Swapping glasses for contacts — or a more extreme step, plastic surgery — can make kids more confident. But is changing appearance really a lasting answer to confidence problems? We take a trip into our own childhoods to find out.
A study of nearsighted kids aged eight to 11 (partly funded, we should note, by Johnson & Johnson, makers of contact lenses) found that girls felt better about their appearance, friends, performance in sports, and academic ability when they switched from glasses to contacts. But the results were only significant if the girls had disliked glasses to begin with. We asked contact-wearers on the Jezebel staff if the switch improved their self-esteem. Hortense says,
Yes, because my vision is so bad that I always had to wear glasses that were pretty unflattering, and with contacts I just felt lighter and happier due to not having 90 pound frames strapped to my face. My skin cleared up, too, because I used to break out where my nose pads from my glasses would touch my skin, so that was nice. I also was able to do simple things, like wear regular sunglasses, which I thought was pretty neat when I was 13.
No, because I was 13 at the time, and it's just not a great time for self esteem in general. It was also harder to hide from people without my glasses, which I realized, once they were gone, were a pretty nice security blanket.
Margaret says, "I felt much more attractive, but there were still plenty of other factors holding me down in high school." Megan just walked around without her glasses all the time, so getting contacts helped her see better. And Sadie can't wear contacts, so it's "Coke-bottles and low self-esteem for me." The switch from glasses to contacts doesn't involve much physical risk, and if it boosts a kid's self-esteem — or allows her to actually see — it seems worthwhile. But what about more invasive modifications?
USA Today's Mary Marcus talked with Kate Deleveileuse, who had 7 lbs. of fat removed from her calves via liposuction when she was 16. Deleveileuse was of normal weight, but "didn't feel confident wearing shorts and Capri pants and knee-high boots." Now 21, she says, "I by no means think I have a perfect figure, but I am proportionate. It helped my self-esteem."
Would Deleveileuse have gotten to this place without the surgery? As Hortense and Margaret point out, the teen years aren't known for high self-esteem, and almost every teenager has a part of their body that they hate. Marcus also mentions children with cleft palates, and a boy born without an outer ear, and for these kids, surgery seems like a more sensible option. But at a certain point, the likelihood that a kid will just grow out of his or her discomfort with a certain body part outweighs the risks of surgery. And don't we want to encourage acceptance of a variety of different appearances, rather than one idea of normalcy that teenagers need surgery in order to achieve?
Megan points out that, while your teenage self may stay with you your whole life, you also develop other selves you can choose to identify with. Hortense refers to Never Been Kissed, in which Drew Barrymore's character "yells, 'I'm not Josie Grossie anymore!' but in reality, she never really was 'Josie Grossie,' — other people but that label on her." My Josie Grossie period basically lasted from age 9 to age 18, during which time I had to wear a palate expander, braces, a contraption that pushed my lower lip out like a Neanderthal's, another palate expander, a retainer, and then braces again. Actually, I don't really remember anyone being mean to me about any of this, but I felt incredibly self-conscious, and the fact that I got my first boyfriend about a month after the braces finally came off seems a testament, not to my sudden hotness, but to the fact that I didn't have the confidence to flirt with anyone before then.
Would I have been better off with invisible braces, or some kind of oral surgery that fixed my teeth fast? It's hard to say. I think I got some good things out of not dating until I was 18 (a fuller sense of myself independent of guys, a first boyfriend who was old enough to be kind and respectful and interesting to talk to). On the other hand, the girl with the weird shit in her mouth is still inside me somewhere (as Sadie points out, our physical self-concepts are often formed early on), and sometimes it's harder for me to feel attractive because of that. But as Megan and Hortense say, that girl may be inside me, but she isn't me, and as a grown-up I have the confidence to know that. Gaining that confidence probably does more for most girls than plastic surgery ever will.