Edited By: Ananya Khandelwal
A pair of eyes watch over my shoulder as I work, and comment on the frazzled parts of my appearance in the mirror. They manifest and watch me wherever I go, intensifying the pressure to be “presentable”, force-feeding my soul with the need to perform. I second-guess everything. It feels suffocating. The eyes never leave, because their abstraction sits with me, breathes with me, and lives with me.
It dawns on me- I have internalized the male gaze.
The male gaze, as first coined by Laura Mulvey in her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” refers to when a heterosexual male frames the process of looking in a way that objectifies and fetishizes women. This employs what is called the “politics of the gaze”, as the woman, who is being constructed under this gaze is framed as an object of heterosexual male desire. She is seen insofar as she appeals to this desire, and is portrayed as invisible otherwise. Other than being deeply sexist, the idea is also extremely heteronormative. Moreover, the lens through which a lot of current media is constructed is coated in the male gaze. From using women’s bodies to sell products like deodorants, to focusing on narrative angles that stem from this objectification, the male gaze seems almost inseparable from it.
However, the male gaze is not a phenomenon that only plagues the silver screen. It plays out in day-to-day interactions that women face. Catcalling, being sent lewd messages without consent, and being subjected to prolonged and uncomfortable stares are just a few instances of how the gaze manifests. It looks down on women as mere conduits to satiate male sexual desire and robs them of consent, individuality, and agency. Experiencing these situations is thus, deeply damaging because it creates a feeling of violation.
At this juncture, the question also arises, “What does the male-gaze have to do with self-perception?” To that, the answer is simple- it has everything to do with it. Living in a society that seeks to reduce you to only your appearance and appeal to one form of desire is bound to affect how you look at yourself. The invisible ways in which you “check” yourself- fixing your appearance and posturing, among other expressions of body-monitoring from the point of view of an observer, contribute to self-objectification.
In a study conducted by Calegoro (2004), it was found that anticipating the male gaze elevated levels of body-image-related anxiety and self-objectification. Just feeling like you are under the gaze can, thus, trigger feelings of body surveillance. The gaze creates undue pressure to look “appealing” at all times, like a charade being put forth in front of an imaginary audience. A variety of different contexts, such as social media, also help enable self-objectification. The relationship between Instagram usage, body surveillance, and self-objectification was also found to be mediated by the internalization of beauty standards (Feltman and Szymanski, 2018). Women, thus, internalize the need to perform, rather than to exist.
How do we then dismantle the internalized male gaze? Systematically, an increase in the portrayal of women in the media less like objects and more as people in their own right can significantly reduce the effect it has. On a personal level, recent studies have (quite surprisingly) explored that the usage of mirrors has been linked to inducing self-compassion and reducing self-objectification in women. Women spending time to look and observe themselves in the mirror, and being mentally present while doing so has been linked to lower levels of stress and body-related anxiety. Being increasingly compassionate with yourself and increasing your self-awareness about how you may be objectifying yourself are key in dismantling this internalization.
With this awareness, it feels that the next time the pair of invisible eyes seeks to pick apart everything about me in the mirror, I will, perhaps, exchange them for a gaze of self-compassion.