Taking a good hard look at staring

EMORY (US)—Staring is both a natural impulse and a social blunder—a response to novelty and a dopamine rush.

“We stare at what interests us,” says Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, professor of Women’s Studies at Emory University. “We stare to make the unknown known, to make sense of the unexpected.”

Garland-Thomson, a cultural critic and pioneering researcher in disability studies, analyzes the interaction of the starer and the ‘staree’ in a new book, Staring: How We Look.


“Because we both crave and dread unpredictable sights, staring encounters are fraught with anxious contradiction,” she writes.

Staring can be a show of dominance, a sign of flirtation, or an instinctual reaction to a sight that is shocking, frightening, confusing, or unexpected.

Garland-Thomson says for people who are visually different, being stared at is a given: even more so if their disability affects a body site that “inherently draws more attention” because it carries significant cultural meaning, such as faces, hands, breasts or being of greater or lesser size than average.

“Staring is a natural impulse but often a social blunder,” she says. Those being stared at are not powerless, Garland-Thomson adds.

Many of the “starable” people she interviewed and included in the book have devised ways to command control of the staring encounter. For example, Kevin Connolly, who was born legless, became a traveling documentary photographer, taking photos of people’s reactions when they saw him.

Staring may prompt a conversation which can lead to understanding, empathy, education, and most importantly, activism.

Children whose arms had been amputated by machete in the Sierra Leone civil war, for instance, became potent living symbols of the war’s brutality, inspiring the various factions to work together and raising charitable funds around the world.

Models who have undergone mastectomies due to breast cancer have posed topless on magazine covers, daring viewers not to look away from their scar.

“If their visual politics of deliberately structured self-disclosure succeeds, it can create a sense of obligation that primes people to act in new ways: to vote differently, to spend money differently, to build the world differently, to treat people differently and to look at people differently.”

Emory University research news: http://esciencecommons.blogspot.com/