Just look at her

The other day I sat in a room full of psychotherapists to discuss the topic of prejudice. You know, the idea of pre-judging someone before you have any real knowledge of them.

We all do it. We jump to conclusions based on narrow and often times false preconceptions.

To lead into the topic, we watched an excerpt from a film in which a group of American psychoanalysts, all people of colour, as one woman described herself, talked about how difficult it is when people prejudge them and others on the basis of race.

Race, they reckon is the great unspoken, especially in psychoanalytic circles. It’s far easier to talk about sex than race.

One New York psychoanalyst, a large, well dressed woman and black, seated in what looks to be her consulting room, described how a client arrived one day after making an appointment by phone.

Typically, the client was surprised to find her potential analyst was black, when, ‘On the telephone you sounded like a tall, thin, blond woman’.


I’ve been reading another psychoanalyst, Muriel Dimen, who died recently. She was only 73. It saddens me to think about some aspects of her life. In her book, Surviving Sexual Contradictions: a startling and different look at a day in the life of a contemporary professional woman, she makes it clear she’s ambivalent about having a baby. Part of her wants to fall pregnant at the age of 37, the age at which she writes the book, and another part fears it.

As far as I know Dimen remained childless throughout her life. She was a prolific writer within the psychoanalytic world and a terrific thinker. Would she have been able to keep up the pace had she taken time off to have babies?

Finally, I read a piece by the late great, Adele Horin. Her piece deals with her life as a female journalist. One quote stays with me: ‘It’s hard to imagine a woman with the craggy face of Insiders’ Barrie Cassidy fronting any major TV program, at least on the commercial networks.’

The media prefers its women young and fresh faced.

I spoke briefly to one such young woman at my gym yesterday about the fact that I’d been twice charged for membership fees and was immediately distracted by the slight moustache above her lip.

My eyes narrowed in on this moustache even as I tried not to notice.

I wondered whether she noticed me noticing or whether it was a trick of the light on her face that caused her upper lip to look so dark. I had not noticed this before when I talked to this young woman and then I kicked myself for being distracted by such an irrelevancy.

I thought of my own lips, how thin they have become, and the wrinkles above and below, those fast deepening laughter lines ever on the increase.


What do they signify beyond the obvious and do people notice them as they talk to me and think, my goodness how much she has aged?

We look at one another first and foremost as bodies, registering all these physical facts and filing them away as points of interest or concern.

We prejudge one another on the basis of appearance and forget there’s so much more to us than the way we look.

6 thoughts on “Just look at her”

  1. I wonder, perhaps, if this is one of the reasons I rarely (and, even then, barely) describe any of the characters in my novels and stories and even where I have I find myself forgetting what they look like. I’ve just reread my latest novel thirteen times over the last year and dwelled on just about every word and yet could hardly describe any of the characters for you. I don’t like to think of myself as prejudiced but it’s impossible not to be. There’s no point bitching about the fact we do it. We just have to learn to be grown up and be willing to revise those initial judgements and not find ways to reinforce them. It’s not just people we pre- and misjudge. I’ve made sweeping statements about music and clothes that I’ve lived to regret. Some things take time to grown on you and it’s not the first time I’ve assumed something (which is different from a prejudgement) and been proven wrong. I, for example (and I find this is especially the case online), assume that everyone I make contact with will be a nice person, decent, honest and willing to play by the rules. My wife, on the other hand, when I first made contact presumed I was a troll since she’d been bothered by a guy and suspected I was he and all he’d done was change his e-mail. Well, we all know how that worked out.

    What I find with myself more often than not is I stall partway through the prejudgement process; I lack sufficient information even to make even an initial assessment and these people sit in an ‘opinion pending’ folder. I’m lucky, I suppose, in that I’m not attracted to conventionally beautiful people. Experience has taught be that beauty’s only skin deep—not that I’ve much experience of beautiful people—and I tend to get on better with flawed individuals. It’s like the title of that book I bought in San Francisco: ‘Scars Make Your Body More Interesting’. I like interesting people but it takes time to learn what’s interesting about them ON THE INSIDE. Few of us wear our hearts on our sleeves or have the word ‘POET’ stamped on our foreheads. I sat across a table and looked at you for an hour. I couldn’t tell you now what colour your jacket was although I seem to recall your glasses being a funny colour. I hold a passport-sized picture in my head which resembles you and is probably far less accurate than the actual photo plus I think I’m partly mixing it up with a photo of F. I liked. I have a similar one for Carrie and hers likewise is years out of date. It doesn’t interest me enough to upgrade either of them or any of the others.

    Prejudgements can be based on either ignorance or previous experience. If a black guy’s bullied you at school it’s only human to be wary of all black men and possibly the women. I have virtually no experience of races other than Brits and then mostly Scots. I’ve had conversations with two black people in my life—one came to our house when I was a kid and played a guitar (he let me touch his hair), the other was a shop assistant, a delightful young girl I met in a supermarket in Hayward in California (she was cleaning up a broken bottle)—and that’s it. I’ve talked to a Chinese guy in college and an Indian guy in a different college and that’s my lot. My first reaction to someone like that is curiosity. That overrules everything else. So I do want to judge them, to categorise them, to find out where to slot them in my mind, but I get so caught up in being fascinated by their differences I never quite get around to being biased.

    1. Those funny coloured glasses are a turquoise blue, Jim, and I wear them in part in defiance of my mother who avoided wearing glasses even in her nineties because they made her look old.
      As for our prejudices, we’re all guilty. As you say it’s only human. Judge first and then gather information, more information and reconsider.
      It’s always a treat to wander through the story of your life behind the scenes, Jim.
      I can’t imagine reading through any of my books thirteen times. I think I’d die of boredom, however necessary it might be. Thanks.

  2. The weirdest thing about aging is how the little encroachments seem to happen literally overnight, when your eyes are literally closed. Perhaps there’s a metaphor to that? When your eyes are open, there is no age?

    1. I find not wearing my glasses helps me age less, Elizabeth It also helps me not to notice other signs of age and decay around me. Not wearing glasses is as good as keeping my eyes closed, I suppose. Thanks, Elizabeth

  3. It’s the deep fear of ageing and getting closer to death too, isn’t it? I remember the morning I looked at the backs of my hands and they resembled my mother’s hands, papery thin skin with two small brown ‘funeral flowers’ and I hated the sight, those brown discolorations didn’t feel as if they were me. Once I was ashamed to admit being slightly repelled by the frailty and visible ageing of elderly women and men, now I look critically at young juicy women and wonder what they will look like at 55 or 72. Envy, resentment, dread, social conditioning all bound up together and lurking just under the veneer of kindness, compassion etc.

    1. Something caught the corner of my eye in the newsagent’s today. A greeting card on the rack which featured an elderly couple toasting one another, presumably for someone’s birthday or some such event, and the caption underneath said something like ‘Oh to be young and sexy again’ and I railed internally at the idea that old age is not considered sexy. I recognise it as a fair enough statement at one level but at the same time, I object to sentiments that rule out those of us no longer young as if we can no longer have fun.
      Thanks, Mary.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *