A Kodak stereo camera (from the 1960s or 70s) on a neutral background. The camera has two lenses, side by side, to mimic the stereoscopic vision of the human eyes.

Thinking about seeing in stereo

A thing which people who’ve never met me in person don’t know: I have strabismus. That’s the medical term (synonym: heterotropia), but most people would better know this as being cross-eyed, or having a lazy eye. My eyes generally point in roughly the same direction, but when I’m tired or I’ve been drinking, one of them tends to drift outward.

During childhood, I had three surgeries to try and correct the problem, two monolateral and one bilateral, for a total of two muscle tuck procedures per eye. (‘Muscle tuck’: the surgeon goes in and folds over a muscle to shorten it, stitching the fold into place, in order to try and force the eyes back into alignment.) Each surgery was followed with and/or preceded by some eyepatch therapy (to try and strengthen the ‘lazier’ eye) and by constant exhortations from my parents to pay attention to looking at things with both eyes.

Either because mine was an intractable case or, more likely, because juvenile patients have really bad aftercare compliance, it’s still not perfect. My eyes don’t always track, one will sometimes float away, and I don’t have stereo vision. I do alright, though: I learned how to cheat the DMV tests that call for stereo vision (which, sidenote, are ridiculous: it’s not required to have stereo vision to obtain a driver’s license), I don’t play ball sports, I try to pose for pictures at a slight angle to disguise the drift, and I do have the ability to move my eyes in ways that most people find really cool/freaky/gross, which is occasionally handy.

I’m not happy about it, though. Most of the time I don’t really think about it, but when I do I’m embarrassed. People occasionally mention my lazy eye in conversation, and though they don’t mean anything by it, and I laugh it off and wobble my eyes outrageously, it still stings to be reminded of a way my body is failing. When I would sing into the bathroom mirror in high school, imagining myself as a rock star — don’t pretend you didn’t do this — I would always end up stopping, imagining the close-up in the music video and how the director would yell ‘cut!’ because my eyes were looking too googly. Now, I often hate watching videos of myself doing solo work in performance, because inevitably there’s a nice close-up and all I see are my damned eyes wandering apart. (In addition to fatigue and alcohol, non-specific focus — the kind you often do as a stage performer — causes the drift.) My high school insecurities came true, after a fashion.

And so I was stopped dead in my tracks yesterday, when a friend posted on Facebook: “I just saw an advert for an investment company using a photo of a woman with Strabismus. Not a big deal, but it feels good to see a bit of representation.” Holy shit. Holy shit.

Here’s the deal: The academic department I work in has a good many scholars working in disability studies and in other realms related to societal difference, and from them I have learned a great deal about how disability and difference are represented in society. Though my understanding is always growing, I feel like I have a generally good baseline now: I truly believe that our bodies, in all their different forms, are worthy of respect. (And also that we are all allowed to be frustrated at our bodies, of course.)

And yet somehow, despite all my education and discussions with friends who have all different kinds of minds and bodies, it literally never occurred to me to offer my own eyes the same amount of respect I unquestioningly give to other people. And that’s ridiculous! Sure, they point in slightly different directions, and I have never once successfully seen the hidden image in a Magic Eye. But they’re a lovely shade of brown; they show me all manner of words and pictures that delight me; they adapt surprisingly well to correction (-8.00 with astigmatism, and I can still manage 20/25 at close range); and I’m told that they, alongside my eyebrows, are very expressive. So maybe it’s time to be okay with my eyes. Maybe just learn to think of them the same ways I think of my weirdly stubby toes, or my allergy to my beloved cats, or my cheeks that still refuse to grow a beard, despite the copious gray in my hair: things that cause occasional annoyance, but that are nevertheless integral parts of what makes me who I am. *crosses fingers for luck*

Header image: “To simulate the human eyes’ binocular vision,” by Can Pac Swire on Flickr; CC BY-NC license

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2 thoughts on “Thinking about seeing in stereo

  1. The Golden Rule tells us to treat others the way we want to be treated. The Platinum Rule (my invention) tells me to treat myself at least as well as I treat other people. As you point out, it’s not always something we do, and it seems odd that we don’t.

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