Silvia Killingsworth's most frequently complimented feature is her glasses. They're large, square-ish frames in tortoiseshell (although she also has them in clear plastic), exactly the kind of glasses you'd think the Managing Editor of the New Yorker might wear, which works because that is who she is. The 30 year-old was born in Boston but grew up farther afield, living in Paris and Palo Alto among other places before attending university on the East Coast. She is now, duh, based in New York. We talked about contact lenses, squinting bitch-face, and selfish compliments.
BROADLY: So what's the story behind your glasses?
Silvia Killingsworth: I got them more than six years ago—I was afraid to wear them at first because I thought they were "too risky" —the contrasts between the lights and darks are pretty stark, not that muddled red-orange tortoise shell pattern, but almost black and pale yellow. I started wearing them almost full-time after my eye doctor and I talked about LASIK and whether I found glasses to be a nuisance or whether I could stand to wear them a lot. I had never really tried in earnest wearing glasses anywhere but at home after I took out my contacts, or on lazy Sunday mornings, so it was something of a pet project: Do I like glasses? Do I look good in them? Let's see.
How did the experiment go?
I've had glasses since I was… five years old? There is a great picture of me from one Christmas spent in LA with tape over the bridge of my nose. In high school, I refused to wear my glasses in the hallways (ONLY in class, to see the board), and as a result I had squinting bitch-face as I walked to and from classrooms and lockers. I soon got contacts and never looked back. Right before I got my job at The New Yorker, I was working at another magazine, and one day when I wore my glasses to work one of the editors asked (jokingly but not jokingly) if I was hungover. I decided that shouldn't be the assumption, so I started wearing the tortoise-shell frames to habituate both myself and others to the comments.
How often do you get compliments on your glasses? What do people say?
For the first few years of owning them, I got a lot of compliments—the first time I met new people or saw someone I hadn't seen in a while. Now, I continue to get compliments from strangers at stores and restaurants and hair salons. I didn't wear glasses regularly in high school or college, so I was worried that people would think I was making some kind of statement, like I WORK AT THE NEW YORKER NOW AND HAVE FUNNY GLASSES, LOOK AT ME!!!! Self-Ed note: they're actually not funny at all, they were just always a leap for me—a little outside my comfort zone, which is apparently very conservative.
How do you feel about your glasses?
I used to feel very self-conscious about the glasses, because they felt to me like a statement piece, like a giant necklace or bright red shoes. But they are also the only frames I've ever found that work with my face shape and how my eyes are set—most glasses are too wide-set for me. I challenged myself to keep wearing them to see if they could eventually just become a part of my face that people get used to. I think for the most part they have, but I do often wear contacts, and I look fairly different without the glasses. About three or four years ago I snapped the frames in half, and was devastated when I had to buy a new pair that had a DIFFERENT tortoise pattern, which I was convinced was inferior. There was a period of mourning and adjustment, but now I'm at peace.
I was worried that people would think I was making some kind of statement, like I WORK AT THE NEW YORKER NOW AND HAVE FUNNY GLASSES, LOOK AT ME!!!!
How does hearing these compliments make you feel, about yourself and about your glasses in particular?
An ex-boyfriend once made fun of me for saying I had gotten "good feedback" on the glasses (both he and his parents thought I looked better without them). I know he was mostly making fun of what an incredibly dorky thing to say that was, but I became kind of self-conscious, because for the better part of the last six or seven years I've worked in an office and spent time around people who also choose to wear glasses, either because they hate contacts or because, like me, glasses have just become a part of their look. But I realized the bulk of the compliments were in the other direction: the glasses are great. So I'm going to keep wearing them! This is how I choose to look on days when I wear them!
How do you feel about compliments in general?
I love compliments but I am pretty bad at taking compliments graciously—like Jackie Florrick in "The Good Wife" I often twist a compliment into a way of denigrating myself further, which I realize is SUPREMELY annoying. I am much more comfortable giving them, but I'm also pretty conservative about it because I hate false praise more than anything.
Do you think you have a good bullshit compliment detector? Are there any hallmarks of false praise?
Not only is my bullshit detector good, it is probably a stitch and a half too sensitive. Which is to say, I can be suspicious of people's motives, and forget that sometimes ingratiation as a motive is not necessarily a bad thing. I think it comes from being uncomfortable with small-talk and saying things just to fill the space and time—of say, the elevator ride, hallway encounter, whatever. There's this phenomenon I love observing, which is not exactly false praise but something like placebo praise, where someone comments on something simply because it's notable (i.e., loud, bright, unusual, different). People tend to phrase those comments as, "I love your X," or "Cool Y!" but what they really mean is "I notice it, it is noticeable." But maybe that's all we're asking for when we wear bright colors or crazy patterns?
What factors influence your reception of a compliment?
It took about five years of wearing the glasses for people to stop asking me, "Did you get new glasses?" Explaining that I had had them for many years wore me down and I eventually just started saying "Yeah!" out of exasperation. Like, what was I trying to do, fact check their compliment? "Actually…" That's obnoxious, Silvia, don't do that. But for the most part my reception of a compliment is colored by what I think of the person giving the compliment, and what I make of what they stand to gain by giving it. Praise and compliments are a tough spot for me, but in some ways I think I wear the glasses to force myself to get used to people commenting on my look—habituation of a kind.
What do you think people stand to gain from complimenting others? Are compliments always necessarily transactional in that way?
I am the way with compliments the way I am with giving gifts, which is I rarely do it when calendrically or socially expected—I let the gift or the compliment drive the process. I'm very associative. So if I see something that strikes me as a perfect gift for someone, I buy it! If I come across a postcard or a notecard that makes me think of someone, I'll send it. Maybe I will hold onto it until the time is right to seem less crazy. But I think of people all the time when I see things that remind me of them. I hate the pressure fitting gifts and cards to occasions; it's much easier the other way around. With compliments, I tend to notice a thing that I like as detached from a person it belongs to or who is wearing it. I let the thing I admire—the shirt, the necklace, the shoes—inform my feeling about the person, which means sometimes I even compliment people I don't know very well or profess not to like. A beautiful handbag is worth commending no matter whose shoulder it's on. As for what I stand to gain, I don't know that I feel it's really anything—it's almost like a pure emotional expression of appreciation. I think maybe I compliment very selfishly, by pointing out my own tastes. Whoops!
Do you think the compliments alter or have altered your relationship to your glasses?
Definitely. I feel more confident in wearing them knowing that so many people have complimented them. I sort of feel like I put them up for a five-year vote, and the results came back overwhelmingly positive. I'm going to stick with them for now, but I'm getting worried because I know they won't last forever (in fact I need to get new lenses, they're all scratched). I dread having to find new frames, because I'm pretty sure they don't sell this model anymore. I liked this lens shape so much I bought the same frames but in clear plastic. That really throws people off who are used to the tortoise shell. People still ask if the clear ones are new (they're about four years old now). I say yes.