Being Seen

I have been thinking a lot more about privilege since my last post and also thinking about how much I love it here and what comes next. This morning riding my cute bike (thanks City of Toulouse) back from the quickest most pain free waxing with ripe tomatoes in my basket and two crispy tiny baguettes, I passed the happy boules players back out in force, inhaled deeply under the sweet blossoming linden trees and rode along the clearly marked bike route and thought about returning to the US. Life here is delightful right now, a bubble of greenery, happy people out socializing, delicious food available again, people just sitting outside at cafes doing nothing whatsoever but enjoying the clouds moving and the delights of seeing people walk by.

An astonishing lizard we saw on a walk in the countryside.

When I first came to Toulouse I wanted to disappear, or at least not appear. My heart was broken, my confidence in my appearance shattered by cruelty to which I was too vulnerable and all of my desires were to turn inward. There is privilege there. When I want to I can disappear, I can wear coats and shoes that look like the other ladies in my neighborhood, keep my face stern and gaze aloof and no one will look at me. I wandered around like this most of the winter. The other day I was with a very chic friend who is not white and two little boys stared and stared. We weren’t carrying toys or doing anything remarkable and yet her appearance as other than white seemed to cause a very intense examination by these children. As a white woman of a certain age, I can mostly choose when I want to be seen. If I put on makeup or brush my hair out or wear bright colors and tight clothes then I am flying the ‘look at me’ flag, my choice here in this mostly white neighborhood.

Every time I unlock this little room to get out my city bike the old smells remind me so strongly of my grandmother’s garage and I think of her and that tiny concrete box she trusted me to drive her car into, now surely overgrown and unused.

When I talk with women who are feeling low or unsure about their projects much of the discourse is about being seen. About choosing to be seen. About having the courage to be seen. Some are terrified of being seen and some are worried about no longer being seen if they start behaving differently than they have so far. But, but, we are the mistresses of our own visioning in a way. When they talk about being seen they don’t really mean literally, they mean that somehow on a deeper level they will be recognized for who or what they really are.

If you don’t look like the majority of the women in the media (my IG suggested posts are 99% white people, why?) then you don’t get to adjust the dial of seen/not seen. You are both simultaneously always seen (as belonging to some category) and completely unseen (as an individual). As a child I did not like public comments on my appearance but rare are the times now when an adult will comment on my skin or hair, because I am white. My son marvels at how content the French seem to be at being homogenous, wearing the same colors, driving the same cars, not standing out in any way. But this is a double-edged sword for those who can’t disappear in the French blue.

These hipster barbers were happy to have their picture taken. They are all wearing what used to be the standard blue uniform for French laborers.

I don’t know what this feels like for men but women in the cultures where I live are trained from an early age to attract the gaze and to measure its worth and intent. In tango if I want to dance I have to get someone to look at me, to lock eyes with me in a cabeceo, these are skills that involve attire, body language, eye movements and positioning. So I want a potential partner to first see me, to make eye contact, but then also, as humans we are all always yearning to be ‘seen’ on a deeper level, to be known for who we are.

As a teacher, I have spent decades being stared at. School is boring. Often I am the only moving object in a neon-lit room with uncomfortable chairs where students are trapped for 90 minute blocks. I have given speeches in front of large groups, under spotlights and been on TV. This kind of being seen is easy for me, a performative moment. But being seen as vulnerable, lost, weak, pale, out of sync, is not my preference. I lived with a photographer who did not delight in taking pictures of me. I wanted to be seen differently. My child is entering the teenage era, the terrible time when we suddenly realize that people are looking at us, judging us, labeling us. Here in France he is content to stand out because I think he still feels invisible, unseen and unrecognized as a stranger here.

The Pic du Midi is right there. Weekend in the Pyrenees with no mountains to be seen!

Before I left my little town I wrote down a list of pros and cons about the place to keep that in mind for the future. I didn’t write about being seen. I didn’t realize how exhausting and yet also how ego-stoking it has been to be such a public persona for the last 12 years. When I ride my bike through town people wave at me (I can’t always see them), students often enter my classroom proclaiming that they ‘saw’ me somewhere, and parents remember me better than I remember them after more than a 1,000 students taught in this town. Here in this large French town I am recognized by a few, very few people, but mostly I am just another anonymous individual going about my business.

I have enjoyed not having an audience for my life here in France. It has been freeing and relaxing to live here and to rarely explain myself. My differences are not visible from the outside, especially if I don’t speak and so here again I can choose to be in or to be out, to be seen or to pass by unnoticed and this is an incredible privilege available to me in most of Europe and the United States. White people so often get so much more control over their own narratives and also just look like they belong to the ‘universal’ or primary narrative all around us. Perhaps even being able to complain about not being seen is itself a great privilege.

The view from over here.

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