Does the male gaze affect female body perceptions?
We all notice the male gaze — or the lack of it.
When you’re out and about, when you’re dressed up, when you’re travelling, at work, at a party, a bar, a restaurant, a club, whatever — and no guy is checking you out — let’s be honest, it’s a little demoralising.
And if someone’s checking you out, you can immediately tell if it’s creepy or flirty. Creepy makes you cover up, avoid eye contact or just run away. Flirty boosts your ego. And if said flirty gaze is from someone you are attracted to, it feels good.
Which makes me wonder, how much power does the male gaze actually have over you? Here’s psychoanalysis of myself to figure this out, as you do.
Growing up, my mother used to call me a “shameless” child because I used to prance around in beniyan and panties (singlet and underwear), even when there were close family friends around. My parents never stopped me or scolded me for it; it was just a running joke.
I was this care-free way up until I was about 11 and I distinctly remember the day that changed for me.
It was Saturday morning and I stepped out of the bathroom.
I always shower in the master bedroom. We had one of those traditional bathrooms where there was no separation from the towel bar. Me being me I always managed to get my towel wet and I hated that. So, I used to leave my towel by my parent’s bed which was near the bathroom door.
I never locked the door to the master bedroom. I’d shower, open the bathroom door naked, pick up my towel, wrap myself outside the bathroom then go to my room to get changed. It’s how I’ve operated ever since I started taking showers on my own.
This particular Saturday, just like any other day, I stepped out of the bathroom, naked, to grab the towel on my parent’s bed. My uncle had come into my parent’s room to get something and saw me naked.
It was probably only three seconds but the way he looked at me was just off. It wasn’t inappropriate or maybe it was but all I know is that it made me feel ashamed. I immediately closed the bathroom door, stared at myself in the bathroom mirror, realised I had started growing boobs and thought to myself, maybe it was time I started covering myself up.
My uncle and I have a love-hate sibling relationship. He had been living with us since I was 4 and he was pretty much the person I spend most of my time with — studying, playing, singing, writing.
Our relationship didn’t change per se.
But his gaze that day still remains burnt into my retinas.
It changed the way I saw my body; I started locking the main bedroom door.
As puberty continued, I wasn’t skin and bones anymore. I had gained 10 kilos in a year between 12 and 13. My thighs were fatter and I guess hips wider. And mind you, I’m not plus size or anything, I was just average size.
But, in school, sitting alongside skinny Chinese girls, having a slightly curvier body shape can make you feel less than desired. The boxy school uniform is just unflattering on your body shape. You weren’t hot by school standards.
My dad never prevented us from wearing certain types of clothing, or rather my mum never let him.
Despite our differences, the one thing I admire about my mum is her staunchness when it comes to fashion. She used to tell us how dad used to feel uncomfortable when they first got married because she would only wear sleeveless tops and dresses. He didn’t think it was inappropriate but was worried about “ What would people say?”.
Till today, she always tells him/us: be decent but wear things that flatter you; it’s never wrong. If people see it wrongly, its on them, not you. But that doesn’t stop him from occasional passing comments like “looks small to me”, “are you wearing your sister’s clothes?”.
My sister and I are similar sizes but she I have a bigger frame than she does — broader shoulders and wider hips. A dress would accentuate my boobs and butt more than it would on her — even if we both fit into the same dress.
But a male point of view that made me reassess what my body expressed.
Turtle necks and high waisted jeans were the only way I could feel sexy or in shape without being too tight, too deep, a “turn on”.
I’ve been on dates with boys who assess you physically, either overtly or covertly — your size, your boob size.
It can create insecurities, even if temporary.
But this one guy I was seeing, in a completely unexpected way, just appreciated or accepted my body.
His gaze was respect — admiring the body for what it is; seeing me as a whole person within that body, rather than the shell itself. He was unfazed or unaffected by parts of my body I was insecure about — which oddly didn’t boost my ego but made me feel more confident and comfortable.
It may sound anti-feminist to say this but;
This respect-filled gaze made me see my body in a way I didn’t before.
I was more confident to express my body in whatever form, context in different parts of my life.
We all talk about how we do things for ourselves.
Wear make-up, dress-up, buy cute jewellery, do your nails, take photos in a particular angle. It makes us feel more confident.
But when we do those things, don’t we also do them to feel admired, desired, wanted; especially by someone you might want to attract?
Just because it feels good.
We say it casually, “I had a good hair day but no one to impress”.
But, if we say I’m wearing a sexy dress for a date, or make-up to meet a friend you might be interested in or getting new lingerie, we tend to qualify that with a “it’s for me, not for him. “
I’m not denying that these things we do is for us, and for us to feel more confident. But isn’t it not also for us sometimes/most times to feel attractive to someone — to appease someone’s gaze?
I’ve always found it a little hypocritical when we say we do things for ourselves because it is feminist. Why can’t we say:
I’m wearing a sexy dress to impress him.
I’m wearing make-up to see if he sees me differently.
I’m getting new lingerie so I can have fun with him.
Does saying these things make you anti-feminist?
You’re not denying that you’re doing things to make you feel more confident but neither are you denying the fact that you’re trying to gain, for a lack of a better phrase, positive male gaze?
Or is this view unconsciously shaped by our patriarchal society? Is this why men have a higher tendency to be narcissistic? Like they have some sort of control over you?
Because just their gaze can affect you — positively or negatively?
How do we teach boys and men to respect female bodies? Because the inappropriate gaze often stems from disrespect
How do we stop girls to express their bodies consciously or subconsciously to appeal to the male gaze or to hide from it, when its inappropriate?
Or is this human nature — to attract or un-attract?
I feel like I’ve just blagged through this post. So:
Do you agree or vehemently disagree? Comment below.
Originally published at https://www.brownuninterrupted.com on January 31, 2021.