It has always happened, but it happens more now than it used to. Or maybe I just notice it more than I once did. But I think that my level of confidence and fairly good self esteem either contribute to, or highlight it more than when I was depressed and self-loathing. Perhaps it’s because I now walk with my head held high, my gaze lifted and my shoulders back, where once I walked eyes downcast, trying desperately to minimise myself in the eyes of the world around me.
But whatever the reason behind it, one thing is very clear. I have a stareable body.
Stareable bodies are those outside the very narrow band of what is culturally considered “normal”. That can be for reasons that are because they don’t meet those standards (fat bodies, disabled bodies, visibly ill bodies, bodies that are dressed or marked in some way “different” to what is the acceptable norm for example) or it can be because the starers view those bodies as above the standards, particularly female bodies (exceptionally conventionally beautiful bodies, bodies with sexual features that are exaggerated etc). But stareable bodies are those bodies that members of the general public feel the need to stare at and take extra notice of.
As a very fat woman, it happens to me all of the time. Yesterday I was walking back to work from a quick jaunt to the nearest chemist on my morning tea break (I have a cold, ick), and as I passed an outdoor patio style cafe, I spotted a man at a table of about 6 men, nudge a couple of the other men, and they all turned and stared at me. When I returned the first man’s gaze, he had the audacity to look angrily at me, as if I had done something to offend him.
Thing is, I had offended him. I was a visibly very fat woman, passing in his view, that was my first offense. I was also a visibly very fat woman who was walking with her head held high, with visible confidence and his nudge and point routine failed to force me to lower my head and my gaze. His pointing me out to his buddies failed to result in what he clearly expected it to, and that was my embarrassment and shame. I had offended him deeply.
To be fair, it’s not just men. Recently I went to an afternoon tea with friends, and while one friend and I waited in front of the cafe for the others to arrive, I noticed a woman say in a loud whisper to a younger woman sitting in front of her “Look, look at her!” Unfortunately for her, the younger woman, looked the wrong way, and she was forced to desperately try to get her to turn her head towards me. When the younger woman finally did, she saw that I could see and hear them, and looked embarrassed, but the older woman was going on “Oh my God! Look at her!” So I did what first came to my mind, and I leaned over as we walked past and said discreetly “Hi, would you like me to pose for a photo or something?” The older woman had almost the same expression at this as the aforementioned man – she was clearly offended at my acknowledging her behaviour. I was supposed to be embarrassed and ashamed, not confident and speaking up.
It’s not easy, speaking up, staring back. Most of the time I’ve got better things to do with my time than confront some rude narrow-mind about their behaviour. Sometimes I’m in a setting that isn’t conducive to making an example of someone’s bad behaviour, like at work or if I’m a guest of someone else. Other times I just don’t want to and don’t feel that I should have to.
And I don’t have to. Not if I don’t want to, I’m not under any obligation to fix other people’s bad behaviour, only my own.
But I’ve learnt that by challenging the starer, I regain something that is mine – my right to be in public, as I am, without apology. I’ve also learnt that I place the negativity that the starer throws at me squarely back on their shoulders, where it belongs. It is not mine to carry. And most importantly, I’ve learnt that every time one of us with a stareable body challenges the cultural messages that it’s acceptable to single out, to make example of, to point and stare at those who are outside the narrow band of “acceptable”, we shift the status quo, just a tiny little bit. I am reminded of this quote from Rosemarie Garland-Thomson in Staring: How We Look that Margitte from Riots not Diets shared a little while back:
When people with stareable bodies […] enter into the public eye, when they no longer hide themselves or allow themselves to be hidden, the visual landscape enlarges. Their public presence can expand the range of bodies we expect to see and broaden the terrain where we expect to see such bodies.
[…] These encounters work to broaden the collective expectations of who can and should be seen in the public sphere and help create a richer and more diverse human community. This is what starees can show us all.
What it all boils down to for me, is that other people do not get to dictate whether or not you can be visible in public, and what is acceptable for you. You do.