College is ground zero for creating the cruelest terminology for the dating life—gross neologisms that might only be listed on Urban Dictionary, coined by some poser who merely goes by the name “Brosama Bin Lifting.” They include, but are not limited to, “beer goggles,” a term now so prominent it is actually listed in the Oxford English Dictionary (first appearing in 2009), which defines it as “a notional alcohol-induced effect on one’s vision, humorously characterized as a pair of goggles, whereby one is sexually attracted to people who would not ordinarily be appealing.”
The term was already ubiquitous by the time I entered the drunken haze of college commingling in the fall of 1997; in fact, it seemed to have been something that simply always existed.
Of course, it had to have been first conceived somewhere, and the earliest such mention comes in January 1987’s Playboy (of course) which was their annual Top 40 Party School issue (of course) and, in this first mention, referred to unattractive Georgetown coeds (as a Syracuse grad and Georgetown hater, I’d again say...of course). Under a special section for “Party Campus Fashion,” Georgetown students themselves noted that the most “practical” fashion accessory to wear to a party at their boring, Catholic university was, ahem, beer goggles.
By the early 1990s, it had quickly become a more mainstream term, appearing in international newspapers and popular TV shows alike. In an 1992 article on modern dating in London—“lads on the pull”—The Independent talked to several men about their tactic for meeting “birds.” “Never go out there wearing beer goggles,” explained one man. “Otherwise you end up going to bed with Madonna and waking up with Hilda Ogden (a less-than-attractive British soap opera character).”
It wasn’t just drunk men objectifying women either—the reverse also held true as the Baltimore Sun reported that same year. “Caroline’s beer goggles wore off in the taxi and the poor bloke was banished to the spare room by the time they arrived back [to her home],” a line read in another story about modern dating.
Just a year later the term was prominent enough to be mocked in a literal manner on a 1993 episode of The Simpsons entitled "Selma’s Choice." At amusement park Duff Gardens’ souvenir shop, Bart grabs a pair of beer goggles. “See the world through the eyes of a drunk!” its price tag notes. When he dons them his homely Aunt Selma becomes smoking hot.
Obviously, even if “beer goggles” wasn’t a drinking term of art until the late-1980s, the mere idea of boozing your way into bad decisions has clearly existed for time eternal. That’s one reason why, when I first started doing research on the topic, I wholly expected “beer goggles” to have first appeared in, say, Shakespeare or something, perhaps uttered by Falstaff. “Forget valour when I doth put on thine ale eyeglasses!” Alas, there is not really any beer goggle-type actions in any of The Bard’s work. Though, that doesn’t mean that beer goggles haven’t been an indelible part of pop culture for ages.
In a mostly-forgotten Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin vehicle from 1958, Some Came Running, Deano’s hard-partying character crassly notes one night at the bar, “I don’t know what it is about them pigs, but they always look better at night.” Of course, Coyote Ugly was literally a reference to what a person who had beer goggles the night before finds in bed with them the next morning: “Did you ever wake up sober after a one night stand, and the person you're next to is laying on your arm, and they’re so ugly, you’d rather chew off your arm then risk waking them?” Beer goggle beliefs even made an appearance on Seinfeld, though Jerry and co. were too clever to ever need use the term:
Elaine: So basically what you're saying is, 95% of the population is undateable?
Elaine: Then how are all these people getting together?
[cue laugh track]
Country music too has long been a staple of beer goggle mentions. In 1976, a ditty titled "Don’t the Girls All Get Prettier at Closing Time" hit #1 for Mickey Gilley.
If I could rate ’em on a scale from one to ten
I’m lookin’ for a nine, but eight could work right in
A few more drinks and I might slip to a five or even four
But when tomorrow mornin’ comes
And I wake up with a number one
I swear I'll never do it anymore
By 2005, country songs had become even more blunt than that. "Billy’s Got His Beer Goggles On" was a minor hit that year for Neal McCoy, with a music video starring Rob Schneider. It tells the story of a recently-dumped man who gets very drunk, starts loudly singing "Freebird" at the bar, before hitting the dance floor where he “grabs him a girl and he holds on tight/he’s chasing everything in sight.”
The late-aughts would be the apex of beer goggles in the popular imagination, by now something that actually merited serious study. In 2002 scientists from the Universities of St. Andrews and Glasgow found that buzzed men and women found faces 25% more attractive than their sober counterparts. That was apparently because alcohol boosts the activity in the part of the human brain used to determine facial attractiveness, the nucleus accumbens. Then again, a 2009 British Journal of Psychology study found exactly the opposite.
“Overall participants who drank alcohol actually rated all the women in the photos as less attractive (compared to the participants who hadn’t drunk alcohol),” explained Dr. Vincent Egan of the University of Leicester. “This seemingly flies in the face of the commonly held notion of ‘beer goggles.’”
A 2005 University of Manchester study, commissioned by eyecare company Bausch & Lomb, attempted to analyze whether the beer goggles effect had something to do, less with beer, and more with your actual vision. They even created a beer goggles formula which took into account alcohol consumed, the smokiness of the bar, the “luminance” of the potential romantic interest (as measured in candelas per square meter), the distance from the person and the “Snellen visual acuity” scale, in order to derive a total score. I’m guessing one way to prevent beer goggles from ever afflicting you would be to discuss this nerdy formula while at your local watering hole.
By 2008, Mythbusters had also tackled the concept. While host Jamie Hyneman wasn’t much affected by beer goggles, his scotch-swilling co-host Adam Savage showed a “steady improvement” in how much more attractive he found women as he drank. Eventually Hyneman and Kari Byron agreed that the myth of beer goggles was certainly “plausible.” Perhaps that’s why that same year Gmail began offering a security measure to prevent late-night beer “Google goggles.”
If the idea of beer goggles was still all yuks as recently as 2008, by the next year the concept would finally start becoming a bit...problematic. That year, Coopers Premium Light launched a campaign in Singapore which critic Copyranter called “The most sexist beer ads ever produced.” The ads encouraged men to guzzle their 2.9% ABV beer so as not to get beer goggles and, thus, accidentally hit on deceptively overweight or unattractive women. “2.9% Alcohol. 100% Sexist,” wrote the Feministing blog.
That same year, an Australian city named Mount Isa held a “Beer Goggles Ball.” The mining city’s controversial mayor had cheekily hoped to lure “beauty-disadvantaged” women to the mostly male area. Many Aussies were rightly disgusted by the concept. Not surprisingly, according to Google Trends, searches for “beer goggles” began a steady decline since right around then.
People have long observed that drunk people think others are more attractive, but ours is the first study to find that drinking makes people think they are more attractive themselves.”
Of course, we are now in a kinder era, or at least one hoping to one day be that way. It’s the time of #MeToo, when cruising for drunken sex takes on a different, less blasé, meaning. Likewise, it’s hard to imagine many “woke” college kids today even joking about having to put on their so-called beer goggles to engage with coeds.
Yes, if the brief history of beer goggles started in college, it may very well have ended there as well. In 2013 the 23rd annual Ig Nobel Prize ceremony was held at Harvard, honoring “improbable research...that makes you laugh and then think.” That year, a joint U.S. and France study entitled “Beauty is in the eye of the beer holder” took home the top psychology prize.
Most intriguing about this study, was that it flipped the entire idea of beer goggles on its hungover head, questioning whether the effect of them was actually more significant toward oneself. This whole time, had we all been drinking beer and giving ourselves beer goggles in order to like ourselves just a little bit more? To boost our self-esteem?
As Professor Brad Bushman of Ohio State University noted of his group’s findings: “People have long observed that drunk people think others are more attractive, but ours is the first study to find that drinking makes people think they are more attractive themselves.”
Graphic by Remo Remoquillo