Cal in Middlesex succinctly summed up the youthful female experience: “Looking back now, I can only remember a time when the world seemed to have a million eyes, silently opening wherever I went.”
The eyes have it in more ways than one, conveying abstractions beyond attention. Our gazes communicate our social power. Feminist scholars speak often of the Male Gaze and Sexual Objectification of women, where cultural edicts rob women of sexual subjectivity. The gaze I always thought of as a metaphor.
The gaze of men produces more tangible effects than I realized. Science has proof.
Ed Yong at Not Exactly Rocket Science summed up a recent study on gaze focus, gender and communication that found women speak less when they think a male is looking at their body. Not at the face, not when women look at their bodies, only when men exert their gaze on the body. Please note that the “gaze” in the study was a camera trained at different areas. Nonsexual in essence but rendered sexual with our social interpretation.
Tamar Saguay, lead on the study, explained “”When a woman believes that a man is focusing on her body, she narrows her presence… by spending less time talking.” Agreed. But why? Saguay thinks this is because 1) a woman acts like an object when treated like one or 2) women worry about their appearance and become mute.
Disagree. Kind of. Ironic that a study about sexual objectification of females assumes women react uncritically or worry only about their bodies. The possible thought process offered by the researchers makes the female mental process seem one-dimensional.
I offer a different interpretation: women freeze up because they want to deflect (sexual) attention from themselves or because they are carefully calculating words that will not seem sexual. The double bind is silencing.
I read a study recently on compliment topics and gender. Women tend to compliment men on skill, men tend to compliment women on appearance. The most interesting finding in the study is that women avoid giving appearance-based compliments to males because they do not want to attract sexual attention to themselves.
Enter the double-bind. Be sexy but not too sexy. Don’t be a prude, but don’t be a slut. At every turn women’s sexuality comes under fire. I’m sure any woman you ask can attest to this anxious tight-rope walk. I imagine being in Saguay’s study and having the camera trained on my body. Where would my thoughts go? “Is my shirt too low cut? Who is looking? What do I do?”
The perpetual negotiation of female sexuality is enough to drive anyone crazy. Why do you think females are so often resistant to sex? Our reputation matters and can be destroyed with a quickness. One rumor, one unearthed text, one naughty phone pic and on comes the shame.
And the gazes police us as a constant reminder that society evaluates us by our bodies. That we must be mindful of our appearance, always. The gaze isn’t the only reminder. The fucking 1-10 rating system that men employ is the verbal equivalent.
Many of my friends are guys. As a tomboyish girl I hear more than I would like. I’ve watched my male friends flip through lad mags and proclaim gorgeous women 8s and 9s, implying that their opinion mattered. Do men feel the need to rate every woman they see? Honestly?
Honey, your tubby, dorito-crusted face and fuzzy beer gut will never get close to those women. As far as you’re concerned they are 28s and 29s, so far out of your league they reside in another universe.
But still many men rate women openly, like it’s their social duty to gaze and evaluate. No wonder women lose verbosity when men stare. We must be calculating our next move, figuring out how to deflect the attention.
Maybe women should start rating men? Would that just spread anxiety or get men to invest more in their appearance? I need to investigate. I have no funding so I’ll have to sit around with other women and holler at/rate men. I’ll report results here.
[If you want to read more about female desire and double binds, I recommend Dilemmas of Desire by Deborah Tolman.]