Two weekends ago, my fiancé James and I had just arrived to the pumpkin patch for some fall festivities. We were meeting my sister-in-law later as well for a nice little Saturday. James was wearing nice pants and a Henley top, and I had on some baggy jeans, a flannel, and of course, my normal black tennis shoes. It was a beautiful fall Saturday, the pumpkin patch was lively and busy, and I was feeling great. There’s something about a beautiful, crisp fall day filled with fall activities that puts me in a lovely mood.
As we were walking down the pumpkin patch to go to the market on the orchard’s property, we passed many many people as it was an incredibly busy day – I blame the clear skies and beautiful sunshine. While walking down the gravel hill, I noticed two girls, probably in their late 20’s, lugging a wagon up the hill in the direction of the pumpkin patch and walking right past us. They were moving off the path to stop for a moment, and as they walked in front of us to move to the side, one girl stopped dead in her tracks. She had seen my foot.
This girl stopped on the side of the hill, turned her whole body to face me so she could gape at my feet, and she just stood there and stared, mouth open. Like she had seen a ghost. She nudged her friend too, trying to focus her attention on my foot.
Over time, I have been conditioned to loath this behavior. There is something about this behavior that just gets to me at my very core. It makes me feel like I’m on display in some way, and people are looking at me as if I’m not a person with a soul and emotions. I mean, how can people be so shamelessly rude?
Within seconds, my blood was boiling. Slowing down partially but without stopping, I turned to this girl and swept my arms out saying loud enough so she could hear me, “Can I help you?”
Letting out a loud, exasperated breath, I turned around to keep walking without looking back. I hoped that she heard me and took stock of what she was doing at that moment. Even after I had said something to her, she still hadn’t looked me in the eyes and was instead still fixated on my foot. James didn’t even realize what had happened until I told him. Personally, it feels like I have a sixth sense for when people are staring at my foot. I just know. That tends to happen when you deal with it your whole life.
When faced with this type of situation, I feel a mix of emotions. First, I’m outraged because it is just appalling to me how someone can be that oblivious of their actions and how they are hurting other people. But as much as I hate to admit it, I also still feel a tiny smidge of shame. I think this feeling is just ingrained in me after dealing with these situations so many times. While I don’t want to feel shame and I’ve learned to avoid feeling ashamed of my disease, it’s just an uncontrollable feeling. No one likes to be stared at, and I especially don’t like unwarranted attention being drawn to my foot. In my head I think when one person stares, other people start to stare too, and that is not what I want. But the outrage definitely outweighs that tiny bit of shame.
Most of the time, I can deal with typical stares or people glancing at my feet and glancing back up at my face. I can manage the double takes people might do when they are surprised at the size of my foot, but then they move on. I can deal with the curious questions most of the time. But when someone behaves like this girl behaved, I truly believe that I do not have to tolerate that. Why should I?
I don’t have to sit silently and accept this behavior. I should be able to stand up for myself. I know that may not be the route that some people would like to take – confrontation can be scary. And most of the time, I don’t confront people like that. I only do it in these rare circumstances where people are so blatantly unkind that I feel I have no other choice. The only things I really say are “Can I help you?” or “What are you looking at?” to make it apparent to them that I’m aware of their actions. I don’t cause scenes or fights or arguments – trust me, that’s not me, and I don’t encourage that. All that I really want to do is make them aware that their actions are hurting people. Immediately after I say something, I typically walk away and just hope they recognize that what they are doing is unkind.
What I take away from these situations is that I have every right to defend myself when I am being treated poorly. If someone wants to single me out, make fun of me, or gawk at me, I do not have to endure that. I can stand up for myself. While this wasn’t a very productive way to react (I didn’t exactly feel like explaining my syndrome to her in that particular moment), I think it’s okay to let my feelings out when it’s needed. I can let those strangers know how their actions are affecting me. Or I can just bring to their attention that I’m aware of what they’re doing and it’s upsetting me. It’s pretty clear that a lot of people think I can’t see their stares and gawking expressions for some reason. Here’s a shocker: I can.
And do I really even have to mention to not be that girl? If people see someone who looks different than them, they shouldn’t stare or gawk or nudge their friends and whisper about them. Treat them with kindness and respect. There is just something so hurtful about being gawked at. Trust me, I would know.
Living different is hard. It can be hard not to let that kind of behavior wear you down. In the beginning, when people treated me like that, I remember looking the other way and feeling my cheeks burn red. I might have hidden my bigger foot behind my smaller foot, as if that would make a difference. I might have wished I could be invisible at that very moment. Or I might have walked quickly away if I was able to. And when I say, “in the beginning,” I mean when I was a child dealing with this behavior from total strangers.
Over time, this shame gradually developed into anger and frustration. Because it reminds me how ashamed I used to feel when people would gawk at me as a child. It reminds me how much my self-esteem took a hit due to this behavior, leading me to have very minimal confidence nearly all my life. It reminds me how traumatizing this behavior can be and how much it can impact a child’s development.
It’s incredibly disheartening looking back on this and realizing how much strangers’ actions impacted me and my self-worth just because I looked different than them. And yet, deep down, there is still an inkling of shame that I feel when this happens despite my best efforts not to feel that. It’s like the feeling is rooted in me after years and years of defaulting to that feeling.
After gaining some of the confidence back that I lacked most of my life because of this behavior, I now feel the need to make others aware of how their actions impact others instead of running away. I want to call them out. I want them to know that I see them staring at me. I want them to learn from this so they don’t do it to someone else.