The Eternal Awkwardness of Wearing Glasses

On the difficulty of having sex — and doing most other things — while bespectacled

Illustration: Albert Tercero

If you’ve ever seen a naked man in glasses, you know how ridiculous he looks: fully dressed from the neck up, like an anatomically correct paper doll. The bespectacled nude in my mirror every morning is familiar to me and yet still somehow odd — few situations call for both nudity and distance vision, and the distance in question is remarkably short. Just-glasses ranks high among awkward single-item nudity, after just-socks and just-a-shirt (also known as The Porky Pig). Each makes the wearer look like they hadn’t planned on being nude, a naked-at-school dream come bewilderingly to life.

In the dark without my glasses I have to feel my way from the bed to the bathroom, and I live in a studio. My boyfriend’s vision is worse than mine, and both of us leave our glasses on a shelf by the shower (the better to find a towel with). Falling asleep on the couch is risky, and liable to end in a visit to someone with pliers at Warby Parker. Nearsightedness is such a fixable impairment that it hardly occurs to most people, even nearsighted ones, as any kind of hindrance, and even that may be a bit strong.

There’s one porn star I’m aware of who wears glasses in sex scenes, and I have to admire his dedication to the format. Pornography demands a basic suspension of disbelief that can often allow you to gloss over a detail like this — but occasionally something takes you out, like noticing that one of the actors has a Lady Gaga tattoo, or that the movie paused at the foot of the bed is Pretty Woman. Once you do notice, it’s hard to ignore: There he is, wearing glasses in an acrobatic threesome, wearing glasses jerking off in the shower, wearing glasses eating ass.

In my experience, eating ass doesn’t require much in the way of distance vision, and really, the less everyone’s wearing the simpler it is. Glasses can make even kissing difficult, particularly if the person you’re kissing is also wearing glasses, nose-smudged lenses slipping slowly down your faces, or coming unstuck from behind one ear, surrendering to makeout entropy.

The appeal of keeping one’s glasses on during sex is understandable — it’s the appeal of being able to see.

Taking my glasses off too early in these situations feels presumptuous, like unbuttoning my pants before settling into the sofa. In the context of a relationship, in my experience, no one wears pants inside after the first few months, but when getting to know someone my glasses can be a hurdle for the less-than-suave. Even when I’m the only one wearing them, the large plastic corners of my face are in constant conflict with hands, pillows, my date’s face, and simple physics. If they survive first base, glasses are no match for a crewneck; how many of us have experienced the facial pratfall of dislodged frames in what was supposed to be a heated, passionate unveiling? Glasses are the tapered pant leg of the face.

The appeal of keeping one’s glasses on during sex is understandable — it’s the appeal of being able to see. My eyes are about a negative six, which means without my glasses I can clearly see about the distance of one penis (depending on the penis, of course). Taking my glasses off is entering a sensory semi-deprivation chamber, and it can be difficult to feel fully present when the person you’re engaging keeps going in and out of focus.

Some men have thought it would be sexy to take my glasses off for me, and most of them have been wrong. For one thing, if they don’t also wear glasses, mine rarely get put anywhere I can find them (though I take some responsibility, at least, for the choice of wearing clear plastic frames). Yes, it’s a necessary step, but I’m going to need those again, so like, don’t just fling them anywhere.

Once, in college, I was booty-called to the dorm room of a boy much older and sexier than I was — a Simon Baker type with a definitely-won’t-call-you vibe. I was on a year-long rebound from my high-school boyfriend, and my hopes were irresponsibly high, even for three a.m. I practically ran across campus, where I was greeted with the sunken eyes and half-smoked blunt of sexual disappointment. This was obviously not the high point of his night, as I’d expected it would be of mine.

Ever the gracious guest, I made an effort, even allowing him to take my glasses off for me, followed by several other items. But after 15 minutes or so, his enthusiasm flagged; he pivoted to pillow talk, or some pre-sex version of it: “What’s your major?” I was naked and horny and didn’t feel much like discussing art history, but it seemed unlikely we’d get back on track. After a polite while, I decided to spare us both the forced conversation and leave, picking around in the dark for the items of clothing I’d lost while he protested as much as was kind, but with definite relief. We kissed goodbye to avoid the awkwardness of deciding whether or not to, and the cold zipper of my skinny jeans reminded me I’d lost my underwear in one of his heaps. It was only when I reached the bleary four a.m. light of the hallway, sweatshirt and Sambas in hand, and heard the door clunk behind me, that I realized I’d forgotten my glasses.

I stood blinking at the floor for a moment. I could make it home, I thought. I could buy new glasses. Better glasses. This could be the start of a new life. It might have been an endearing predicament were I not leaving for the express purpose of sparing us more time together. I briefly considered using them as second-date bait, but it seemed extreme, like forgetting my car in someone’s driveway. I knocked lightly, hoping he’d passed out in the 20 seconds since my would-be face-saving exit, and tried not to look too Rachel-got-off-the-plane.

After a three-second hour, the door cracked, a sliver of his face wincing into the fluorescent hallway. “I forgot my glasses,” I blurted, and gingerly clambered for the nightstand across an undergraduate mess of clothing and books I hadn’t clocked 20 minutes earlier, in the naive glow of maybe-having-sex. I shoved them on my face, turned back toward the door with a Bye!, and, now that I could see them, bolted for the stairs.

I had an opposite experience at a bathhouse in Berlin, when I forgot not to have my glasses.

Glasses wearers will be familiar with the phenomenon of Seasonal Dilbert Face: the private, nearsighted purgatory of entering a warm room after being out in the cold. You are temporarily debilitated by condensation on the windshields of your face, two opaque shapes that render you helpless for a few awkward minutes, with and without them.

I realized my error at the sauna when I got down to my towel and flip-flops and realized I wasn’t naked. I’d already paid my 11 euro, and reentry was streng verboten. A slightly older man walked by in a matching set of towel-and-glasses, and the thought of not being the only person was a calming one. I looked around (discreetly) and spotted three or four more of my compatriots in the locker room, some of them, much like me, looking sheepish but committed.

Poor vision is nature’s portrait mode: the background bleeds into irrelevance around the crisp immediacy of another face just a few inches away.

For the next two hours I tried to at least get my money’s worth, holding my glasses out of the obligatory pre- and post-hot tub shower, and periodically windshield-wiping away the sea spray of the tub itself, which frankly could have been a bit hotter. They managed the steam room, but the vigilance necessary to keep them from slip ’n’ sliding down my nose on sweat and condensation was not relaxing. I tried to prop them on my head like sunglasses, but then instead of sliding they just dropped, and if you ever find yourself feeling around the floor of a large, dark shower in which men are having sex, I wish for your sake you aren’t looking for something that goes on your face.

I figured my acetate frames wouldn’t survive either of the dry saunas, at 60° and 90°C, and after a few frustrating laps I noticed a small set of shelves outside the steam room and saunas meant for storing glasses and watches. It was a thoughtful inclusion, but in my state it almost made things worse: I was irrationally paranoid that someone would steal my glasses, whether out of jealousy or nearsightedness, and if someone did, the phantom culprit would be hard to pinpoint, since “man in a towel” described every person in attendance. Literally robbed of my vision, I’d be at a loss to discern much of anything beyond general body shape or extreme facial hair. Sitting blindly in the steam, without even the slippery, fogged-up aid of my glasses, I felt like I was in a nude remake of The Mist, pinkish shapes cruising in and out of my field of pseudo-vision, approaching with unclear intent.

No one seemed as concerned as I was. I’m sure, in their teutonic unflappability, they would have considered my glasses-theft scenario absurd — not least because glasses-wearers are bound by lifetimes of mild and consistent inconveniences.

I’ve been wearing glasses now for two-thirds of my life, since a time when no one would have thought to wear fake glasses as a fashion statement. They’ve gone from tragic, wire-frame nerdwear to urbane fashion accessory, and I’ve seen how they impart sophistication and braininess on people with neither. A few celebrities have made notable choices: Jenji Kohan in her impish cat-eye frames, Anderson Cooper adding broadcast gravitas to his porcelain handsomeness with a black rectangular pair. A glasses reveal can also accompany a career pivot — Zayn-as-grown-up, Anne Hathaway-as-Oscar-winner. For a person not famous for wearing them, glasses lend seriousness to mere beauty, which humbles it somehow.

Glasses are visible evidence that a part of you is poorly built. My glasses have never been a choice, really, except in that I choose not to wear contact lenses. My every haircut has been a complete surprise, my only hint to its outcome the length and number of brown clumps that fall onto my smock, receding into the relative distance.

My usable vision is just shy of arm’s length, and on a sunny morning that’s far enough to put the coffee on, or find and silence the phone sounding an unwanted alarm from somewhere near the couch. The visible world is smaller, soft and imprecise, but I can see the pattern of my pillowcase, the yellow glow of my alarm clock’s face on a shelf above my head. On weekends, I like to stay in this blurry pre-morning for a while. I can see my boyfriend’s face across the pillow, both of us bleary and bed-headed; our correctives lie folded side-by-side on the nightstand, somewhere. Poor vision is nature’s portrait mode: the background bleeds into irrelevance around the crisp immediacy of another face just a few inches away, a life-size photograph to climb inside. On these mornings I’m grateful for the boundary my vision imposes, a bedroom door to the world. Behind it, I feel perfectly dressed.