Thursday, August 1, 2019

The Thing About Staring

by Wendy Caster

"Don't stare!"
"Stop staring!"
"Staring is rude!"
We virtually all agree that staring is a no-no, but I have a question: what should we do instead?
I fear that the other side of staring is ignoring, and that makes people invisible. 
I've been on both sides of staring: as the double-take speed-starer when surprised by what's in front of me and as the staree when I was bald from chemo. 
I only minded some of the stares: the ones that seemed judgmental. (Was I reading the starers' minds/faces correctly? Who knows?) There was a young girl who stared at me, openly, frankly, curiously, in the lobby of a restaurant. I said hello to her and she said hello back and that was that.
Of course, it's rarely that simple.
Before proceeding, I need to mention that I'm someone who doesn't avoid eye contact and who says hello or smiles when it occurs. It's a habit that I picked up when I lived in San Diego and that I chose to retain when I returned to New York City. I've learned that many people crave interactions, however brief. They're glad to smile back. Sometimes wonderful conversations ensue. 
Some stare-related/double-take-related anecdotes:
  • A thin, dark-skinned young man, easily seven feet tall, enters a college hallway lined with students, mostly white, sitting against the walls. Everyone does a double-take; most then look away quickly. I smile at him. He says, "Why do people do that?" I answer, "You're very striking!" And he says, "I don't like it." And who could blame him? But who could blame the students in the hallway? 
  • In an interview, a woman with dwarfism says that she hated, hated, hated the double-takes and frank stares she received growing up in a rural area where she was the only little person. Then one day her family went to a small city and she saw a person with dwarfism. And she did a double-take. And she really wanted to stare. 
  • A version of Ibsen's Doll's House is done with a cast of unusually tall women and unusually short men, many of whom are dwarfs. The show is superb, and an extra benefit is getting to stare. In one scene, the lead male takes his shirt off, and I'm fascinated by the structure of his body. I've always been curious, and now I know. And I never feel a desire to stare at a person with dwarfism again. 
  • I'm walking in the East Village right after a sudden thunderstorm (this is some years ago). It's crowded, and more than a few people are soaking wet. I notice a drenched couple with a kid in a stroller arguing. You can see that they are miserable. You can also see that they are Ethan Hawk and Uma Thurman. It's the East Village. No one bothers them. But every single person who passes by does a double-take. I don't envy them.
  • Taking a walk, I see a young girl in a stroller squirming with childish energy. I smile at her and even laugh a little. Then I realize that she's not squirming; she's spasming from some sort of neuromuscular disorder. Shit. One day, waiting for my chemo treatment, I make eye contact with a young man in the waiting room. As I smile, I realize that half of his face is covered with burn scars. He frowns and looks away. Did he think I was staring in the bad way? I guess so/hope not? But should he be the one person in the waiting room I wouldn't look at or say hi to?
  • I'm waiting in line at Trader Joe's. They send me to a cashier, then ask me to wait as they take care of a young woman in a wheelchair. She's wearing an NYU sweatshirt, and I ask her how she likes going there. It turns out we have a lot in common and we chat amiably until she leaves. I hate to say this, because it's embarrassing, but it's the first time I've ever been able to have a regular ole conversation with a visibly disabled person in that way. Which is my fault in some ways, but not in others.
And this is where we get back to "what do we do instead?" I don't think every double-take can be eliminated; they happen before our decision-making mind is engaged. We can decide to then not look, and I think that's mostly what people do, but is that really an answer? On the other hand, how can you treat people as just people when your first response announced that you were shocked or surprised by them?
I don't have an answer to this question. I wish I did.

Wendy Caster is an award-winning writer.  She lives in New York City.

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