On being looked at / A propos du regard

"I don't break only hearts" by miss.tic, Paris 11ème

“I don’t break only hearts” by miss.tic, Paris 11ème

An opening note (though I should avoid disclaimers?): this is probably a post in process. I have many thoughts on this subject — the question of the gaze has been a very thorny one for a long time (and I’m not great on my feminist theory, so don’t expect any) — based on many different experiences, and they’re very difficult to organize into something coherent. Here’s my first shot.

So I get stared at a lot. This is by no means a phenomenon limited to France. For whatever reason, I don’t get stared at where I normally live – Northern California – but I get stared at all the time in North Carolina (where I spent most of my time growing up), people have stared up a storm in most of the other countries I’ve visited — and boy, do I get stared at in France.

Not all stares are the same, but what they do have in common is that I can’t entirely untangle the reasons I’m getting stared at. I can make rough guesses. In NC, it’s mostly that I look weird, I think; I dress androgynously and often have short hair (I’m constantly afraid – an unfortunate sentiment, but the truth – that I’m being correctly pegged as queer; I’m brave enough to keep presenting as rather genderqueer, but not brave enough to do it with flair). This would be true in other places in the States that I get stares. In Asia I get stared at, I presume, largely because I’m usually in areas where white tourists are rare – and I’m a particularly odd-looking white tourist, I suspect, with my men’s clothes and my hugeness (I am nearly six feet tall, and most definitely fat by anyone’s standards).

The stares in France, in turn, have a different quality. My currently-short hair has nothing to do with it; in fact, I suspect my hair is one of the reasons I’m nearly always approached as French by service workers in a city where I might easily be taken for American. My clothes and my weight, however… I chose the above miss.tic graffito because this is a good example of what French women are “supposed” to look like, and generally do look like not only in miss.tic’s work but in the media in general (on a side note, wow, advertising here is really fond of using naked/semi-naked sexy ladies to sell things, in particular anything meant to seem healthy — not a coincidence). This image of femininity is of course not by any means uncommon in the Western world (and, I expect, beyond) — sexy, alluring, thin. I do think it’s even more powerful here than in some other places.

I don’t feel like going into an attack on sizeism — plenty of great writers have done that lately (I refer you to Jezebel, which features posts on this topic fairly often). I do feel like talking about the particular quality of the gaze in France — the female gaze, not so much the male gaze (which is a whole blog post in itself). I get stared at a lot nearly everywhere, but nowhere do I feel more monstrous in body than France. It makes me sorry to say that; I want to defend my culture, writing in English as I am; I don’t want the statement to be true… but it is. As soon as I get off the plane or the Eurostar, the same feeling washes over, the shame, the dread of having to eat out or attend family functions or do anything else that requires dressing well, the desire to curl up in on myself, the attempts to remember not to do that (my friend D., channeling my friend L., has written a great post on the value of going “tits out” instead of curling up). Lately, I consciously straighten my pose; I try to project confidence I don’t feel; I remain aware both of the importance of seeming nonchalant and of the fact that my ways of sitting/standing nonchalantly are usually produced by American body language, which I have mixed feelings about using here. I worry about what I’m wearing and whether there’s anything I could do to be slightly more in fashion, while knowing that’s a hopeless desire. French clothing simply doesn’t fit me, and my weight alone will get me those looks unless I drop several dozen pounds.

But I’m scattering a bit. American women may say it’s the same in the states (if so feel free to comment), but I feel the female gaze here more regularly and painfully than anywhere else. Men look at me too, but they’re more likely to project curiosity or surprise; women weigh you up and judge you… oh, that familiar look in the eyes, the familiar suppressed smirk in the worst cases. (Plenty of thin French women I know report seeing the same look, based on clothes slightly out of fashion.) Remember what I said in the last post about perfection? This is one of the base sides of that. I suspect, the culture of perfection being what it is, that very few (if any) of even the most fashionable thin women escape a few of those looks. I take the oh-so-subtle but oh-so-evident look of judgment as another symptom of the culture of perfection. (On a side note, not all French women give these looks by any means. I’ve had many women this week be sweet to me with no hint of judgment. I’ve just had more women throw me this look than not.)

I’ve been looking around for other fat people, or at least other overweight women, and there are some (the French press has bemoaned the “fattening” of the country for years and, of course, often blaming an Americanization of the culture) — there are some, but boy do I stick out like a sore thumb, with my height and my weight and my shapeless clothes that consist too often of funny t-shirts. (Seriously. The only fashionable thing I wear are Converse — they’re still very much in vogue here — but my shoes can’t combat the rest of me.) Don’t take the above as a statement that I want the French to fatten up (though plenty of the women could stand a bit of fattening, given the rates of anorexia/bulimia); it’s just hard being somewhere where so few people look like you when there’s so much pressure not to look like you.

This is a a dead-end post, because what can one conclude? The French stare a lot. They stare at everything, to be fair; they love people-watching with a passion; curious glances are not rude here, some glances don’t bother me and the directness of the gaze doesn’t bother me in itself (I curb my looking of Americans in the eye out of respect for that particular taboo) — but, unfortunately, a lot of that staring, in a case like mine, comes with an unspoken judgment about how I’m not fitting in with the ideal. It doesn’t help that to some extent the whole country is simply built for people smaller than me (the French in general were quite short until my generation, the first truly post-war one, the first one not to have been widely malnourished), so I feel like a bull in a china shop in shops, cafés, etc.

I look at this photo of miss.tic’s graffito, and I look at the other griffiti of hers in my street, and I don’t know how to feel about it. It’s not every female artist’s job to combat the constant depiction of a culture’s female ideal, and for all I know she’s being ironic or something (quite possible, based on the little I’ve seen of her other work). I know there’s a feminist anti-anorexia / negative body image movement happening in France now, as well (the Sarkozy administration, in fact, tried to ban all websites that could be seen to encourage anorexia, which is a bit of an epidemic in France). I wish them well, given the uphill battle they have.

Body issues: American women, you think things are bad at home? Come here. Sadness: I would like to stop feeling monstrous in my own country. I’d like to forget the two old ladies at CDG when I was fifteen who hadn’t heard me speak, looked at me and at each other and then said “they don’t make them like that here, do they?” (their extreme embarrassment when my responding smile made it clear I’d understood). I’d like to lose a bunch of weight and be able to fit in better, so I could break the rules in a way that felt more like my choosing — see what I wrote about my handwriting.

On a random final note: I was finally watching tv in a serious way yesterday, and noticed that every single commercial featuring a food or drink was accompanied by on-screen warnings like “avoid snacking between meals” and “don’t eat too much salty or sugary food.” It didn’t matter how healthy the food was; there is obviously a law requiring all ads for foodstuffs to include this and the address for a related website. No doubt a pro-health campaign, and an anti-obesity one. Another thing I don’t know how to feel about. It’s not like they’re not right about health, and it’s not like they’re bashing fat people or anything… it just feels weird having warnings splashed across all foods like the warnings on cigarette packs. Do we really want to warn people off all food? What’s the thinking behind this? Something is disturbing there.

(An even more random p.s. from the queer in me as well as the conditioned woman in me: All the above aside, the French produce a great many beautiful ladies. So, yes, the culture has worked its power on me, and while I don’t subscribe to that ideal or demand it of those to whom I’m attracted, I do appreciate it. But you can basically never break free of culture, which is part of what makes biculturality interesting… another post for another day.)