I wanted to look at them so I could remember them and think about how beautiful they were later. However, manners prevented me from staring to my heart’s content. Which is a shame because I might have liked saying to them, “Please forgive me for staring. You’re beautiful and I don’t want to look away yet.”
Three times in the past few weeks, I have found myself wanting to stare openly at people because I found them arrestingly beautiful.
The first was a non-binary-appearing person, young, with sculpted muscles under flawless, inked skin. The next was a woman in hijab, very tall, her face made up with dramatic make-up and her veil beaded with a gilded spray on the back of her head. Her long robe was perfectly fitted at her shoulders and flowed down like a waterfall. Finally, I saw a young African-American woman, a teenager probably or maybe a college student, with long, heavy braids and a set of confidence to her whole body.
All of these people struck me the way a certain piece of art might strike me and I wanted to look at them so I could remember them and think about how beautiful they were later. However, manners prevented me from staring to my heart’s content. Which is a shame because I might have liked saying to them, “Please forgive me for staring. You’re beautiful and I don’t want to look away yet.”
I shared this thought on Facebook and my (female*) friends and I have gone around about this idea a bit. We agree that it’s true, you can’t stare. You can’t stare because of feminism and because of racism.
The feminist issue, when it comes to staring at women or stepping up to pay them unsolicited compliments no matter what your intent was, is that women don’t look the way they do for me. Or for anyone except themselves. Women, for the most part, assemble their look to please themselves. Yes, women dress for the occasion, maybe dress to impress or dress to attract, but in general, a woman is dressed to satisfy her own aesthetic and her own comfort. The rest of the world can appreciate it or not but that’s not why she looks the way she looks. But we have become so used to beauty as a commodity, an element in a sales pitch, that we take it for granted that something beautiful is on display for our enjoyment.
The racist issue – which rears its head in my particular situation since I’m a middle-aged white lady who took note of people who are not of my race – is that people who are minorities already feel objectified and dehumanized enough walking through the world. A friend from childhood who is Asian shared how she experienced stares and strange questions all her life. The result is that she never felt beautiful and whenever she felt eyes on her, she assumed it was because she looked like a freak. I was stunned by this admission because I had always thought she was beautiful. She always struck me as both lovely and confident but, below the surface, there was something unseen happening with her self-perception. To look too long at people who might already feel a sense of otherness, even if the looking was accompanied by well-intended words, might simply make a person feel yet more other, less human and more an object.
I don’t know what conclusion to draw from all of this. All I know is that I can think of no way in which staring at a person or explaining to a person why I’m staring is acceptable. The underlying message is “You are here for my pleasure. Allow me to take it.” Maybe that is mitigated a little by the fact that I’m a woman, but still. It’s there and it’s not OK. It’s still objectification.
No one wants to be an object, even an object of beauty.
*Why have no men jumped into the conversation? I don’t know. But it is interesting that the conversation has been women only.
Rebekah Kuschmider is a DC area writer with a background in non-profit management and advocacy. Her work has been seen at Babble, Scary Mommy, Huffington Post, The Mid, Redbook online, and The Broad Side. She is the creator of the blog Stay at Home Pundit and is a contributor to the upcoming book Love Her, Love Her Not: The Hillary Paradox (an anthology, SheWrites Press, Nov. 2015). You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons, “Birth of Venus” by Sandro Botticelli