How can I unlearn this toxic lesson when it’s so deeply embedded in our everyday lives?
The little girl stared at me. She looked like a cartoon character with her large blue eyes and her mouth hanging open, almost comically. I stared down at my vegan sushi wondering where her mother was and wishing she would be whisked away soon. As I avoided her gaze, I noticed an old man staring, too. He sat at a table outside, looking in the window. I wondered if he knew that I could see him gawking through the glass.
I've been stared at for the wrong reasons since I was 15. Maybe I wouldn't have been so sensitive to being the triangle point to their two stares if it hadn't have been for the guy I'd met on the pier recently. The guy on the pier leaned over the railing as I walked down the stairs. He yelled down to me and I looked up. He had a red beard and a baseball cap. He was probably a little older than me but not by much –- early thirties and not bad looking.
“Where are you going?” He asked.
“Home,” I was too surprised to say anything but the blunt truth. With my yoga mat on my back, I was tired and hot from practicing at the Wanderlust Santa Monica event. I could hear his friends laughing in the background and egging him on but I couldn't see them. The backlighting of the afternoon sun made them all shadows.
“Do you have a boyfriend?” He continued with a cocky grin.
“No. I'm gay.” I kept walking down the stairs as fast as I could, which wasn’t very fast because stairs have always been the hardest part for me. His friends cracked up and he made some snarky comment to me, but I only caught the tone, not the actual words.
As I walked down the beach, I felt vaguely bad. Ashamed. Embarrassed. It wasn't just the fact that he acted like my honesty was just some cheap rejection line or that he'd decided to bother me even as I walked away. The worst sinking feeling was my sense that it was all a joke to begin with. He was messing with me, this grown man.
I shouldn't have worn shorts. If I hadn't been in shorts, I could've entertained the notion that, although he was a bit of a jerk, he was still genuinely interested. That he thought I was pretty. But under the twin gazes of the little girl and the old man, I knew differently. I knew they all saw my prosthetic leg first.
Since my amputation at age 15 due to a battle with bone cancer, I've found so many beautiful and strong role models. I've watched as Amy Purdy went from TED Talks and skis to modeling and sailing across the floor in a ballgown on "Dancing with the Stars." Kurt Yaeger gave me hope that I could one day act and not just in the safety of the academic world where theater scholarships helped me pay tuition. Still, despite these brave individuals' work at busting through stereotypes, people still stare at me as if I am not human, as if I can't see them.
Through practicing yoga, I've made huge changes in how I see my body and huge changes to how well my body serves me. When I started, I couldn't figure out how to get down on the ground and remove my shoes. Now, I am a yoga teacher. I've also become an advocate for health, diversity, and body image.
In addition to being featured in a short film, "Undefinable," and in Getty Images Lean-In campaign for more diverse stock images of women, I write and speak often about how neither my gayness nor my disability make me broken. My whole life has been a quest to redefine the way society defines what is healthy, sexy and beautiful. And some days, it only takes a lingering stare to remind me how far we still have to come.
Recently, a director interested in optioning one of my screenplays asked me why it was so important to cast an amputee actress in the lead role rather than using movie magic to fake it on a better known able-bodied actress. I went into my speech about how there is an entire community of differently-able people who have built full lives after surviving illnesses, accidents, national tragedies, and war zones. So many of them are young people who are daily surrounded by a media with harsh beauty standards that leave even the able-bodied anxious about their sex appeal and worthiness. To make a film about how amputees can be beautiful, strong, and sexy but with an able-bodied actress cast in the lead is to undermine the power of the story. This choice says, “Of course women can be strong and beautiful as amputees, just not beautiful enough to be actresses.”
I tell her about the email I received, from a guy who'd recently become an amputee, about whether or not anyone will ever want to sleep with him again. I tell her that we want to make a film that speaks strongly on all fronts -– a brave film, a film worth talking about, a barrier-breaking film. More importantly, we want a young woman (or any person) to be able to watch this film and know that we believe in what we are telling her -– she is strong, she is beautiful, she is worthwhile, she can do anything.
“I totally agree,” the director said with a smile when I finally took a breath. “I just wanted to hear it from you.”
As I smiled back, I realized that this is the difference between being stared at and being seen. We all want to be seen -– acknowledged in our beautiful complexity. It is the reason we keep exposing our vulnerabilities day after day in the hopes that eventually the focus will be taken off that single aspect of our being and pan back to see us in our entirety. To see us as whole.
All photographs courtesy of Christopher Malcolm.