Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006

Looking and Leering


I recently read Elizabeth Gilbert’s wonderful Eat, Pray, Love which, apart from being well and wittily told, is also a book full of ideas. Over at Books and Bicycles, Dorothy is reviewing it section by section and engaging with it interestingly. You might want to read Dorothy’s reviews here and here. In the Eat section of the book, Gilbert spends three months in Italy, learning Italian, eating and exploring hedonistic pleasure. One of the things she mentions briefly is that she finds, now that she is in her thirties, that Italian men no longer look at her. She wonders if she has become invisible. A friend explains to her that Italian men are becoming more politically correct and while they are looking at her, they are no longer shouting comments and trying to pinch her bum. Gilbert is not sure if she is pleased or disappointed at this change in behaviour.

I have been having this discussion with various girlfriends recently. One friend, a beauty from Argentina, says she loathes being looked at by men, that it makes her uncomfortable. Another, a statuesque German doctor, says now that she is in her forties and the mother of three children, she feels she doesn’t get looked at anymore and that saddens her. She is scared of becoming invisible. Another friend complains of a man at work who stares at her disquietingly. She doesn’t mind being thought of as attractive, but she finds the overt staring unnecessary. She’d prefer him not to stare at all.

The question is: at what point does looking become leering? We all like to look at beauty, whether it’s male beauty, female beauty or the beauty of a night sky full of stars. We like to appreciate someone’s neat figure, or lovely hair, or strong calf muscles. That kind of appreciation can be done covertly and without the recipient of the look even knowing they are being gazed at.I think when a look tips over to a stare or even a leer, that the process of looking engages the recipient who then has to decide how to respond. There’s a dad at kindergarten who stares at me. A very small, but very egotistical, part of me enjoys the fact that I may still have something that’s worth looking at, but his gaze does make me uncomfortable. I find that when I’m near him, my instinct is telling me to flee. In a slightly different context, Emily explains why this happens:

I chalked this feeling up to leftover instincts emanating from the oldest region of my brain, which still believes we all live in caves and might get knocked over the head and dragged to one that’s not so nicely decorated, and convinced myself I was ignoring it.

I know for sure I definitely don’t want to go anywhere near Kindergarten Dad’s cave. I also know, because I studied English Literature and Criticism, that a gaze objectifies. When a person is objectified, they are no longer a person, but a hunk of flesh. And when you have a hunk of flesh, well, you can do anything do it, as the spammers (who visit here more frequently than I would like) and the dark underbelly of the Internet will attest. It’s a few short steps from a leer to an act of violence.

However, if a small group of my women friends can have such disparate views on how much/how little they like to be looked at, then it’s no wonder – surrounded by the objectification industry as we are – that men such as Kindergarten Dad have no idea how much or how little looking is acceptable. Sage writes extremely interestingly on how a flirt can turn into sexual harrassment. Her core theory is that every woman is different and men need to learn to read the signals before they cross the line. I think when we are all looking, we need to ignore all our training in objectification, remember that we are looking at a person and learn to how withdraw our look before it turns into a leer.

I know that I like looking. Frankly, as a married woman who is loyal to her husband, that’s pretty much all that is available to me. Recently I was a little ashamed to discover that one receipient of my gaze was younger and a whole lot more gauche than his rear view suggested, but I still think my looking is covert and not at all suggestive. As Natalia Antonova just said,

Beauty brings us closer to God. And beauty is no prisoner to the male gaze. From the banner of this blog to the deepest recesses of my immortal soul – I am staring at you, fellas, in a good way.

Looking in a good way is appreciating, not appraising. That’s better than staring, gazing or leering. We all need to remember that.

Author: charlotteotter

Novelist, feminist, crime writer

25 thoughts on “Looking and Leering

  1. It’s hard. I was one of those unfortunate girls who matured young- at least physically but emotionally I was still a child. And I HATED to be looked at. I developed poor posture to hide my breasts and an angry defensive attitude. I felt constantly under attack and I’d have to say was subjected to a lot of leers and more amounting to sexual harrassment that I should never have had to put up with sometimes from much older men who probably wouldn’t have tried the same kind of crap on someone older and more self assured. But then again I probably bit the head off some young guys who meant no harm- just expressing basic human nature

    Nowadays as an old married woman- oh gosh yes I look. And I’m mostly flattered if I notice a look or a spark of attraction in someone elses eye. But a lot depends on context. It’s fine, very gratifying even, if its a passing, involuntary thing but I don’t really appreciate deliberate long lingering leers and looks up and down from fathers at the pool.

    Also, my husband has one bordering on alcoholic sleezebag friend who I have repeatedly had to repell. There is nothing flattering about attention from him. He just tries it on with everyone female who enter his ambit regardless of response. If he is still in our lives I’m going to be watching him like a hawk once my daugher reaches puberty.

  2. well, it all depends on the reaction. If there is no responsive smile or effort to engage in conversation from either party, then the looks should be covert and minimized.

  3. It’s all about remembering that it’s a person that you’re looking at. As you say appreciating is fine but appraising a hunk of flesh is not – however gorgeous we are or aren’t, we all need our real inner self acknowledging.

  4. A friend of mine once instructed me to look closely at the messenger before dismissing the message. Some men posses so much charm and sensual warmth that they can make a lascivious leer appear a compliment. Whereas, other men can give you the creeps while sitting across the room reading a newspaper and sanctimoniously avoiding eye contact.

    I think that mutual consent also plays a role in the enjoyment of flirtatious people watching. If your inner voice is saying things like: I’m-enjoying-looking-at-you-while-you’re-enjoying looking-at-me, hurray, what do you know, what a thrill, isn’t that nice, then certainly it’s all a good thing. Isn’t it?

  5. There are so many nuances to the act of looking. Some men look with a warmly appreciative smile. Others have a predatory, frankly hostile stare. What’s amazing to me is how, at the age of 45, the former can still make my day and the latter can still ruin it.

  6. As you and your commenters have said, it all depends on intention. I’ve had the experience that I really wanted to compliment someone, but felt restrained by some sense that it would be inappropriate. So I didn’t say anything and stopped looking. In that case, I made the conscious decision that my “need” to compliment them would be objectifying them.

    I guess the key is, are you expressing your admiration of their beauty, or are you trying to get something for yourself?

  7. Looking and looking. I’m uncomfortably aware that there’s a primitive part of my forebrain that just automatically looks. For example (warning: blunt expression ahoy):
    “Stop staring at that girl’s tits.”
    “I’m not staring.”
    “Oh come on! That was so obvious.”
    “No it wasn’t.”
    “So you were staring?”
    “Was not.”
    And so on.
    Every now and then, though, one will see beauty and be taken aback by it. And then, looking is hard to avoid. It is, in critical terms, impossible to avoid the act of objectifying in the sense of mutually constructing each other. But at least one can try and be aware of it and aspire to a better condition.

  8. I think that deep down each of us (men and women) know subconsciously if a “look” is harmless flirtation, or something more sinister. Unfortunately, we tend to dismiss our gut instincts as being stupid or paranoid when we should listen to them, and that’s when we can get into trouble.

  9. I loved being looked at when I was a young woman. I still get looked at now that I am an older, plump lady. I suspect now it is because I am in tie-dye or my hair is wild or my barefoot habit is astonishing the “normal”, rather than a response to my youthful charms.

    It is interesting how the “intent” of the look can change the way we feel about receiving it. I recall feeling obliged to apologize once on the bus in San Francisco. There was an extremely beautiful woman sitting directly across from me. I could not help it, I had to look at her — it was like viewing an amazing art work. Plus I was wondering what combination of ethnicity had resulted in such amazing pulchritude. When I realized that my gaze was making her uncomfortable, I initiated a conversation. She was extremely gracious with my gaucheness, and told me that she was flattered. And my curiosity was satisfied as well. Her mother was a combination of American Indian and hispanic, her father was half asian and half black. I was extremely grateful that she was kind and gracious, rather than offended and snooty.

    I had a friend who liked to look. He was married to a very lovely woman, and when I taxed him with his penchant for checking out the women around him, his response was, “Well, I’m married, but I’m not dead!”

  10. Interesting post, even more so because I am about 100 pages into ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ …

    Most of the time, I think we instinctively know when we are being leered at instead of being looked at. For me, it partly depends on my mood (or did, because I am at that invisible stage of my life … and find it quite freeing. )

  11. Did you know that women have better peripheral vision than men – that means we can always look as if we are not leering. We can play it cooler. Men with their tunnel vision have to track. I’m not that bothered about men looking (although I do see the issue here) because I never really think they mean anything by it. I’m much more worried about standing on a lecture podium when people are obliged to look at me and I might do something foolish….

  12. I like being admired but not leered at – as you said, there’s a menacing undercurrent in a leer. Not nice and deeply disquieting. But what a shame if Italian men become all PC on us!

  13. “or the beauty of a night sky full of stars” — for the night sky, no amount of looking will become leering. Our feeble conquest attempts with Saturn V rockets or space shuttle are pathetic. Maybe we do the same with people: we feel it is all right to stare at inaccessible beauty.

    PS: your tag cloud is great, but I definitely wish the ‘South Africa’ tag were as big as the ‘Living in Germany’ one. (By the way, I still cannot access the ‘I am From’ podcast).

  14. Interesting post — this reminds me of Elaine Scarry’s book On Beauty and Being Just where she writes a lot about the gaze and the power of beauty — she defends looking, although she doesn’t really address the sexual dynamics you are talking about. I like the distinctions you draw here.

  15. I read “Eat, Pray, Love” last year and loved it. Gilbert is dry, funny and engaging in addition to being a talented author.

    Oddly enough, I pulled my copy out of a bookshelf last night and brought it in to my mother–who is staying with us while sorting out a bad divorce. She is reading and laughing in the next room as I type.

  16. what an interesting post. i blogged something about the last man in the world to call me babe a little while ago – although in a very flippant way. i’m aware of becoming invisible at the moment. very interesting – and not always unwelcome!

  17. Interesting post Charlotte, and interesting comments; but the feeling of becoming invisible just because MEN were not noticing you struck me forcibly when I read the posts.
    I suspect I am much older than you, and older than most of your commentators, and I have to tell you that the time you will really start to feel invisible is when NOBODY notices you. You may think I exaggerate, but when shop assistants (male and female); pedestrians (male and female), hospital staff (male and female) and just about everyone else bar friends and family, all start looking through you or over your head towards a younger person, you truly do start to think you don’t exist in society any more. At first I thought I was being paranoid, then I saw the same thing happening with other 50-55 plus women – it was as though we had all disappeared, we didn’t count, we were surplus to requirements. Shocked to start with, I soon got used to the idea that in order to be ‘seen’ I either had to be forceful, noisy and difficult, or to be eccentric, zany and weird. Look around you, you will see women of 60 or so, some so quiet and acquiescent that they don’t register on the brain at all, some who seem like crazy ladies, and some who are just boringly average. Are you surprised that so many resort to botox, plastic surgery, extreme make-overs in an attempt to claw back some of the attention they feel they’ve lost? Is it any wonder that women like me love the internet? you can’t see us – more importantly, you can’t NOT see us – what a boon.

  18. Herschelian, what you say is so interesting because it points to how pervasively youth-focused we are. I wonder, will it get better or worse? Will we learn to appreciate older women for their wit and wisdom, or will we continue to not see them?

    Rivergirlie, I can imagine that some invisibility to men is appealing, but would you like what Herschelian is describing above? I don’t think I would. I wonder if senior men feel the same way, or if they feel their grey-haired gravitas gives them sufficient attention.

    Karrie, I’m now three books away from “Eat, Pray, Love” and have returned my friend’s copy to her and I can’t stop thinking about it. What a great book. There are rumours of a movie – nice for Gilbert as she’s about to become very rich, and interesting for us to see what kind of a train smash Hollywood can make of it.

    Dorothy, I think I could have taken the sexual dynamics of the look a lot further, but I really wanted to address how, just in a small circle of friends, different women felt differently about being looked at. I may take a look at Scarry’s book.

    Mandarine, I am defeated by why one podcast is still available and another is not. Maybe when I can drag my inhouse technician away from his own blog, we can try to sort it out. Or I’ll do a new one!

    Wendz, there are ways to look aren’t there? I found it amusing that Italian men are having to move with the times, despite an entrenched culture of “looking”. What’s the looking like in France?

    Litlove, wow! It’s a physical thing. Who’d have known. I’m sure you’re very graceful on your podium.

    Kate, lucky you, with all that fun ahead of you still. Enjoy it!

    Ms HMM, well done for challenging the norm and turning expectations upside down. I love people who do that.

    Kittyart, we need to never ignore our gut feelings. Instinct is crucial in helping us to keep safe.

    U-Dad I know about that primitive looking brain part and I’m sure it’s not a male preserve. We just have to make sure the subject of our gaze is not getting uncomfortable.

    Henitserk, exactly, that “getting something” is where the sexual politics come into play. That’s when looking can turn ugly.

    Tai, you’re right. One kind of look can be so positive and another kind can be the opposite.

    Lilalia, it certainly can be positive and enjoyable for all. I think your friend’s comment is apt.

    Kit, certainly acknowledgement of our inner selves is far more valid than acknowledgement of our outer shells.

    Bindi I think some men, or some lookers, are not very good at reading the signs. Kindergarten Dad for instance. He’s made me so umcomfortable around him that I try not to be in the same room as him. Has he noticed that? No.

    Ms Make Tea, you’re right: context is all. I was also an early developer and got some inappropriate attention. It made me terribly uncomfortable and self-conscious.

  19. I have to admit I’m horribly superficial, since I never really expect anyone to take a second look at me. If I happen to get a long gaze from someone who looks like George Clooney, well, I’ll be on Cloud 9 for the rest of the day, brag to my husband about it, tell everyone about the day the George-Clooney-look-alike thought I was hot (even if all he was really doing was noticing a huge tomato stain on my shirt or something). On the other hand, if an old man whistles through toothless gaps at me, I become instantly indignant about the ridiculous objectification of women in our society.

  20. You know, all of this reminds me of cummings:

    “dead has a smile like the nicest man you’ve never met who maybe winks
    at you in a streetcar and you pretend you don’t but really you do
    see and you are My how glad he winked and hope he’ll do it again”

    purrrrrr-purrrrr. 😉

  21. “a gaze objectifies. When a person is objectified, they are no longer a person, but a hunk of flesh.”
    I didn’t realize that I had so much power over other people. By gazing upon them, I can turn them into hunks of flesh.
    I must be a god!

    “It’s a few short steps from a leer to an act of violence.”
    Huh? According to whom?

    Perhaps is the dark underbelly of the internet.
    Of course, as an American woman, you undoubtedly lack the introspection and humility necessary to think of yourself this way, even hypothetically.

  22. Pingback: » Sexual Harrassment - Crossing The Line

  23. Is it any wonder that American men have been turned into scared rabbits? With women who think that a leer is one step away from an act of violence it is no wonder at all. This overanalysis of simple things and seeing them as something negative or even evil is completely insane. Please don’t complain that men in the U.S. do not act like men anymore. You did this to them.

    I’ll boil all this overanalysis down to a simple truth that I have observed. Women absolutely love being looked at by men that they find to be attractive. They find it creepy to be looked at by those they do not find attractive (especially old, out of shape, sweaty, bolding men). It’s as simple as that.

    As a man if a woman, especially an attractive one, looks at me with a twinkle in her eye I take it as a compliment. You should do the same. You will miss it when it no longer happens (as some of your older friends have admitted to).

    There’s no need to obsess over, overanalyze and overcomplicate everything. This only prevents you from enjoying life.

  24. One more thing to add.

    If men are supposed to be afraid to even look at a an attractive woman in fear of their look being taken as a leer (which according to you is one step away from being an act of violence) how are they supposed to ever approach one to start a conversation? How are people supposed to meet? Thank god for the Internet, right? Because these days very few American men have the guts to come up to a woman they find attractive.

    As you’ve said yourself every woman is different. We are supposed to read signals? What signals can a man possibly read in the first 2 seconds of seeing a woman for the first time? This kind of expectation is completely unrealistic. That’s like saying that a woman is supposed to somehow know that a man she just noticed is either a potential life partner or a serial rapist. Read the signs, right?

    I have to admit that I can’t stand this kind of feminism. It is destroying society and normal human relations. No one knows what their roles are anymore, everyone is militant, pissed off and unhappy. Women complain that they’re lonely because men don’t have the guts to approach them and talk to them and long for the days when men used to be men. And frustrated men, who are too scared to approach any attractive female for fear of having their head bitten off, spend their days at their computers watching porn. What a great achievement.

  25. Its also worth considering the effect that leering has on the leerer. I’d describe myself as a male pro-sex feminist but every now and then I try to “fast” from a sexual gaze just to get out of the habit of letting any female form turn my head. Its up to the individual to decide how much power they have over their own instincts- I definitely find myself in situations where I sense my gaze may be having a negative effect, and its usually after that I feel the need to regain control of my habits.
    This is not only due to the affect it has on the women objectified, but also my own perception of women which, as a member of a gender unequal society, is not always what I would necessarily like it to be.

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