With this post, Randall Shinn joins the DG team. After long enjoying the benefits of his insightful emails, I'm delighted to have a chance to share some of his ideas with DG readers.--VP
How do glamorous people develop the capacity to "suffer the gaze” (a phrase used by James Joyce). In the abstract it may sound exciting to have people stare at you because your appearance seems beyond the norm, but what would that feel like in real life?
In the film Pushing Tin Angelina Jolie arrives at a gathering of air traffic controllers and their wives, and her appearance is so darkly seductive that the other wives distrustfully fixate on her. In real life, how many women could handle that?
While attending an art opening in Phoenix I saw an attractive young woman enter whose high-fashion dress successfully revealed most of her runway-ready figure. The short skirt flared like a tutu, showing off long legs accentuated by high heels. The bib-like top of her dress performed flawlessly. Tied at the neck it revealed her back, the sides of her torso, and sometimes even the sides of her breasts. But it steadfastly refused to reveal more, thus maintaining a hint of decorum and leaving something to the imagination.
Sooner or later she attracted the gaze of every single person in the warehouse-sized gallery. She remained absolutely poised and seemed completely comfortable. Regardless of what other women thought of her dress, I doubt any of them could have worn it so nonchalantly.
People such as actors and models are expected to “suffer the gaze” of others. Do they gradually become comfortable doing this? How important is training? Do some simply act “as if” they feel comfortable? Have others been comfortable drawing attention from an early age?
I learned something about the last possibility from a conversation I had with a woman whom I’ll call Artemis, after the Greek goddess of the hunt. Artemis is an exceptionally self-confident woman and remarkably striking in appearance. She’s tall, lean-muscled, with strong, angular cheekbones, pale amber eyes, and a wild mane of strawberry-blonde hair. In the course of our conversation, I mentioned that I was writing about “suffering the gaze,” she responded, “Some women have the confidence inside to do that.”
I realized she was talking about herself, so I asked her when she had first felt that way, and, thinking back, she said somewhere between the age of eight and ten. From that age on she had had a feeling she described as “a fire inside,” a competitive confidence that caused her to accept any task given to her and say, “I’ll handle it,” even if she knew nothing about how to do it. From that same age she also realized that people liked looking at her, partly because of her striking appearance, and partly because she projected that inner fire.
As she grew into a young woman she learned to signal, as she described it, that “it’s fine to look, but beware of getting too close, you might get burned.” By her twenties she was radiantly happy, which only increased the attention she might attract simply walking down the street, and this sometimes became a nuisance. She also found that some people could mistake her passion for life as a passion for them, so gradually she had to work harder to maintain her personal boundaries.
Some of the circumstances of her childhood were the stuff of nightmares. She had a pathologically self-absorbed mother and a older sister who was confined to a separate part of the house, especially after she almost succeeded in murdering her younger siblings, one by poison and the other by blunt force. Fortunately, her grandfather taught Artemis to hunt and fish, which helped her grow into a tigress who has belly-crawled through prairie grass and cactus to drop a buffalo with a big-game rifle (I saw a photograph), and all with beautifully manicured nails.
She said it’s easy to be self-confident when you don’t care what others think about you. Once she realized that as a young girl, she decided to live her life that way. She said that at any given time there are only a handful of people whose opinions matter to her.
Few of us, I think, could be so fiercely independent from such a early age, perhaps if ever. I suspect most of us would have (or have had) some inner barriers to overcome before, in real life, we could feel comfortable suffering the gaze of a multitude of strangers.