We are foolish to perpetuate the myth that the male gaze can be averted with the way that we dress. The male gaze is taught to all genders alike. It’s an oppressive system of looking and objectifying, of possessing and othering, of usurping the right to speak, intellectualize, and decide on her behalf. A woman can live inside a house with blackened windows, or be nude at the beach – she is still seen by, owned by, controlled and affected by, framed by the male gaze.
The way a woman dresses is not what is going to change the oppression of the male gaze. The oppression of the male gaze must be challenged as a system. The male gaze is taught from an early age. It’s taught and perpetuated in every institution and form of media, art and literature. It is taught with Quran and Bible in hand.
No woman is free. Every woman has to decide how to exercise her agency and navigate in a world where every focus is on her exterior, everyone wants to pimp her body for one moral or profitable goal or another. Everyone wants and has a piece of this. Men and women have tried to make me dress like a black duffle bag, to take off my headscarf, to flaunt my legs, to ‘hide’ my ‘tempting’ beauty. They’ve tried to make me look away and control my eyesight, to dampen my footsteps, to harness my hips and breasts or reveal them just a little bit more, enough to be ‘feminine’. Everyone is confused and determined in their understanding of how to ‘protect’ and ‘prevent’ my sexuality from causing definite doom.
How I exercise, deal with, embrace, struggle with my sexuality, my being a woman, my having a body that is constantly at risk of sexual oppression and violation, is a challenge, and I will fight this battle along with women, along with all genders who are oppressed by these violent ideas turn actions turn policies, and I will fight primarily with my mind, because my body is none of your business. But I will also exist, physically in spaces the way that I want to exist, because that alone is an argument, a fight, a rebellion.
We will redeem the right to frame our stories and selves in the light we choose. One day, there will be no dominant oppressive narrative. One day, we will be free. In the meanwhile, ‘to exist is to resist’, and I will tell my stories, perverted though they are because I can’t escape the system.
Things that are not okay:
- Using a moral strong-arm to ‘encourage’ or ‘correct’ a woman in how she ‘should’ dress. Making comments (rather than having conversations) – whether they are well-meaning or condescending – on how this and that is not the ‘correct’ or ‘appropriate’ way to wear something. At the end of the day, it is up to that person how she chooses to dress her physical self. This is called policing. Stop policing a woman’s body. If you feel extremely compelled by moral values to dress a certain way – dress that way and ‘set’ that example with your own body. If someone wants to or chooses to be inspired by your example, they will do so. If you are a man, stop using women to set the example for modesty. Set the example with your own body, and stop using a woman as a mannequin on which to display your moral values and integrity. “But I am only saying what is right.” If you really want to say what is right, then talk about patriarchy, sexism, gender bias in the workplace and community, sexual violence, sex trafficking, and how we can challenge the ideas and policies that perpetuate the greater wrongs in our society, and stop blaming cleavage, thighs, strands of hair, and your sex drive.
- Associating and deriving moral meaning from the way a woman chooses to dress. This objectifies a woman. It relegates a woman to a physical outer shell from which one has determined/decided/deemed that it is possible to understand the inner realities and being of that person. It is not. At all. Period. At all. It is not. Unless that person is wearing a KKK t-shirt or hooded mask and is literally displaying her values on her self. Even in that case, that only expresses what she thinks about race, not that she is a slut, and furthermore, not that she is a body that you can now physically violate because you disagree with her.
- The association that the way a woman dresses is an invitation for any type of attention. A woman will receive attention no matter what she does – welcome to the system that is the male gaze. Again, this is placing blame for societal degradation on an individual woman rather than Corporations & Capitalism, Marketing & Media, Art & Literature, Lawmakers and Law-enforcers, Communities, and various Institutions, and further more, this has dangerous implications on promoting sexual violence, because it implies that a woman is inviting sexual advances and attention based on subjective factors. This association should not exist, period. If a woman literally verbally asks for sex, or physically initiates sex herself, that is the only time someone should think, ‘She wants to have sex.’ If at any point she resists or stops the process, that means stop, it means no, and no means no. A woman’s shape or skin showing does not mean that she wants to be treated like a sex object. It might mean that she is feeling sexy, or is comfortable wearing certain things, but it does not mean that you own or possess or have any right over her or should try to champion/control her body.
- Band-aid solutions: Individual Censorship. Censorship is not the answer to a systematic problem. The way an individual chooses to dress or the art/media/films they create are not the problem. We need to examine and challenge Corporations & Capitalism, Marketing & Media, Dominant Art & Literature & Films & the Institutions with Power that have control over popular culture, Lawmakers and Law-enforcers, Communities, and various Institutions that perpetuate/preach objectifying ideas and create objectifying and oppressive policies around gender and sexuality.
- Power and privilege. People in positions of power and privilege are able to dominate/control/decide/violate/narrate for women and other peoples. Men over women. White women over black women. People of color over the ‘less desirable’ in their communities. People with fame, religious prestige and positions, bosses, the wealthy and elite, the photographers and editors and directors. Adults over children (child abuse). Heterosexual peoples over LGBTQ peoples. Literate over illiterate. The male gaze is perpetuated through/by power and those with privilege of varying degrees.
How we can progress:
- Examine and contextualize these issues within history. Can we really easily erase or eradicate oppression that has existed for hundreds of years, on which our systems and institutions were built on? (Racism, Xenophobia, Orientalism, Homophobia, Sexism, Ownership of women & slaves)
- Whatever your biological gender, talk to women and LGBTQ peoples about their experiences and fears and realities of sexual violence. How do they conduct themselves in light of these fears? What precautions are they constantly taking? It is absolutely shameful how much women/LGBTQ peoples have to live in accepted fear of sexual violence. Have discussions around what policies and ideas perpetuate the environment and circumstances that encourage and create the ability for this violence to exist. (I do not mean in any way to delegitimize sexual violence on boys and men. This is a very real issue. Make this a part of your discussions. As I mentioned earlier, no one can escape an oppressive system and everyone is a victim of it in some way.
- Be critical of the advertisements, film & television content. Try to gain understandings and have conversations about sexuality and the dichotomy that is presented in terms of heterosexual and any sexual behavior as aggressive vs. passive, dominating vs. being dominated, owning and being owned.
- Think about the various ways in which women and non-heterosexual bodies are policed. If it helps, think about how we talk, define, and make rules/policies around these peoples bodies that do not apply or are not created around those of men. Think about the societal expectations of what it means to be ‘feminine’ or ‘masculine’, and how one must work to present oneself in this way.
- Support independent media, artists & perspectives. Support marginalized voices: women, LGBTQ peoples, and men with awareness.
- Challenge what you will consume – the ideas, the images, the sounds. Be aware of what you are consuming and allow yourself to create filters – what will you allow to seep into your ideas about men/women, sexuality, sex, etc.
- Be cognizant of your words, thoughts, actions, opinions, decisions, gaze and touch – you have an impact and are creating/perpetuating a culture – it’s your choice what you will create and perpetuate. It’s the little things we do and say that oppress or empower people on a daily basis.
- Take ownership of this issue. It is everybody’s issue. It is every, single persons issue.
This is nowhere near a complete list of suggestions of things that are not okay or how we can progress. If you have any ideas, please share your thoughts.
Absolute Must See: The Sexy Lie: Caroline Heldman at TEDxYouth
“We raise our little boys to view their bodies as tools to master their environment. We raise our little girls to view their bodies as projects to constantly be improved.” “Imagine a different world… what better world will you build?”