You should definitely keep staring.
Yes. I know.
My body is confusing you. You’re not quite sure what you’re seeing so you stare longer than would be appropriate to try and figure it out.
You can’t help it. Humans are wired that way. Scan for the threat, sort and categorize to stay alive, says the lizard brain. It helped me when I learned this was a thing in graduate school a few years ago. The impulsive decision to enroll that ended up saving my life as it buoyed me through a gender transition in my mid-30s. A time of such tremendous stress, anxiety and disorientation that I clung to anything that felt tangible and real.
Sociology is a thing. So is biology. Psychology as well.
When people did things that hurt my head and my heart, I turned to the sciences to understand the patterns. The systems made sense of the illogical and sorted the seemingly random instances of ignorance.
Much like your own. As you stare at me now.
See, I didn’t notice people staring at me before I transitioned. Maybe people were staring and I didn’t notice. Maybe there was nothing to stare at.
But people, like you, are staring now. Often. And I can’t stop noticing it.
They think I don’t see them but sunglasses make for great spy-ware.
“I can see you, you know,” I want to say to you as I pass. Or as I stand on the train. Or sit in a cafe.
Your stare has a certain look to it. It’s usually the same. It’s part, “I don’t know what I’m looking at” and part “I can’t stop looking” and part “oh, did I just get caught?”
The wiring in your brain is working very hard to scan the dimensions and size up the ratios for congruence — shoulders to hips — jawline to nose — hands, feet, etc.
“I can tell you were a woman,” says my professor, staring and scanning. “I can tell by your hands.”
“Thanks,” I say, stunned and sheepish. They’re my mother’s.
There’s a phase of childhood and then adolescence where we are hyper-vigilant about being stared at. We think everyone everywhere has us on the brain.
I actually don’t know that this feeling ever goes away, for some more of us than others.
How we think others see us shapes who we are and it has a name. The looking-glass self is a concept defined by Charles Cooley and it refers to the way we are impacted by what we think others think of us. It has three stages:
- We imagine what we think people see.
- We imagine and react to our assumption of what we think.
- We shift or shape our “self” according to real or perceived judgments of others.
Because social psychologists tell us that a huge percentage of human behavior is aimed at being liked. We all just want to be cool. Most of what we do and say (from haircuts to fashion to other forms of self-expression) is a subconscious or conscious attempt at external validation and approval.
Some methods are more effective than others.
Some attempts seem completely counter-intuitive to actually getting the approval we desire. It looks and sounds a lot of like self-sabotage.
But the desire is there, nonetheless. No matter how people deny it.
(As a coach, I know a lot of secrets. What people show you and what they tell ME are two very different things.)
Liberating ourselves from this desire and need is arguably one of our greatest challenges as human beings. The ability to self-validate and self-express without attachment to external sources takes incredible fortitude and skill. It’s an essential internal muscle, crucial to finding inner peace.
Which is why I welcome the staring. Keep doing it. It’s good for me.
According to Cooley’s theory, I could conjecture that you’re staring because you can’t quite figure out who or what I am based on my body type. That idea is connected to my own self-image and body image of what I see when I look in the mirror. I ask close trusted friends and they think I’m crazy.
“Dillan, they are staring because __________________” and share a whole set of reasons that aren’t what I have created in my own mind because the looking-glass theory is based on what we create in our heads and how we act from our assumptions, not from REALITY.
But sometimes it becomes reality. Like yesterday when the woman said, “hi ma’am — -oh, sir, how can I help you?”
I never know when or how or why my gender is unclear.
I know why it matters to people.
I don’t know when or how or why it won’t.
“What are you hiding, Dillan?” she said, so callously from the safety of her cisgender normality. “What do you not want people to know?”
That this wasn’t the body I would have selected from the shelf of top picks. I would have much preferred the model that is taken for granted by millions of cisgender white boys all over the world.
But I get a different choice: to choose the one I’ve been given. And to take impeccable care of it and learn, each day, to accept and embrace it. To stretch it and soothe it and shape it using food, water, exercise and the selective use of a scalpel.
Not the easiest of tasks but I’d rather this than the comeuppance of long-denied privilege. It’s bitter, that pill.
For a while, staring like yours really disturbed me. There are still many days where it hits a nerve that has become steadily desensitized from four years of fatigue. I have simply grown tired of being stared at and worrying what people think. Each day is another chance to accept that I have limited control over my body — and what people see and what they wonder and when they won’t.
The most sobering thought is how often I walked around thinking I looked a certain way completely oblivious to how I appeared to people and what they thought. I was so determined to have the internal experience I desired, that I dressed the part and felt the part (even if I didn’t look the part). Sort of fake it until you make it, you know?
And that worked for a while but there was also a level of denial that wasn’t actually serving me. I was hiding or avoiding responsibility to take action and make choices for the sake of my own health and happiness.
And I still don’t think I’ve made it. But I’ve lost sight of what that even means anymore. I’ve stopped caring. I’ve stopped aspiring toward a certain ideal or image that I once valued or desired in favor of accepting and appreciating what IS.
I did this because I noticed the losing game of looking a certain way. Because people-watching reveals nothing if not the ridiculous diversity of shapes and sizes and it’s rather incredible that we somehow squeeze our many versions of long, lanky, short, stocky, angular, curved bodies into clothing that often creates chaotic confusion more than comfort.
So, please. Keep staring. You should definitely keep staring, trying to figure out what I am.
Because I’m doing the same thing. In a culture that gives me two choices, I’m doing my best to fit into those boxes like the bodies we squeeze into ill-fitting clothes. Everyone’s body is on trial and I seek solace in seeing this as a gauntlet we survive for the next life when our character counts more.
And today my pants fit well and they are three sizes smaller than the ones I wore this time last year which is the result of 365 days of self-love and exercise and ice cream and vegetables and hamburgers and water and even a drink now and then. I didn’t drop the weight and find my abs by fasting or starving or beating myself up mercilessly with workout after workout.
And this might have been the first year of my life when that happened.
And I might celebrate with a cupcake. And you can stare as I peel the wrapper with my delicate hands, which might be too delicate for you to think they belong to a man.
They belong to a person. Who is loved by my mother. And I love her hands.
They held me as a child and I’ve grown up to be a good person.
I’m caring and confident and courageous.
Come to think of it, maybe that’s what you’re staring at.
So definitely keep staring.