I’m sitting in the Middlebury College Library listening to Hope Sandoval’s sweet melodies while simultaneously playing one of John Berger’s talks. Berger is/was a well known English Art Critic and poet/painter, perhaps most famous for his work titled “Ways of Seeing”. Listening to the two together is really quite beautiful. DIY art show, wherever, whenever.
I stumbled upon a quote recently– Pretty isn’t the rent you pay to be a woman– and it blew my mind. Boom. Damn. Snap*. I often have admired (perhaps naively) men for being able to lose themselves more easily in the moment. For hunching and letting their jaws relax. For farting, for not excusing their very normal human noises and posture and itches and smells. For letting their bellies sit how they sit. I’m even more amazed by female identifying women doing the same. Essentially, I’m proud of people for appearing to exist without worry about their exterior, because it’s that novel. It’s a fucking anomaly.
John Berger discusses how women often feel as though they cannot see themselves for what they are, but through a reflection of another person’s gaze. Women have a difficult time seeing themselves as defined by themselves, as they are caught in the mirrors of onlookers which instructs them as to what and who they are and what they look like. Of course, this isn’t just the experience of women, but all bodies. *Especially bodies of colour, trans-bodies, and people with disabilities. Berger explains this theory through the lens of historic European paintings of women. He suggests that the women in the paintings are intended to please a male customer and therefore their body language and expressions are FOR the not-yet-known-male-buyer. He speaks with several women about how the paintings make them feel to which one of them responds that she cannot see herself in these portraits because they aren’t real expressions of femininity. They are pictures of women. They are devoid of the”human”. So far, this all makes good sense and is actually quite obvious really.
“A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually. And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman. She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life. Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another….
One might simplify this by saying: men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object — and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.” -Berger
This is SO true of my experience as a woman. In this case, I do pay rent by cultivating my version of “pretty” for onlookers because I feel I am imprisoned by the eyes of onlookers. To reclaim my power from the “mirrors” around me, I dress certain ways. Sometimes I don’t want to be noticed– I want to escape the gaze of strangers and even people I know very well because they can say so much with just looking or not. Some days, mostly when I feel unhappy or unwell or uninspired, I choose to go without makeup and dress comfortably as opposed to wearing something that compromises my comfort. On these days, my curves are hidden behind baggier clothes– tomboy jeans, thick sweaters, tank top as a bra or no bra at all– because I am wanting to sacrifice, well, my perceived sexual power for the opportunity to hide. Sometimes this makes me feel more powerful. It depends on my mood.
You will often hear women talking about men hitting on them in libraries or cafes or on the street and the women will say “I can’t believe it either, I was wearing sweat pants and a baggy sweatshirt with no makeup”. Most hetero-men who hear that statement would respond “yeaaaah, that doesn’t matter to men”. In baggy sweat pants and sweat shirts, women feel they are taking themselves out of the male gaze and excluding themselves from the forever ongoing “game”. Essentially, women feel they can relax in the public sphere in clothes that they feel won’t bring them the attention that would otherwise make them 100% aware of themselves the entire time while being in public. It’s absolutely amazing in the most disturbing of ways. When are we as women able to feel as though we can function as humans in the public sphere without diverting our attention to ourselves, our appearance, over and over and over again? When can we go to the grocery store and simply browse for food and stand in line and feel that we are not caught up in the gaze of onlookers? I can’t personally say I experience many times while being in public where I “lose” myself– not while I am alone anyway. I am aware of the dude in the same aisle of books at the library– does he think I am fat? Does he see my bad posture *stands up straighter*? When I do lose myself, I wonder how long I was gone. The transition is not fluid. I am aware of it. I am aware of it like a high-student waking up from a mid-class snooze in a pile of their own spit. Shit. Who noticed?
I am discussing this not to bathe in the heavy suds of victimland– but to really think about what it means for me to be constantly distracted by the male (and really, human) gaze. I feel like my brain is already fragmented into a hundred pieces by virtue of experiencing general anxiety most of the time. Add in texting, checking facebook and snapchat and my email… my brain is in constant “checking” mode. Check, check, check. And by checking myself, I tire myself with the dialogue it generates, by the questions I then ask myself when I check myself. This must perpetuate anxiety!
With more and more women in the public eye reclaiming agency over their bodies and directing the way they want their image to be consumed, is the power of the male gaze being threatened? (Asked by Neha Kulkarni)
The idea of the “gaze” is apparently coined by French Psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan “for the anxious state that comes with the awareness that one can be viewed. The psychological effect, Lacan argues, is that the subject loses a degree of autonomy upon realizing that he or she is a visible object. This concept is bound with his theory of the mirror stage, in which a child encountering a mirror realizes that he or she has an external appearance. Lacan suggests that this gaze effect can similarly be produced by any conceivable object such as a chair or a television screen. This is not to say that the object behaves optically as a mirror; instead it means that the awareness of any object can induce an awareness of also being an object.”
It has also been called an aspect of one of the “most powerful human forces”; that is, “the meeting of the face and the gaze” because
“Only there do we exist for one another.”
That last sentence is so powerful that I’m going to leave it at that.