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
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:
Here. Take a flower.
And if I was in a particularly good mood:
I love you.
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 astonishing to be seen.