There were so many things that made me a bad fit for gymnastics — at least according to almost everyone I talked to back when I was a young gymnast. I am Mvskoke (Creek), and there weren’t any well-known Native American gymnasts. I was big and tall for a gymnast, according to the standards of the time. And what felt like the worst obstacle of them all: I wore glasses.
But soon after I left the sport, my favorite gymnast, Svetlana Boginskaya, “the Belarusian Swan,” led her team to a gold medal in the 1992 Olympics at my same height. During the 2016 Olympics, Lumbee gymnast Ashton Locklear was an alternate for the U.S. Women’s Gymnastics team. Both times, my inner young gymnast felt validated.
That’s how I felt just a few weeks ago, when U.S. gymnast Morgan Hurd won the 2017 Gymnastics World Championship — wearing glasses!
My friend’s nine-year-old daughter just got glasses last week, and she posted a picture of her smiling in them on Facebook. My friend was surprised that her daughter was so happy because in our generation, trips to the optometrist meant tears, and debuting glasses at school meant getting called names like “Four Eyes” and “Poindexter.”
Glasses are fashionable now. People who don’t even need them wear them as accessories (hello, hipster glasses). Yet makeover shows still remove glasses for the “after” picture, and in sit-coms, girls still take their glasses off when they want to look “good” (as if being dressed-up means they can suddenly see perfectly). Even an InStyle article about “star-inspired glasses” includes the sentence, “it’s never been more chic to be a four-eyes.” Even now that I’m grown-up and shouldn’t care, that name still hurts my feelings.
Wearing glasses as a young person wasn’t a joy for me. To make matters worse, my glasses were chosen from what back then was a pretty meager selection at the Indian Health Service optometry department. At the age of 12, with everything about your body changing and previously-friendly boys learning terrible names to call you, it’s already easy for a girl to feel ugly and awkward, but gymnastics added a whole extra layer of self-consciousness.
On the one hand, gymnastics made me aware of the beautiful, exciting things my body could do, and I loved seeing how strength and flexibility training resulted in the ability to do acrobatics and poses. On the other hand, women’s gymnastics is known for its sometimes harmful attention to the “line” of the athlete’s body — and my “line” was interrupted by developing breasts and hips, as well as glasses.
As gymnastics commentators and coaches announced over and over again, these things were a “distraction” to a gymnast’s form.
I’m not mildly near-sighted. When I don’t wear glasses, all I see are fuzzy shapes and colors. Before the advent of featherweight lenses, I wore, as one schoolmate so kindly informed me, “Coke bottle glasses.” Contact lenses were complicated and expensive, and at the time, they were not provided by the Indian Health Service anyway.
I couldn’t bring myself to wear my glasses in the gym. I wasn’t about to wear the elastic band around my head because people made fun of it. But without it, my glasses fell off — which provided others another opportunity to laugh at me. The gym was a clean, orderly escape from the complications of everyday life, and I wanted to be as perfect as possible there, despite being in what felt like an imperfect body. To me, that meant no glasses. I realize now that it wasn’t a healthy way to think, and I wish someone had told me so back then, though I doubt I would have listened.
In retrospect, it wasn’t my size or my glasses that made me a mediocre gymnast. It was fear and lack of confidence.
Part of that came from my personality, but part of it also came from not being able to see without glasses. And you know what’s scary? Leaping around on a four-inch beam when you can’t see. Reaching for a bar that’s the only thing between you and the floor when you can’t see. Running full-speed ahead toward a vault when you can’t see. I would like to say I had the strength of character and determination to do gymnastics anyway, that I found ways to adapt. But I didn’t. It’s part of the reason I quit the sport: I became discouraged when I had so many things to “overcome.” My discouragement is laughable to consider now, when I know there are people with much greater obstacles, but at the time, my flaws seemed insurmountable.
A few years ago, my local YMCA offered an adult gymnastics class, and I took it. Even though my body wasn’t able to do most of the things it used to, it could do more than I expected. I’ve worn contact lenses for many years now, and I was almost sad when I realized what a difference being able to see clearly made in my confidence. But there wasn’t time for nostalgia or regret. I was too busy soaking up the exhilaration that comes with flipping through the air and the quiet joy of holding a difficult pose on the beam. I had thought that part of my life was over.
A few weeks ago, when I watched Morgan Hurd hit routine after routine during the World Championships, looking beautiful and strong in glasses and braces, I felt this same form of exhilaration. I was simultaneously happy that a gymnast had won in glasses and annoyed that someone was going to point it out and write about it because that would mean that, yes, glasses are the first thing people notice…yet here I am, noticing them too. I wish neither of us had to wear them, but since we do, I’m genuinely moved to see that she owns hers like the champion that she is.
It turns out that representation is important, and seeing a gymnast win the World Championship in glasses healed some of the leftover hurt I didn’t know I still had from being told in so many ways that I would be prettier, better, more perfect, without my own pair of glasses.
And according to Twitter, I’m not the only one who felt that way:
Hurd, who is a big Harry Potter fan, was excited when J.K. Rowling tweeted her congratulations, as evidenced in this video:
And Rowling was right when she responded that Hurd is a “real life hero in glasses.”
She was a hero I didn’t even know I needed, but I’m grateful to her for giving the next generation of young gymnasts who wear glasses a world champion to look up to when they need reassurance that they are just right for whatever dreams they want to pursue.