A conversation from a few months back regarding male gaze. It began with my sharing this piece of satire. Upon whom should befall the task to truncate unhealthy perceptions of beauty?
Male Friend: Satire aside, I read the title of this story and I find this perspective is extremely skewed. I don’t actually know any man that finds women in magazines or advertisements particularly attractive, maybe pretty, but not “sexy.” Most men are not attracted to the seemingly malnourished models pictured in magazines or advertisements. I will venture a polemic argument and welcome opinions.
The advertising and media industries are not advertising to men, they are advertising to women. I don’t know a single man that gives a damn about the “thigh gap” I learned of this thigh gap worry from a woman. In asking several women why there was such a huge uproar about how skinny women should be when my personal preferences had less to do with body part size and more to do with general fitness (which can absolutely include some padding) I got a single response: “Dante, you silly, women dress for women.”
From this entirely personal account I posit the following: if you want to improve women’s self image, begin with addressing insecurity in little girls. Insecurity that may to some degree be affected by male perceptions, but is also enormously influenced by female perceptions.
I understand how the argument is extremely appealing of “Women are pressured by a patriarchal society to conform to unrealistic standards of beauty.” My response would be: “Absolutely society is patriarchal and there are endless examples of institutionalized sexism that should be destroyed. However, arguing that those structures are a result of catering to a particular male standard of beauty, in my experience, is patently false.” The “unrealistic” standard of beauty is not male, it’s societal. Males might have some influence in it, but I’d posit women, in opining about each others’ appearance, could potentially have more. I don’t find the skeletal caricatures of women in magazines attractive, and most men I know don’t either. If that is the standard of beauty, it is not “male”.
Thought, male friends?
Me: I don’t know if I think of society and patriarchy as such separate entities. I’m not sure a society that is patriarchal can so neatly disentangle itself in time to clarify – specifically – whose eyes are looking and for whom we starve our bodies.
In this sense, I’m not sure the problem has much to do with how any individual man might feel about thigh gaps and cellulite. Rather, it is that we exist in a world where the male gaze defines experience for both women and men. Consciously or subconsciously, I think it’s fair to say that women understand their own beauty through the lens of what they believe men will find attractive. And that may not necessarily match with what men actually find attractive (I’ll need a random sample larger than the size of your social circle to confirm), but the toxicity of male gaze isn’t about reflecting any man’s reality. It’s about the pernicious power of seeing ourselves almost exclusively through a fragmented reflection.
Even women who dress for women are still shackled to tenets of patriarchy. The fact that women often judge each other so harshly, and are especially careful to tread that line between ‘slutty’ and ‘prudish’ – revolves around the idea that the way we dress might attract or repel attention from men. Where we stand in relation to the male gaze grounds the way women evaluate beauty in themselves and in one another.
I think you may be mistaking conditions that result from the male gaze as conditions that result from one man saying to a woman, “I like emaciated girls.” And that’s not the same at all. The point is that we act as though we are being watched even when no specific man is watching us. And maybe what we think men want to see isn’t what they actually want to see. But the real point is that our aesthetic existence somehow rests upon being seen by men. To say women are emaciated because women police themselves absent of patriarchy is the same as saying black people racialize themselves absent of racism and white supremacy. Just because someone isn’t running at you with a pitchfork doesn’t mean the history of being a racist country disappears altogether. Just because no individual man is telling me to starve myself doesn’t mean the broader concept of male gaze won’t play a role in how I subconsciously define and experience my own beauty.
And I certainly don’t think we ‘solve’ the Problem of the Male Gaze by rounding up five men who actually prefer a little meat on their women. I don’t think the problem is what you prefer. I think the problem is that your preference matters at all.
Male Friend: But preferences do matter. Our collective preferences shape reality. And I think they should shape reality. Should males have a monopoly over the preferences that shape the world, no. That’s preposterous. Are they skewed. Yes. Should women’s preferences matter more? Absolutely. However, I am arguing a very specific, very narrow point related to women’s perceptions about female beauty standards and how the unreasonable and unhealthy aspects of those standards are not driven by males exclusively (or even primarily), as is often portrayed. And no, my opinion should not matter to anyone not interested in my opinion. But to the extent someone may be interested in it, just as I am interested in the general female opinion of attractive men (or men of men and women of women), I continue to posit: unreasonable, unhealthy standards of female beauty are not exclusively driven by men. Other issues, objectification of women, sexism, etc are clearly male constructs to be dismantled. In this particular case however, I believe male opinion is misrepresented. I would defer to an empirical study of male opinion of course, as I admitted form the beginning, I don’t claim to represent the collective male mind.
Me: And that is where we differ. I think as long as self-image becomes reliant on something other than self, we hold ourselves to constructing someone else’s ideal rather than defining the value of our own bodies. The psychological enslavement remains. Thus, ‘tweaking’ our preferences to reflect a healthier standard is a good first step, but isn’t true liberation. I’d much rather get to a place where your perception didn’t matter at all to me, regardless of whether it encourages a healthy diet. Just because we live in a world where gazing exists doesn’t mean we have to live in a mindset where gaze matters.
As for the breakdown of male vs. female opinion in matters of beauty – we’re not really disagreeing, but I am trying to broaden the conversation. As I said before, the male gaze isn’t about opinion. It’s about a construct that forces us to operate under the assumption that men have a particular opinion. Thus, the problem isn’t the opinion. The problem is the construct of having to operate under any opinion.
Male Friend: Wouldn’t perfect agency allow you to decide whether perception of others matters or not? Or which others? I esthetically enjoy it when a loved one paints her nails to please me. Just as I enjoy pleasing that loved one by staying fit. Notice my interest is not necessarily everyone’s opinion, or pleasing everyone. I am free to choose who matters, if anyone.
Me: If perfect agency exists, why are we having this conversation? If women could just turn off negative self-image at the drop of a hat, why wouldn’t they? You are absolutely free to have opinions. So am I. But neither of us live in a world where people have perfect agency to respond to opinion as they so please. I’m not saying don’t have an opinion. I’m saying don’t assume that having an opinion is the problem. The problem is that we don’t have perfect agency.
Male Friend: Because you brought up psychological enslavement as a harm. And I would share that assessment. But added that proposing only an exclusively personal construction of identity can be liberating detracts from the freedom some of us would like to exercise of admitting other’s preferences and perceptions into our sense of self.
Me: I think the key word to emphasize is ‘reliant’. When self-image becomes reliant on something other than self, then it ceases to reflect autonomy. Then it becomes psychological enslavement, and veers away from liberation. Having the perfect agency to see ourselves the way we choose to see ourselves can involve knowing that other viewpoints exist, but won’t be reliant on any particular one. So again – the problem isn’t that perceptions exist. The problem is that we don’t possess the perfect agency to navigate perceptions without becoming reliant. And I think it’s incomplete to blame someone for being reliant when they have been exclusively socialized to a construct that makes them reliant.
Male Friend: I’m not blaming someone. The argument pointing at men as the source of this particular self image construct is blaming men specifically. My argument remains that blame for this particular construct rests as much on women as on men. Perhaps you argue that we cannot separate this particular issue from other instances of sexism. I would imagine you think so given your earliest comment about not being able to separate patriarchy from reality. But such an argument never works well. Any theory that explains everything explains nothing at all. If reality really is indistinguishable from patriarchy then how did anyone ever figure of there was a reality separate from patriarchy? That distinction requires variance in the world, it requires some things driven by men’s preferences and perceptions and other things that are driven by different factors. A more general point is the dangers of false consciousness arguments. I wood argue strongly that institutionalized, conditioned, invisible sexism exists. Where I disagree is in taking an inescapable, biological, psychological impulse that is attraction to other individuals and suggesting that our indulging/engaging in that impulse cannot be separated from sexism.
Me: I don’t understand why blame matters at all in a conversation about construct. We are all victims of construct – even as we perpetuate it, we are also built by it and live within it. It’s as absurd to me to blame present-day women or men for the male gaze as it is to blame present-day Black or White Americans for racism. The fact that it is a construct – rooted in history, embedded in our psyche – means that it goes far, far beyond and beneath the here and now. If you want to enact change – by all means. Remind men and women that they both have a part to play in undoing what has been subconsciously done to them. Remind them that, constrained as we may be by these constructs, we have opportunities to subvert them. But to say anyone alive today is to blame for this terrible legacy is absurd. It just ain’t so. And that has been my main contention with your comments. That they begin from a place of discussing blame rather than acknowledging that blame is out-of-place in this conversation. Blame would make sense if we had perfect agency and repeatedly chose to exercise it imperfectly. But of course, if we had perfect agency, we wouldn’t be here talking about pervasive constructs.
I didn’t say that reality is indistinguishable from patriarchy, so let’s not go down the wrong rabbit hole. What I did say is that society is not so separate from patriarchy. And when I say it doesn’t make sense to untether society from patriarchy, I am saying that it’s implausible to isolate controlling forces from willful destruction. It is implausible for us to separate inherited sexism from sexism that is created by present-day society. Why? Simply because it is what we inherit that feeds into what we put back into the world. It is the tenets of patriarchy we inherit that breeds the types of sexism we enact today. So where does yesterday’s patriarchy end and today’s society begin? How will blame – anywhere – in the here and now help us separate poison from the poisoned?
Today is not an appropriate scapegoat for yesterday. That’s what makes blame so irrelevant – even when you distribute it evenly among both sexes. The idea that today’s men and women are equally to blame for the way today’s women treat themselves is devoid of context. I get the feeling that what you really want to say is, “Men and women both have opportunities – imperfect but important – to help change a legacy that was forced on them.” I agree. But what you’ve actually said is, “Why are we only blaming men for this? Women are to blame, too!”
And those are not the same conversation.
Male Friend: No. Not the same conversation, they are logically connected. The former follows from the latter. At least, they are if you believe both originator and perpetuator are endowed not with perfect agency, but enough agency to be blamable.
Me: Who is the originator? Who originated sexism? Isn’t that a fallacious concept in a conversation about construct? It is uninteresting to me, this hunt for that sweet spot where people have just enough agency to originate wrong. And therefore be blamable. It’s illogical – I doubt you’ll ever neatly disentangle where construct ends and agency begins. We are all perpetrating and being perpetrated upon. It’s also unproductive – how many effective conversations have you had with someone that starts with, “Sexism is your fault, too”?