I recently found the amazing Feminist Cartographer’s toolkit, a guide for co-creating fearless futures that had me spending countless nights imagining better worlds. One of its exercises is writing down beliefs that I hold and want to let go of. Due to it being a reoccurring topic in the last few months, my friend wrote that she wants to let go of the belief that she will always (somehow) be controlled by the male gaze. The “male gaze” suggests a sexualised way of looking that empowers men and objectifies women. Woman is visually positioned as an object of heterosexual male desire and therefore her feelings, thoughts and own sexual drives are less important than her being “framed” by male desire.
Of course, freeing ourselves from this gaze is possible, but not if we have to do it alone. Why? Because the male gaze goes deeper than someone looking at us in the streets or when we’re on a date (or even in the sheets). It is a term that describes the x-ray vision of masculinity, a look that penetrates our clothes and minds even when no man is around. A look that once it is cast upon us, adheres to our thinking and our actions in such a subtle way that most of us don’t even notice its profound presence in our lives. Living in male-dominated societies in which everything caters towards male pleasure, the male gaze ensures that, as women, we follow the ideals of these societies. When interacting with our communities, the male gaze plays a big role in the relationship with ourselves as well as with others.
Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves.
[Berger, John. (1972): Ways of Seeing, p. 42]
By understanding this and spotting when our thoughts and decisions are influenced by (supposed) male expectations, we can redefine our relationships and set our own boundaries based on our very own beliefs. Therefore, no man should be involved in this process as you will soon realize that, for once, his opinion will actually have little effect on the matter. Like that one time you had not shaved and he told you that he doesn’t mind but you said (and really meant): “It has nothing to do with you, I just don’t feel comfortable.”
Actually, it has everything to do with him. With society and with your aunt that tells you that not shaving is unfeminine. With your girlfriends saying they shave for themselves because they just feel “cleaner”. You might not have thought about any of them in that moment, but the idea that your legs are dirty because they’re spiky wasn’t born in your head, it was put there. You enduring shaving spots or the pain and cost of waxing your vagina even though you hate it is the male gaze motivating you. Because maybe he won’t go down on me if I am hairy. You hopping in the shower when he spontaneously decides to come over is the male gaze reminding you that women should smell like flowers. You being super comfortable in your mafalda-pyjama from 10 years ago and quickly changing into tiny black lingerie even though you’re on your period is the male gaze demanding women to always be sexy. If your man tells you he doesn’t mind you think he’s a good man, but he’s lying. He’s just trying to be nice. The male gaze is so ingrained in our thinking, it doesn’t even need a man.
It is normal wanting to impress someone you like. He told you that he likes your yellow shirt so next date, that’s what you wear. However, it is not normal to restrict yourself because of what you think someone else wants. If you are hooking up with someone and you two are having a great time, but it is getting a bit hotter than you expected and you stop for fear of being “unrepresentable” down there, that’s not normal. It’s the male gaze restricting you and stopping you from something you want to do.
“This doesn’t apply to me”, you might think. “I’m so close and comfortable with him that I stopped stressing myself about these things.” So, you were stressing yourself initially and once your man allowed you to stop you stopped? That’s still the male gaze.
Furthermore, it does not at all stop on your skin, it goes right through your mind and influences your behavior. Have you ever suppressed an “ugly” loud laugh because he might not find you feminine if you’re too wild? Have you ever taken forever to eat your meal because you were worried about the Spaghetti flying somewhere it shouldn’t be? The male gaze alters our behaviour, tones us down to act in “cute”, unnatural, flawless ways (like not singing along to our favourite tune when he’s with us in the car).
Really, he is not (always) the problem. It is our mothers telling us “not to sit like a man” and to cross our legs in public, our friends advising us not to go for food on dates and to wear unsexy underwear if we don’t want to have sex tonight (because the male gaze will work its magic and stop us). Our grandmothers making us wax our arms, because women apparently don’t have hair/men want to be the only people who have body hair.
No matter our culture and upbringing, all women are subject to the male gaze in one way or the other. We should be aware of it and support each other so that we can let go of the belief that this is “just how it is”. It’s not. Letting go of this belief is a journey we, as sisters, need to undertake collectively. If we teach our daughters, little sisters and cousins to find motivation within themselves rather than from pleasing our patriarchal society, they will still dress up for night outs and shower before their friends come over. But they will do it for the right reasons. They might still wax their arms simply because they consider it to be more beautiful, not because they imagine men looking at them in disgust when they’re wearing a t-shirt.
Therefore, while life without the male gaze might not look very different, it definitely feels much more comfortable and carefree.
Words by Amuna Wagner with help of and inspiration by Valia Katsis
Photos of Valia Katsis and Amuna Wagner by Hannah Wolny