Friday, 1 August 2008

On Gaze

The point of being a woman who writes online is that nobody has to engage with you as a physical being. The point of having a blog is that it's a sphere of self-expression where your looks, whatever they are, don't come into it. You're not ogled as a pretty woman or dismissed as an unattractive one, you are free to be fully yourself, to have your ideas judged and digested on their own merit, whatever that merit may be. But today I've a visceral urge to talk about female beauty, and what it signifies, and I hope that in doing so I won't be betraying a sacred anti-physicality of feminist hyperspace by bringing my own experiences of beauty and lack of beauty into the picture.

A few months ago, I was discussing the layout of the next article animatedly with my editor. He seemed unusually friendly and kept looking away from my face. When he turned away, I realised that I'd been leaning over the desk, pushing my breasts together, and had a lot of cleavage showing. Although I wasn't being terribly indecent, I was crashingly ashamed and humiliated. Suddenly, I wasn't a journalist with good ideas for the headline feature, I was an intern with a killer cleavage. I never asked for this. I despise the fact that I can't avoid presenting as sexual if I take any care over my appearance.

A recent study by the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity found that 18% of women would rather give up 10 years of their lives than be obese, and up to 30% would rather be severely depressed and slender than fat and happy. The majority of women will clock up countless hours and sometimes spend money they can't afford in the name of 'grooming', and however many useless hours we put in, we already know we’ll never be good enough, not compared to the perfect airbrushed creatures gurning at us from a thousand posters, tv adverts, movies and magazine racks every day. We’re clever enough to have worked that one out for ourselves, but we do it anyway, because we’ve been raised in the certain knowledge that if we’re not pretty, we’re not worth anything.

Facebook, the cussing blind oracle of the modern world, informs me that I'm statistically not unattractive, and we all know that facebook cannot lie. I was never one of those girls at school. In fact, I was the sort of teenager who sat up late popping her whiteheads and weeping whilst listening to Janis Ian on repeat . But suddenly I’m twenty-one, my skin has cleared up (thank you, the combined pill) and I find myself worthy of a certain amount of hassle on public transport. Lucky, lucky me. Suddenly instead of invisible, 'pretty' is what I am, before I'm a journalist or a reader or a sister or a lover or a friend.

And this is something that men can be forgiven for not understanding. Men have the option of not presenting as sexual, but women don't - particularly not conventionally attractive women, and particularly not in a professional environment. Whatever I'm wearing, wherever I'm going, I'm now a sexual being whether I want to be or not. Because of my curves, my tits, the body I was born in, people stare at me on the underground to and from work, and I can't do anything about it, even though it's an erasure of personhood that prickles on the skin. A close friend, who happens to be extremely empirically and personally beautiful, recently confided in me that

'Since I started having it horribly brought to my attention that I fit one of the standard images [of female beauty], and since I started to get really creeped out and threatened by it rather than just irritated, I've hard to work very hard at being comfortable with my own sexuality. I feel that those strangers' eyes steal it from me.'

There is no freedom, for the young women of my generation, to define beauty in the way we want it, particularly not in the working world where a reasonable level of conventional dressing is expected. This is a sexuality that's imposed rather than joyfully accepted. A sexuality that any ogling guy is implicitly invited to participate in, with no assumption that we enjoy being stared at. That's not the point. Living in a body that's conventionally sexy means that you are there for others' enjoyment, not your own edification and certainly not for your own pleasure. And the more I feel lightly, ocularly raped every time I get on public transport, the less I feel I want to engage with my own sexuality in private. When you're a pretty woman, it's easy to feel like your sexuality is not your own, like your body is not your own. It's taken from you, and then sold back to you, every day, by the eyes of a thousand strangers. It makes you feel alien within your own skin. It makes you dissasociate from what you're told is your own sexuality. Since I sharpened up for work and learned to walk in high heels, I don't 'feel' sexy. I just feel angry.

In addition to the objectification of women, the media commits another assault on the dignity of women. This assault is the dismemberment of women, and it has not received the attention it deserves. - Kaycey D. Greening, Capital University.

Don't, don't for one second give me that crap about men having it just as bad. Men have no idea how bad it gets. The worn old argument that society has standards for everyone, not just women, and gosh, it sucks for straight white men too is universally the first part of a syllogism used by bigots, misogynists and defenders of the status quo. Men do not have to make the same power choices that women have to make when they are young. Men do not find themselves defined by how perky their tits and ass are, how bright their eyes, how high their heels, how bouncy their hair, how small their waist. Men do not struggle to remember what their own sexuality actually is under all the viral marketing. Little boys know that they are more than a set of numbers. Little girls learn to forget it.

And don't, don't for a second hit me with well, women judge other women far more harshly than men, so it must all be fine - because there is such a thing as the morality of slaves. Yes, women also judge other women, and no, that doesn't make those judgements okay, but hell, if we're going to be slaves then at least we can be the best slaves, and maybe one day they'll be grateful, and talk to us like human beings, and maybe some day we or our daughters will be free. For examples of strong, powerful young women being reduced to physical, sexual beings, I need point no further than the Jessica Valenti Breast Controversy (say it ten times fast).

Why don't we change? Because we're persuaded that we have so much to lose. So we continue to pluck, shave, starve, bleach, shop, polish, powder and wax until we can feel the weariness in our bones and the more we lay them down for approval, the less we own our bodies, sexually and otherwise.


  1. up to 30% would rather be severely depressed and slender than fat and happy
    My god. I can only suspect they have not experienced severe depression in order to say those things, otherwise that's just terrifying. I'd give almost anything to be rid of my depression.

  2. Totally seconding Cassie.
    I'd LOVE to be fat and happy!!

    Great post Laurie.

  3. I don't pluck, shave, or wear make-up. This does not protect me from unwanted staring and sometimes grabbing.

  4. "The point of having a blog is that it's a sphere of self-expression where your looks, whatever they are, don't come into it."

    "I hope that [...] I won't be betraying a sacred anti-physicality of feminist hyperspace by bringing my own experiences of beauty and lack of beauty into the picture."

    Um, there's a mugshot of you in the top left corner?

  5. James - I like my blog to feel personal, but in accordance with some of the politics of feminist blogging, the mugshot is small and unrepresentative. I don't wear glasses anymore, for example. It's also a sight away from discussing my measurements in detail :P

  6. James, having an author picture is one of the top recommendations of usability experts for sites that want to be taken seriously, and while stylised Penny's pic is hardly gratuitous. Having a picture there is recommended primarily as a subconscious cue to the reader to assert that you are actually human—not everyone does it, but I do think most should.

    Penny, I think there is societal movement away from the idealisation of a media driven ideal but it's very very slow and even then doesn't always work. Can/will the media culture change, and as the problem is both male awareness and conformist women, are the media responding to what people want to buy or leading expectations?

    "I don't pluck, shave, or wear make-up." It was the bright red hair that got me. Nothing to do with the mental capacity or the non-stop conversation. At all. Honest.

  7. Thanks for your comments all.

    To clarify: I was being facetious.

  8. Men have the option of not presenting as sexual, but women don't - particularly not conventionally attractive women, and particularly not in a professional environment. Whatever I'm wearing, wherever I'm going, I'm now a sexual being whether I want to be or not.

    I'm sorry, but I don't think that the situation is in any way better for women who are not conventionally attractive. Their bodies will still be stared at just not in an approving way.

  9. My mother allways used to say 'a cat may look at a queen' and while i'm not entirely sure why she said it, I think its appropriate in this case.
    Worrying as much as you seem to be doing about people looking at you is not normal. I'd advise you to get out of the city - the strangers obviously aren't good for you.
    Further, men are judged by their appearance. We all are. Tall men get paid more, beautiful people get more attention, people in expensive clothes get more respect etc etc The only value to the observation is to fuel neuroses of the mentally vulnerable.

  10. Mark, whilst I appreciate your fatherly concern for my womynly neuroses, your comment smacks a little of 'you craaaazy women are fussing over nothing because you're mentally unstable.'

    Try spending two weeks walking around in a woman's body. Hell, just wear a dress to work one day and see how blaze you are about people's reactions. Then come back and tell me I'm being hysterical, if you like. There are some cases where a paranoid is simply someone in posession of all the facts.

  11. Have you ever looked at an attractive man on the tube, PennyRed? Are you lightly, ocularly raping them when you do so?

  12. Jennie said...

    "I don't pluck, shave, or wear make-up."

    Lesbian, huh?

  13. re obesity/depression: i have recently put on a lot of weight, and am now technically obese (as female members of my family love to point out). there were various reasons for this weight gain, and this issue was one of them.

    but it hasn't actually changed anything. yes, i now weigh about 20kg more than i did, maybe 15kg more than i should, but i am still not fucking "invisible", because i have tits, a waist, good bone structure, and that's apparently still enough to attract unwanted attention. being fat does not necessarily just earn you stony-faced disapproval, it can still get you just as much "alright darling" shit as when/if you were thinner.

    i'm damned if i do and damned if i don't. good post this time.

  14. I've been grabbed, hit on, shouted explicit sexual slurs at despite the fact that I'm fairly geeky looking. When I had a short purple punk haircut I still got hit on (& aggressively so). This very anxiety was part of my development of anorexia: I was ashamed of the uninvited comments; I didn't feel that my body belonged to me anyway, so starving it away was no problem. Calling us neurotic is not going to help. There's a difference between noticing someone's attractive and making them uncomfortably aware of it, and all too often, men are willing to cross that line because they have no respect for women's inner sexual self. I had an argument with my boyfriend about this just the other day. He challenged my belief that the man who asked me what time my legs opened was sexist. I rest my case.

  15. Well there are three different issues here - people being looked at "funny", people being verbally abused by idiots and people being attacked.
    Worrying overmuch about the first one really does strike me as borderline mental. Firstly, can someone please explain to me what the "bad look" is? Secondly, what exactly do you propose to do about it? Thirdly, the vast majority of strangers don't think ANYTHING about you and those that do think you're beautiful. Sucks eh.

    OK the second issue- yeah I have some sympathy with this. I find idiots who talk shit irritating too. My general approach is to either ignore them, or to tell them to shut-the-fuck-up. I think thats probably the best approach to take... any other suggestions? I think that giving idiots and their talk any further consideration or importance is counter productive.

    Third situation, real problem, obviously a completely different kettle of fish. You have my sympathy.

  16. Maybe a bit late as a comment for this post, but I think my latest post could be of interest to readers who appreciated this one.

  17. This is why I was grr when you called me a conventionaly "pretty" girl! Another great post.

  18. ocular rape? Come on :/ I'm sick of people using the word rape for things like that - it devalues it and almost makes it into a joke. Can we save the word rape for when someone is actually raped, please? And yes, I'm female and yes, I've been stared at by guys before. Sometimes it bothers me, sometimes it doesn't, but even when I've been outright ogled, the word rape has never entered my mind.

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