Un/Seen

It was sunless, grey and unexpectedly cold when I debarked the train in Philadelphia. As usual, I had over-packed and under-dressed; I stood at a bench in the 30th Street Station trying to retrieve a sweater from my half-open suitcase without spilling out my life for all to see. The only things I could wedge out were my raincoat and a dressy scarf, a big square of cloth in a satin weave. I was cold. It was raining.  So, I put it on. Not babushka babinka style, though: I wound it over my head and around my neck, knotting it stylishly in back like Hepburn or Jackie O.

And the world tilted.

Suddenly, a square of folded fabric transformed me into a woman deserving of respect. On the street, men saw me and greeted me with wishes for peace. The SEPTA booth attendant stopped gossiping long enough to give me directions, and wished me a blessed day. A person of indeterminate gender and prolific body art helped me struggle my suitcase onto the train.

Certainly some of these folks mistook me for a sister muslimah, and treated me with a deference reserved for their own. But there is a greater paradox here: covering somehow revealed me as a woman who must be reckoned with for more than her sex.

Hair is so closely tied to sex and identity in our culture. Christian and Buddhist women religious cover or shave the hair to announce the renunciation of secular life in favor of deeper values. Some Muslim women see the practice of hijab as liberation from being seen as a sexual object, forcing others to know them by their character rather than by their appearance. Were I a traditional black churchwoman, I have reached the age where I should cover my head with an elaborate “crown”, one that celebrates my spiritual wisdom and signifies the respect and status my community affords me.

I expected that simply aging would bestow these qualities upon me. After all, in contemporary American culture, aging women are considered to be “off the market” sexually (the vibrancy of our actual sex lives notwithstanding). I thought one day I’d simply arrive at a point where who I am would become more visible than what I look like.

So, I’m shocked to find that approaching fifty doesn’t simply push my sexuality to the background: it labels me as undesirable and undesired by others. And a woman in the shameful state of being undesired is expected to be unseen.

Yet, one rainy afternoon in Philly, I caught a glimpse of how being seen as a fully-grown woman could be different, and ever since that moment, I have been practicing. I’ve practiced carrying myself as a woman who has grown larger than my sex, who insists with my bearing that you see me as something more. I have cultivated the habit of looking you in the eye, and holding your gaze until you do so in return. I insist that you see my face, full of wisdom and power.

This isn’t enough to change a universe full of sexism and ageism. But it is one small way of taking a stand: I remove my consent to being made invisible or ridiculous.

You can tell, as I size you up with a glance.

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