The male gaze is the ever-present eye prod, the tape measure, reflected in all physical gestures of approval and disapproval. The male gaze is, for me, so basic and familiar, it seems to be rooted so deeply that prior to my knowledge of this term of description, I perceived my heavy constant surveillance as simple self-awareness. I can liken my self-esteem to that of a cup of water, filled about 1/3rd. I depend on the male gaze to either fill the glass, or tip and spill my precious water,
( left-highglitz.com)(right-mirror, nan goldin)sometimes even knock it over. A man pours water into my glass with a compliment, a wink, some prolonged eye-contact indicative of approval.
Surveilance of self in the female gender is constant. The manner of a women's self image derived from how she is perceived by others negates her ability to perceive herself, the thoughts and judgements of others only matter and give her worth and power. I can remember being seven and not being able to concentrate on my nightly prayers because I was so distracted by picturing myself praying and wishing that I could somehow see the way that my eyelashes looked with my eyes closed in meditation. This is proof that the effects of the gaze cannot be switched off.
The imposition of the male gaze is causal to the self-flagellation of so many women. Women are the "watched" gender. It is this expected passivity that renders us vulnerable to the gaze, so much so that we turn it in and on to ourselves, judging our choice of clothing or style of hair according to the imaginary tally of the gaze's score. I know that in my own life this has been true, I reluctantly admit that on many occasions I have worn clothes and makeup for a boy's attention rather than my own comfort. In this way, the male gaze can diminish and rob a woman of her self, quietly and beneath her consciousness. Girls are left powerless in our cultural norm of not being allowed to look back. The gaze is intimidating and a look returned is branded as an unattractive insolence contributes to a girl's undesirability. We are bred to be desirable, we are bred to desire to be desirable. As Bell Hooks wrote in The Oppositional Gaze, "Imagine the terror felt by a child who has come to understand through repeated punishments that one's gaze can be dangerous. The child who learned so well to look the other way when necessary. Yet, when punished, the child is told by parents, 'Look at me when I talk to you'. Only, the child is afraid to look. Afraid to look, but fascinated by the gaze. There is power in looking." (115)
This gaze is completely manifested and encouraged in so many aspects of our culture, a particularly striking example to me is TLC's "Toddler's & Tiaras" which documents childhood pageantry. The whole premise of a pageant is being watched, combed over and poked. The male gaze is the scoring by which young girls on the show are rated. On this show, girls are scored from infancy on how photogenic they are, their "facial beauty" and their performance in swimsuits. Watching this show is like a sick parade of children vying for approval from adults who do not know them, rating them based on their level of physical attractiveness and docility. This for me is extremely disturbing. It perpetuates extreme self-consciousness that cycles into issues of drug abuse and teen pregnancy and eating disorders. Girls are sexualized and primped to appear on a stage not to speak, but to prance and win a crown based on how "pretty" they are. Children in full makeup is not for their pleasure, but for the cultural ritual of the continuation of the gaze which is so harmful.
Though I was never in pageants, I, like all women, am constantly affected by the gaze. I hope soon to be able to rid myself of judgements of the gaze that follows the female gender, a task I know I cannot complete without hard work in difficulty.I have always been thirsty, almost insatiably so, and I rely on the approval of testosterone to temporarily quench my need. Water trickles in, but I tip the cup over, and my glass was never filled half way to begin with.