Senior Column | Dismantling internalized male gaze is liberating

Collectively, women are taught from a young age that the goal is to be perceived as attractive to men and to serve men’s wants and desires. Notice that it is not to feel good in your own skin, feel confident, express yourself, or to exist as an individual, but to exist as someone who is desirable and digestible to men. Some common examples of how this lesson is taught can be seen in the messaging around women wearing makeup, “enough to cover your flaws, but not too much to look unnatural.” Clothing: “dress so I perceive you as sexually appealing based on my own sexual fantasies, but not sexual enough to show that you own your own body.” Political rhetoric: “Let me legislate and debate over whether you should have rights or bodily autonomy.” “Let me shape your opinion of what is attractive to serve my own capitalist purpose and sell you my product, even if it makes you hate yourself.” 

In my almost 18 years, I’ve grown up with all of these messages screaming in my ear. I think that very few of us escaped it. Many young girls want to express themselves in a different way. However, these messages feel so real that the opposing forces often cause a harmful cognitive dissonance. In order to explain their own feelings without contradicting crushing social expectations, the development of internalized misogyny begins. We’d rather form rationalizations for these messages by stereotyping women and all groups to explain these internalizations instead of sitting with the uncomfortable hypocrisy of groups existing as confusing individuals. I believe this is why we all tend to be more judgemental of anything a woman does. It’s incredible how easy it is for a woman to adopt male eyes against her will.

I’ve found myself in the position where I can’t figure out whether I find something beautiful because of my individual taste or if I’m simply coughing up what society has taught me to desire to serve a capitalist, patriarchal agenda. That lack of individuality is infuriating. It’s just another cruel reminder that the impact of these social constructs are indeed real.

I hear these comments about certain choices I make—“it’s not attractive when women swear” or “taller women shouldn’t wear heels”—and laugh at the person’s shrewd misunderstanding of the world around us. I genuinely feel pity! They are trapped! Get well soon!! 

If only they knew it wasn’t their own mind thinking these things but rather repeated stereotypes about the way the world should work, the way people should act, all arbitrary social constructs that they’re allowing to infiltrate their mind. I am unable to live my life according to these standards, so sorry about it.

Not only does this male gaze destroy individuality of thinking and cause women to be held to an incredibly high standard, but it’s weaponized by many straight men in particular in order to have women rely on them for validation. This allows them to stay in relationships and not have to face their own insecurities and instead emotionally manipulate their partner. A woman confident in her own abilities, sexuality, appearance, and existence is one that many men do not feel secure being in any sort of relationship with. This is a problem.

I assumed internalized male gaze only impacted people who didn’t identify as men, but I believe that the same gaze from the same patriarchal society infiltrates the mind of men and causes them to lose some of their own individuality. I have noticed the way straight men tend to navigate relationships in the media and in real life tends to serve the expectations of other men in their life as opposed to themselves, whether it be their father, peers, or their own idea of what masculinity means and how a woman could be used as an accessory to fulfill his own masculine fantasy. This includes the women they choose to be in relationships with, how they treat and talk about them, all based on ideas that are not their own free thinking.

I speak of individuality in particular because I think that many aspects of American society attempt to abolish individuality to serve capitalist purposes and ensure control. I think of the Red Scare, barely a century ago, and how any departure from white, middle-class social norms targeted you as a dangerous outsider. Still today, any expression that departs from these standards indicates a dangerous level of individuality. I think of eurocentric beauty standards, heteronormative relationship expectations, cisnormative understanding of gender, and realize that they don’t want us to be our own person. They want us to hate ourselves. 

Perhaps loving ourselves would make us too powerful.

I strived to exist as my own person and have each choice I make about my appearance, life, and body be entirely my own. If I am influenced by this patriarchal system or any individual man, I feel that I am not free. I’ve internalized many aspects of the male gaze and have yet to destroy some parts of it. But when I look in the mirror, I don’t want to be viewing myself with male eyes. I love my femininity. So, please, realize that when I, or any person who doesn’t identify as a man, says “I hate men” every once in a while, it’s to balance out the hatred we’ve been taught to have for ourselves. Deal with it. Call me a b—h, a femi-nazi. Trust me, it wouldn’t be the first time. But realize that what you are witnessing is a woman existing radically as herself and reflect on why that makes you uncomfortable. To view myself outside of patriarchal and capitalist standards of existence would be absolutely radical and liberating. I don’t believe I’m there yet, but I will say that quarantine for the past 14 months allowed me to be more individual than ever, and with that came a transformation of my self-confidence. I write this because I seek to liberate women, nonbinary folks, men and everyone from this internalized male gaze. I hope your journey to its destruction increases your self-confidence as much as it has increased mine.