My grandfather liked to talk about how much uglier Americans used to be. “People were ugly!” he would say with relish. “You have no idea now!” As children, we would always try to refute his claims, citing examples of modern celebrities we considered unattractive. But he would have none of it. “You don’t know,” he said darkly. To hear him tell it, the bit of Arkansas where he grew up was straight out of a Carson McCullers novel—which, I suppose, makes it sort of noteworthy that when a circus came to town, it was my grandfather who was considered such a dead ringer for the sideshow attraction Moe-Joe the Dog-Faced Boy that he bore this name for the rest of his life.
I don’t know if Grandpa Moe was thinking of improved dentistry, malnutrition, or various dermatological conditions; maybe a combination. I can’t help wondering if, also, some people just couldn’t see themselves, so they cared less. After all, regular, exact prescription updates are a modern luxury, too, to say nothing of contacts and laser surgeries.
I’ve only worn glasses regularly since I was about twenty-one, but like many who rely on correction, my eyes have deteriorated rapidly since then, and at this point I am completely dependent on them. I’ve never worn contact lenses. Those of us who don’t see well don’t really know what we look like. Either our faces are framed—distorted, depending on the prescription—by glasses, or we can’t see ourselves clearly. And while it’s true that this can have an effect on practicalities like makeup application, the larger issue is psychological. When you can’t see the world well, it is nearly impossible to believe that the world can see you.
Over the weekend, I broke my glasses. It’s not the first time; it happens. I’ve done my time in airports holding single halves up to my eyes like Mr. Peanut, or standing two inches from TV screens—haven’t we all? But that doesn’t mean it isn’t always kind of jarring: to lose the luxury of taking something so fundamental for granted is strange.
If you wear glasses, you know that an across-the-bridge break is fatal, but I was away from home and didn’t have a backup pair with me, so I attempted a number of fixes involving every material I could find: floss, gum, Krazy Glue, string. For a while, a sort of plaster made of epoxy-soaked cheesecloth worked well enough to allow me to watch a movie. After that fell apart, I reinforced things with a sort of copper-wire cantilever and a large Band-Aid.
Later in life, when my grandfather had lost a couple of front teeth and had to go out socially, he would superglue the teeth into his mouth. And staring at the not dissimilar contraption I’d put together, it was hard not to feel an alarmed chill. The good news was, I couldn’t really see myself.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily‘s correspondent.