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.