What Are You Looking At?

By Daniel van Voorhis

Last week I was at a coffee shop doing some work when I found myself staring into space, lost in a thought or lack thereof. After a few minutes (seconds) I noticed I was getting the stink eye from some young twenty somethings at a table in the direction of my blank stare. I will be charitable, but based on the female’s choice of aggressive language on her T-shirt and the plugs in the gentleman’s ears, they weren’t helping to plan a cotillion nor waiting for their chums from the local prep school.

Consider that it might be the case that when you wear aggressive apparel or attempt to stand out in a crowd, people might look at you, or treat you a certain way.  People have no right to judge your character or to treat you poorly on account of your aesthetic.  But they might.  You might also consider that if you are getting the stink eye or poor treatment, it’s because of something else you did, or they did, or… nothing at all.  When your aesthetic or choice of accoutrements makes you suspicious or judgmental, you are doing it wrong.

Back to Sid and Nancy at the coffee shop (I’m kidding!) I wasn’t staring. But I could have been. When you do something that is not socially accepted in your context, or wearing something that is marginally accepted, OR even just frowned upon by some, you can expect to catch some attention. You might want a little bit of it. Or you know damn well you are going to get it when you fashion your public persona.


I’ve preached this to myself before.  I have tattoos from my wrists to shoulder.  I don’t wear short sleeves to work, but on the occasion that I am on campus with my tattoos showing, I expect to get a look or two. Some are small glances of judgement (maybe) or curious looks (possibly) or interested gazes based on the aesthetic and content of my various tattoos (possibly). They also might be looking past me completely because they’ve got bigger issues and I’m flattering myself if I think artwork on my arms stops that many people from thinking what they are already thinking about.

When I speak with prospective parents or students, my employers likely expect I won’t wear short sleeves. If I’m going to something with an older demographic, I tend to wear long sleeves as tattoos have different cultural baggage for different crowds. I could tell you a good bit about the aesthetic I’ve chosen with my tattoos (the Christ of the Isenheim altarpiece, the nehushtan, the original imprint from the backside of the 1943 Mercury Dime, etc.). Or we could just move on.

But be aware of why people might perceive you a certain way, and why this may be good or bad. Society has conditioned us and we have conditions in our various social contracts. If you choose to look conspicuous, don’t assume that everyone who mistreats you does so because of your appearance. Maybe they are that way to everyone. Or maybe they are having a bad day. Don’t assume you’re being judged or profiled based on your perception of someone’s perception of you (based on an aesthetic you’ve chosen or have augmented for your own social tribe).


Take a few minutes this week and ask yourself what you project, and what you are trying to project when you wear x, y, or z.  Or, if you don’t think you’re trying to project anything, think about what you might be communicating to the various crowds with which you interact.

Strike your own balance between conformity and comfort and between assimilation and your own style.

And when you are judged, wrongly or rightly, on what you perceive to be external perceptions about your internal state or intention, think about other mitigating factors as to the nature of disconnect and judgement.

Cut your neighbor some slack, and unless they are exacerbating a situation with their appearance or form, let it go.

Now, if you want to talk about the basics of fashion and grooming and how to make your first impressions hit the right note- that’s a conversation we have here from time to time. And I think it’s high time we have a few conversations about general hygiene, haircuts, and smells. But that will have to wait until next week. Until then, shoot yourself a look in the mirror before you leave and don’t get tied up in angsty knots if someone reads your decorum for something it might or might not project.

All the Best,

The Man About Town

Written while listening to Rod McKuen: Greatest Hits Volume 3. (Dig “Solitude is My Home” if you happen to be walking down an empty street at dusk with your earbuds.)