When I first moved to New York City, I lived smack-dab in the center of midtown, under the shadow of the Empire State Building. I spent my days searching for a job and exploring my new city. One warm fall day, I dressed in a cute flowy skirt and went for a walk down Broadway. It felt very iconic, strolling down the avenue, passing shops and restaurants, seeing fashionable business-men and women. I boldly made eye contact with good-looking men as they walked by. Here in New York City of all places, these mysterious men regarded me with interest. I felt powerful, beautiful, and strong. How wonderful to be considered attractive by a stranger!
In the midst of this empowering experience, I passed a homeless man begging for money. His face was horribly disfigured, scarred as if by deep burns. I carried on past him, but slowed to a stop upon reaching the end of the block. I couldn’t just walk by. Here was a man who was probably used to being recoiled from, stared at, pitied. Far from expecting to be regarded with the approval I was enjoying, he would likely give anything just to be seen as normal. I was shaken from my airy pedestal, grounded by this realization.
I pulled some bills from my wallet and returned to him. I looked him in the eye as I handed him the money, hoping that my direct gaze would somehow counteract the indignity of the way he was used to being viewed.
As I turned and walked away, I heard the voice of a man standing nearby: “what goes around comes around.” He had seen my act of kindness and was complimenting me for it. And so, even as I was attempting to align the imbalance between this man and myself, I was still subject to the positive response that my appearance offered me. I couldn’t even pull off a selfless act without being validated.
How much of who I am is based on how I look? How much of my confidence, competence, intelligence is derived from the encouragement I gain from being a reasonably attractive, well dressed white girl? I will never know. It is impossible to separate those parts of who I am that are my own and those parts that are driven by the constant feedback loop of other people’s perceptions.
As I continued down the sidewalk, I wasn’t walking in the clouds anymore, I was crying. I cried for the helplessness of that man’s plight. I cried for my own. We are both locked in our bodies, perceiving our merit based on our appearance, shallow in our own ways. I didn’t earn my appearance, I don’t deserve it, but it is mine. I looked the same as I had only blocks before and I’m sure there were more charming men to be seen but couldn’t bear to meet anyone’s gaze through my tear-filled eyes.