Didn’t Your Mother Ever Teach You Not to Stare?

Today, I have a post which I think may be of edification to the gents. Other genders are welcome to read it as well, of course. It’s an attempt to explain what it’s like to live in a very obviously female body, and what it’s like to attempt to navigate a society in which very obviously female bodies are believed to be public property.

One of the things about living in a female body that is sometimes difficult to convey to people who do not live in a female body is the staring. I understand, on an intellectual level, that I live in a society in which the female body is considered to be an object readily available for public consumption by men, especially white men, but it is a bit jarring to be reminded of this on a daily basis.

I have what might politely be termed “a rack of doom,” paired with a highly visible tattoo on my chest. That means that I get stared at. A lot. And it’s hard to determine whether people are staring at the rack, or the tattoo, or both, and it doesn’t really matter, because in both cases, it’s staring. It’s staring which would not be considered acceptable if a man was aiming it at another man, it’s staring of an intensity which is bound to make me feel as though I am strutting about in pasties instead of wearing a perfectly reasonable cashmere sweater and a scarf.

As others have pointed out, when you have a rack of doom, there is no top which looks modest. Tops which fit the rest of my torso bulge and gape helplessly over the rack. Any neckline short of a turtleneck inevitably slides down over the course of the day, revealing more and more of my decolletage. Button, any buttons, even on shirts tailored to cope with the rack, strain at the edge of their holes, and the fabric between buttons gapes. Bending over is not an advisable activity. In the days when I worked in an office, I experienced the delight of being informed that pretty much anything imaginable (turtleneck, cowl neck, boat neck, v-neck, Mandarin collar, pleated, cotton, linen, silk, cashmere, wool, long sleeves, short sleeves, sack-like, snug, ruffles, no ruffles, darts, no darts, thick fabric, thin fabric, solid colour, printed pattern, bra, bra-less) is “not appropriate for work.”

I have had complete strangers walk up to me and grab my breasts. I have had men on not-crowded trains shove their faces into my cleavage. I have had men leer in a prolonged and deeply uncomfortable way at my breasts. I have had men step in front of me while I am walking down the street. To stare. At my breasts. I have been catcalled by men who have catalogued my features in explicit and offensive detail while I am attempting to go about my daily business.

But I, you say, I would never do this. I treat women with respect. I would never walk up to a strange woman and grab her breasts! My God! How could anyone think that was acceptable! I can talk to a woman’s face, and not her chest! Why, I don’t even find breasts particularly remarkable! I would never interfere with a woman going about her business in public space, no matter what she was wearing, and I would never want to make a woman feel uncomfortable! Sure, I look, but I don’t stare! Not me! Plus, I’m just appreciating! Pretty ladies like to be appreciated!

And, you know, you might be right about some of those things. Some pretty ladies definitely do like to be appreciated, and they have no problem with being stared at. I haven’t personally met any, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. And you may indeed think that gazing at a pair of breasts is totally acceptable as long as you’re not oafish about it. And, indeed, you may be profoundly shocked to learn that your behavior may make some ladies uncomfortable!

But here’s the thing: I don’t know that you are harmless and well intentioned if I don’t know you. And even if I do know you, the truth of those statements is difficult to take seriously when you are ogling me when you say them. And yes, staring at my breasts is ogling, even if you manage to do so discreetly, without a slack jaw or drooling or animalistic noises (all of which, yes, I have witnessed). And when a woman who doesn’t know you is walking down the street, minding her own business, maybe thinking about the grocery list, and you stare at her, she doesn’t know any of this. What you think is “appreciation” is actually deeply threatening, and requires an abrupt re-evaluation of a situation. It’s no longer “should I get peanut butter,” but “what is this person, who is staring at me, going to do? Should I cross to the other side of the street? Should I have worn a cardigan?” And, for the more feminist among us, “Why should I have to wear a cardigan just to go out in public?  Why do I need to protect myself from society by covering up? Why can’t women just wear whatever they feel like wearing and not have to agonize every time they get dressed to enter the outside world over how their clothing and bodies will be perceived?”

But, but, you say, I just appreciate looking at women! They are attractive! And besides, women look at men!

Ah, we ladies, we are indeed attractive! It is kind of you to notice that. But, the thing is, there is looking, and there is staring. And what most people do, it is staring. It is not flattering. It is not appreciation. It is intrusive, and violating, and profoundly uncomfortable. It happens when we are heavily covered, it happens when we are scantily clad. From the ages of about 12 (or even earlier, for those with early onset of puberty) to around 30, no matter what you do, where you go, if you are a woman, you will be stared at.

I accept that when you see me, you look at me. I am not asking you not to look at me. It’s fine for you to notice things about me which you find interesting. I may look at you and find something which is interesting to me, such as intriguing topstitching on your shirt. But neither of us needs to stare. Can you see the subtle difference here?

It is true, yes, that women do sometimes look at men. But not with nearly the same frequency at which men look at women, and not in nearly the same way. There are loaded overtones which go on when a man stares at a woman, even if he is a feminist! And respects the women! And thinks that patriarchy is dreadful! Men stare at women with interest and a sense of ownership. When women stare at men, they may do so with interest (and will be branded sluts and whores for it), but there is no ownership. You cannot own your oppressor. This is not to say that all men are oppressive, but rather that all men are part of an oppressive system which objectifies women and reduces them to the status of social property.

If you are a woman, you will be stared at. And you will be expected to tolerate and perhaps even welcome it. You are not allowed to say that it makes you unhappy or uncomfortable. You are not allowed to reject the staring.

You will be stared at like you are the most delectable chocolate cake in existence and you have just been placed before someone who is starving. You will be stared at like the most delicious vintage car ever produced and lovingly cared for when it is set before an auto enthusiast. You will be stared at, in other words, like an object. You will be viewed and treated as an object, until you pass the magical threshold of “too old,” at which point you abruptly vanish from view.

Being stared at is not enjoyable, as a general rule. Being stared at with the social and cultural overtones of the Male Gaze, while living in a patriarchy, is even more not enjoyable. Can you imagine how overlapping systems of oppression could make the experience of being stared at even more complex? How if you are, say, a six foot tall black woman, you are also stared at, and there are entirely new overtones to the situation? How if you are, say, a person who uses a wheelchair, you are also stared at, and the situation becomes even more complex? How, if you are transgender, everything about your body is evidently up for discussion and scrutiny, including what is in your underpants? Can you see how staring is actually a form of othering?

There’s a pretty easy solution to this problem, for men who are feminists or feminist allies and would like to respect the women: don’t stare.

7 Comments on Didn’t Your Mother Ever Teach You Not to Stare?

  1. As an inveterate people-watcher and one who can easily gaze at the exact same place for long minutes at a time, I sometimes wish I could be invisible and thus stare at people without consequences.

    Which is a roundabout way of saying, I think it’s not so much women being less inclined to stare as it is men being more allowed to stare. Which you are totally not contradicting in your post, but I thought I’d give these words existence anyway.

  2. meloukhia // 31 August, 2009 at 1:50 pm //

    I feel equally discomfited when women stare at me for long periods of time, actually; I would argue that staring in general is not really socially acceptable. However, you’re right; staring from women is viewed as less threatening than staring from men (which is exactly why I use the male gaze as an example of threatening staring in this piece).

    Although an interesting point is brought up by your comment; can we divide staring by degrees or nature? There is probably a difference in the feel of a stare from someone undressing you with their eyes vs a stare from someone who is mesmerized by your shoes.

  3. There probably is, but I think it would be quite difficult to distinguish them with any consistent precision.

  4. The Army agrees with you. In basic training we were instructed that anything longer than a three second stare constituted sexual harassment. That was in ’89 anyway.

  5. It is hard to love your body when others, strangers even, express ownership of it. And you are branded all sorts of things if you speak out to those people who try to possess you– we are expected to passively accept this attention and appreciate it, be it a lingering gaze or a hand casually brushing against your arm or a catcall.

    My general tack is to call people out on it, but even that gets tiring because it requires me to sharpen my focus and my wit. It gets in the way of pleasant evenings with friends. It provokes my firebrand side, which requires decompression in the aftermath. And in the end I’m a mouthy, ugly bitch anyway, lucky that they’d even deign to pay attention.

    It’s hard to love your body, sometimes, when you’re not alone.

  6. I know the post wasn’t really about this, but there is something worse than being stared at because you’re attractive: being stared at because you’re not.
    Please imagine men AND women staring at you who either: want to insult you because you limp, want to point out that you limp, want to know why you limp, want to point you to an elevator or their personal medical specialist, and, very ocassionaly, want your number because they think you’re attractive. And you know what makes these stares complicated? You never know why they’re staring, except that there is an 80% chance it is about the limp, and absolutely no chance they’ll just leave you alone to mind your own business. Seriously, if I had to choose I’d choose lascivious stares over grossed-out/pitying/cruel stares any day, because they are much less intrusive, there is at least a hint of compliment in them, and most women wouldn’t stare at me anymore.

    P.S. If this is too personal, please remove the post. I find many of your posts really touch on deeply rooted issues I can’t express in daily life, and I therefore comment on them here; still – you might not really want to know about my hidden demons.

  7. Excellent point, FB, and thank you for sharing your experiences. (Which are definitely not “too personal.”) I briefly addressed the fact that staring can happen for a lot of reasons (pretty much, if anything about your appearance is “unusual”) in the last paragraph, but obviously my experiences as an able bodied person are very different from the experiences of someone with a disability which is visible and/or causes gait changes. Staring at someone of any gender with a limp or any disability is highly objectifying.

    Personally, I think that our hidden demons are best exorcised by dragging them out into the light.

Comments are closed.