Have you ever noticed that you can stare at a baby for as long as you want?
Wait…that didn’t come out right. What I mean is, have you noticed that babies don’t react badly if you stare at them? They don’t get embarrassed or self-conscious. They don’t hide their faces. To a baby, a person staring at them or a camera pointing at them is the same as everything else; momentarily interesting and then irrelevant.
So what’s their secret? Why is it that beyond a certain age we turn into awkward, sweaty-palmed parodies of ourselves the moment we feel like we’re being scrutinised? The answer is that babies haven’t yet been convinced that the way that other people see them is the way they should see themselves.
From a babies perspective (and from yours too if you think about it) they’re a unique type of human being. Sure, just like everybody else they have arms and legs, fingers and toes, and a torso holding it all together, but at the top of all that, in the spot where everybody is always looking and pointing, there isn’t anything at all.
Other people have two small eyes to look out of, but the baby has a single, panoramic, uninterrupted field of view. Other people have heads wrapped in skin and hair, but the baby’s head is completely transparent. Other people’s faces can be seen, but the baby only sees. Given all this, what is there to be self-conscious about when somebody looks in their direction?
As we grow older we stop thinking this way. Even though nothing has changed from our perspective, we learn to believe that other people are right about the way we are. Our skin isn’t transparent as it appears, but solid, perhaps even blemished. Our visual field may seem to be singular, but this is just an illusion produced by neurological trickery. Our experience may be telling us one thing, but everybody else is telling us another. So we wrap our transparent heads in skin and hair and become people like everybody else.
There are good reasons for doing this. After all, whatever it looks like from our perspective, from the perspective of others we do have an appearance, and that appearance affects the way we experience the world. How we’re treated, how we’re spoken to, even how we’re valued, all hinge on our appearance.
This is why we worry when we feel seen. When we’re alone, or with people we feel comfortable around, we behave in much the same way we do as babies; as if our boundless internal experience of ourselves is real. But when somebody points a camera at us or looks directly at us for longer than a few seconds, we are snatched back into this feeling of containment. We think of ourselves as others do, despite how different things are from our perspective.
But what if we didn’t? What if we took our perspective seriously, and when faced with a camera, or a gaze, declined to think of ourselves as being faced at all. What if we continued to aim our attention outwards instead of following the other person’s gaze inwards towards an imaginary face that we judge in the way that we fear others are judging it?
To find out, let’s try a little experiment: Take a mirror (or the selfie camera on your phone) and hold it in front of yourself. Look at that face that everyone keeps talking about. Can’t you almost feel the recoil as the sight of it shoves you into your body? Now, instead of imagining that the face you see is you, treat it like all the other objects you see in the mirror. Everything you see there, even the mirror itself, is happening outside of you. Why let it implicate you?
Self-consciousness is the result of being more conscious of the way other people see us than how we see ourselves. There are even times when it makes sense to do this. But we shouldn’t be too drawn in by this idea, not so that it costs us our own, limitless point of view. When we feel others looking in, the solution is not to join them, but instead, to keep looking out. Luckily doing this is so simple, even a baby can do it.