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The Psychology of the ‘Beautiful Without Your Glasses' Trope

Jul 29 2016 3:00 PM
The Psychology of the ‘Beautiful Without Your Glasses' Trope

In honor of the 15th anniversary of The Princess Diaries, we took a look at one common theme among infamous makeover montages for "beautiful all along" characters like Mia Thermopolis.

Today marks the 15th anniversary of The Princess Diaries, the release of which jumpstarted Anne Hathaway's career, inspired several sequels, and convinced a generation of girls that the Kingdom of Genovia is a real country ruled by Julie Andrews.

In the film, Mia Thermopolis, played by Hathaway, is a gawky teenager with an unrequited crush on the school jock and a paralyzing fear of public speaking. Her only worldly comforts: a black and white cat, Fat Louie, and her equally unpopular, loudmouthed sidekick and best friend, Lilly Moscovitz.

Things quickly change course when Mia's paternal grandmother comes into town and informs Mia that her late father was the crown prince of Genovia. Mia doesn't take the initial news well at first, but decides to ease into the possibility of ruling a small sovereign nation slowly by beginning "princess lessons." Of course, a crucial component of the lessons is a makeover. Mia's thin, wire-framed glasses are swapped for contacts, and a blowdryer-wielding hairdresser irons out Mia's frizzy curls into a flattened, glossy mold of hair.

The iconic makeover scene highlights an old movie trope; this theme is so popular that it's been dubbed the "Beautiful All Along" trope, in which a dorky female character whips off her glasses, lets her hair down, and dons a tighter-fitting top, thus miraculously transforming into a megababe. For another example of the trope, look no farther than Hathaway's later role in the Devil Wears Prada as Andrea, the bargain-bin-buyer-turned-fashion-it-girl.

A common theme among makeover montages like Mia's is the discarding of glasses. Sometimes it's part of a dramatic makeover like Janie's in She's All That or Toula's in My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Other times, it's a more subtle approach, like in the first Rocky movie when Rocky casually takes off Adrian's glasses and hat before before giving them both a compliment with: "I always knew you was pretty."

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Studies have shown that wearing glasses affects how people view you. Depending on the glasses style, they can make you appear more intelligent and simultaneously less attractive. Because of this, some lawyers even advise clients to wear glasses to court.

"There's that original belief that people who wear glasses, that they're more trustworthy or they're more intelligent," says Lisa Brateman, a psychotherapist based in New York. "We take what we know to be true. We think that people who wear glasses are probably smarter. Therefore, we unconsciously say, Okay, this is the smart one."

But it's not just about the perception of others; you also may act differently when wearing a pair of frames. "There's evidence that people tailor their behaviors to the context they find themselves in," says Andrei Cimpian, an associate professor of psychology at New York University. "That belonging or feeling like you're one of the accepted members of the group may be an important motivation for altering your appearance to fit the standards of the group."

If Mia really wanted to play the part of sole heir to the Genovian throne and apt future ruler of the foreign nation, maybe she should have kept her glasses on to make herself seem more respectable. "Some people dress by wearing glasses," says Brateman. "Especially when somebody is younger, they feel like they are being taken more seriously because the glasses make them appear more intelligent."

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