I’ve been quite apprehensive to write about this, but it’s time. I’ve had enough.
I am sick of men staring at me. Not just staring; ogling. Every time I walk down the street, I am assailed by lingering and penetrating looks from men of all ages. Men watch me unwaveringly as I walk past them, as if I am there for their enjoyment. Men follow me with their gaze as they drive past, heads turning like owls to continue looking. Men look me up and down, or stare at my chest. Men who would have daughters the same age as me. Men who probably love their wives and respect their mothers.
Their gaze makes me reconsider what I wore that day – should I have covered more of my legs, my arms, my chest, my face? Should I cover my body entirely under the safety of a burka so that the only thing these men can see if my eyes deliberately looking away from them? I’m not joking; the thought has crossed my mind. But then I remember that I have the right to wear whatever I want to wear, and I should be able to do so without feeling exposed. As if higher above my ankles my dress is, the more permission I give men to stare. For them to imagine for a second, while they watch me, what? I don’t want to know.
I grew up in a town that experiences perpetual summer and is very close to the beach. We wear clothes suitable to that environment – light clothes, exposing much of our bodies to remain cool. Summery dressed and skirts. Small tops, hats and sandals. This is how I feel comfortable; this is part of who I am.
As a result of being myself, I am subjected daily o the suggestive, inappropriate and sometimes aggressive, male gaze. This is not right.
I do advocate appreciating other people’s bodies. We are all beautiful and sexy, and to acknowledge this in a *respectful* way can be very empowering for the recipient. What would I consider a respectful way do this? Looking someone in the eyes and smiling at them as they walk past, instead of staring at certain body parts. Telling someone “Excuse me, I just had to tell you that I think you’re beautiful.” If you’re driving past, looking at someone for long enough to appreciate their beauty then looking away when you have done this. Not continuing to stare until your head is twisted backwards, like you expect me to rip off my clothes any moment. Not looking at me as if I am a tasty meal to eat – objectified, emotionless, only there for your appreciation, and not worth one drop of your respect.
I don’t blame men. I dislike this behaviour, but there is a difference between who someone is and the way they have been taught to act. This habit is a product of our society – and while this is no justification for the degrading behaviour, it at least explains it. The authority of the male gaze has been reaffirmed again and again by the forces that shape our society; foremostly, the media. Any conscious thinker today is aware of the battle women have been fighting against the patriarchy and the archaic attitudes that go hand in hand with it, and I need not explain it here. The message I am trying to get across is that this behaviour is not acceptable. Women should not have to feel like this. Equality between men and women is still far off. Until women stop feeling objectified, until I can walk down the street and not feel like I am getting undressed in strangers’ minds, until women all over the world can act and be exactly as they want to, the fight will not be over.
Until then, my solution is to assert my awareness of the men staring at me. I do not bow my head and give them permission to look at me freely; I look them back in the eye. A lot of the time I feel like giving them the finger, but aggression isn’t the right path to follow. Instead, I calmly let they know that I know what they are doing. Perhaps this will remind them that I am human, and I don’t deserve to be treated like this. Perhaps all they will see is their dinner staring passively back them. Or maybe, just maybe, a little seed of doubt will be planted in their minds and they might start to realise that what they are doing is wrong.