re-picturing CONNECTION

A couple of weeks ago, I got a peculiar note from a local playwright indicating that he had written a short play called “Oogle” that was inspired by an article describing some of my research. He (yes, it was a man who wrote this play) thought I might be interested in seeing an application of my work that I “might not have anticipated.” So, my husband and I ventured out (on Valentine’s Day no less) to “check out” this research-inspired production.

It was a 2-person piece in which a man was staring at a woman’s breasts as she was looking at a painting in an art gallery. Rather than ignoring it or leaving the situation, the woman instead confronted the behavior. She let the man know that even though he was “just looking” that his behavior was unacceptable. Spoiler alert. Only after she flashes him her breasts and then gouges his eyes out, leaving him blind, can they have a connected, intimate relationship. Somewhat even more interesting than what was happening on stage, was what was happening in the audience. People didn’t know whether it was a comedy or a drama. Nervous laughter escaped people’s lips.

We talk a lot about ogling, leering at, and “checking out” women in this blog.  I’ve talked about some of the consequences (distraction, safety concerns) here.

However, I wonder if at a more basic level, ogling makes us feel disconnected from the people around us. In a recent study published in Psychological Science, Eric Wesselmann and his colleagues trained one of their research assistants to avoid eye contact, make eye contact, or make eye contact with a smile to a passerby. Immediately following this seemingly innocuous gesture, a different research assistant approached the person and asked questions regarding connection. It turns out that even though only 45% of people consciously noticed the eye contact with or without the smile, they felt significantly less disconnected (and more connected) when someone had made fleeting eye contact, regardless of whether they smiled or not. I wonder if ogling someone serves the same excluding function as just avoiding eye contact altogether.

But here’s the rub. When you ask men about the purposes behind the gaze, they often say that it is flattering and represents interest (often romantic) toward the other person.

When do you feel truly seen by other people? Do any of these instances involve being “checked out?”





  1. This post really made me think. Being “checked out” doesn’t feel like being truly seen in a meaningful way, but I have to admit that on occasion I have felt flattered when I’ve noticed a man looking at me. Maybe not being seen, but being noticed… being validated as worth looking at, as desirable. It’s not something I’m proud to admit, but I have felt that way before. I have this really strong memory of walking with my Mother when I was very young, and she was probably younger than I am now and very attractive. A man whooped at her from a car window and I remember thinking it meant she was very beautiful and I was sort of wowed by her power to make men react that way.

    On another note, curious to hear how you felt about your work inspiring this play! That’s pretty amazing, though it sounds like it wasn’t quite what you might have expected….?

  2. I resonate with much of what Melissa says. Definitely feel like being checked out isn’t being seen, but there (unfortunately) is some piece of that which feels flattering. I’m sure I feel that way because of socialization, though!

    • Tiffany
    • February 24th, 2012

    Interesting post. I hadn’t thought before about the eye contact and connection link. I do have to admit though that my friends and I would say, ‘avoid eye contact at all costs’ upon seeing a creepy guy in a bar. Eye contact = definitely he was going to come over and talk to you. :)

    • Bea
    • August 20th, 2013

    Very interesting post- and comments to boot. Tiffany’s observation about avoiding eye contact got me thinking about my own habits and my own struggle with feelings of disconnection from the world. I routinely avoid eye contact with strangers for fear of unwanted male attention, to echo Tiffany, and for fear of an adverse reaction more generally on the lines of an aggressive ‘What you lookin’ at?’ Indeed I am careful not to scrutinise strangers too closely at all for that reason. My husband and his grown-up daughter, on the other hand, are forever observing others and striking up conversations with strangers, though it must be said that the daughter is also a little naive about the risks of engaging with unknown men in this way and has occasionally got herself into uncomfortable situations as a result. So I find myself wondering about what constitutes a healthy level of eye-contact of this type. As I understand it, people with autism and some other psycho-social/ personality disorders find eye contact difficult and may even experience it as automatically hostile. How can we be connected in the world in this way without perceiving or creating a potentially threatening situation? Is part of the ‘problem’ (if indeed it is one) the decline of communal/ tribal living which has rendered our natural connective routines more risky? Would it be easier or harder to live in a world in which curiosity about the activity/ presence of strangers was more normalised and to what extent would this actually increase the risk of conflict, abuse, predatory sexual behaviour and so on? Or would the benefits outweigh the costs of social disconnection/ covert pathological behaviour borne of our contemporary desire to protect our person/ personal space/ privacy and or of moral/ religious norms? I guess I am not asking any new questions really but wondering myself about how far I can be ‘out’ in the world and how to find some level of community, particularly as a woman, in an uncertain environment.

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