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.

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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)