Thursday, 13 September 2012

Post Surgery Blog – Part 2 - Through the Looking Glasses and Out The Other Side

*Technical note:  As much as I’m conscious of no longer having glasses on my face, and that people are now treating me differently, I am struggling with the written word and with verb usage around this issue.  After a lifetime of wearing glasses and being treated accordingly, I forget I am not being faced with the same discrimination on a daily basis, so writing this blog piece has been deeply challenging for me, grammatically speaking.   I’ve tried to proof-read this to correct for verb tenses issues (“was” vs. “is”, etc) and I hope I caught them all.  Just another example of how much my life has changed. 

As much as I chose to have the LASIK eye surgery to improve my vision and therefore my overall health, I also had it largely to improve my social interactions and my career prospects. 

As someone who has had no choice but to wear glasses my entire life I was very well aware that they were in many cases my sole identifier to other people.  I was “the girl with the glasses”.  No further description or name needed.  They often served as permission for people to treat me according to stereotypes and TV tropes, and excuse themselves from having to learn anything about me as a real person.  I was a living caricature to most people.

The greatest proof of this throughout my life has been when I hear the ominous Tone-of-Surprise in someone’s voice when they express something positive about me.   The real insults always came from people I had gotten to know a little and who were misguidedly trying to compliment me.  Statements like “Wow, you’re actually really pretty” or “Wow, you’re not a nerd at all” or “Wow, you’re actually a very cool person” are incredibly telling about other people’s assumptions and biases.  And I got those kinds of comments CONSTANTLY when I wore glasses. 

I know some of you are thinking these things are compliments.  And to the people who’ve said these things to me over my lifetime, they were intended as compliments.  I have no doubt of that.  But what these tone-of-surprise statements prove is that I was in a deficit position in other people’s eyes to begin with.  Regardless of any facts about me I have been in a position of less than normal, of inferiority on certain standards, when I made a first impression on people.  That would be fine if this aspect of my appearance was within my ability to control, but up until December 29th, 2011 when I had my eye surgery, there was nothing I could do. 

People often told me to look on the bright side, and see how many positive stereotypes there are about people with glasses, to focus on the positive.  First of all, there are no truly positive stereotypes.  Even if the comment is flattering, being pigeon-holed is not!  Being told that I looked “smart” because I wore glasses actually grated on me worse than the so-called negative stereotypes.   First of all, being smart is not caused by a disease or dysfunction of vision.  DUH!!!  It’s shocking how many people I met over the years really, truly believed that my glasses made me more intelligent.  Blows the mind. 

Secondly, I was never as smart as people assumed me to be.  I did ok in school.  Averaging out my grades in most years put me right in the middle of the pack.  I had excellent marks in English Lit, but I was outright flunking in Math.   I didn’t win any entrance scholarships to go to university.  I got a couple of nominal “book prizes”.   In 7 years of university I made the Dean’s list only once (and that was in my 1st year of my B.ED… hardly an academically challenging year).    In other words, my academic performances in high school and university were utterly, completely average.  So you can imagine the annoyance and frustration I caused to my poor, hard-done-by teachers and classmates when I had the audacity to perform poorly in math and science courses!  I was supposed to be a nerd or a genius.  I was supposed to do physics for fun.  I was supposed to be taking advanced chemistry and biology - I have, in reality, never taken a single course in high school or university in either subject – what a bitch I was for not performing to their expectations!  When I struggled with math (which my mother made me take even though it actually ruined what little chances I had at university scholarships) I was branded as lazy, obstinate and unwilling to try harder. 

Yep, that’s right.  I’m a lazy bitch. 

Today if I were in high school it would be drastically different.  I’d be tested for a learning disability.  All of the warning signs point the way to dyscalculia, a numerical equivalent to dyslexia.  But back in those days dyscalculia was unheard of, it was believed girls didn’t get learning disabilities anyway, and since I was doing well in other subjects (a present-day big red flag) it was assumed I was just not willing to cooperate.  These are all factors in how I was treated about my math “issues”.  And I know I certainly was not the only girl in my school and thousands of other schools too who received the same treatment from the professional educators of the day.  BUT I do believe the especially acidic reaction I got was because I looked like I should be excelling at math and science.  I have been out-right told, to my face, that people didn’t believe I was struggling with math and had dropped sciences all-together because I was a nerd with glasses and I was just lying so I wouldn’t have to help other students with their work.

So for those keeping score, I’m a Lazy Bitch AND a Liar. 

I was also expected to be physically illiterate.  As those of you who know me can probably guess, I excelled in dance lessons.  In fact, dance exams were where I did get high grades!  And blessedly, none of my dance teachers growing up ever wrote me off as a lost cause because of my glasses.  It was the ONLY place in my life in which I was not treated differently, and largely why I excelled there.  Outside of my dance school however I was laughed at and publically dismissed as either a liar or delusional by some people who couldn’t picture me as a dancer.  I was the typical weight and height, my hair fit in a bun… so why shouldn’t I be believable?  As I got older I’d call people on it.  The answer was always the same - “Because girls with glasses can’t be ballerinas”.  And you know what, that’s actually true.  I have never yet been able to find anywhere in the world-wide history of ballet a dancer who performed professionally while wearing glasses.  Not a one.  Ever.  That’s true for most pros of any dance style, actually.  With the exception of Gregory Hines in his later years, I can’t think of any dance pro performing with glasses on.  It just doesn’t happen. 

As a professional dancer myself, I almost always performed without my glasses.  Even before my LASIK surgery my vision wasn’t so poor that I needed them to dance.  I wasn’t like Velma from the Scooby-Doo cartoons who would become absolutely helpless when her glasses were knocked off.  I had to do it, I just didn’t look “right” in a belly dance costume with glasses on.  It made me look like I was just “playing” at being a belly dancer, not a real one.  I did experiment with performing with my glasses on a couple of times.  The difference was glaring! Without them I always got plenty of compliments on how I performed especially about my stage presence.  With them I got “no bad for a student dancer” or “not bad for an amateur performer”.  I wasn’t dancing or performing any differently.  But to the audience I was less able to entertain when I had glasses on.  I think ultimately the sight of a person performing physically skills and wearing glasses is too much of a juxtaposition of popular stereotypes for most people’s minds to process both consciously and unconsciously.  Would it be an ideal scenario to break the stereotypes and perform as a professional dancer wearing glasses?  Possibly.  But that doesn’t get me gigs or pay my bills.

Most interestingly, I have further proof of this glasses=nerd=clumsy stereotype is alive and well because it has completely – I mean 100%!! – disappeared since my  eye surgery.  I have been experiencing very significant differences in how I’m treated at work in the gym and, to a lesser extent, in fitness and dance classes.  I had known this would happen.  I should have bet money on this happening because I’d be rich by now!

Just like people can’t reconcile a dancer with glasses they also can’t deal with a personal trainer or aerobics teacher with glasses either.  Fortunately this happens to be an industry in which employers and colleagues are smarter than the general public, and these stereotypes have not affected my ability to get hired by a gym or rec centre.    

Sometimes the reaction I got from people was simply a weird vibe.  Other times it was much more obvious that I just didn’t make sense to them.  The most common thing that happened is someone new would come into the gym as say stuff like “isn’t there a trainer here?” or “I was told I could talk to a trainer, where is she?” This happened, on average, weekly.   One glance at me and they’d assume I was an administrator or something.  When I would say “Yep, I am the trainer” most people would literally shake their heads and realize they were being stupid and get over it.  Some other people were not so willing to give up on their beliefs.  I’d get reactions such as: “REALLY???”, “YOU are a trainer????”, “Ummmmmmmmmmm…”, “Aren’t there any other trainers here”. 

The proof is this.  Not once in the past 8 months has that happened.  NOT ONCE!!!!!!

The most ironic thing is I have actually gained a noticeable amount of body fat over the last 2 years and look less fit than I had before and I am STILL not experiencing any doubts from anyone about me being a fitness professional.  When I was 20 lbs thinner and had glasses no one believed me! 

THAT is fucked up.   

I’m fortunate that I work for the recreation department because I’m paid a flat rate for my time in the gym.  Had I been in a company in which my income was based on commission and paying clients I would likely have not made enough income to survive in this career. 

Not having glasses has also made working with clients easier.  This has been worth the price of the surgery in and of itself.  I loved my job before, but I enjoy it a whole lot more since!  I very rarely have clients question what I tell them or argue with me over anything anymore.  I have automatic authority in my job!  I realize now how exhausting it had been to get people to listen to me and let me train them.  My job has become ridiculously easier to do. 

There’s been one other interesting thing I’ve noticed, although comparatively minor to the work-related issues.  I am not being mistaken for someone much younger anymore.  When I wore glasses I was always being ID’d when buying alcohol.  I’ve even been ID’d several time just buying lottery tickets!  In many, many situations people often took me to be 10 to 15 years younger than I really am.   When people I’ve just met speak to me with a disrespectful tone I always ask them to guess my age.  The tone changes pretty fuckin’ quick when they find out the truth! 

I’m sure many of you don’t see the problem with looking young.  Media tells us this is something to envy.  I’ve been told all my life I should be thrilled that people take me to be way younger than I really am.  Well let me tell ya, it fucking sucks!  I get treated like a dumb, inexperienced, irresponsible child when I am none of those things.  Would you hire a dumb kid for a management job, or as a keynote speaker at a conference, or any other role requiring experience, skill and maturity?   It’s always been an extra struggle to prove I’m worth hiring because I don’t look old enough to handle it.  Combine that with the “glasses = nerd” stereotype, and it’s worse, because nerds are book smart, but they can’t function in a real job in the real world.  So no, I’m never pleased when this happens. 

I always chalked this up to being shorter than average, but I don’t think so anymore.  This one has me stumped, quite frankly, because people usually associate glasses with age, so if anything you’d think people would take me as even younger without them.   The glasses should have made me look older.  Whatever the reason, I am rarely being ID’d now.  I am still usually the youngest person in the classes I teach and younger than my clients, but they don’t point it out and dismiss me anymore.  No more tone-of-surprise when I prove my capabilities.  No more laughter and “isn’t that cute” when I do something mature and grown-up, as if I was merely just playing at being an adult before.  And I haven’t gotten the “Tsk, oh you’re just a BABY, you don’t understand XYZ” bullshit anymore either!!  People still guess my age as a bit younger than I really am, but the gap is down to 2 or 3 years, which is a massive difference from the 10 to 15 year discrepancy I used to get. I am automatically given more authority by people because I’m not “just a dumb kid” anymore.  It makes no sense!  Whatever the reason for this change I’m glad and deeply relieved for the result!

There has been one other change worthy of discussion, and this has been the biggest one for me emotionally.  Again, I should have bet money on this because I knew it would happen.  It’s both a relief to no longer deal with it and disturbing that this was ever the case in the first place. 

I am now pretty.

“Men don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses” is absolutely true.  Sure, I’ve had compliments on my appearance when I wore glasses.  I had dates and boyfriends.  I wasn’t living like a nun by any stretch of the imagination.  But it’s NOTHING like it is now.  Again, how ironic is this? I’m 35 and 20 lbs overweight, and I am getting more compliments and positive interactions (and fewer negative ones) than ever before. 

I have lost count in the last 8 months of how many people have complimented me on my eyes, especially the colour.  I wore clear colourless glasses all my life so how in the 7 Hell’s did so many people not realize that my eyes are blue?  You’d think it would be hard to miss!  It has been uncanny how many people, many of whom I’ve known for a decade or more, are just realizing for the first time that I have bright blue eyes.  Seriously, if I had a dollar for every time this has happened I’d be nearing a new tax bracket!

The real proof is how random men act towards me.  I’m not joking about how mind-blowingly fucked up this is.  I’m taking about the hundreds of minute interactions we experience in a week that we don’t notice or think about; buying groceries, pumping gas, looking for a parking spot, pouring milk into a coffee at Starbucks. 

It’s ALL different now.  It’s like I’ve gone through The Looking Glass and come out into some strange universe where the opposite behaviors happen. 

In the past I was usually ignored and treated as if I were invisible by most men.  If I caught a particularly nasty one I was treated as if I had no business going about my business.  Now random men I meet only in passing are looking at me, not through or around me.  They offer to pass me things.  They hold doors open for me.  They are WAY more polite.  They try to engage me in conversation.  They flirt.  They outright compliment me on my looks.

A few weeks ago I was going across the MacDonald Bridge and I stopped at the booth for loonies and the booth attendant said “Wow, you sure are a beautiful woman”.  WHAT THE FUCK????????????

I can’t be clear enough about this.  Things like this have NEVER happened before.  No random stranger had ever complimented me.  NOT EVER. 

Until now compliments about my physical appearance have been very rare, even from close friends and family.  And because they were so rare, I’ve always treated them with a healthy dose of suspicion.  I was never once called pretty as a child.  As a teenager and adult I was sometimes complimented, but only by people who’d gotten to know me, and came to find me beautiful only over the course of time.  More often than not, it was (again!) the tone-of-surprise “Wow, you really ARE pretty” kind of compliment, and often I’d get that only if I had taken my glasses off for some reason.

Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore!!!

As much as I had plenty of serious medical reasons for having this eye surgery the effect on my life has been much more akin to having plastic surgery to correct a facial disfigurement.  For me looking out I see better and I have the major convenience of not wearing glasses any more.  But the way other people interact with me has been vastly over-hauled.  I no longer look like a stereotype.  I also no longer look disabled, which I’m sure is 50% of the reason why I was treated so negatively as a child and young adult (the other 50% is, I think, due to TV shows and movies, but that’s a whole other blog).  Wearing glasses due to aging is a normal part of life.  Wearing glasses from toddler-hood is NOT normal.  It is a sign of being deeply diseased.  It’s a big waving red flag that my genes are garbage and should not be perpetuated.  Good old Darwinism. 

But we live in an age where we should know better, don’t we?  Yeah well that would be lovely, but it’s not happening.   I think so much of this stuff happens at a deeply sub-conscious level and unless you’re either receiving the discrimination or close to someone who is, you’ll never be aware of it.  I think too that as we do more work in teaching people about the media, stereotypes and discrimination we are getting away from this.  I have always found people of the Millennial generation to be way less caught up in these old ideas. Millennial men have consistently treated me better than a lot of my fellow Gen-Xers.  I’ve found most male Boomers to be outright snobs and even hostile on occasion.  So the good news is that these attitudes and behaviors are changing with the ages. 

If that’s not a brilliant justification for becoming a cougar, I don’t know what is!!

It all boils down to one thing in the end… people’s expectations of me have changed due to the change in my appearance.  This is something I’m extremely happy about because I feel like I’m finally getting a fair chance in life.  My life has become so much easier because I’m not fighting all the time with people who impose their assumptions about how I should think or behave.  It pisses me off though, because for the last 35 years, I’ve had to waste too much time on that sort of bullshit.