I was zipping across campus a couple days ago on my Ninebot scooter, and a man turned and blatantly stared at me. I don’t know if he was staring at my ride, my prosthetic leg, or both, but his eyes followed me as I approached him and his companion, and he turned his head to watch as I passed.
This isn’t new. I get stared at a lot, like anyone with a visible difference. Usually it doesn’t bother me; occasionally it’s irritating. But I just finished reading a fascinating book that explores the act of staring, so in that moment, I was intrigued with the possibilities of staring.
One of the cool parts of being a communication and gender studies professor is that I get to read a lot of great books and articles. Granted, I’m a nerd who appreciates pretty abstract theory and research. But I also read scholarship that has practical applications for long-term cancer survivors or others with chronic illnesses.
The book is by an amazing disabilities studies scholar, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, and it’s called Staring: How We Look.
Garland-Thomson talks about psychological research on staring that explores what types of things draw people to stare and for how long, and what motivates staring. Such researchers focus on the starer and the act of staring. The act of being stared at, however, has traditionally been thought of by researchers as something that happens to people, who are basically seen as objects of others’ reactions.
Garland-Thomson asks readers to instead imagine staring the other way around, from the perspective of the one being stared at. She reframes staring as a relational moment, that is, as an interaction between two (or more) people, rather than one person and an object. People who are being stared at are usually well aware of it, and they have some ability to manage such encounters. And in some situations, she says, people may even invite or encourage others to stare.
I like the idea that those of us being stared at also have something to say about the topic, and while we can’t completely control when and how staring happens, we can and do make choices about how to participate in such encounters. We are not objects.
Sometimes I smile at people who stare at me, sometimes I ignore them. I have glared at people whose staring included an expression of disgust or contempt. I have rolled my eyes. I probably look hurt or embarrassed when someone says something rude about me to her or his companion.
During one memorable staring moment, a good friend of mine in graduate school lost her patience with watching me endure being stared at. We were in a restaurant, moving toward a table, and a young man whose table we passed not only stared openly at my leg but craned his neck to get a better view. As I slid awkwardly into the booth, my friend turned and saw him still staring. She marched back to him and asked sarcastically, “Do you want me to have her come back so you can take a snapshot?!” He hastily looked away, and she rejoined us. Her solidarity meant a lot to me, even though I generally don’t encourage my friends to confront others on my behalf.
Occasionally when I am obsessing about which shoes to wear or whether I remembered to shave my leg or if a particular skirt fits well, Glenn will say, half in jest, “No one is going to notice anyway—they will be too busy staring at your prosthesis to pay any attention to that.” And I know he is right.
What is important is to remember that (the meaning of) staring is not only in the eye of the beholder but in those who are beheld. Lots of people live with visible differences, for whom being stared at is just part of our everyday lives that we actively engage with, often effectively and even creatively.
Now when I zip or limp by those who stare, I will try to think not of what my body means to them, but what they mean to me, and what we could mean to each other.