New address: 24 Farnsworth Street, Boston, MA 02210-1409.
My friend Sue has a son with autism who is now 19 years old. When Adam
was younger (8-13) and when they would go to the grocery store, he would
inevitably make a scene because he would want his parents to buy
something he couldn’t have. This would be no ordinary scene of power play
and wielding parental authority—the one that you’re possibly remembering
that your own kids made. Invariably the scene would involve Adam’s loud,
inappropriate protests occasional hitting, and bystanders’ palpable
uneasiness too. What my friend Sue remembers most about those times
were the stares she would receive from other parents. They would stare at
her as if to say, “What’s the matter with you?” Can’t you control your own
kid? You must be a bad parent.”
Staring at odd things. I’d like to begin to name and analyze this most natural
of behaviors, so that we might be more aware of its dynamics and of its
effects on others.
Naming comes first. Naming something gives us common language and
common ground. When we name an experience, we can take the fear, the
shame or anxiety—the bogeymen, if you will, out of the closet. In naming an
awkward phenomenon, we can all breathe, a big cleansing sigh of relief.
Naming can be like opening a window in a room that’s been closed up for a
long time. You know the smell—musty, stuffy, with just the slightest hint of
mildew. When we name reality, we let in fresh air, fresh insight, fresh
directions for right and holy living. Fresh insight and fresh direction for right
living emerge as we expose ourselves to the light of truthtelling. Truth telling
can be like oxygen to us—truth enlivens us.
According to Webster, to stare is to gaze or look steadily with eyes wide
open as in fear, admiration or wonder.
Staring at things, staring at people has been part of the human experience
for as long as we humans have been around! We stare for hours at little
babies, babies who become toddlers, at oceans or lakes, at flickering
firelight or mountaintop vistas. We stare at roadside accidents as we drive
by, trying to incorporate the threat of accident into our reality. We stare
endlessly at animals, a favorite pet or a deer in the wild, for they are unselfconscious-
their lack of awareness gives us license to stare all we want, for
as long as we want. So how far does this license extend? Does it extend to
persons with severe mental impairments who are likely unaware of our
gazing. Should we stare at my friend Sue’s son, Adam, just because we
assume he’s not attentive to his surroundings?
Children are honest, forthright in their staring. They watch very carefully.
They wonder aloud. They point. Staring is a natural way that children and
even adults learn about the world. It always hurts me when little ones are
admonished to look away, to not pay attention. Parents or other significant
others, out of their own embarrassment, ignorance or good intentions give
powerful messages that run counter to the natural behavior of gazing long
and hard at something or someone different. These messages reinforce the
strongly held notion that being different is somehow shameful, that being
different is some how at odds with universal human experience.
So when does a child’s natural curiosity become an adult’s fearful or
excessive gaze? Or is this an artificial transition? Do we ever stop staring?
When do we learn that staring is inappropriate? Is the amount of “staring
time” culturally bound? Do other cultures have taboos about gazing
inordinately? When does staring cross over the line to gawking? Is it
somehow ok to stare at unself conscious beings, to learn at their expense,
while it is not appropriate to gawk at people who know they are being
As adults we stare at bodies, how bodies look, how bodies move and bend
or don’t, what size bodies are, how they get around obstacles, and how
bodies are shaped.
We who live in a milieu
where most of us are narcissistically obsessed with how our bodies look,
We who have bought wholesale the myth of the perfect body. The body without
any hint of blemish,
We who spend an obscene amount of money on pampering the body,
disguising the marks of the aging body, and extending the body’s life through
extraordinary means. We stare at bodies
We are the ones who stare at strange, deformed bodies out of fear, wonder,
our own ingrained, unexamined stereotypes.
We are the ones who fixate on white canes, service dogs, and wheelchairs
before we would look into the person’s eyes.
So what is the better way?
The way of holy living….
The way of wholesome living.
The way that leads to wholeness and right relation.
The way of humane treatment.
As Unitarian Universalists we hold dear the inherent worth and dignity of
every person. Does staring enhance or tear down that dignity?
One of the answers to the question of appropriate or inappropriate staring, I
would propose is dialogue. To be sure, silence and avoidance is fertile
breeding ground for shame and denial. The admonition heard in too many
grocery aisles, “Don’t stare….its impolite” sounds like a hushing up—which
leads to deeper fear of anything or anyone who is different.
Dialogue is healthy and stimulating and it gets us back to the truth telling I
mentioned earlier. But dialogue can also lead us into some complex territory.
Intellectually, I affirm that staring is natural, ought to be encouraged in
children, coupled with age appropriate explanations.
However, as a woman with cerebral palsy who’s been the object of more
staring than I care to remember or know, it should come as no surprise to
you that I have some strong, visceral reactions to being viewed as an oddity.
There are 3 visceral reactions that I can name.
First, I find some staring intrusive. I can’t tell you when it crosses the line,
but I can tell you I feel my privacy is constantly invaded. So privacy, and
even anonymity for me, has become a precious commodity.
Listen to the words of Eli Clare, poet and activist, who helps me give voice to
my own experience.
“Gawking, gaping, staring: I can’t say when it first happened.
When first a pair of eyes caught me, held me in their vice
grip, tore skin from muscle, muscle from bone. Those eyes
always shouted, “freak, retard, cripple,” demanding an
answer for tremoring hands, a tomboy’s bold and unsteady
gait . It started young, wherever I encountered humans.
Gawking, gaping, staring seeped into my bones, became the
marrow. I spent thirty years, shutting it out, slamming the
door. Thirty years, and now I am looking for lovers and
teachers to hold all my complexities and contradictions
gently, honestly, appreciatively.”
Second, I am, at times, oblivious to the gaze of others. As a coping
mechanism, I have become numb. Friends, but especially family, have been
with me many times in public places. They report being offended, caught off
guard, even appalled at the amount of gawking that other people do. They
know a contrast, a reality of not being stared at, while I go about whatever
we’re doing unaware because staring is just part of the fabric of my life.
Third, one place where I have staring as an extreme violation of my privacy
has been in teaching hospitals where I frequented as a child. Doctors and
their entourage of attending students would walk into my room and without
asking, expose the part of my body just operated upon. This practice is now
called by some “public stripping.” Eli Clare in her book, Exile and Pride
defines public stripping as the “medical practice of stripping disabled children to their underwear and
examining them in front of large groups of doctors, medical students,
physical therapists, and rehabilitation specialists. They have the child walk
back and forth. They squeeze her muscles. They watch his gait, muscle
tension, footfall, and back curvature. They take notes and talk among
themselves about what surgeries and therapies they might recommend.
They justify public stripping by saying it is a training tool for students, a way
for a team of professionals to pool knowledge.”
This happened to me countless times as a child. However useful it might
have been, I now see the practice as wrong, even harmful, and sadly, as a
form of staring.
So, when was the last time you were stared at? If you are a woman, when
have you been the object of an unwanted sexual gaze? What did you
imagine people were thinking when they stared at you? How did you feel
when you knew someone was gawking at you? Conversely, what were you
gawking at yesterday? Or when was the last time you stared at something or
someone long and hard? What was it about him or her or it that was so
irresistible that you couldn’t take your eyes off it—not even for a minute!
We all gawk at each other. Staring is one of our proclivities. Its natural and
organic and some of us become regular targets of it. Staring is complex—it
is normal but its also annoying, sometimes harmful.
I don’t have any prescriptions for us. I want to hold this question of staring to
the scrutinizing light of our principle of the worth and dignity of all human
beings. I want us to be aware of our intent and motives when we stare. I
want us to examine and analyze our gawking for a bit, and encourage
dialogue about this.
May the spirit of wisdom and sensitivity be upon us as we gaze at each other.
Let it be so.
Copyright: The author has given Unitarian Universalist Association
member congregations permission to reprint this piece for use in public worship.
Any reprints must acknowledge the name of the author.
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Last updated on Tuesday, February 19, 2013.
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