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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14 thoughts on “The Female Gaze

  1. Love this, what an ending.

    Also, *facepalm*:

    “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.”

    Never ever seen a woman picking her nose, but besuited classy businessmen, by the dozen.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What you say is both sad and interesting and is an indictment of how our society operates and the norms it adopts. Women are the losers in this but so are men, though they may not realize it.

    When I was younger, women tended to be cool and cautious towards me and I took this to be “normal”. However, now that I am older, the situation has changed. Women now more often make eye contact with me or smile at me or offer me their seat in the bus or tube. No doubt age comes with a label saying “This man is harmless”. While this is pleasant enough, it also offers a glimpse of what life could be like if we learned to overcome our conditioning and behave better towards one another.

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  3. Operating from within a man’s gaze your article really draws out the subtleties of ‘what being looked’ at or ‘doing the looking’ really contains and its possible intentions: everything from the “waaaay” laddish behaviour, to simple and effective silent appreciation.

    I notice that as I get older, I play this game with other men and the results are astounding — not in a win or lose dynamic, but simply the conditioned responses we have picked up over time. It was only pointed out to me several years ago that men actively shy away from eye contact with other men (and possibly women too). I notice, more and more that if I connect with another man’s gaze it’s an acknowledgement of ‘I am here and I see you’ quickly followed by what could be an internal trigger. Of shame perhaps? Hard to say but they sometimes will look down and away quickly so as to not invite anything unwelcome. I think as men we are conditioned to feel threatened if another man looks at us, regardless of the intention.

    As for gazing in general, I will have to remind myself about picking my nose in public. Great stuff, Red x

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    • Interesting, isn’t it? I’m fascinated by male social behaviour and recently been watching male friends board the tube then sit apart from each other not even acknowledging each other’s existence. Then they get off at the same stop and start talking but not looking. It’s a real space-invasion thing.

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      • The tube is like your Petri dish of human experience! I feel like I contravene so many of the “normal” male behaviours (like silently sitting in the tube next to someone I know), and again embrace other aspects wholeheartedly. We are wired in mysterious ways…eh!

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  4. It’s natural that the male (with his biological precondition) has a more invasive, ‘intruding’, active role. Whereas the female is on the receiving end (by biological fact). Hence especially when approching the age of (potential) reproduction/mating, young men seem more aggressive. They have to be! If they want to reproduce. And it’s good like that.
    It might be helpful to see the whole thing as a game, a beautiful game in which two worlds collide, the world of a man and the world of a woman. And when these two worlds marry, …fireworks! Of course men will never understand women, and of course women will always complain about men. I like that!
    And it’s amusing to see some who try to break out of these natural settings… many things (behaviours) we can try to change, men can try to be like women, and women suddenly want to behave like men.
    But the most fulfilling will be, if we make peace with our sexes, enjoy it, at any age… I am now 41, and it doesn’t stop me from ‘gazing’ at women, that are the same age like me, or even older. It’s not about age for me. It’s the person, the soul behind the preson.

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    • Thanks for your comments – always good to hear the exact opposite opinion to mine! I don’t agree that it is ‘natural’ for men to be invasive and aggressive with women, nor do I believe that we have ‘natural settings’ – many of our behaviours are culturally bestowed, such as feeling entitled to women as decorative objects to be gazed upon. It’s also interesting to hear you suggest that I need ‘help’ to understand these scenarios – I don’t. What I’ve written about in my post is what I believe to be true and I’m ‘at peace’ with all of it.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I just discovered your blog this morning and I am really enjoying it.

    I have been living in Dahab for the last 3 years so I thought I would comment on not just the ‘gaze’ issue but the presence of males and females in public spaces in Egypt. Normally in Dahab I feel quite carefree, just going about my business, but things change when we have Egyptian holidays and all the Cairo people come to town. The thing is that about 70% of the Egyptian visitors are male, and they are used to owning the public spaces. All of a sudden I feel uncomfortable going for a swim and coming out of the water to find a whole lot of eyes on me, or sitting on the public beach surrounded by groups of young men. Some of them think it is ok to look and comment as much as they want, others are clearly respectful and try to avoid looking at me or going anywhere near me. But either way it makes me feel like I am not allowed in this space – definitely not allowed to just relax and go for a swim and do what I always like to do. Then my natural tendency is to shrink down, dry myself off as quickly as possible and leave, or find the most hidden spot of beach to sit down in. But sometimes it enrages me so much that I ‘take the space back’ – if there are a group of guys blocking my way I walk aggressively past right in their personal space. I find an empty space on the beach and put my towel down just slightly too close for comfort. I hope in some way that this confronts their ideas about the right of women to exist in public, but even if it doesn’t it always leaves me feeling more in control.

    Liked by 1 person

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