Last week, my eyeglasses broke and I reluctantly scotch taped them back together. I had no other choice; my disposable contact lenses ran out months ago and I didn't have a spare pair. With my new (and less than improved) look, I was worried about being seen in public. Those grade school fears crept into the back of my head; I worried that people were going to label me dweeb.
Eventually I manned up, went out, and realized that no one cared. Even if they did, they didn't treat me any differently. Okay, I'll probably need to get a new pair of glasses before I go to a job interview or take my girlfriend to a fancy night out on the town; but in most situations, such a blemish is going to go unnoticed. Pop culture projects an image of perfection that almost all of us find alluring; in all likelihood, we aspire towards perfection ourselves. But, in reality, we (and everyone else) are already flawed in millions of countless ways. And, often, it's going to go unnoticed to just about everyone else if you display just one more flaw to the world.
Granted, I've garnered a bit of immunity from my childhood. Despite years of pleading, I didn't get my first pair of jeans until the 6th grade -- and they were powder blue Lee jeans. When everyone was just getting over the Reebok Pumps and moving onto Nike Airs, my mother bought me a pair of Spaldings from Bradlees. But these devastating setbacks in my childhood actually did teach me a lesson. Sooner or later, people are going to get to know you and judge you for who you are. You best go out, find the good people, and stick with them.
It's a lesson that often bears repeating. In my third year of teaching, I broke my nose and had to wear a giant shiny metal plate that obscured much of my face. I was worried I was going to be harassed by my students, but after just five to ten minutes, my 8th grade students didn't care either. After two weeks, none of them even noticed when I finally removed the plate.
When I went about hunting for a cheap pair of frames this week, I was grateful to learn that Walmart offered eyeglass frames for $9. My current pair had cost more than $200 and lasted less than two years. I wasn't going to invest 20 times more for a pair of designer glasses -- what difference would it make, when people don't even notice anyway?
These differences in price reveal the unconscious power of branding. Smokers pay $2 more for a pack of Marlboro's, kids pay premium prices for Air Jordan sneakers, and the myopic pay $100 for a pair of Nascar or Randy Jackson glasses at Walmart or $300 for a pair of Gucci or Guess glasses at Cohen's Fashion Optical rather than suffer the unbearable cost of wearing discount frames. But are these fears real or just imagined?
Maybe I'd feel a bit differently if my self-image was predicated more on my looks. It's probably true that devastatingly beautiful men and women are treated different by society, and enjoy privileges that the other 99.99% of us lack. But eventually, even the beautiful get old and wrinkled, so it's probably best not to get caught up in one's own physical perfection.
When I was teaching middle school, the biggest diss was to insult a boy's sneakers. My first year teaching, I had a cocksure student named Ruben. He was smart, popular, and at the top of his class both academically and socially. But when he got into an argument with a girl in the school yard, she mocked his sneakers for being dirty. In the moment, he took the criticism in stride, but later I saw him licking his fingers and rubbing his red and white Air Jordans clean like a wounded animal.
We pay a premium to preempt these attacks on our individual psyches. Corporate branding prays on the insecure members of our society. We invest in brand names to associate ourselves with the powerful affluent members of our society and distance ourselves from the powerless poor. But, in the end, we're just spending money to fool ourselves.