Most of us in the West feel increasingly isolated from each other, monads with our heads craned towards our smart-phones, or wandering the aisles half-conscious. The proliferation of both social media and cafes is part of the same dynamic – we long for human contact, yet we’re nervous about stepping outside our comfortable circle.
Talking to strangers is unsettling, in both senses – a little frightening and potentially liberating. That goes for all of us, but for those of us who are visibly different, whose bodies are obviously non-conformist, the approach of a stranger carries some peculiarly acute dilemmas.
I want to mention just two examples, and dwell for a moment in the gulf between them.
Late last year, at the local organic grocery, my partner and I were placing the last few items in our basket. Pumpkin, kipflers, silverbeet, most likely. It’s a narrow shop; you have to breathe in or walk sideways to pass people in the aisles. As we were leaving, a woman approached me with a vague smile on her face, her posture leaning slightly towards me. “Hello..”
I used to run a cafe, and I’m visibly memorable, so I assumed she recognised me; I smiled and said hi in return. She asked me how I was going, suggesting things must be pretty difficult. She told me she had a friend who specialised in alternative treatment, and that her own back pain was greatly relieved by visiting her. Oh, ok. She didn’t know me. It was going to be one of those “unsolicited charity conversations”.
I was in a reasonably optimistic mood and felt ok about being open with her. People rarely talk about embodiment, so perhaps this was a chance to share my own version of being human, and move pleasantly onwards. I told her I have Marfan Syndrome, which for me has meant an unusual shape, but actually no pain, luckily and gladly, and smiling while I said how ironic it is.
“Oh, you must have pain”, she said.
“Um, no, not really, no more than anyone, probably less, actually”.
This went back and forth for a while. I kept telling her my experience. She kept insisting she could help me with the problem I didn’t have.
Eventually the pointlessness of it ate away at my resolve. I was polite, direct, with perhaps just a hint of impatience. “I’m sorry, I really have to go, I’m really fine, OK?”.
She was stunned, almost mortified. “Ughh, I was only trying to be helpful!”. I’m reminded that my body seems to raise all sorts of questions that “demand” answers, and that fundamentalism is not limited to religion.
Fast-forward to just a few weeks ago. I’m in the middle of a busy period, wrestling with a thesis and other obligations, rushing into the local supermarket to pick up a few essentials. I only notice my own low-level stress when the little girl in the pink princess outfit cuts me off, running obliviously through the aisles – “Daddy! Look at me!” – and I’m instantly irritated. I try to avoid them, head down another aisle. Of course, being tired, I become indecisive and end up staring at a wall of condiments, unsure.
Suddenly, there’s “Dad” at my side. “Uh… hi…”, he says, casually but nervously, “my daughter was just asking me about your back, and I told her it’s better to ask than to stare, so I’m sorry to bother you, but is it ok if I ask you?”.
At these moments, a certain texture of solidity in my body comes up against a fluid world. I’m face to face with my own reluctance to engage, but underneath there is a way of being that accepts, even relishes, interconnection and the blurring of boundaries. Decision time, in a split second.
I tell them both, as simply as I can – yes, this is my spine, it’s just more curved than straight, and I’m healthy. Everyone has different shaped bodies. The little princess smiles, shyly looks down at her feet, then around the store. She’s obviously happy to meet someone unusual, but just as obviously awkward and a bit bored now.
Dad tells me they’ve asked other people before, and apparently she likes to hug people goodbye. Sure, why not? So, a hug and a brief chat later, we go our separate ways. Through the aisles and towards the checkout, with a slight crack in normality.
For a long time, though I wouldn’t have said it this way, I deeply resented my body and the kind of attention it attracted (and continues to attract). I wanted to be invisible, to move through the world with the anonymity I imagined everyone else had. Peoples’ eyes were like the rays of a harsh summer sun, the intensity magnified through the glass of my own discomfort. They burnt and hurt.
And nothing on earth consumes a man more quickly than the passion of resentment.
Friedrich Nietzsche, ‘Ecce Homo’
I have come gradually, fitfully, with some reluctance, to a realisation that this is the life and the body I have. Autonomy and self-determination is a mythical horizon. The love and support that I have been given over the years is evidence of that – without it, I would still be rushing back to the shadows, wishing for the impossible. In the face of the current neoliberal economy and consumerist culture, in spite of my own self-doubt and fragility, I want to build the connections that nourish myself and others. I want this life.
So, I think that being strange carries a kind of responsibility. There is no prescription, but I would suggest two guiding principles – openness to the unpredictability of the encounter, and respect for the particular embodied subjectivity of the other person. These principles go both ways of course.
For those of you who are strange and are often approached by strangers, I can’t tell you how to respond, though. We all have to find our own way of dealing with this “responsibility”, whether it be a repertoir of answers or a reserve of attitude that we draw on. Each body is unique, and each person makes their way through difference with their own temperament and aspirations. After all, we are more than what makes others stare at us.
For some other thoughtful and useful perspectives, try Carly Findlay’s blog post, Carly’s guest blogger Bailey, and Haley Morris-Cafiero’s provocative photography project.
Feel free to suggest other links or your own suggestions or insights – I’d love to see them.
Andy, I love this piece – as the owner of a body that has attracted comment recently I understand that embodiment is in the public sphere. As the parent of two young boys I could see myself in the situation of being the ‘dad’ (well, mum) you describe here. I’m lucky in that I have a medical background so that most times I can explain what it is about the person of interest that makes them attract my boys’ attention. Such encounters spark great conversations about physicality (and mental health) – I hope they will inform my children and lead to an acceptance of physicality, in all its variations.
Thanks! I think people who have respect as well as curiosity can do wonders for increasing acceptance of diversity, and actual human interactions in public space, both of which are so essential. It’s almost never easy to be questioned, but I know which I’d prefer.
Well said. Thanks for sharing that with us.
Andy, your writing always makes me respect and love you. I love the lucidity of your thinking. It occurs to me remembering an article I saw recently about the spinal consequences of poring constantly over a phone screen, as in the image you evoke right at the start of this piece, that by gradual degrees we may all be becoming more shaped like question marks. So you can tell the more insensitive strangers you are just ahead of your time.
It also occurs to me that your experience and mine of strangers’ reaction to our strangeness is in some ways kin, in some ways, opposite. I have been over six feet since puberty. Being mistaken for an adult – often by interested men – as a shy child was sometimes frightening. What poet would wish on themselves an attention-getting body? The privacy to blend into the landscape and observe or dream can only rarely be ours. Yet when people stare or remark, uninvited, on my height, as they do every week, it is rarely a commiseration. Often they imagine they are conveying a compliment, even advising me of a kind of power they seem to think I hold yet am perhaps unaware of. Yet the subtext is: your otherness makes you remarkable, legitimizes my remark. I’ve often had people ask me my height and then refuse to give theirs in exchange, as though mine is some kind of freakish public statistic and theirs is personal information.
To be attributed a bodily authority that has nothing to do with my often rather retiring personality is unpleasant. To be attributed a bodily suffering you do not experience whilst the person imposing that on you (gah!) also imposes a different kind of suffering, the pain of when “I kept telling her my experience. She kept insisting she could help me with the problem I didn’t have.” must be, how can I put this, very character building.
Thanks so much Cathoel, and that’s very interesting. I’m always fascinated by parallel stories – how we can suddenly become public property, for many different reasons. Height is certainly one of them, especially for women – and I know the experience of being stared at or examined is very different for women (I might be a quiet poet, but I’m still a man in this culture). “What poet would wish on themselves an attention-getting body?”. Indeed, so true. Still, time flows forwards, not backwards; I’m getting used to that.
Mostly I get these questions for being someone who is not easily gendered at first sight. I work in a library and often get children ask if I am a girl or a boy. Increasingly there are young people of backgrounds where gender is a very binary thing expressed by certain clothing and hair who are just fascinated by a lady who looks like a man or maybe not a man.
But I have to say the most challenging thing I have been through recently is the way my neice responded to her growing awareness of my movement disorder. She herself is is quite an anxious child with an early perfectionist streak – 6 years old. She became terrified that because of my extra movements I would ‘stuff things up’ – I would get ‘your too twitchy aunty Katharine’ ‘ you can’t do it’ ‘you’ll stuff it up’ – I know that this was triggered by her own innate fear of stuffing things up. No amount of explaining really gets through to a 6 year old so I had to wait and have many patient conversations. Inside I was devastated. She herself was born with genetic congenital issues which she will come to understand better as she grows. The questions and comments have lessened and I don’t know if someone intervened or she is working through but my god it was confronting.
Thanks for sharing this. And, absolutely that sounds confronting. You’re right, too, that so much of people’s anxiety is due to their discomfort with their own bodies (or even fears of what they might be or become). For those of us whose bodies are extraordinary, or just don’t fit the binaries, it’s tiring and sometimes painful to have to engage with people when they’re still in the early stages of realising how diverse people can be (though it’s certainly easier to be compassionate with a child). Each encounter has its unique challenges, and the rewards often come very slowly.
hi andy loved the little piece you wrote about “strangeness”. Wonderful story. I’m interested in reactions to mental strangeness, rather than physical (altho I understand physical deformity is what interests you most). The whole concept of strangeness I find a brick wall. Strangeness means “not normal” & normality varies enormously depending on a host of factors. I wonder sometimes if poets are born strange becos real poets start in childhood & teens (meaning writing poems in secret). Many people also find poetry strange. Other factors also have led me to the point where I now think “strangeness” is an umbrella concept covering a host of ideas. It’s one of those abstract words where you can show instances of strangeness but not strangeness itself. opens up many avenues to peer down. warm regards ken
Thanks Ken. Strangeness and Normality are both very elusive concepts! We feel them more than understand them. I can almost feel another post coming on…
I just had to leave a note saying how much I enjoyed reading this post. I stumbled upon a mention of your work (and thus your blog) by happy accident and have really enjoyed having a bit of a read, but loved this post. Your conversation about strangeness vs normality reminded me of a tv show (Mr & Mrs Murder)- where one of the main characters tells his niece there are no normal people and that normal is the average between interesting & boring (“normal people don’t actually exist”).
Anyway, loved this post, following your blog now :-). Cheers 🙂
Thanks so much, lovely to hear that. And that’s a great quote too – and who would want to be boring or normal?!
Exactly! 🙂 It would be so much less interesting. You’re welcome- it’s always nice to find something new to read that’s interesting :-).