Okay, so I lost a big bunch of weight and have this new body. New body, but the same old eyes. That is, the world looks pretty much the same from inside myself, whether my self carries a normal amount of weight or a lot of extra weight. The sky is just as blue, the clouds just as cloudy. But there is one glaring, or staring, or gazing, exception: eye contact. All the rules of eye contact have changed for me, and Iím having a hard time adjusting.
Long ago, I was an averagely weighted girl, and Iím sure I learned a good bit about eye contact during my teen and early adult years. I remember trying to master eye contact in clubs and while walking down the street. I remember practicing the off-putting look, the come-hither look, the I-might-be-interested-wouldnít-you-like-to-know look with tangles of girls in dorm rooms. And then going out and experimenting, usually to dismal results. That is, I remember when eye contact was interesting and fun, and not confusing and irritating.
But without really noticing how it happened or when it happened, I stopped receiving eye contact. As I grew larger, I became more overlooked, as overweight people are. More and more invisible. And so as people stopped gazing at me, I stopped gazing at people, and fell out of practice. Iíve been out of casual eye contact practice for many, many years.
Iím not completely incapable of eye contact, mind you. All through my career, if I were introduced to someone, say in a work situation, and that someone had reason to attend to me — I might have been a client or potential client, a manager, or subject matter expert, the interviewer — then the regular social rules for eye contact were called into play. Commerce and any potential for power gain overcomes social patterning every time. I still know what to do once eye contact is established.
What Iím having a hard time with these days is random eye contact. Walking down the street, passing in halls, taking elevators, walking through a coffee bar, driving down the road eye contact. I donít generally give random eye contact, and donít notice when I get it, and if I do notice, itís so startling to me that Iím sure the expression I give off isnít pleasant, confident, or even readable. And so now I realize Iím offending people, or confusing them, without meaning to, without wanting to. I need to relearn normal social gazing, and am not quite sure how to begin.
Truth is, Iím stubbornly not learning. Iíve had to learn a lot since achieving a normal weight. Learning to dress, to shop in new clothing stores, to walk, to sit, to buy shoes, to run in road races — all of these lessons feel rewarding and celebratory. Relearning eye contact doesnít feel quite so good. Itís an effort I need to make to assimilate with skinny people, to earn my way back into the very society that shut down eye contact with me long ago. Why should I?
I hope my indignation over fat bias will never resolve until weíve eliminated it. And though I understand that there are measures of attractiveness shared among all human beings, documented, provable, I donít have to like it. That is, although we are to some degree programmed in our responses to prefer ďnormalĒ to shun ďabnormal,Ē we are also capable of overriding our programming. We do, when we choose to. A society with no desire at all to overcome fat bias isnít one I want to rejoin, is it? Even if itís the only one Iíve got?
Yeah, but. Society is, after all, made of individuals. When I walk down the street now, there is no way the random woman approaching me knows sheís looking at a former overweight person. And I donít know that she is particularly fat biased. She offers me the average sort of eye contact she would offer any average person, and I must cultivate an average response to avoid shunning or hurting her or giving her an expression that might cause her to question herself or my sanity. That is, I need to channel the energy of my indignation into trying to affect change in society at large, but not direct it at individuals on the street. She doesnít deserve it. She deserves the same civil society that we all wish for.
And what if the expression she has to offer me contains some information? Fully half of human communication is nonverbal, offered through expressions and gestures. If Iím not looking, Iím missing half of what people have to ďsayĒ to me. Why would I want to miss that?
So Iím climbing down off of my very high and cranky horse and practicing looking people directly in the face.
I will if you will.