What it feels like to be stared at in public

I’ve been starred at by men and women alike in public. It’s an odd thing, catching the eye of someone observing the way I walk. When it’s a woman, she’s usually elderly and experiencing some kind of mobility issue herself. There’s this weird moment of one-upmanship where she glances at me from head to toe, giving a nod that says, Yes, we’re both struggling to move, but at least I didn’t look like you in my 20s! I’m winning!

The occasions where men have stared at me have been a different experience.

It happened once in college at a party when a man looked at me and demanded, “Are you limping!?” and continued to stare until I gave him an answer. I wanted to throw my milk in his face.

It happened when I took my first course at Bethel University. I stepped off an elevator to witness a man watch me walk down the hall. I turned and caught him in the act. He gulped and turned red.

It happened last April while walking into a coffee shop. I thought the man going in the door was checking me out as I walked toward him. I could feel his eyes on me. As I got nearer, I realized he was gawking at the way I walk—then I watched him frown. What he saw was disappointing.

In that moment, I wanted to say all kinds of angry things, but, I said nothing. I let him open the door for me, and watched him find a table, where he proceeded to pull out his big bible and concordance.

Being stared at is like being stared through. Only the shell of your being is seen; your soul goes unnoticed. It hurts. It cuts in a way that leaves a mark. It makes you want to stay inside, stay home, and stay single! It challenges you to believe that what you have to offer the world is unwelcome.

Even though you know you’re valuable, you feel you’ve just been appraised and found lacking. Even though you are loved by many people in your life—male and female, you go home and ask yourself dark questions, “Does everyone look at me this way; are some just better at hiding it than others?” “Am I always going to be disappointing in the eyes of others?” “What is it about me that needs to change?”

All of these painful experiences of being stared at in public have taught me this:

How we see each other matters.

Looks can pierce. They can also heal.

You and I get to decide what role we’re going to play.

Perhaps one of the most powerful gifts we can ever give away is to love someone with our eyes—to make eye contact and smile. Being seen in a way that acknowledges the soul can change a person. Some of the pain of the past can melt. When a person sees eyes staring back at them, reflecting love, not disappointment, they realize they are safe to be themselves, even when all of their flaws are on display. It gives them courage to believe that what they have to offer the world is not only welcome, but a much richer place because of it.

Let’s love each other well. Let’s do it with our eyes.