Three little girls glide into Starbucks in summer dresses and sandals. They are obviously sisters with very similar features, each one with a shiny head of honey-blond hair. They are nine, seven and five—each exactly two years from her closest sibling by way of tight family planning, their respective heights reflecting this precision, a set of stairs. Contentedly toting their cups, the girls glide out onto the patio with their mother. They are in perpetual motion but almost always grouped together, collectively balancing on ledges, walking the perimeters of the raised garden beds, examining the contents of the free newspaper box, investigating ants.
Everyone watches the girls. Within the shop and on the patio, there is not a single patron who has not spent at least a few seconds taking stock of the image these girls create—their childness, their girlness, their physical similarity, their vitality. One or more patrons make small talk with the mother: “Are they sisters?” “How old are they?” “Three girls!” “You must have your hands full.” But most just absorb their presence—arrested, almost not able to do otherwise, compelled to stop and notice the entrance and exit of this small pageant of matching girls. The appealing spectacle is part of the mosaic of reasons that each of these people has come to Starbucks instead of brewing their coffee at home or rushing off to some other destination, drink in hand. We are all there to be with people, to be in the hum of strangers and the stories we invent based on their bodies, clothes, hair, handbags, ages and the way they hold themselves in a public space. Is she meeting a friend or colleague? Is it an interview? A sales meeting? Is he writing a novel on his laptop? What are those girls doing now?
I am the girls’ mother. I often watch people watch my children. The level of interest rises dramatically the more of them are collected together; it is as a complete group of three that they exert the most power over a public space. If I had four or five girls, I can imagine them dominating the attention of every venue we entered, with no one free to daydream or talk or work until we left. This sounds extreme, of course, and yet the girls’ batch presence is not unlike a public argument between lovers or the open palm of a panhandler—people are forced to give up a piece of their consciousness to their disruptive power. In perhaps a more comfortable way, the girls demand either attention or an active maintenance of inattention, a willful ignoring.
I also watch my daughters responding to being watched. Their behavior shifts and although they are not interacting with a specific viewer, they “perform” for the group. It is a subtle shift but they enact a pantomime intended to be adorable. They become highly solicitous of one another, more polite and helpful than their natural set point. The two oldest girls undertake ridiculous efforts to be helpful and sweet to the youngest, offering to fetch her a napkin, helping her climb up onto a high ledge and helping her jump down from it. It is not that they wouldn’t do these things in private, but rather that here the actions become theatrical and a touch saccharine. They are playing the role of sisters for their audience, and the sisters in this production are pretty and nice, kind and thoughtful. They do not shriek or hiss at one another. They act in the awareness that eyes are on them but without any particular awareness that this is a choice—that they have developed public personas.
Meanwhile I am part of the Starbucks performance as well. I am context. Is that their mother? Do they look like their mother? Will they grow up to be slim or heavy? She’s tall—perhaps they’ll be tall. Will their hair turn dark like hers? What does she do—does she work or does she stay home with them? Is she a good mother? How does she speak to them? Do they mind her? Is she succeeding or failing at mothering them? I am part of a picture of both what they are and what can be imagined for them at some future stage. I am also part of the matrix of opinions we all have on the state of the culture and the efficacy of parents today. I am an example of a specific set of ideas on American motherhood, with markers for my socioeconomic status and region and quiet little suggestions of my age, which generate assessments of whether I am aging well or not. It has been suggested that women over fifty could commit any crime because they move through the world largely unseen. When the girls are away at school and I am alone, I am a middle-aged woman who slips in and out of the coffee shop mostly unremarked, one more white paper cup, passing in and out of the public’s vision like a shade. When I am with my children, I am thrust into the light of scrutiny and surmise again, because I am part of their story as they—young, full of promise and presented in triplicate—claim their time from the world for being noticed and watched.
Being visible, when we are prepared for it, is pleasurable. It makes us feel alive. We set scenes for our visibility, preparing ourselves at home and then bursting forth in some public place, where we consider the way others respond to us and consider others in turn. This conscious presentation of ourselves is tightly bound to the desire to interact with beauty, to show or give beauty to others and to feel beauty in and on ourselves. Dining at a tiny and impossibly hip restaurant while visiting New York City, I watch the women who work there saunter through the space, contributing their special affect to the general impression of being someplace desirable and special. These women are physically attractive, but it is not so much their features as an attitude or style that makes them arresting—it is, in some sense, the fact that they have elected to be impactful.