Recently, UK retailer Tesco had some children’s shirts for sale that had a picture of an animal wearing glasses and the word “geek” or “nerd.” Quite a few parents wrote on Tesco’s wall to complain about the shirts linking glasses with a term that many people still feel is an insult. Tesco decided to remove those shirts, and you’d think that would be the end of that. But some newspapers picked up the story, and chose one mother’s post in particular and wrote articles about how that one mother had forced Tesco to remove a line of clothing. The story has taken off from there, though hardly any of the newspapers have bothered to talk with Aneliese, the mother whose post they cited, about any of it. (I’m not linking to any of the articles because the reporting was so very shoddy). Now I’m not new to the Internet, I know that people can be cruel and take things way out of context, but I’ve been horrified by the number of awful comments, tweets, and posts that Aneliese and her son have received due to this. Inside the Wendy House has a good post that talks about what happened (and actually talked with Aneliese about the incident, as have I).
Tesco is not the first retailer to have shirts that show a character in glasses with the work “geek” or “nerd”, and I’m sure they won’t be the last. The question shows up a lot in the Little Four Eyes facebook group. It’s always leads to an interesting and spirited debate, and the community seems to be pretty evenly split on the issue. On the one hand, as many parents point out, “geek” and “nerd” are no longer the insults that they used to be, in fact, they can be seen as cool and the words should be taken as compliments. Any thing that portrays glasses as being cool, those parents say, is something we should celebrate. Other parents note that “geek” and “nerd” may be cool for some, but they’re still a stereotype with specific associations that are not all positive, such as being introverted and socially awkward. For those parents, glasses are something that help or at least protect, our children’s vision, they don’t define our children’s personalities, for better or for worse.
I hope everyone can agree that insulting a mother for giving a retailer feedback about their merchandise is completely uncalled for unnecessary, and frankly, really awful.
I should note that I consider myself a nerd (I’m not cool enough to be a geek), and that I’ve been nerdy all my life. It wasn’t a label that I liked as a kid or in high school, but now 20-some years later, it’s a label that I will proudly wear. I also wear glasses, but even when I wore contacts, I was quite a nerd.
I do think there are a lot of problems, though, with associating “geek” and “nerd” with wearing glasses. I honestly cannot think of another personality stereotype (and let’s be honest, whether you see geek/nerd as good or bad, it’s a stereotype) that is associated with something that needs to be worn for medical reasons. The need to wear glasses is almost always because of structural issues with the eye – this has nothing to do with a person’s intelligence or how well they do interacting with others.
It bothers me because while I’m happy with being labeled a nerd, I know plenty of people who would not be happy with that characterization. Some of those people wear glasses. I look at Zoe, and I wonder what she’ll want to be known as when she gets a bit older. Will she want to be the nerdy girl? Or will she want to be arty, or athletic, or will she want people to not label her at all? Who she decides to be should not have anything to do with the fact that she’s hyperopic with moderate astigmatism.
On a less personal note, I have written before about the problems that can arise when children aren’t treated for vision issues. I hear from a lot of parents when they first learn their child needs glasses, and many of those parents are filled with fears (I know I was). Some of those fears have to do with general vision and glasses-related issues, but there’s also the fear that your child will be seen and treated differently once they have glasses. Glasses for your child are hard enough to deal with, even without the fears, they’re expensive and frustrating. I’d love to lessen any of the stress that comes with having a young child in glasses – that’s part of why I started this blog, and that’s part of what’s behind my dislike of the association of glasses and nerd/geekiness. Why add to the potential reasons why a parent might not follow through and make sure their child needs glasses? Not that I think this alone will solve the problem, but I don’t think it helps.
All that being said, there is a lot of evidence that the fears we have as parents of our child being treated differently or seen as less attractive because of their glasses are not always borne out. I don’t want to dismiss anyone who has actually experienced their child being bullied or teased because of their glasses, but there have been studies that have found that glasses really aren’t seen as a bad thing by other kids:
- One study asked kids in glasses and their parents a series of questions about their quality of life including socially. It asked the kids questions like “are you teased because of your eyes?” And it asked parents questions like, “do people treat your child differently because of his or her vision?” The kids’ answers were the same as other kids their age without glasses. They did not report being teased because of their glasses. The parents on the other hand were very worried about their child being treated poorly.
- Another study had kids look at pictures of other kids, some with glasses, some without, and asked which kids they’d rather play with, and which ones were the most honest, or smart, or better looking, or better at sports. According to that study, there was no difference in how kids saw other kids in glasses, except that they thought they looked smarter.
Essentially, what our kids experience because of their glasses is probably not as bad as we worry about.
So what do you think? Is it a good thing that glasses are associated with the newly cool nerd and geek identities? Or is it something that bothers you? (I don’t think I need to add this, but please be kind in your comments, I think this is one of those topics where people can disagree with very good reasons on all sides of the issue).