Thursday, December 5, 2013

A Tentative Exploration of The Female Gaze

The first thing I noticed? The thighs.

Several years ago, I was taking a class where I hit it off with one of my classmates—our first conversation was one of those where you wind up gasp-laughing in a way you normally only do with people who are already your friends (or people who are as drunk as you are). He was new to the city, and while he’d made friends at his job, his wife hadn’t had such luck, and would I like to go out to dinner with them on Thursday?

I would, and I did, and I was rewarded with more of that good cheer; I liked her as much as I liked him. And when she got up at one point to visit the restroom, I found myself doing something I hadn’t done before: I did not look at her thighs. 

To be clear, it wasn’t like I made a point of looking at the thighs of every woman I met. I’m not saying I’m above ever having compared another woman’s figure to mine, but for the most part I think I approach other women as potential allies, not competition or a measuring stick of my own appeal. No, my thigh-checking was more akin to a tic, like compulsively clearing one’s throat, or saying “you know” all the time. I knew I did it, but it was such an automatic act that it wasn’t something I ever thought I could not do. Plus, it’s not like I’d go around staring at other women’s legs or anything. It was always a glimpse, a landing point for my eyes, and I’d look away quickly thereafter. I didn’t think anyone noticed. I mean, I barely noticed, really.

That is, I barely noticed until I noticed that I didn’t do it. It had been a while since I’d met someone new who so easily gave me a sense of mutual recognition—and a couple at that! the holy grail of people my then-boyfriend and I could maybe hang out with together!—and I didn’t want to blow it. When the woman rose from the table, my brain slowed down for just long enough for me to recognize that I was anticipating, as in I was really looking forward tobeing able to look at her thighs. Which meant my brain slowed down long enough for me to stop it. It’s not that I was afraid she or her husband would see my eyes flicker down to her legs (though I do always wonder how perceptive others are about the object of our gaze); it was that I recognized that I really didn’t want to know what her thighs looked like. If I knew what her thighs looked like, I might begin to care—I mean, not really care, not care enough to measure her as a person by it or anything remotely that distasteful. But I’d care in my own, private, ugly little way. I’d know whether her thighs were as large as my own, or larger; I’d know whether they were firm and muscular or soft and fleshy. I’d be able to add it to the enormous resource bank of thigh-images that I’ve catalogued in a dark part of my psyche for as long as I’ve recognized that women were supposed to think thighs were A Problem. And I realized I just really, really didn’t want to add this awesome woman’s thighs to that collection, and that I didn’t want to add any woman’s thighs to my image bank ever again. (Hell, I didn’t want an image bank at all, but you’ve gotta start somewhere, right?)

So I didn’t look at her thighs. Not then, anyway; at some point, months later, I recalled that moment, and realized that at some point since then my mind’s eye had gone ahead and taken a snapshot anyway. But I’d taken in the larger point: My eyes automatically went to women’s thighs, any woman’s thighs, every woman’s thighs, upon first seeing them. And if I could recognize this, maybe I could stop it.

But you’ll notice the first words of this post: Several years ago. I’ve noticed it, but there it is. I don’t think I literally look at the thighs of every woman I pass on the street, but do I find myself still looking at women’s thighs on the street, in the coffeeshop, in the gym? Yeah, I do.

I’d be more embarrassed to put this out there were it not for my hunch—now verified by Science!—that this is so common as to enter the realm of “duh.” recent eye-movement-tracking study shows that women spend more time looking at one another’s bodies than they do looking at their faces. (The same was true of how men look at women, but that’s another story.) To add to it, men and women alike visually process women’s bodies as being parts, but see men’s bodies as being whole. (Thanks to Sally for the link.)

Both of these facts seem to come into play with my thigh gazing, but when I looked at the studies, I was thrown for a moment: The scholars identified themselves as objectification researchers. Which makes sense; after all, when you see a human and focus first and foremost on particular parts of it, you’re, ya know, reducing them to an object, at least in part. But I’d never stopped to think of the ways I’d been participating in objectifying other women, even if my motivation (or what I assume was my motivation) was more tied to my own anxieties than tied to a predatory mind-set. For that’s what I primarily associate with the word objectification—predatory men, or at least men who bathe in the power imbalance that comes when half the world is seen as parts, not people. If I ever thought about women objectifying one another, I thought of it cartoonishly: Women tucking dollar bills into strippers’ g-strings, getting lap dances, raunchily commenting on babes walking by—Female Chauvinist Pigs-type stuff. And that’s part of it, yes.

But this sort of objectification—the kind of objectification I subtly take part in when I gaze out the coffeeshop window and, if I don’t consciously work my way out of it, see a parade of lady-thighs—seems more insidious. Not only because of what it says about how women’s own gaze might be defaulting to what we used to call “the male gaze,” but because of what it says of how we view ourselves. One of the reasons beauty can be so effective as a bonding mechanism between women is that we see ourselves in other women. It’s also my explanation of why so many straight women become aroused by watching women in porn, not just men or male-female couplings: We see the image of sex itself as being inherently tied to our bodies as objects of desire. Desire including our own. (Cue a Google Scholar rabbit hole for search term “self-objectification.”) 

At this point, it’s no mystery why my brain chose to zero in on thighs. Thin Thighs in 30 Days was first published when I was six; not long after that, I heard a television character use the phrase “positively bulbous” used to describe her own thighs, and I instantly knew that’s what my own stubby, childish thighs were—positively bulbous. (The one and only critical comment my mother ever made about my body was about my “Gaskill thighs”—in other words, it was a criticism of her own thighs too.) As Natalia Mehlman Petrzela writes in her fantastic, spot-on take on all that Lululemon jazz, women’s thighs are “one of the most fraught areas on women’s bodies.” And I’m beginning to understand my thigh thing intellectually, though who knows how much good that’ll do me in actually changing the behavior. So my questions are to you: Do you find yourself zeroing in on certain parts of women’s bodies? Do you notice it when you’re doing it? Are you bothered by this, or do you see it as something neutral or positive? And a plea, from me, who really wants to stop this automatic zoom-in on the thighs of the world: Any thoughts on how to put the kibosh on this?


  1. I do this, but with breasts. It's the first thing I look at - nothing else matters. For me, my reasoning was that I longed for the large breasts my genes never gave me so I was constantly comparing my body to others. In reality, my breasts are very much on the small size, so the average person with breasts will be bigger than mine. But it's still pretty overwhelming, and I often find myself easily frustrated by my body type.

    I hadn't really thought to look at it in terms of female gaze/objectification thing. But that makes sense too, because it's about being trained in a specific way to look at bodies. A lot of it is subconscious, but it happens within the gay/lesbian community too. With women talking about love interests or crushes with the same terminology that heterosexual men use to talk about women. Boiling women down into parts, or objects meant to be looked at.

    I don't really know how to stop. Maybe it'll end when I stop mourning the fact that women on both sides of my family have small breasts and they won't get any bigger on their own, that puberty is done. :/

    Great post!!

  2. Absolutely fascinating! I find I do this with bras (I have to know if the woman is wearing a bra that fits, ugh). To be fair, I do this with men and button down shirts too. If the shirt is too baggy or too tight on him, it drives me nuts. Consciously, I know that it does not matter to me and it's not like I say something to them about it but it's there in my head. I have to know for some reason.

  3. I consciously try not to, but I also do the noticing-other-women's thighs thing (and, of course, now consciously try to avoid doing so)... this is really interesting! Thanks for researching it :)

  4. This was really interesting. I don't think I have a body part that I zero in on. I check women out but on first glance I'm usually checking out their clothes/overall style. It's more when I spend a lot of time with someone (because I work with them or they become a friend, etc.) that I find myself scrutinizing their physicality and noticing their "parts." As often as not it's in admiration. I have a weird nose so I tend to notice people's noses, men's too. Sometimes it's kind of a footnote on a broader thing, like I'll think "She's cute" the first time I see someone, then a few weeks later I'll notice "Oh, she has a weak chin" or "Oh, her ankles are thick." It's not like I'm doing it in a judgy way, more like sympathetically, if that makes any kind of sense. I'll also slowly realize stuff like "She has really shiny hair" or "her clothes fit really well." I don't know if there is a way to prevent myself from doing it or if I'd even want to. Noticing details about people's appearance feels, to me, like a natural part of being interested in them as a whole.

  5. I find myself zeroing in on other womens waists. Maybe because that is the one part of my body I'm not entirely happy with. (I'm short waisted and my waist has never been and will never be as "nipped in" as I want.) I never considered that looking at others womens waistlines could be considered objectification or internalization the male gaze...I thought I was just sizing up the competition. But now I feel really shallow and I'm not sure what to do about it.

  6. For me, it's more like a constant catalog of thinness. I was always larger than my peers (first much taller, and then later, after I stopped growing, very overweight),so I was very much aware of who was bigger or smaller than me. Any group of women suddenly became a spectrum, and I was obsessed with knowing my place on it. I've lost a lot of weight now, but I still find myself comparing.

  7. This was really on point and kinda enlightening/embarrassing because I do check out other women but I feel kinda creepy about it. It's a reflex and I definitely did it a lot more when I was younger because I was more insecure about MY certain parts so I would look at other women's certain parts to both confirm my insecurity (self sabotage?) but also to see if maybe they looked like me.

    What you said about women seeing themselves in other women is so true. Because when I looked at other women it's not so much about competition or jealousy, I realized, but I want to know if she might share the same experiences of me because of the way her body is shaped. It's a way for me to make a snap judgment (even if wrong!) about the level of friend intimacy we might have based on some hypothetical life experiences I'm imagining for her! Maybe you didn't feel the need to check your new friend's thighs because maybe you already felt like you guys clicked really well? Maybe I'm just projecting. ; )

    I still feel like I check women out sometimes but it's definitely something I'm trying to break!

  8. I do this too. I zero in on overall thinness, but also on stomach. It's all where we've got our own issues, I guess!

    I've been trying to overcome it by noticing it, by NOT getting mad at myself about it - lord knows we're probably all reacting to years of conditioning.

    So I say, "there my comparison tape goes again," and if I can, I physically try to shake it off. I'll shake a hand back and forth, rub my arm, or if I'm really having a hard time I'll go to the bathroom and either shake my whole body or jump up and down. It's not gone, but it's better than before.

    I like how you note that we're also objectifying women by doing's another thing to keep in mind that that's exactly what we don't want to be doing.

  9. I have this problem as well. I find myself looking for body/style similarities to my own. I feel my own insecurities rising when I am with anyone who is more conventionally beautiful than myself, and my ego somewhat strengthened when I feel like I "win" the body comparison. But no one wins in this game.

    Social comparison is a natural part of being human- social psychologists talk about "upward" and "downward" social comparison as a way of making us feel better about ourselves, or trying to motivate ourselves to change. But body shaming is a tragic negative side effect that's been deeply ingrained into this flawed system. I've been making an effort to try to look into other women's eyes, and immediately identify something positive about them that is not related to their appearance (e.g. kindness, thoughtfulness, confidence).

  10. Fascinating post. I applaud your candor and insights. Unlike you and the other commenters, I wasn't raised female and didn't experience this. I don't project anything onto the women I see because I have no body issues. Life, as you and others describe it, is so hard for women. I feel so sorry for you guys.

    (P.S., This is Ally; I can't seem to comment with a link.)

  11. Thank you for this post. I do the exact same, with thighs exactly, and realize, by reading the above comments, that it must be the part of ourselves we feel most insecure about. Even though it was conscious, your article has made me want to stop my ridiculous behaviour.

  12. This was really interesting, made me realize I do this to! I had never thought about it before. I guess a lot of people do this also. Thanks for admitting it. I think more women admitting the temptation to compare is step in the right direction. I don't think the endless comparisons are a good thing, but recognizing it helps with change.

  13. I know this post is from the FEMALE GAZE perspective, but there have been enough posts about the MALE GAZE in the past, I thought to pass this along. boy, does this start a war between the "how dare he!" and "she was asking for it" camps….

  14. I do this constantly, but with stomachs/waists. Which are definitely the body part I am most insecure about. I find myself doing what Chiraru does - figuring out where I am on the spectrum and feeling better about myself if I'm more toward the skinny end. Men stare at women, and women stare at women. Ugh. Maybe acknowledging it will help me stop/judge myself/judge others less. Maybe.

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