How it feels to be constantly stared at as a disabled woman
As a disabled person, you learn very early on that your body is seen by many as something to objectify. Every Tom, Dick or Harry will have an opinion, even when you didn’t ask for one, and, let me tell you, it never gets any easier to digest. You simply learn to live with it and do your best not to let it impact your world more than it should.
I never understood when people would advise me simply to brush it off. ‘Just ignore them, Sam,’ as though someone stopping in the street to look – eyes wide, mouth ajar, like you are some kind of extra-terrestrial, with no consideration of how that might make you feel – is something you can simply ignore. Ignoring it, not talking about it, and suppressing how it made me feel was not the coping strategy I so desperately needed.
Because every stare was internalised. They made me feel inadequate. They were a little reminder that ‘you aren’t one of us, Samantha’. Pretending that the world wasn’t unaccepting of disabled people was not helpful. It made me feel invalidated and powerless. I’d often look in the mirror and question: what do they see that is so bad?
Staring is very much an art form. It has many guises. There is the side glance, the blatant, unashamed peering with a slight open jaw in disbelief. The tap-your-mate-on-the-shoulder-to-have-a-quick-look stare. The glance with a giggle. The ‘I know I shouldn’t, but I’m going to anyway’ stare. The stare that is followed by a smile that totally negates any rudeness or ignorance and makes it all okay, right? Then there is the thirst for knowledge stare, usually from kids. ‘Look, Mummy, why’s that lady so small?’ These are most usually accompanied by a finger point. Then there is the stop-and-take-a-photo stare, which often happens in crowded areas as though the perpetrator thinks I won’t notice.
But I see you, I f*cking see you, and it hurts.
The way I react has evolved over time and, in many respects, is totally dependent on how I feel on any given day. If I’m on my period, if I’m preoccupied, or if I’m in someone’s company. Especially if I’m on a date – I worry that the stares of others will put them off ever returning for date two. I am constantly on high alert. I have to be honest and say for many years my knee-jerk reaction to these people was to tell them to go f*ck themselves.
However, my impulsive desire to make others feel bad about their stares by saying something along the lines of ‘take a picture, it will last longer’ or simply flipping them the finger are far behind me. Not because I’m a saint. Because although giving them a taste of their medicine for making me feel like crap may have given me a temporary rush of power, it always backfired and inevitably left me feeling bad for the rest of the day. I’m inherently a people-pleaser, and this tit-for-tat playoff is out of character for me and so not good for the soul. Ergo, it gave them back the power.