The Female Gaze

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about the female gaze and why it is so unarticulated in our society. I’ve been thinking about how our lives, as women, are so dominated by the male gaze that it is almost beyond articulation. It is so pervasive that we almost forget that we have the ability to gaze right back.

It is starting to edge its way into our consciousness, as the Fifty Shades of Grey movie is framed with a woman’s gaze in mind. Allegedly, it is made for her viewing pleasure, and the conversation is extending into female-friendly porn, in which the focus of attention is not only on the pleasure the woman is receiving, but on the beauty of the man who is delivering it.

But from the onset of puberty – and let’s face it, some time before that, if we’re honest – women are raised to be aware of the eyes of men upon them. It starts with a gentle commentary on your appearance from both women and men in the family and their friends, and becomes a way of life. We must look a certain way to please men, we are told, and we find ourselves actively pursuing it, even if we are just on the way to the gym. We run marathons in makeup, we wear heels to go to Homebase and we stop ourselves from having a nice dessert in case our thighs make us into undesirable objects.

No one appears to be actively setting these rules. They’re just there. And everyone buys into them and passes them on. Women and men, boys and girls. The fashion designer Oscar de la Renta once gave this advice to women: “walk like you have three men walking behind you.” When I first heard it I smiled, and thought, “yeah, I’d sashay away.” Recently, though, I’ve thought, “what happens if I’m the one walking behind three men?” And I’ve discovered an unusual thing.

Men get really freaked out when you turn the tables on them and gaze back. Try it. Walk directly behind a guy (not too stalkerishly close), or stand behind him quietly on an escalator or in a lift. He’ll slow down to let you pass, he’ll turn round to check who’s there, he’ll manoeuvre round so his back isn’t to you any more. I see it happen almost every day. If I sense a guy is running too close behind me in the park, gazing at my behind, I slow down to let him pass. He sprints away or stops, unable to have my eyes on him. Because, you know, I might be critiquing him in the way that he’s just done to me. Unthinkable.

This week, on one single trip up and down the street I live on, I saw two men empty the contents of their nostrils onto the pavement and one who spat in front of me and then again just behind me. This followed an extraordinary scene where I’d witnessed a neighbour of mine picking his nose in full view of everyone on the tube. I’ve always been fascinated by these acts of public indecency – especially men who pick their noses in cars, oblivious to who may be watching. Then it occurred to me. They do it because they think no one is watching. They’re not used to being watched so they assume it’s not happening.

Believe me, there is always someone watching, and it is usually a woman. Just because we’re not loudly commenting on what men are doing, it doesn’t mean we haven’t noticed. Theirs is a shouty spectator sport, ours is a quietly watchful game of chess.

As I’ve got older, I’ve had to adjust to the ‘cloak of invisibility’ slowly descending around me, as the male gaze opts for a younger, fresher target. At first, I felt really sad about it, but as the months have gone on, I’ve realised that it is one of the most liberating things that has ever happened to me. I’ve realised that I don’t need that approval and I don’t need to seek out the validation, as I used to do. What has happened is that my own gaze has been fully activated and I’m suddenly seeing the world outside myself differently. And it’s good.

Far from being invisible, I am achieving another level of eye contact with all sorts of people. I make a choice about the objects of my own gaze and often find a woman of the same age with whom I’ll exchange a smile, or a younger man, having a sneaky peek. There are people out there who see you in different ways, and not just as a sexual object. I find myself looking beyond the hot guys on the tube (if there are any not picking their noses) to the full range of people sitting around me. It’s almost as if not being gazed at as much has allowed me to look outside myself more confidently and find connections that I may well have missed before.

Of course I’m well aware that this could all be just a huge coping mechanism that my brain is initiating to allow me to experience ageing without knifing myself. And do you know what? It might be. My brain never fails to astound me with its ability to take each supposedly devastatingly awful birthday milestone and turn it into something unexpected and rather wonderful. I don’t have to make eye contact with the guy who is trying to attract my attention by shouting as I run round the park, or smile when he says, ‘cheer up, love.’ I can choose to look ahead, and smile at a young woman who is running the other way, or watch a dog fetching a ball.

My gaze is the one that matters, and my eyes have never been so focused on the road ahead.

Advertisements

Flying Solo – a further comment

Today I was asked to provide comments for a Huffington Post article on solo female travel, in response to this scaremongering one on the Mail Online. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/travel/travel_news/article-2960567/Most-dangerous-holiday-destinations-women.html

They didn’t print everything I said, so here’s the full thing:

The only times I’ve particularly felt unsafe while travelling were when I had let my preconceptions about a country fuel my fears. I have been holidaying alone for nearly five years and taking those first steps into a Thai town, a Turkish city or an Egyptian village are incredibly scary. I once allowed myself to believe I’d been drugged in a shop in Dahab by a shopkeeper, when in fact it was probably a panic attack brought on by fear. Similarly in Kenya, a scary group of men on motorbikes I kept seeing when out running on my own turned out to be a taxi rank. Of course, women are viewed differently in these countries, and it would be stupid to not be on your guard, but as someone who is fully aware of the potential hazards, I walk in confidently and try to see things as they really are.

I always watch men on holiday with a sense of envy. They are completely free to roam wherever they like, without much fear for their safety. There is a reason why some of the best travel books are written by men and not by women, and I long to be as free as those guys riding round Thailand on motorbikes without a care in the world. But I know my situation isn’t the same as theirs and have to adapt my experiences to fit.

My advice to any solo woman traveller would be, be aware of the potential hazards by reading up before you go. Beware of scaremongering features like this one in the Mail, and opt for sensibly written guides from Lonely Planet or Rough Guides. Yes, it’s wrong to have to restrict your behaviour or clothing options in certain settings, but it does make sense. I do agree with this article in terms of trusting your gut instinct when it comes to certain situations. If something or someone is making you feel uncomfortable, get out of there, even if you discover later that your fears were unfounded.

I think it’s a shame that many women will read an article like this, which is typical Mail scaremongering, and be put off from travelling alone and discovering the world. Many people would prefer women to stay in a domestic setting and not discover the joy of solo travel. Yes, you should know the hazards and look at other intelligent travellers’ tips on staying safe, but never let it stop you from taking those steps into the wider world.

(Edited comments appear here: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2015/02/23/women-solo-travel-saftey_n_6734512.html?1424697457)

 

Against All Odds

This week I read the tragic news about food blogger Wilkes McDermid, who threw himself off the roof terrace of a London restaurant in a planned suicide. In his ‘goodbye’ blog post, he stated that he was simply ‘accelerating Darwinism’, as a 39-year-old Asian man, doomed to be alone forever. He’d conducted some informal research over a number of years that indicated women prefer Caucasian or black men over Asians, and if not, then they would almost certainly be tall and/or wealthy Asians. His blog is insistent in its reasoning and maintains that while McDermid couldn’t control his romantic life, he could control the length of it. He could, and he did, put an end to his suffering.

What an unbelievably tragic state of being. To take oneself out of the running, off the face of the earth because you believe you will never find love. At this time of year, as we approach Valentine’s Day, I’m sure there are so many people thinking similar thoughts, but of those who say they’ve given up on love, most don’t actually believe it in their heart of hearts. There is always a glimmer of hope, right?

What has struck me about this story is the science behind it. When I left my marriage four years ago, I had no idea that science had anything to do with partner-finding. Call me a romantic, but I’ve always laboured under the idea of being so struck by another person that any consideration of current life situation, age, job, looks – whatever –would go by the wayside. I’ve scoffed when people said, ‘maybe the time wasn’t right’ about a particular guy I’ve dated, and I’ve thought, ‘if the connection is right, who gives a fuck about the timing?!’

Isn’t that what’s glorious about love? The inconvenience of it? That it pushes every other consideration out of the way?

What I discovered was that suddenly, everything was all about the timing. Well-meaning friends told me I had to be ‘on the same page’ as someone, at the right life stage, to make a go of it. After my marriage, I’d had a ridiculously inconvenient year-long passionate love affair with someone ten years younger than me, but in the end, he’d thrown ‘timing’ back at me: a ten-year age gap is fine in your thirties and forties, he’d said, but not so good in your sixties and seventies. WTF? I thought we didn’t give a shit about that. Apparently ‘we’ did.

Since then, I have learned to accept certain unexpected facts about dating in my forties. Firstly, that men my age aren’t relieved to finally find a single, independent woman of their own age who doesn’t want children. They are frequently at the stage where they want the option of creating a Mini Me, if they haven’t already got one. They are even less relieved to find a woman who has a successful career and a brain, it seems – it is a challenge to their manhood. Woe betide me when they find out I’m a feminist – they smile and say, “I have a problem with feminists.” I say, “I have a problem with men who don’t believe a woman should have equal rights to men,” and we leave it there. Smiling.

No, men my age are still searching in the twenty-five to thirty-five age bracket, and I can’t really blame them, if they still want children. I’m always honest about my age online – forty-seven – and my profile only really attracts much older or younger men. And let me reassure you now, that in no way am I complaining about the latter.

Online, people are cast aside for simply not fitting a desired profile – not being the right age, height, weight, race, religion or not having the right job, location or marital status (eharmony wouldn’t let me join until I was properly divorced, not separated). This makes me think that online dating isn’t for me. Why would I want a partner who was judging me on a set of statistics? I want someone who will catch my eye on a train, a beach, in a bank or a checkout queue and want to get to know me. Just me, standing there, no statistics hanging on a board around my neck with a mugshot.

I don’t want the science of it, I want the randomness of it and I will always believe that is out there for me. And if he is shorter than I thought he would be, hasn’t got the ‘right’ job, is age- or religion-inappropriate I won’t give a shit about it. There will be a connection between both of us that no one else can see – they won’t be able to work out the science behind it because it will be beyond analysis and data. I feel so saddened by Wilkes McDermid’s death because he believed that this wasn’t out there for him.

I believe that if you are only looking for a socially approved relationship then you are working within a very narrow dating channel. You will only properly ‘see’ age-appropriate people with the right height/weight/job/hair colour ratio. If you look beyond a tick-box life, as I do, you will find that like-minded people see you. There are fewer of them, but the recognition of another soul with the same outlook is a moment to treasure. I’d rather wait for one single moment like that than tick any boxes, even if the odds are seemingly stacked against us.

 

—————-

RIP Wilkes McDermid – his final blog post and message:

https://wilkes888.wordpress.com/2015/02/08/final-message-thank-you-everyone/

https://wilkes888.wordpress.com/2013/02/08/my-final-blog-entry-love-you-all/