Writing by Amy Life. Illustration by Isi Williams.
Amongst a new generation of feminists, a particular phenomenon has taken place: women have reclaimed beauty standards for themselves. We shave for ourselves, we wear makeup for ourselves and, in essence, we look amazing for ourselves. While I congratulate women’s pride in their appearance, I have to wonder if we are truly free from the male gaze and sinister beauty standards simply because we now ‘do it for ourselves’. In fact, I wonder if the situation has been made worse.
What is the male gaze and why should we care about it? Well. For hundreds of years, the representation of women in media has been adapted to suit a male audience. That is, the women we see in paintings, film, TV and sculpture are the women that are stereotypically the most appealing to men. So, historically standards of feminine beauty have been decided for men by men. Let us then observe the effect this has on women. While commonly observed effects of the male gaze, such as eating-disorders and financial burdens, are important, I am going to focus on the impact the male gaze has had on our individual identity as women and the ways in which we present ourselves to the world. In Florence Given’s book, Women Don’t Owe You Pretty, she asks: ‘How much of my femininity is who I truly am and how much of it is a product of patriarchal brainwashing to exist for male consumption?’ And here lies the problem; it is true that we can change our appearance ‘for ourselves’, but the deep level at which women are brainwashed by the patriarchy to conform to its beauty standards suggests to me that we are still changing our appearance for men, even if we don’t realize or admit this. Society is still telling us that our worth as women derives from our male partner and so our own identities fail to manifest as they are overshadowed by what we believe makes us attractive to an external viewer.
When I consider my own beauty routines before and after reading Women Don’t Owe You Pretty, I see a contrast. Whereas I used to curl my eyelashes daily, as I had been told this made me more attractive, despite my own dislike of how my eyelashes look when curled, I now leave them be and I’m happier for it. Now the lack of eyelash curling in my daily life makes me feel powerful and confident and as though I’ve reclaimed a part of myself. But still I question if I have separated myself far enough from a desire to satisfy the male gaze that the lack of eyelash curling is now done ‘for myself’.
You see, the trick to extricating yourself from the male gaze and reclaiming your feminine identity isn’t simply telling yourself that any change you make is done ‘for yourself’, but rather to stop viewing yourself from a 3rd person viewpoint entirely. Enter (what I call) the 3rd person gaze. From the minute girls enter puberty, we immediately become sexual objects in the eyes of society and from then on, we no longer look in the mirror and see ourselves from our own point of view, we begin to see what we think others see when they look at us - and suddenly we shape our appearance to please (male) outsiders rather than ourselves. The 3rd person gaze also manifests itself in everyday life, not just when we look in a mirror. For example, do you ever catch yourself thinking about what you look like while performing an action instead of focusing on the action itself? If so, you like most others have fallen victim to the 3rd person gaze. This gaze, connected to the male gaze, is what, in my opinion, causes women to adapt their appearance to a patriarchal society’s standard of attractiveness. And the loss to our genuine self-expression is devastating.
Unfortunately, I can’t see a clear way to escape the 3rd person gaze except through two possible avenues. Firstly, we must seek to actively contradict beauty standards. Already we are seeing women give up shaving in protest to imposed beauty standards. But this is a privilege only some of us possess. Sadly, in our world, making your appearance political isn’t an option for everyone, especially those who are already deemed less attractive and valuable in the eyes of society. It is not the same thing for a trans woman or black woman to give up shaving as it is for a white, conventionally-attractive, cis woman to do so. We cannot ignore the deeper impacts of the male gaze on women whose very identities don’t conform to ‘beauty’ standards (these being white, cis and thin). Secondly, we must be truthful about why we are changing our appearance. If you wear makeup because you feel this is what society expects of you and it's what will make you more attractive to men, then say so! We can only dismantle the male gaze through honesty. It is perhaps more effective to say ‘I shave because society says this will make me more attractive’ than to say ‘I shave for myself’ as only the first will take us to the root of the problem and allow us to call out and question oppressive beauty standards.
My own takeaway from this is that dismantling beauty standards, the male gaze and reclaiming our own feminine identity requires a collective effort on the part of women. While it may feel empowering to say we are ‘doing it for ourselves’ in the short run, in the long run, nothing will change, and we will still be governed by the male gaze. So I’m asking us to call beauty standards out where we see them, while also finding the parts of our self-expression that make us feel like the powerful women we are.
Given, Florence (2020). Women Don’t Owe You Pretty. London: Octopus Publishing Group ltd .
Editor’s Note: For those interested in learning more about the 3rd person gaze, similar ideas are discussed in John Berger’s Ways of Seeing.