Is it kosher to change the color of your eyes?

‘Nigel looked at her with sparkling eyes. The soul which shone through her dark face had transformed it for the moment into a beauty, more lofty and more rare than that of her shallow sister,” wrote Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in “Sir Nigel.” The passage continues with Nigel kissing her as he declares his love for her. But what if we warped it, distorted the classics a bit? Nigel looked at her with sparkling purple eyes or Nigel looked at her with sparkling red eyes. Though we have broken the romantic effect and turned it into frivolity, somewhere in the world an author could pen this very sentence with complete sincerity.   

Today, with colored contacts, red and purple are only the beginning. When they first came out, the options were limited to only natural shades. Though only separated by a hair in the color spectrum ocean blue, sky blue, brilliant blue, sapphire blue and deep blue ($15 to  $45) are popular options. Inspired by and marketed for public use, these contacts are categorized as cosmetics.

Yet this is the 21st century and simply changing eye color is not enough: people now have their hearts set on what they were neither naturally given nor could have naturally gotten. The contacts designed for Hollywood have flooded into the market—the manifestation of the degree of idolization we have for actors and actresses. Purple, violet, white, black, aqua, yellow and orange (around $30 per pair) have been swept across billboards and commercials. For example, the “Twilight” movies have generated vampire contacts. Clearly Colors sells “Amber Ambition” — “Twilight” inspired contacts that are a brownish gold hue with blue framing the pupil that they advertise as “very similar to the contact lenses used for Twilight vampires & Edward Cullen.”

Paula Blank, a sophomore at Solomon Schechter High School of Westchester, bought grayish-violet contacts for the glamour and excitement. “I get compliments from strangers now on how beautiful my eyes are so people who don’t know me can’t really tell the contacts are fake,” she said by email..
What do her friends think? “I got several different reactions to my lenses ranging from shock to adoration, to jealousy! I’ve had people tell me that they love them and those that say they hate them. My friends were in awe, some didn’t like them – but others wanted to go out and buy their own.”

Paula’s grayish-violet eyes are no longer the most shocking contacts. Color changing contacts are bestsellers during Halloween: green yielding to yellow, yellow deferring to pink and pink succumbing to blue. Named “Rave” this model appears in many forms: its most alluring being dually glowing-in-the-dark and shifting colors ($35 per lens). The “Temptress” contains pink and white swirls.

Other head-turners are daisy, spider-webbed, skeleton teeth, dragon and Mickey Mouse eyes. These contacts turn the iris into one of these designs and usually cost around $35 per lens. There are some manufacturers who charge almost double for contacts that last longer – one company even says their contacts can be worn for a year. The majority of the special effects contacts, however, are disposables.

While not there yet, Paula is open to trying the special effects contacts. “I think it would definitely be cool to try out some time! Maybe kind of creepy too,” she said, “but maybe as a joke for Purim or Halloween.”

Despite the flashy exterior, health-wise all contacts are the same. “If the person has worn contacts before these weird lenses are no different,” said Dr. Kip Dolphin, an ophthalmologist on the Upper East Side. “There is one final consideration: some of the contacts limit vision and can be dangerous for the wearer. That is to say if they cannot see to navigate in their environment due to the opaque nature of some of the designs.”

A person does not even need a visual defect to wear the special effects contacts: they are sold with prescriptions and prescription-less. It is ironic how glasses are considered by many to be a stigma, yet people who do not truly need them are running to buy contacts.

These contacts are for the eyes what tattoos are for the skin. Yet their impermanence is the one major difference. With tattoos forbidden in the Torah as disfiguring the skin, contact lens’ ability to be taken out is what probably allows Jews to wear them. However, are moons, stitches, fires, footballs, spades and dragons not examples of mutilation? Though we can divest ourselves of them – is a temporary transformation truly tolerable according to the Torah?

“The Torah calls us ‘tzelem elokim’ – the image of God,” said Rabbi Yoseph Weiser, a Gemara teacher at Ramaz Upper School in Manhattan. “As such, our body has a godly element to it. To treat the body as an object with which to express often shallow, narcissistic messages of fleeting import, is not something we would want to encourage. If we believe that  ‘gadlut ha’adam,’ the greatness of a human being, and the spiritual greatness that lies in all of us is something to be pursued and realized, the idea of even temporary tattoos — which are halachically permissible — or different contact lenses, is not exactly something that is in that spirit.”

It is interesting to note that Paula, who has a more direct connection to the subject, has the opposite opinion.  “I don’t believe that colored contacts can be considered similar or even in the same category as tattoos,” said Paula. “Tattoos are permanent ink embedded in your skin for life whereas colored contacts are just a cosmetic film placed on your eyes that cause just as dramatic of an effect, but can be removed whenever or wherever the individual dictates. These contacts change your appearance yet they do not leave any permanent or lasting effects.”

Regardless of your personal views, the special effect contacts are stocked in stores and sitting on shelves. Maybe this is simply a fad that will vanish in a few years; maybe it will grow into an unrecognizable product. Maybe this will become the next lipstick or eye shadow; to some a necessity that, without it, would render the face naked and bare. Whether this will become the next cosmetic mania, only time will tell, for beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Sara Koutcher is a sophomore at Ramaz Upper School in Manhattan.

This article is reprinted from October 30, 2009.