Thursday, September 5, 2013

We notice each other too much, maybe.

Last week I read an article quoting several women on one of the sad side-effects of aging in our society: feeling invisible. No longer being noticed by men or offered seats on trains.

Granted, some complaints cited men ignoring them in bars but a bar is a total pickup joint. I'm not surprised a woman wouldn't feel appreciated for her intellect, wit or compassion there.

But it made me think about how I *like* being invisible. I don't enjoy being noticed, it makes me feel self-conscious. When a guy tries to hold my eye contact extra long, all smiley and flirty-like, I start getting shy. Yesterday I bought chili from a local deli and the cashier, a local college boy, smiled winningly and batted his eyes, I immediately felt my cheeks get red and looked away. I'm old enough to be your MOM, I thought. I don't know what to do with friendliness sometimes, even if it's not personal and only because someone is working and just being nice.

I have some issues about my body too. When I was younger, I had some girlfriends who carried extra weight and were extremely self-conscious about it. I felt terrible that they felt terrible so I dressed in baggy clothes whenever we got together. (Bonus: baggy clothes are *extremely* comfortable and I'm ALL about comfort.)
Even Jessica Simpson's on board, see?

Another of Jessica Simpson just for contrast.
(See how different it looks to be dressed sexy vs. baggy?)
Now I dress mostly moderately -- kindof plain, but it fits me. I do remember one time when my ex-husb and I were newly-together and I got all dressed up (the second and last time in my life I wore heels?) when we went out with a bunch of his friends and they all gawked approvingly, I was kindof mortified. It felt (and I feel ridiculous for saying this but I honestly felt like this) extremely uncomfortable since at that time, the only guy I wanted to notice me was my partner. It felt uncomfortable being noticed by his friends. They weren't inappropriate and wouldn't have crossed lines but the fact that they said anything at all made me feel strange.

I asked my partner later if he was uncomfortable too and he said no, he was proud of me and liked when his friends thought I was attractive but it was still weird for me. I didn't dress up much. I favored baggy sweats (hey, I was a student! It was the school uniform.)

Once, though, a friend of my partner, a gorgeous, petite girl who always dressed sexy took me aside and suggested I dress more provocatively for my mate. She said he would appreciate it. She seemed to indicate he had expressed this wish to her but I didn't really want to dress sexy and so I did not.

I have this memory from standing on the cusp of being wonderfully un-selfconscious to suddenly self-aware.

When I hit adolescence, I was an ugly duckling. I was tomboyish and climbed trees and played soccer and ran through the woods with my dog. I was kindof a loner. I had a few friends but not many. I wasn't popular but this was okay, I liked being alone. I certainly didn't get the attention of any boys and was used to being invisible. It was nice.

My family moved near the beach after our house sold and I began zipping up and down the shoreline on my bike. I rode for hours, it was the only thing I wanted to do. I didn't care what the weather was. I didn't have special gear or clothing so if it was hot, I just wore something light.

Well one day it was like 100 degrees out so I threw on a pair of shorts and had this tiny hand-me-down tank top with spaghetti straps. It was loose and so the wind could get underneath and cool me, I thought.

I threw it on without a bra since I was only 14 and barely had a chest. I certainly didn't need the support. I hated bras anyway, they signified being a woman and I rejected the expectation that I should start wearing makeup and be girly, and I especially hated the restriction in movement.

In retrospect, this top was like a piece of lingerie but I didn't realize it at the time and so threw it on and went for a long bike ride.

I stopped by my dad's shop to say hello -- it was on my route -- and he greeted me happily. We chatted a bit and then he said "um, it's so nice to see you but next time you stop by, maybe wear something that covers a little more? I don't like the way I see the guys here looking at you."

This took me by surprise.

I was indignant at first. I can't wear something that will keep me cool because some dudes will notice me? What a pain in the ass. I didn't want to be looked at. I wanted to glide through life invisibly, it felt safe not to be noticed.

In a recent discussion about workplace gawking, I realized it's not always men that do the noticing -- most of the time when someone has made me uncomfortable about my body at work, it was a woman.

Women spend a huge amount of time sizing each other up and they're not always discrete about it.

There is a woman I work with who, every time she sees me, does a full body sweep so obvious that I have come to dread seeing her in the hall. It happens without fail and I don't know what I could possibly say. If it were a guy, I would be direct and request it stop but here, I'm at a loss.

I mean, it is socially acceptable for women to notice and say things about each other's looks. Sexual harassment training at work targets mostly men but not so much awareness for female peers. Still, it's not usually a big deal. Between friends, it can even be sweetly supportive but with strangers or acquaintances, this kind of attention can feel uncomfortable.

Maybe we are like this with each other because of  a biological sense of comparison. I mean, how else to explain the draw of a $3,000 purse? No dude ever asked a girl out because of her handbag.

The purse is what's captivating here, obviously.

But I don't want to compete.

If I'm thinner than my companions, I want to apologize and if I'm fatter, I feel self-conscious.  (And I have seen this from both sides: being thinner AND carrying extra weight.) Either way, our bodies always seem up for comment.

Oddly enough, my self-consciousness can manifest in a sense of judgment too, which I am not proud to admit. Ten times a day, I may think "I wish I were that thin" or "at least I'm not like that," which is kindof a shitty projection to carry around, and paradoxically, probably the exact voice that compels the very noticing that drove this self-conscious post in the first place.

I wonder if men feel like this too, very aware of whether or not they fit in.

Maybe it's a societal thing and none of us can escape being noticed.


  1. Some of us do care a little about how we look to others, outside of wearing the normal "uniform" required for work. Being a little unique or "slightly different" always brings both welcome and un-welcome attention. An example: Though it was more likely a comment on my personality than personal appearance/fashion sense, probably late middle school to early high school, a specific comment might come from a peer, "Your weird (strange, odd, funny, crazy, etc.)", which would be met by me with a big smile and a "Thank you, very much" (as I was completely happy to receive such a compliment.)
    I could comment on how we as human animals are programmed to notice others. Example: As a passenger in a car driving down the interstate, look toward a neighboring car (same level, about the same speed) and notice within seconds that most people will pick up on the fact that there is a face turned in their direction...Our brains know, perhaps subconsciously... and to look and be looked at is just part of us.

  2. I think that's the best answer - a "thank you" because what people want is to get under your skin. If you show it doesn't bother you, they can't feed off it and so stop doing it. I've heard unkind comments too, everyone has.

    Yeah, I don't know how people can tell someone's looking at them but human sight is supposed to be particularly acute for noticing movement, especially in our peripheral vision.