- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 23, 2009

NEW YORK — For kids these days with “four eyes,” there are just more eyes to love.

Glasses aren’t the fashion “don’t” for kids that they once were, as both wearers and manufacturers have realized that they can be another accessory used to make a style statement. New frames could go on the back-to-school shopping list right between a backpack and moccasin boots.

“I started doing this long enough ago that the kids who wore glasses were called ‘Four Eyes’ and were ridiculed,” says Jon Gruen, founder of eyewear retailer Optyx by Gruen. “Now we have the opposite: Siblings of glasses wearers want glasses.”

Teenagers, he says, see glasses as another tool to build their wardrobe, sometimes owning several pairs to complement different looks, while younger children want to emulate Mom and Dad — and many of them wear glasses.

And since they’re not wearing minimal, rimless specs, neither are the kids, observes Pilar Guzman, editor in chief of Cookie magazine. Adult fashion is focused on horn-rimmed, Wayfarer-style or other vintage-inspired glasses, and she expects younger people to adopt those looks, too. “As always, the kids’ trends tend to reflect adult trends,” she says.

That’s certainly the case with style, Mr. Gruen agrees, but he also notes that children’s glasses in particular have become more comfortable and less cumbersome thanks to lightweight and unbreakable materials and an overall fit that keeps glasses securely on kids’ faces.

Favorite youthful features in the industry now are flex-rubber grips on the back of frames and bright rainbow colors, according to Deb Lochli-McGrath, a New Jersey-based optician and spokeswoman for the Vision Council, an optical trade group.

Branding and licensing has helped broaden the appeal, with companies from toy manufacturers to designer labels recognizing the potential of the children’s market. (Maybe there’s a potential “Harry Potter” effect this year?)

Susan Mason thought her now 10-year-old daughter, Gabby, would go straight for Hannah Montana or bright purple frames when she started wearing glasses 18 months ago. Ms. Mason, of Granger, Ind., was pleasantly surprised when Gabby picked tortoise-shell frames in a preppy style. “The color goes with her hair,” she says. “She looks great.”

Gabby takes off her glasses basically to sleep and swim — that’s it. She has no interest in the contact lenses her mother wears. “Gabby thinks it’s so gross to stick her finger in her eye,” Ms. Mason says.

There was a bit of teasing when she first got glasses, but her daughter took it in stride — happier to be able to see clearly, Ms. Mason recalls.

It did help that three other kids in the class also wore glasses. And Gabby, who chose her particular frames because they resemble her aunt’s, says she thinks the glasses make her look smarter.

A lot of kids looking at her probably think the same thing, says Jeffrey J. Walline, assistant professor at the Ohio State University College of Optometry. He has studied both how children with glasses perceive themselves and how peers view them.

Other than intelligence, glasses didn’t affect how kids viewed one another in relation to sports skills, socialization, honesty, shyness or attractiveness in his testing, Mr. Walline reports. “‘Smart kids wear glasses’ is the way the media portrays it, and kids pick up on it,” he says. “Smarter kids are always wearing glasses in movies, cartoons.”

Still, he says, some kids wearing the glasses don’t love them. Compared to young contact lens-wearers, those in the hard frames sometimes have lower self-esteem when it comes to appearance and their athletic ability.

If children — and especially young athletes — could think of their glasses as gear instead of “glasses,” they’d probably get over any remaining stigma they might feel, suggests Linda Laube, vice president of marketing at Liberty Sport, manufacturer of protective eyewear.

They also have so many choices that eyewear really can be a way to express personal style, she says. “Where we’ve gone in fashion is, we’ve gone from geeky … to where it has evolved so eyewear is cool to wear.”

Being able to match your glasses to team colors or brandish a Barbie or Nike logo makes a huge difference, Ms. Lochli-McGrath says. “Sure, you might have a child picking a brighter color than maybe Mom wants, but it’s a good thing. It means they’re into it.”

Adds Ms. Guzman: “I don’t think it’s dorky to wear glasses. Kids in my son’s kindergarten last year didn’t make fun of them at all… . Everyone seemed fascinated by the kids who wore them.”

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