Skinny Daily Post

Invincible.

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.

Recreating eye gaze in computer avatars, Microsoft

The social codes of looking, Daniel Chandler

Eye Gaze Information Processing Theory, Brian Keeley

6 thoughts on “Relearning Eye Contact

  1. Sylwia says:

    I know what you mean when you talk of indignation. I’ve experienced it myself on a much smaller scale recently. It doesn’t even take a particularly large weight loss to change the way people interact with you and really leads you to ask yourself the question – What did they think of me before??? So coupled with the giddiness and the novelty of attention is the nagging feeling that you don’t want to be part of this particular club, now that they don’t blackball you anymore.

  2. Marcia says:

    Why is it that I know exactly what you are talking about?

    I didn’t have poor eyesight diagnosed for a long while because I was always looking at the ground.

    But you know, while it is horrible that society treats large people like they are invisible – it is worse that I wanted to be invisible.

    So now I try and hold up my head and look at people – sometimes even smile at them.

    Thanks for bringing this topic up.

  3. Shelley says:

    I read your column regularly and really enjoy it. I feel like (with 140 lbs to donate, release–whatever, I don’t even know where to start. I’d just like to be out of my particular weight category which would only be 20 lbs.

    Thanks for your encouragment!!

  4. Santana says:

    I feel the same way, but we need to take responsibility too that we let the eye contact go. Did people really stop giving it to us, or did we, in our personal shame (speak for myself here) decide that we were no longer worthy of eye contact, so we stopped making it first? Did we just decide that no one would give it to us, so we stopped looking, and now that you feel worthy (I am assumming you feel this way), you are initiating it yourself?

    It’s funny, but I am only down 10lbs during this journey I am on, but I have been of very normal weight and good looking before, so I remember what the “eye contact” felt like- and even now, I feel like I am getting more than I did ten pounds ago- however, I know my weightloss isn’t that noticable to those who know me, and I know people who have never met me, still see me as quite heavy… so what really changed? My perspective or reality?

    Great post- got me thinking!

  5. JuJu says:

    Hi there Santana,

    Yes, I agree, it’s mutual. Any form of prejudice begets reverse prejudice, and you end up not knowing where it starts, or where it can stop. But certainly, everyone needs to take responsibility for fixing it. That’s what makes fighting any prejudice so damn hard, I suppose. No one feels responsible for fixing it?

    I KNOW I’m prejudiced against the naturally thin. I just need to find a way to quit it. I aspire to more noble thoughts and feelings. I really do. This post is really about trying to change my mind… again…

  6. NewJane says:

    Eye contact is definitely one of those chicken-versus-the-egg things. How much of the lack of it is from us and how much from others is impossible to gauge.

    For most of my life I thought men didn’t look at me. Those who obviously did, I branded as sickos in my mind. I was a master at non-verbal keep-away messages. Then a dear male buddy somehow became the love of my life and suddenly, my perspective on the world changed. My internal dialog went from, “I am disgusting, fat and ugly,” to “I am woman! My man thinks I am beautiful and sexy.” Just that fast I began holding my head up higher, meeting people’s eyes and smiling. It stunned me how many men began flirting with me, wanting to be part of my inner glow. Many more women strangers felt free to speak to me as well.

    We’ve been happily married for many years now and I’ve continued to range from 230-285 pounds. I’m a busy preoccuppied mother of young children. I often don’t think to look at others. I spend more time looking down to keep track of the kids than looking up at strangers. I have easily fallen back into assumptions about why men in particular aren’t paying me much attention. “I’m a fat middle-aged woman who didn’t even find time for make-up this morning,” I think.

    I had an interesting experience awhile back which showed me my own responsibility in this once again. My car broke down, but I had an appointment with the opthalmologist and the bus was reasonably convenient. Afterwards, I decided to use my remaining time before the kids got home to treat myself to a peaceful library trip alone. Every step of the way, men were smiling at me, going out of their way to make conversation with me, acting like gentlemen. It rather freaked me out. Then I saw myself in the mirror in the restroom and saw big dilated eyes, the aftereffect of the eyedrops from the exam. I was actually merely rather blind, but looked incredibly turned-on. And it seemed like every man I ran into was instinctively responding. I could hardly wait to get home! I felt so vulnerable. The library had been a stupid idea anyway, because those dilated eyes couldn’t focus anyway.

    So sure, I don’t get as many of those look-you-up-and-down-and-check-out-what-you’ve-got looks as slim women, but there’s a lot more to it than that.

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