Of Course I'm Looking at You
My daughter and I were in a restaurant. Straight in front of me, directly in my line of vision (translation: I had to make an effort NOT to look at this person), was a young man with a skewer stuck through his nose. He reminded me of tribal photographs I've seen in National Geographic Magazine.
Of course I'm going to look at him. The bigger question is: Why should he be surprised that I'm looking at him? He is a spectacle. (Not an insult, just a fact). He has chosen a form of self-expression that is outside the norm - way outside the norm - for our culture. That is his right and I don't judge him based on that. I won't be dining with him, as I find a skewer stuck through the nose unappetizing, but I do not ascribe characteristic traits to him based on his look. He isn't hurting anyone just by having an unusual appearance; he simply has adornment preferences that elude me. He may be a delightful young man.
I was raised to believe staring is rude. Pointing is ruder. I try to teach my children not to stare or point. But sometimes they can't help themselves. At those times, I incorporate a teachable moment as discreetly and diplomatically as I can, with an apology if necessary. But in some situations - as in this restaurant scenario - the onus for not staring lies with the one being stared at.
In my mind there is a difference between someone who has a physical characteristic, by birth or acquisition, that is outside of their control and someone who has deliberately chosen a particular physical appearance as a fashion statement or form of personal expression. Anyone who alters their body in fantastically unique ways - like a skewer through the nose - has to realize they are drawing attention to themselves. Of course I'm going to look at you. But I'll try not to stare too long. And I still won't point. I'm not willing to completely throw etiquette out the window.