable difference, just as ‘stigma’ is a way of attaching judgment to undesirable difference. This is a pretty elementary way of thinking – that’s the problem with it. Quickly for siblings, later for only children, we learn that Others got stuff — things, relationships, abilities, skills, the blue m&m, Mom’s undivided attention, the seat behind Dad in the car, Twinkies in the lunchbox — we don’t got. A sense of ‘fairness’ is born out of pure envy rooted in raw diversity. As we grow older and reach our pre-teens this infantile invidia is transformed into a primitive moral system, either immediately as a claim on anything anyone else has, or mediately as an offer of everything we have to everyone else.

Fortunately, no serious adult would ever articulate a position so transparently narcissistic. Difference is a feature of the world that may well pass without judgment and its emotional responses: “Get rid of the judgment, get rid of the ‘I am hurt,’ you are rid of the hurt itself.” Even so, I’d like it if everyone who wanted to could play tennis, in contact lenses, on the roofs of skyscrapers in Dubai.



3 Comments to “Stigma, privilege and contact lenses”

  1. As the two students working on eyeglasses in my Material Culture course have pointed out, glasses are perceived in a different way, now, than they were just ten years ago. To a certain extent, glasses have become trendy and even sexy. In a way, Sarah Palin made an ongoing phenomenon even more prominent.
    Contact lenses wouldn’t work so well, for me. My main eye problem is strabismus with myopia and hypermetropia second. I’ve always been pretty bad at any sport involving projectiles so I wouldn’t play tennis anyway.

    As for weather, I don’t envy you. It’s a lovely -21°C right now, in Laval. Bright, sunny, crisp. Feels great.

  2. Yeah, I love that kind of weather.

    Glasses seem to come in and out of fashion in different reference groups. I remember when I was in college there were these big clunky black frames with gold trim (they had a name but I don’t remember it) that were so desirable among young urban men that they were worn without lenses by people who didn’t need correction and crimes were committed over them. And Wayfarers come in and out of style like a kind of cultural respiration.

    I’ve started calling those Palin frames “palins,” but it hasn’t caught on. I have a student now who wears a pair of purple palins but that’s not how she thinks of them. So was Sarah P. the source, or an avatar?

  3. Your mention of “avatar” reminds me of fads and trends in social media, since those little pictures representing “online identities” are called “avatars.” Glasses are quite salient in those. And palins are fairly frequent. Some people who don’t wear glasses use avatars that do, and vice-versa. (A fad I personally didn’t/don’t like was/is the “mangavatar” one, with manga-like avatars looking so much like one another, on Twitter and elsewhere. Glasses seem even bigger there.) Though the switch from “nerd” to “geek” seems to imply some stigmatization of glasses, there’s some geek cred which can be associated with certain types of glasses.

    What we discussed in class, in terms of palins, had a fair deal to do with preset social identity. Some students interpret palins as given wearers an air of intellectualism while still being approachable and down-to-earth. As we started the discussion at the end of the campaign, there was some thought given to the strategic importance of positioning oneself in this zone. Many people have talked about linguistic and paralinguistic cues used in campaigns to signal something similar, but glasses are convenient as they are both rich as signs and materially “motivated.”

    As you say, these things come and go. But it’s fun to think about diverse trends related to the same type of material object.

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