(Don't) Look At Me
Look at me.
Look me in the eye. C’mon. You can do it.
There are five of us, all talking about our final project even though the deadline is miles away. You’re all talking, mainly the men, but also sometimes the other woman. I’m hyperaware of where your eyes are as you speak and look at her and then to him.
Occasionally, but only occasionally, I feel compelled to speak. Maybe two of you listen, the rest typing on your computers. One of you, the one closest to me, you don’t turn your head or your eyes, but you nod along like you’re listening.
Maybe you are.
But, how would I know?
It was only over the past few years that I have become aware of eye contact, or the lack there of, that I am given. It is only recently that I have become attuned to the habits of people, mainly my friends, who tend to make eye contact with the people in the room who they feel most comfortable with. Yet, it was also recently that I have begun to question if eye contact is more than just a level of comfort shared with another human being. Maybe it is also a level of respect. Perhaps it is a reflection of how important you deem someone to be or how worthy of your attention you believe they are.
Yet, ultimately, eye contact may be more than just a flit of someone’s eyes. It may mean more than we normally assume it does. It may say more.
I think of how I felt sitting in that circle, surrounded by a group of people, my peers, who did not look at me for the longest time. I think of how I felt near the end of our time when one of them did look at me and how self-conscious I was. I think of how their lack of eye contact made me question my self-worth and position in that classroom. I can’t help but believe that eye contact means more than just an indicator that someone is acknowledging your presence in a space that you both occupy.
I know it means more because when people don’t look at me and make consistent eye contact with others I begin to play this stupid game with myself. It is a game where I compare myself to those other people. I begin to question if maybe, perhaps, they somehow deserve more respect than I do.
That is how I know that eye contact has power.
In the past few years, I have discussed this concept of eye contact, but usually only in spaces with people who identify as women. I have discovered that it is common for a woman to be surrounded by men who only make eye contact with the other men in the room. We often talk about what this means: that the men don’t acknowledge us as equals, that they don’t care about our presence, and that they don’t see us as people who have the ability—or desire—to respond to the assertions that they are making.
Yet, despite all of these conversations, I don’t know if we talk enough about what it feels like to have someone refuse to look at you. I don’t know if we openly say how invalidating a lack of eye contact is.
So I’ll tell you.
It feels like you are a white piece of computer paper stuck to a white wall.
You feel invisible.
It feels like you have hiked to the top of a mountain, but your fear of heights won’t allow you to take the journey down.
You feel helpless.
It feels like someone has just told everyone else in the room that they are beautiful except you.
You feel unappealing.
It feels like you have just been accepted to Duke University and someone who you consider to be your friend tells you that you got in merely because you have a single mom and are half Black.
You feel like you aren’t enough, never have been enough, and never will be enough in the eyes of others.
Yet, the worst part about the absence of eye contact is that, eventually, these feelings become so ingrained in your own thoughts that you forget that they are unfounded. You forget that someone else and their actions have made you feel this way. It becomes difficult to remember that you are neither invisible nor helpless nor unappealing. It becomes harder to know that you are enough.
It’s almost silly how affected I can be by one or two or four people’s eyes. Yet, it is more sad than silly that the one to two seconds that a person could have spent looking at my face has initiated hours of me questioning my own intelligence, beauty, and worth.
And they probably don’t even know.
Yet, even when they finally looked at me, after I had made my third and final comment, I still felt all of the same feelings as I had felt when they weren’t looking at me.
So, maybe it isn’t about the eye contact at all. Maybe it’s the sense of worth, or lack thereof, that I feel is being placed upon me. Because, after not looking at me for 30 minutes, I knew that, eye contact or no, I still was not enough in their eyes.
You would think in this context I would at least have solidarity with the other woman in my group, but not only did they actually look at her, she also didn’t look at me.
Maybe they looked at her because they saw her as more intelligent. This is entirely possible and would be ideal. But, knowing men, they could have also taken the time to look at her for her face and not for her words. Maybe she, too, felt as if she was being looked through.
Again, perhaps it isn’t about the eye contact. Perhaps it’s that the eye contact is physical representation of whether or not other people choose to see you.
We talk about sticks and stones and words, but what about judgment in people’s eyes?
Something so little should not have so much power. Two holes on your face should not have the ability to harm someone.
Don’t look at me with your eyes that penetrate my soul and make me question my self-worth, because at that point looking doesn’t mean a thing. Don’t look at me so that I can see your eyes, as you look right through me.
Only look at me if you understand that my words are intentional, and while not always perfect, are just as valuable as yours. Only look at me if you are able to acknowledge that people are not yours to deem worthy. Only look at me if you are willing to give me the respect that I deserve as a human being.
Maybe, if that’s all too difficult, just don’t look at me at all.