I was walking in Soho a few months ago with my young and strapping brother, Tom. It was summer, Tom was wearing a T-shirt and shorts.
As we were walking around looking for an ice-cream shop, Tom found himself an object of interest. Two guys leaning out of a cafe window stopped mid conversation to look at him. Men everywhere were flicking eyes across his body, attempting to catch his eye. I was bemused by the situation, but Tom had no idea how to react. ‘But I’m not gay!’ he whispered, his face an expression of confusion and embarrassment. ‘Tom, no one cares’ I replied ‘you’re just nice to look at.’
Tom lives and works in a small rural part of Scotland, and any kind of mass attention is out of the ordinary. But to become a vessel for the male gaze was entirely unprecedented. He crossed his arms, covering his chest. His eyes fell to the floor.
This backdrop of scrutinisation which we as women barely give thought to – it is so ubiquitous. It becomes a part of how we understand ourselves, where we hook up our self-esteem. That lazy, drawling look which is just another moment in the backdrop of our lives. Not even men that you know, just men en-masse.
The sweep of eyes across your body by a man on the escalator. The men who stare as you cycle home. The boys at the bar inspecting your ‘screwability’. What is perverse is how restrictive and confining that look is, and yet how dependent you become upon it. Men I will never meet again, who I will never speak to. On these men is pinned my self-worth. I see you look, I gauge the look. I calculate the meaning, and I tally the results. Do I look hot? Am I hot enough? Am I worthy of another look? If I am pleasing a man, if my physicality pleases men, then I am succeeding.
I hate it, I try to fight it, and I feel imprisoned by it.
Sometimes it is motivated by the desire to fuck you, but often it feels more like an assertion of ownership. As a woman, you are not here for yourself, you do not walk for yourself, you do not wear clothes for yourself, you do not even cycle for yourself. Your physical self exists for men, and you are either worth being looked at or you’re not. In this way, you are either a woman or you’re not.
Another recent experience – on the way to the hospital due to recent health problems, the taxi driver commented again and again about the size of my waist – which he approved of- as I uncomfortably tried to change the subject. As if to make some sort of contrast, he pointed out a larger woman on the street. ‘Look at her. She is not even a woman.’
Not only is she an undesirable woman, the very fact that she is undesirable means that she is no longer worthy of the title of female-hood. The implication being – “by daring to have a body that does not arouse me, she has forfeited the right be understood as female”. This is one of the most disturbing implications I have encountered, that you’re very status as a female being is dictated by whether you get a man’s dick hard.
It has wider implications. How can we have any notion about ourselves, what it means to be female, when everything we understand about ourselves and our bodies is so dependent on what is reflected upon us? If the very status of womanhood relies on male accreditation, then who are we?
My mum: ‘you hate it for years and then one day it’s gone…’
We are not sexual, we are sexy. We do not feel, we arouse. They look, and we watch.