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Washington Voices

Front Porch: Looking is OK, staring – not so much

Why is it that when someone has spinach in their teeth or a funny hair growing off their nose or some such oddity, that’s the only thing we see – and we can’t avert our eyes, no matter what?

Recently I had a little growth cut off my forehead. It was no big deal as these things are pretty common and not much of a problem. So for a couple of days, I had the big bandage. Then a week with stitches exposed to the open air. Then when the stitches came out, steri-strips holding things in place. And then, just the healing scar.

Everybody I came across stared. I mean, there it was on my forehead like a miner’s headlamp. You couldn’t miss it. Close friends would ask what’s up and, of course, I’d tell them. But as I engaged others not so close to me in conversation, I would observe their gaze move from my general mid-face area up slightly to the wound. I could see them recover themselves and adjust their line of sight, but sure enough, up their eyes would go again. Not possible to resist.

So what I started doing when I first began talking with someone I knew casually, someone who was immediately surveying the wound, I would begin by saying “bar fight” and then move into whatever we were going to be talking about. Most people realized (I hope) that I had been kidding and would either politely ask about it or I’d just toss into the conversation that while the bar story sounded more exotic, I’d really just had a thingy surgically removed from my forehead.

The air was cleared, but the eyes still migrated.

I understand. I have been on the other side myself. I recall a woman I was talking with who had a big clump of mascara kind of pooled at the inside corner of one of her eyes. I couldn’t keep my eyes off it. Since looking into someone’s eyes during conversation is appropriate behavior, I don’t think I was too boorish, but I wasn’t really looking into her eyes as much as I was looking into her eye. Another time I was having lunch with a friend, and she had a smear of mustard on her cheek, no doubt deposited there when she’d used her napkin upon which some mustard had been hiding. My eyes kept drifting to starboard to look at it, and I kept having to steer them back to proper focus. Since she was a good enough friend, I just leaned forward and said conspiratorially that a mustard invasion was making its way across her face.

And just as soon as I said that, she moved to blot it off, going immediately to the wrong cheek. That always happens, too, a move to the wrong side of the face when in tidy-up mode. One of those universal laws of how stuff works.

But this staring at things sometimes is less benign. I have a friend who is noticeably handicapped. She is also quite heavy. When she walks with her canes, it’s a slow and rather ungainly process, made even more difficult by her size. I so admire that she hasn’t let her disabilities keep her from living a life – going places and doing things, including planting a garden. Good for her! But people stare, and there’s clearly judgment in their glances. They try to do it, I think, when they think she can’t see them, assuming, I guess, that her peripheral vision is somehow on the fritz along with her legs.

But she does see it. Mostly she ignores it. A few times people have actually come up to her and said something encouraging about her efforts to get out and about in the world. But in fact, she knows the difference between their looks and the ones that carry scorn with them. It can still hurt, but she made the conscious decision some time ago not to waste her own energy thinking about unkind people and how they behave. I’m pretty impressed.

Even though my friend has surely chosen the correct way to handle glares, I – a less kindly person than she, obviously – find myself wanting to suggest that when she catches someone staring at her awkwardly moving legs, she just turn to them and say something like “skiing injury” with a smile and just stare back at them – with the sweetest of looks on her own face, of course.

My little scar episode and those spinach-in-the-teeth moments we’ve all experienced are fleeting, and I get the fact that people can’t not look and that looking is pretty harmless stuff. But the prolonged staring that is deliberate, the kind that seems to have superiority attached, isn’t so involuntary and is (or should be), I believe, controllable. For that, I think we need to do better. Sorry, but I feel swelling within me a mini rant about doing unto others. Or maybe I’m just being protective of my friend.

Voices correspondent Stefanie Pettit can be reached by email at Previous columns are available at