The Fundamentals of Being Looked At

John Berger, in his essay ‘Ways of Seeing, said, “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.”

I’ve grown up not watching myself, but watching me through other people.
I’ve straightened my posture and tucked my hair only when I’ve felt that someone’s seeing;
as if I only exist when I’m being looked at. When my being is being witnessed. I exist when someone can vouch that I do.
My thoughts are meaningless jargon until someone else hears them.
I am a blank canvas until someone comes along and colours me.

“Men act. Women appear,” Mulvey said. “Women possess a Looked-at-ness.”
But I don’t think I do. Or I don’t think I want to.
I don’t think looking at me adds any value.
Or maybe I don’t want it to.
What if I want to look instead?
What if when my mother told me God is always watching, I told her that I don’t want Him to and broke her heart, and what if I enjoyed it; because in that moment, in that act, I was doing more than just appearing?

I think women have a world of their own without men. But I think women have lived through men’s gaze for so long that they don’t know how not to. So our world, our private world and our private gaze is tainted and we can spend our lives trying to untaint it. I think I live in two worlds, the man’s world made for men and the women’s world made by men. And I’m fucking exhausted.

I want to tell you that I’d rather look than be looked at but I also never learned how to because I’ve always been an audience to my own being.
I hope you’ll forgive me for it.
I hope you’ll believe me when I say that I really really want to learn, because once someone told me, “Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder”. And so, when you say I’m beautiful I want to scream yes I am, yes I am, yes I do see it because I see you seeing me and it makes sense.
Because when I look at you I want me to look at you.
Because I know, I know you’re not to be looked at through a borrowed gaze.
You don’t deserve that.
And so, I learn to really look; and some days it seems like it’s really me who’s looking at you.
I tuck that memory. I open my eyes and learn your face and I close my eyes to remember it.

Yet, some days when I turn to look at myself, I still feel rotten and bleak and I don’t know if it’s my gaze
or someone else’s. But I am anyway forced to look away
and I know there’s beauty in the world and I see you looking at me and I feel you’re being wronged – because looking at me could never bring you as much joy as looking anywhere else in the world would.
But I still see you choosing to look at me. Over and over and over.
and I keep existing. Enough to be able to act. To smile. To make my gaze my own. To look.

Someday, enough to more than exist through someone’s else’s gaze. Over and over. And over.

(I hope I make you feel alive too, when I look at you. But more so, I hope that you don’t need me to.)

Anupriya Dubey is a psychology graduate from Delhi University. She is always willing to have a conversation on politics, psychology, poetry, and make-believe hypothetical dilemmas over a cup of coffee.

Featured image: Jose A.Thompson / Unsplash