For a while now, I’ve been covering up my body to hide its shape. It has been a long time since I was an adolescent, but the gaze that has followed me everywhere since then has also somewhat become my own. Red looked too striking against my skin, low hanging jeans hugged my curves a bit too much and figure fitting tops were out of the question.
Bright colours slowly left my wardrobe as I tried to blend in more, and makeup and jewellery had no place in my life. I leaned towards androgyny – even though my body is built for anything but.
But within the loose folds of my oversized shirt, I felt guilt-free. I was doing nothing to attract stares.
It is astonishing that until 1975, the phenomenon of the male gaze hid in plain sight but was given no distinct term. Feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey coined the term in her seminal essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema‘ to describe the cinematic angle with which a heterosexual male character looked at a female character. The male gaze essentially hypersexualises women by reducing them to objects of aesthetic value only – for the benefit of the heterosexual male.
Be it Hollywood or Bollywood, the male gaze remains a central tenet in almost all movies and media. While in theory this may seem like a small problem, its effects are overreaching.
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Media plays an integral role in weaving the cultural and societal fabric of our lives. The incessant portrayal of females as objects of desire has primarily reflected in two areas. First, it gives men the power to perceive women’s bodies as worthy of one-way surveillance. Second, it leads to self-objectification amongst women. Hence, the male gaze pervades into our daily lives, defining how we view our own bodies and unabashedly suggests the image of a ‘perfect woman’ which we should all strive towards.
It is worth observing that the same clothes that seem too risque in our country are absolutely normal when one travels abroad. Similarly, seldom will a woman wear short clothes while travelling by public transport. What we wear is determined by the tolerance of the people who make up our surroundings, not by what feels comfortable to us.
This conundrum is not just limited to our sartorial choices, but also our locale. I took to using private vehicles and avoiding public spaces when I became aware of the constant trepidation I felt. Eyes followed me everywhere, cat calls were commonplace and there was of course the occasional brushing of a hand or groping. What it led to was staying away from ‘inviting trouble’. While society continues to shun the feminist rhetoric, little do they realise that even walking on the streets without any apprehensions is a privilege reserved only for men.
For most women, becoming the cynosure of the male gaze becomes a run-of-the-mill occurrence. Street harassment is almost expected and often accepted with silence. From a young age, women learn that their bodies are disdainful objects/things that cause them a lot of trouble. Noted feminist Simone De Beauvoir dedicated much of her life around the research and delineation of the patriarchal meaning of being a woman. She explains that the female body is seen as disadvantageous because of the meaning accorded to it by the patriarchal society. In Second Sex, she describes the process of a young girl becoming flesh and the hostility with which the society treats it:
“The young girl feels that her body is getting away from her… on the street men follow her with their eyes and comment on her anatomy. She would like to be invisible; it frightens her to become flesh and to show flesh.”
As a result, the female body becomes a cause of embarrassment and burden. Girls are constantly asked to sit timidly, straighten their posture, dress up to please people and to cover up what displeases people. As women, this discomfort with their body continues. The only time a woman is really free from the sexual gaze of men is when she takes on an identity larger than her sexuality – such as that of an expecting mother. Society unanimously deems pregnant women as sexually unavailable and treats them with reverence instead. In most situations, however, women continue to face the burden of their bodies.
There is also the other side to this coin. Being fed constant images of a desirable female body, women have turned to self-objectification. Not only are they trying to present themselves as desirable, some are also using it as social currency. Social media is the perfect example of this phenomenon as more and more women turn to posing and using their bodies as clickbait. While there may be nothing wrong with doing that if a woman feels comfortable, there is frequently the looming problem of anxiety and body shaming that accompanies it. Studies have repeatedly found that the mere anticipation of the male gaze leads to higher levels of self objectification in women and subsequently, increased negativity about themselves.
Like with everything else in the patriarchal society we live in, it is time we took this gaze back. By also making the male gaze our own, we have done a huge disservice to our gender. As I gradually reintroduce red to my wardrobe or line my eyes with kohl, I also keep my androgynous shirts. For even now I walk a thin line – should I wear the clothes that look good on me and subject myself to the male gaze or should I wear the boxy clothes I have also come to love, but which bring me no attention?
Whatever item of clothing I choose to wear, the one thing that remains certain is that the only gaze that matters is mine.
Shreya Bothra is a businesswoman and CFA, with the ability to don many hats. She considers herself a poet and writes for her passion project – www.thinkingwoman.in. Her natural habitat is behind a book, and she surfaces for yoga and some Nutella.