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Mental Health

The Male Gaze’s Effect: From Beauty Ideals to Mental Health

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.

This article was inspired by a conversation between a guy and me on the topic of beauty and feminism. My purpose is not to stir up arguments, but to highlight the feminine beauty ideal, a topic that I deeply relate to and care about.

The ideals of feminine beauty have been embedded in our culture throughout history. While feminine beauty standards have been evolving, a substantial amount of research has identified the “male gaze,” the act of looking at women as sexual objects, as something that perpetuates beauty ideals and reinforces patriarchy, sexism, and gender norms in our society. While the male gaze gives men a sense of control and power in both cinema and reality, it deprives women of their freedom to express their own definitions of beauty, as they internalize the objectifying gaze and feel pressured to meet cultural beauty standards. 

The term ‘male gaze’ is coined by feminist film critic Laura Mulvey, who explored the active/male and passive/female dynamics in American cinema. In Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, Mulvey argued that the male scopophilia instinct, namely the pleasure of looking at women as sexual objects, provides men with a sense of control and possession over women in narrative films. As film is a form of art that reflects the cultural and moral values of reality, the male gaze not only highlights the patriarchal ideology but also reinforces the notion that women are submissive to men in society.

In film, the male gaze empowers men and puts them in the controlling position of the narrative. In reality, the male gaze perpetuates beauty ideals and could further affect women’s physical and psychological well-being. Given the fact that women report more sexual objectification experiences and statistics that eating disorders are more prevalent in women than in men, the pursuit of beauty is no longer merely a personal lifestyle; it is a social issue. The problem lies in the reality that beauty ideals are male-centered, and women are the sacrifice. In my opinion, there is no issue with women dressing up and putting on makeup in order to feel good about themselves. The problem exists when the objectifying gaze pressures women to meet social beauty standards in a system where feminine beauty is associated with women’s worth. 

With the rise of social media, the internalization of the male gaze and beauty standards becomes more prevalent among women and could trigger them to find means to modify their body and appearance through restrictive diet, excessive exercise and cosmetic surgery. The pressure for women to live up to social feminine beauty ideals also brings mental and physical health concerns, including body dissatisfaction, depression, eating disorders and sexual dysfunction. That being said, the effects of the male gaze concern me because it reflects the patriarchal ideology and gender inequality in the beauty industry and society. In addition, the sexual and gendered language used in beauty commercials and advertisements not only consolidate sexist beliefs and the objectification of women’s bodies but also normalize a woman’s responsibility to maintain physically attractive for men. 

The prevalence of social media disseminates and proliferates the effects of the male gaze in women’s lives in today’s society. As visual representations become the proof of online presence, it also becomes a tool for the users to present their ideal identities to the public. Given that appearance-based commentary and content on social networking sites are prevalent, it intensifies individual and society’s hyper-focus on one’s physical attractiveness. Relatively, online content related to diet, fitness and beauty also triggers women to undergo appearance comparison, self-surveillance, self-objectification and internalization of cultural beauty ideals. This situation brings mental health risks to female users because it leads to restrictive diets, eating disorders, negative emotions and the consideration to seek cosmetic surgery. 

From cinema to reality, the objectifying male gaze makes women self-conscious of how they present themselves in front of men and further reduces a woman’s worth to her physical attractiveness. The situation becomes more pervasive with the widespread use of social media; female users are particularly susceptible to mental health concerns when viewing appearance-related content. Since the pain and pressure of attaining beauty disproportionately falls on women, it requires both individual and institutional effort to improve users’ experience and address women’s mental health needs.

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Irene is currently a senior studying health science and journalism at Boston University. She is from Taipei Taiwan, a tropical country, but she always wants to live in a cold city like Boston. In her free time, she loves to read, draw, hang out with friends, and explore the city by trying new restaurants and cafes. To view more about her work, visit her art account @irenechung.com.
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