The politics of staring is more complicated than telling people not to stare. My eye is drawn to people who look different compared to what I generally perceive as normal. The group of people who I might reflexively judge as not normal is getting smaller and smaller as time goes by, though. My understanding of what it is to be normal has expanded exponentially since I left home, travelled, graduated from university, came out as gay, and worked, not necessarily in that order. Also, this is not an exhaustive list. I have a CV if you’re interested. No? Best press on, then…
People have long been in the habit of dismissing comments about what it is to be normal with the glib response: ‘What is normal, anyway?’ Based on the number of people who stare at me, I am very aware that what I am and how I look does not fit within most people’s concept of what a normal person is, however broad. You might assume that this all sits unhappily with me. It does not. I love not being normal. It’s a big part of how I define myself. When anybody has tried to press me into any kind of mould I have resisted in the strongest possible way. I’m quite allergic to the idea. At the same time though, looking different in a way that is beyond my control and cannot be altered is a rather more complex issue.
I was born with Spina Bifida. My legs are short and my spine is bent and twisted. I have a short stature. Most of the time I’m ok with it. Sometimes, especially when I’m being stared at, I do wish that my body conformed a little more to received notions of normality. That feeling never lasts, though. My body is so different to what might be considered a normal body that I have never felt in the least bit compelled to compare it to anybody else’s. For that reason, my own body image is probably better than many who do not have a physical disability.
The idea of what normal is varies between people and is thus a necessarily subjective concept; we all have a working idea of what normal means to us. Thankfully, the received definition of ‘normal’ is changing rapidly as many of us are having to widen our definition to fit our expanded realities.
My own view of what constitutes normal is changing all the time. A whole lot of life has happened to me since I first understood what it might mean to be normal. The more you experience life, the more you meet people who are different: different compared to yourself and different compared to the people you have met before. When you are exposed to a diverse range of people, your definition of normal widens to fit a new reality.
Looking is a big part of learning about the world around us. Staring is what children do when they haven’t seen something before. They are processing the world around them, trying to piece it all together into a coherent narrative that gives everything meaning. Toddlers naturally stare at anything new and different. It’s adorable. I don’t feel singled out particularly. They are just as likely to toddle off, once distracted, to go and stare at a woman because she is wearing a brightly coloured fluffy jumper. It’s the adults whose behaviour in this area I so often find unacceptable.
Recently, a mother stood with her infant daughter and stared. My friend and I were having a drink and a meal at a local bar. They were staring at us. ‘She’s just taking it all in’, was the mother’s reply to a question nobody asked. To be sure that we understood, she said it several times. My friend and I both have disabilities that place us firmly in the category of full time wheelchair users. Not for the first time, I felt so uncomfortable at being made a spectacle of and being used as a teaching tool, that it all but ruined my evening. I felt a panic attack coming on and I just wanted to go home. It was quite surreal. I felt like an art installation. Enough time passed in this one way staring contest that any reasonable person would agree that what was happening was well beyond the rules of social convention, which left me completely at a loss as to what to do. So, I did what any ‘normal’ person would do under the circumstances and quietly freaked out while they continued to stare. I have it on good authority that others seated at a nearby table stared quite blatantly at us, too, while we ate.
You might think that at 33 years old I should be well used to being stared at when I’m out in public. The truth of the matter is (to be perfectly honest) when I’m on my own I hardly ever notice when anybody steals an extended glance my way. I’m quite sure people do stare at me when I’m out and about. Friends and family are acutely aware of the attention I get and have alerted me to it on enough occasions that I am satisfied it is not a rare event.
I have adopted a strategy, quite subconsciously, of not really noticing the people around me when I’m out in public. Unless of course, as previously mentioned, they stand out in a crowd, like I do. Then I’m as prone to a quick glance as anybody else, which is different to staring. This way of dealing with being stared at has the side-effect that when someone I know sees me and waves out, I very rarely see them unless they come quite close to me. Even then they practically have to jump out at me, for me to notice them. This could have something to do with my eyesight being a bit rubbish, too. Mostly though, it’s a defence mechanism against unwanted attention.
I do have sympathy for parents who have clearly had it drummed into them that it’s very rude to stare and who are therefore completely mortified when they observe their progeny doing just that at someone who looks different to them. Children don’t even have the decency to be subtle about it. I have observed many parents over the years who have yanked at their child’s fragile wee limbs in an effort to expedite a swift end to their embarrassment. I always tell them not to worry about it; that the child is fine. I want to tell them not to react at all because I worry that it’s going to create a bad experience for the child who thereafter, whenever they see a person with a disability, might make a point of looking away. No eye contact, no interaction. No empathy or keenness to learn about someone who is different to them. In the long run, such a reaction could create discomfort for the child in future encounters with people who are different to them.
I know, it’s tricky. I don’t want to be stared at but nor do I want to be rendered invisible. In this respect I am completely normal, just like everyone else. To be treated as such would be a step in the right direction.