Looking at others looking at me


Picture copyright: Sophia Sy

I recently started to wear headscarves — not because of religious reasons. I need to cover my head for health reasons. Never mind why. The exercise of running around with a garment covering my entire scalp rather tightly showing very little or no hair has drawn the attention of many fellow humans.
It is very interesting to see people reacting towards me in ways I have not experienced before. People turn their heads, acquaintances, neighbors, and friends look bewildered, concerned, or just differently when they see me.
These reactions are unexpected in my mind because I don’t feel different, yet I am different and look different on the outside. The me who is seen by the others is reflected back to me questioning my sense of self.
This reminds me of the theory of objectification by W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963). Du Bois is concerned with the self that is seen by others and structured by the expectations of others. His theory examines the dynamics of how such a “seen by others”-self differs from the self which is freely acting in one’s own mind. In his book “The Souls of Black Folks” he describes how an invisible veil for African Americans blocks the white viewer from recognizing the self that is embedded within and forms the experience of African Americans’ public identity. This invisible veil comes to form part of the individual rather than merely inauthentically representing the individual. This then leads to a double consciousness: always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others. This experience of being seen as others see oneself and yet being aware of a self that is intrinsic and unrecognized.
To some extent we all develop a public or social self that is different from the way we feel on the inside. Such an outside facing self helps us to cope with the social and cultural demands thrown at us. We humans are unique in that we can think reflectively; we can think about ourselves as objects for others to see and judge. We think of ourselves as an object by taking the perspectives of the others within our social setting, our social (reference) groups or society at large. The self then develops through a socialization process. Phenomenology and symbolic interactionism, for example, are theoretical approaches examining such dynamics.
As you may have guessed by now, I have lived for a while and have grown into the person I am today through a learning process that involved reflective thinking. And with that, or rather because of this, seeing others reacting to me in unexpected ways has thrown me off.
It has made me aware that my understanding of who I am and how I feel can be radically different from how I am perceived even after all the socializing and despite the fact that I have internalized a general sense of who I am in the public eye.
I guess in the end my experience is not so different from people who leave their familiar surroundings and their culture for unfamiliar territory, be it globetrotters or migrants.
The invisible veil is very visible for many humans, Muslim women in particular. Muslim women in majority non-Muslim societies in Europe and the US, for example, must be juggling all the time between a perceived, a socialized, and an inner self. I can sympathize.
I am not happy with my health condition but it does give me the benefit of walking in the shoes of other people (if only a little). And I am grateful for that.