The Gaze

Today, I was planning to go to the pool, and then I didn’t. It was a perfect day to go. It was warm and sunny. I didn’t have work, so I had plenty of time. I even shaved my legs and everything. I just didn’t go.

I thought about it before I went. Currently, I’m interning in Atlanta, and I’m staying with this family that was kind enough to let me board in their house. The neighborhood is out in the suburbs: big, beige houses, green lawns, and wooden fences. It’s pretty. It’s “safe”. There’s a community club kind of thing near the entrance of the subdivision, and it has a pool, and today would have been the perfect day to go.

Then I remembered, I hadn’t brought my one-piece with me. It’s not like that’s a bad thing. I don’t think people here would be opposed to a young woman with some considerable size privilege going to the pool in a two-piece swimsuit. It isn’t unusual. But I thought about the other people I’ve seen around this neighborhood: families with school-aged children. Moms and dads. People under the age of 11. And I’m sure they wouldn’t deny access to me or anything overt like that. But I thought of the way they’d look at me, especially since I’m pretty obviously not white. I thought of how exposed I’d be, how much of my skin other people would be able to see. I thought of the kinds of things people think about people who look like me.

That gave me some anxiety. And I decided not to go.

I honestly believe that mothers look at me when I’m out sometimes, wearing whatever I wear, and probably tell themselves to never let their child dress like me, even though white women wear the same things. Even though my clothes fit the way they’re supposed to. Even though I look like a young woman.

Earlier today, I was buying groceries, and I had stopped in an aisle, and a woman and her son were walking by. The boy was probably 6 or 7 years old. Even before they got very close, I could see the boy was staring at me, and not in a “glance and look away when you realize the other person knows you are looking” kind of way. Staring. Did not break gaze. When they passed me, the mother told him to keep up, maybe because she was aware he was looking at me and wanted him to stop (though in my opinion, there are better ways to do this. Like, I don’t know, maybe just tell your son “stop staring.”) But as they walked past me, he turned around so he could keep looking at me.

It’s weird to be aware of something like that. Sometimes it’s flattering, and sometimes it’s alienating.

People like to tell me I’m worrying over stupid things, and I shouldn’t let other people’s opinion of me stop me from doing what I want to do. I don’t know that I agree. What does it mean that people are so indiscreet when they look at me? Why do people believe they are entitled to look at me for so much longer than they look at other people?

It’s not a stupid thing, and I don’t think any human who worries about other people’s gaze is worrying over a stupid thing.

We live in a society where the overt, the external, and the explicit are given a lot of priority over feeling, instinct, and intuition. This stops us from listening to what our bodies quietly tell us. The anxiety I feel stops me because it tells me how much danger I am in. Other people’s gaze is telling of something more sinister: that I am seen as consumable. People do not think they are offending me when they stare at me because they do not understand that I have feelings. They do not understand that being stared at is dehumanizing, and they do not understand the impact that an action like that can have on someone who experiences it every day, because they do not have this experience.

They cannot know what it’s like to constantly seek refuge from the gaze. To constantly need sanctuary. Sometimes, I don’t want to be looked at, but I have no control over when people look at me. (I firmly believe no change of wardrobe is going to magically fix this problem for me or for the many I know who have this problem). Sure, I like the attention when I want to be looked at. It’s nice. It reminds me that I’m cute, I’m attractive, and I’m succeeding at performing my gender. But I can’t control when people look. So I might want to wear shorts without having people look, but I can’t control that. I might want to wear jeans without having people look, but I can’t control that. I might want to cover my head and not have people look, but I can’t control that. Regardless, people will look at me because I’m ME, not because I’m wearing something unusual or inappropriate.

People like to suggest to women that they should go out with other people to stay safe. I find that advice infuriating. I’m an adult, and I have been for a while. I’d like to be able to do things alone. I’d like to be safe by myself, to be out in public and not feel nervous all the time. But I have to live with the knowledge that I am never safe alone, not even in broad daylight. It’s a sobering reality. I think the one thing that keeps me sane, when I know I’m missing half my life because it’s dangerous, is knowing there are people out there who love me even though I’m a loser who stays in her house all the time. They know I do what I do so that they can see me again, unharmed and in one piece.

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