Why Are You Looking At Me?

Yana’s hard to miss. She was born with achondroplasia. In her late twenties, she’s four foot six inches tall, and she’s undergone ten operations to lengthen her arm and leg bones.

“Everybody always looks at me,” she mused. “But never for the reasons I want.”

“Everybody I know,” I said, “especially the performers, has such a complicated relationship with being looked at. But seriously, I cannot imagine what yours is like.”

“It’s hard,” said Yana.

I’d spent time with her, but I’d never walked around with her in public, where people stared. I noticed the way people looked at her as she moved through the world. I wondered what it must feel like to have the gaze of the world fixated on you because of the shape of your body. Inescapable…It was the story of her life…the festival of people who stared at her body and then quickly glanced away. Who gawked at her, but never said anything. She’d lived her whole life having to cope with people looking at her the wrong way, but never addressing it…They were looking at her. But they weren’t seeing her. ~ Amanda Palmer in The Art of Asking

Courtesy of Yahoo

Courtesy of Yahoo

To make ends meet while she wrote songs in pursuit of her dream as a rock star, Amanda hired herself as a statue. She painted herself white and stood frozen in a wedding dress in the middle of Harvard Square. (Sounds cool. You know I would do this?)

As they dropped money in my hat, I would lock my eyes onto theirs, and think:
Thank you.
*blink*
Here. Take a flower.
*blink*
And if I was in a particularly good mood:
I love you.
*blink*

What I hadn’t anticipated was the sudden, powerful encounters with people – especially lonely people who looked like they hadn’t connected with anyone in ages. I was amazed by the intimate moments of prolonged eye contact happening on the busy city sidewalk as traffic whizzed by, as sirens blared…

Perhaps even more than being seen, what she really loved about being the Bride was “sharing the gaze.” Feeling connected. which is why stripping, which she’d tried earlier for a season was as disappointing as the money was good. I was being looked at. But I never felt seen. The strip joint was like Teflon to real emotional connection…Sometimes I would get home and have a nice little breakdown, having no idea what to do with all the loneliness I’d collected. People looked at her naked body but no one looked her in the eye.

Isn’t it interesting that a stripper and a dwarf could bear the same heartache? People stared at Yana but didn’t care to connect with her. Apparently, they’d rather do this with a statue. It humanized the Bride to be able to invite “them into [her] face like a host invites a guest into a kitchen” and be invited to look back into theirs. Yana wasn’t invited back. They looked away. Jonathan Novick’s documentary Don’t Look Down on Me, a day in the life of a dwarf in New York City, gives us a similar glimpse into the human heart. The video is a retelling of a hidden camera Jonathan wore as he made his way through what was for him a typically savage emotional minefield as he caught people in their most candid response to his appearance. They not only gawked but snapped shots of him on their phone. One guy actually said, “What is that?” To remain alone, that is, unseen – is to stay incomplete. This is so whether we are married or single because our self-perception, while it should be loud and assured, is not only limited but often distorted. As social creatures we need feedback about ourselves – explicit and implicit – to fill in the spaces and expand us toward our potential. Most of us don’t carry the cross of ostracization and cruelty on a daily basis but it would wear on even those with the strongest sense of self. Because we were made for connection that nurtures. Isn’t this why we crave love and isn’t this where sex, its physical consummation, finds its meaning? That we hope to find embrace and acceptance when we bare ourselves body and soul? When we’re in love, we endow our beloved with generous perceptions of attractiveness. We reinforce his, her dignity. We dignify one another when we look at the other not as eye candy or a specimen but as a human being in process with the same hopes and fears in our own heart.

This longing for relationship is why bloggers value comments so much. A thoughtful word is evidence that we were seen. Every time I publish a post, I am asking for your time. Your eyes. On me. And one reason it is so satisfying when you answer is that bloggers can’t make anyone lean in, let alone return – not to mention how easy it is to unfollow. Amanda’s story is really about the relationship with her fans on social media. Her success as a rock star and the first indie musician to raise $1 million on Kickstarter is, to her, a mere and natural result of real community. While I don’t think of my readers as fans and my name isn’t so big, I can relate to Amanda’s relationship with her blog readers and music supporters. And many of you can, too.

She writes, “I was punch-drunk from the instant gratification of sharing life in real time, the random closeness, the feeling that I wasn’t going through my struggles alone.”

It is amazing how intimate we can be with so many people at once. Astonishing to be really seen.

215 thoughts on “Why Are You Looking At Me?

  1. Wow…powerful and so much food for thought for me to ponder on Diana. Your word pictures of Yana and Amanda had me walk a bit in their shoes. I cannot imagine the loneliness and isolation.
    Thank you for sharing so profoundly. Your post is going through my mind.
    ~Carl~

  2. Those of us who are “normal” take it for granted we can just walk out the door and down the street without giving a thought about what people are going to think or say. I couldn’t imagine having to be such an object of curiosity on a regular basis. One more thing to be grateful for.

  3. I have experienced being an object of curiosity, although only for a month at a time, but it made me realise that for those who look “different” life is not as comfortable as for the rest of us.

    My wife’s family lives in the north of Japan,and there, Gaijin (people of European descent) are a rarity. The first time I visited, back in the early 1970s, I had long curly golden blonde hair, a moustache and sideburns, and my height put me literally head and shoulders above the locals. The children were very open about their staring, following me intently, and often with their mouths wide open. Adults were more circumspect, they too often stopped and stared, but if I looked towards them, they would quickly avert their gaze, and pretend they weren’t looking at all.

    On more recent visits, the stares are less frequent – my hair is less curly, mostly grey and a lot shorter, although I do sport a full beard. My height not so imposing, as the younger Japanese are considerably taller than a generation ago.

    I agree that being an object of curiosity can be unsettling – more so from those who try to hide their curiosity with furtive glances. However, what unsettled me most was the small minority that were openly hostile to me. The hostility seemed to be due to a combination of my hippy-like appearance and being a Gaijin, but at times it was clearly because I was mistaken for an American. Calls of “Yankee go home” don’t leave much room for doubt.

    • Right. Curiosity is one thing, hostility another. Doesn’t excuse them, and people can be just awful, but we forget that sometimes (if not often), we are walking into their fears, their history (in this case, tied to Americans, perhaps still resonant of the last War). It’s not personal, though it may feel like it is. Thank you for sharing.

  4. Such a beautifully powerful piece. A lot to take in, but it really is something. The connection we have with anybody should never be overlooked. I do my best to make eye contact with others…anyone. Most people don’t look at me. But every now and then, it works, and we smile at each other.

    • Your experience makes one wonder why something so simple as eye contact is so difficult for most? I love how you put it, that no connection is of little value. Thank you for the affirming feedback, B. =)

      Xxx
      D.

  5. Blogging is sad if there is no connection, no give and take. Love the juxtaposition of bride and dwarf, and thinking about the power of eye contact, and how there is none between stripper and customers.

  6. Diana Such a thought provoking piece, my father tried to teach us that every human is worth your smile and respect, until they show you otherwise. We come in all forms and we all have something in common. The ability to make someone feel human with only a smile. A smile is a powerful thing, once you smile at someone anything can happen. A conversation with a stranger can be a blessing in anyones day.

  7. OK that was touching, heart felt and meaningful. Good job of communicating man’s need acceptance, love, and community. When we dig down deep into the human soul the words of Jesus become bright as the noon day sun. What is the great commandment, He was asked. “To love the Lord your God with all you mind, heart, soul, and strength, and the second is like it, to love your neighbor as yourself.”

  8. It’s that yearning hunger that inevitably reminds us we are human – to feel a moment of connection with another being can be a truly overwhelming thing. And once again Diana, you’re absolutely right in saying that there is comfort in knowing that you are not alone.

  9. I can’t think of anything more powerful than eye contact. I use its power every day and in every instance that I can. When someone is hurting in a public way (i.e. the poor little guy who stumbled over the scripture reading at church), when my children look hesitant or nervous about a new situation, when I want my husband to know that I love him and am listening. The eyes can say things words can’t.
    In fact, I’m trying to adopt a WWAIT approach – Wait – Why Am I Talking? Instead of words, I use my eyes…how rewarding to hear that I may actually be on the right track.
    What a poignant and well-written piece – Thank you, Diana. xo

    • Gave me chills. Wow, M. My lesson for the day. “I use its power every day and in every instance that I can” I just love hearing how you apply this. No wonder you attract people. I’m going to share your feedback with hubby. (And HOW’da find me in TLand???) LOL.

  10. Very interesting post. My cousin was taken aback on Sunday when we went to church together (the first time I went with her with my white cane). Afterwards she was fuming because of the stares I got when we entered the door. This happens all the time in public but she thought it wouldn’t or shoulldn’t happen in church. I get that people don’t understand why someone who appears to see would need a white cane but I wonder what’s happened with people. Back in the day we were taught not to stare at people, period. It doesn’t matter if they are short or tall, big or small, disfigured, using a wheelchair, cane or other mobility device, you just didn’t stare and when you interacted you treated everyone the same regardless of their circumstance. I wonder why we just can’t see people as people.

    • Mmm. Really sorry about that, Steph. I know in a sense you’re used to it – but it’s not something you should (have to) get used to. From my series on race and culture last yr, I decided people have a part that wants to distinguish themselves from others. If we all looked and dressed alike, I swear we’d draw lines by right- and left-handedness! But back to your thoughts, yes. Times are different. Etiquette is very sadly a thing of the past in many areas.

      • If everyone were identical, I agree that we’d still find something that’s distinguishes us from each other and in my opinion that’s a good thing. We should celebrate our uniqueness while embracing the differences in others. I guess this is my issue. In my situation it’s a little different because I can’t realy determine if people are looking at me unless someone I’m with mentions it, so for the most part I don’t let it bother me. But when I see people being rude or disrepectful to people because they are different then I get bent out of shape. I’ll have to check out your series on race. I came across it last year and kept meaning to go back to it.

  11. That need to be seen, to be witnessed, to be reflected back strikes me as very universal. It can also be a driving force for better or worse in one’s lives. I think that people in general are looking for connection. I agree about the blogging community and interactions that can come about. I definitely feel like I’ve made friendships with people (you among them) and that they aren’t just virtual connections even if we generally do meet online or via email. Your making me think and dig some, Diana, which is always a good thing.

      • Have to add that we can get into how men look at women, how spouses stop seeing each other (only the reason for the 50, 60% divorce rate), how I realized I was looking at T through my self-centered desire for ME-Time (wishing in frustration that I could step away) in thinking him lazy on the drums one day when I learned, upon seeing him, that he had only been afraid to fail, daunted at the difficult piece before him.

      • Love that wisdom and the reminder to see our closest mirrors as who they are separate from who we fear or need them to be or whatever projections we are afraid of or need to heal.

  12. Beautiful piece and very true. I think some of the experiences of the dwarf and the bride are common to all of us. How many really take the time to truly get to know others in a meaningful way instead of just the superficial surface of what we see? It seems that many people rest there eyes for a second, make a judgment, and move on. We all both do this to others and experience it daily. The effect is a culture that reinforces isolation and loneliness. These emotions drive a desire for a moment of connection. . even if it is for a fleeting second with the eyes of a human statue. But for some, such as the dwarf, not only are they “not seen” but what is seen is viewed and rejected. What courage such people must have to maintain hope and a willingness to continue trying to engage. For a time I was in a situation similar to the dwarf. I was a teenage runaway, homeless, hungry. My resulting disheveled appearance, and, the fact I needed to dig my lunch from the trash was a “visual difference” that triggered reactions of revulsion, rejection, and even harsh mockery from others. These teen experiences had a profound impact on me at the time. However, the bigger impact was before and after this time. I was not “seen” in the years that preceded my running away because my “appearance” seemed normal–even enviable in an upper middle class home. The surface was never penetrated and my reasons for fleeing never questioned. And after. . I worked my way through college and law school–at times living in my car. In my societal position that education and professionalism provided later fewer still took the time to look beneath the surface at the woman and her experiences standing before them. I have learned though that almost all of us have stories that few ask to hear and frequently are never shared. We all long for that moment of “knowing” another and “being seen.” If only we could deepen and make common place the gaze of a human statue.

    • I appreciate your sentiments and testimony, Sabrina.

      “I have learned though that almost all of us have stories that few ask to hear and frequently are never shared.” Yes, we are walking storybooks that beg telling. It’s a shame that it often doesn’t happen in person, but at least blogging gives voice – and audience – to many of us.

      Thanks so much for the thoughtful read.

      Diana

      • Your very welcome Diana. I believe it is easy to recognize problems with society, relationships, etc but much harder to proactively do something to change them. One problem is with the masks we wear and resulting difficulty connecting deeply to others. To change this trend requires openness and vulnerability with our stories. Thank you for such a thoughtful post that poignantly highlights a piece of this problem and allows for conversation/opportunity to make change–however small. :).

      • Your comment “big things depend on the small” inspired me to write a blog on an incident in my own life. The day I fled my home as a result of simply lifting my eyes. It is a completely different piece of writing than my blog’s purpose of organic, natural living so I am not sure what I am going to do with it. . .however, I wanted to let you know you inspired some deep reflection and a work of passion if questionable quality from five simple words. You made an impact on a stranger far away. 🙂

  13. I love this. I rarely get comments but I think it’s due to the lack of consistent posting. But I do crave the contact. Even if it’s negative feedback, I like knowing I’m heard/seen.
    This post touched me in a significant way. Thank you for sharing.

    • Thanks so much for connecting. That’s interesting that you’d even take negative feedback. I appreciate the attempt to follow. Looks like WP moved the button recently to the lower right of the computer screen but I am not familiar with apps. Maybe it’ll work tmrw. I have posts on successful blogging, if they interest any. Tap any title to open up the sidebar (well, unless your iGadget doesn’t show you that readily) and you’ll see BLOGGING under the topics.

      Diana =)

  14. Naturally big-breasted women suffer the same sorrows. I know this from what I’ve been told. I was behind the door, as they say, when such attributes were handed out.

    If I get caught staring at someone ‘different’, I don’t compound it by denial, but I really hope my embarrassed smile is never misconstrued. I’m surprised Amanda had similar issues, she always comes across as a strong woman, but I suppose when you think about her lyrics – all that angst comes from somewhere. I love her eyebrow art. I didn’t know she was a TED speaker. I must check that out and I’m sure her book will be interesting. I never have problems with eye contact. I hate talking to someone whose eyes slip everywhere.

    Thanks for the great blog post, Diana.

    • Big boobs, little boobs. Ya can’t win. Actually, I cried some parts of the book. I could relate. She is so honest about the moments most of us would shove in the closet and turn the key on in shame and embarrassmt. It was her TED that caught the attention of the publisher. Thanks so much for the thoughtful read and feedback, C. You rock.

      Diana

  15. I’d like to quote Lisa Nichols here, “I got into many relationships expecting my partner to show me my beauty, because I didn’t see my own beauty. … It wasn’t until I fell in love with Lisa – I fell in love with my mocha skin, my full lips, my round hips, my curly black hair – it wasn’t until that happened that the rest of the world was able to fall in love with me as well.”
    I think what Lisa says applies to everyone, men or women, any color, any nationality, any physical form and so forth and so on…

  16. Dwarf ? Jonathan sometimes i just don’t get people so quick to talk about their neigbors when in fact not a one is perfect and we all are very different but just by chance some of us are differently very special and you are one of Gods very special people for the kind hearts among us. Thank You For Your Life. David A. Morrow SR. aka Penticular

  17. I really like your post, I have worked with people with severe disability for some time, and I too noticed how others stare, people are quick to judge, then I became a midwife and realised that everyone wants perfect children but noone stops to think what would happen if later down the line the same child was involved in an unfortunate accident. Because at that time they would also become disabled. Yes, and people will stare. I know it’s natural but then like your story says there are those people who don’t give the time of day to people who are different. We are all made in our own image and I strongly believe we all are beautiful in our own way. I really like this post..,you sound so compassionate.

    • What great feedback, Beverley. I know working with the disabled opens us up to new dimensions. Guess what: I had a midwife for my home (water) birth 8 yrs ago. =) She was awesome. And Ina May Gaskin is my hero.

      Diana

  18. That blog made me take stock of my attitude to people in general. All too often we are so focused on our own hurts or goals we fail to see the person in our direct line of gaze. We are tuned out to the real others as opposed to the form of others we see and tuned in to our own problems and selfish needs shutting them essentially out of our world. This is a helpful article..

    • I thought you’d caught this, Ian. Thanks so much for leaving no stone – I mean post – unturned here. =) I doubt you are as reprimandable as the rest of us on this count. And yes, we do change one another’s story to fit our comfort level or stroke our ego when we impose our judgmt on others. It’s remarkable that it didn’t take much or take long for Amanda to really see others and feel seen. A mere patient seconds.

  19. Our second daughter was born with an internal cleft palate that required surgery and which made it difficult for her to hear and speak. Even though she had no external effects, I became aware of the stigma simply when we went to the children’s hospital for her appointments. It was a modern building with a completely open reception area beneath a sign for the cleft palate clinic. Sitting in the waiting area, I noticed how those passing by would steal furtive glances into our area. For the first time, I began to understand what some people have to deal with on a daily basis. Thankfully, our daughter’s surgery was successful, and she is now a grown, beautiful woman with a master’s degree and excellent diction.

  20. I read Amanda Palmer’s the Art of Asking early this year. It was the first book I read this year and it left lasting impressions on me. It’s a wonderful read.
    Sure there is a longing for connection in each of us. It’s a fundamental part of what makes us human.

      • I got here via a fellow bogger’s recommendation (livelytwist).
        I am starting a series on race soon on my blog and she directed me to one of her post which led me here. I am buried in your blog. Lots of mind blowing stuffs here, this is pure eyegarsm. I will send you a mail soon though, but first , let me go through your race series. Lots of intestine stuffs I must confess.

  21. Your words about comments resonate for me. With comments I have a knowing that I was seen, that what I expressed of my experience has meaning for another. A sense of being physically touched, held. A mutual sharing.

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