On realizing I had internalized The Gaze (and some other stuff)

A more personal post today, Jumpers. (And yay for not having to work till 7:30 and getting to pursue hobbies!)


Now, I consider myself a sex-positive gal with a pretty good body image—in fact, all of my ongoing complaints are non-permanent, like bags and dark circles under my eyes because my sinuses hate winter, and reptilian skin because my eczema does too. I think rape is caused by rapists, but I don’t often dress in a manner that I would describe as “provocative” because who needs the extra shit to deal with. Additionally, I’m in an LTR with a really great, loving guy who makes me feel even better about myself. One would think this would produce a confident gal who gives no fucks what other people think. But that hasn’t been the case. Here’s why.

There is an expectation that women in the workforce “take good care of themselves” by wearing tailored clothing, makeup, nail polish, perfume, hair products and gadgets, etc.

There is an expectation that women in the workforce “take good care of themselves” by wearing tailored clothing, makeup, nail polish, perfume, hair products and gadgets, etc. I love playing around with all of those things in spite of my resentment with regard to the expectation. I’m also lazy, so I’m rarely completely “put together” (also a dumb phrase) at work.

When I left my most recent nanny post, I started work at a small nonprofit. I wore skirts and makeup and heeled sandals for, like, a week, but everyone else was in jeans and we almost never had guests at the office who weren’t local high schoolers. First the non-mascara eye makeup went—or maybe it was the hair styling, hard to say—and then the shoes, and eventually everything but the occasional accessory was low-key. I liked that I could be out the door in less than 15 minutes because it meant I didn’t have to wake Boyfriend up quite as insanely early on mornings I commuted to work from his place. My daily uniform on days we weren’t expecting visitors at work became nice jeans or shorts + cute top, with the occasional dress thrown in because I love dresses and they’re so damn convenient.

In the first year that we dated, I’d often shower and dress up before coming south to see Boyfriend. It was as much for my sake as his because 7+ hours of exposure to a toddler’s bodily fluids, foodstuffs, and moods definitely didn’t leave me feeling cute most days. [My perfume > Desitin.] I expected to encounter creepiness on public transit as a result, but it was actually pretty bearable overall. I may have made more “friends” than I wanted, but there was very little aggression in the encounters. Maybe because we started dating in the fall, so I was often wearing lots of outerwear.

Once I lived in the same neighborhood and started getting home from work at the nonprofit later, though, it seemed silly to go to my place to primp first. So I didn’t. I felt a bit guilty for having regressed to my low-maintenance daily routine rather than trying to take Boyfriend’s breath away at every encounter and then I felt like a bad feminist for thinking that. I worried that maybe I’d tricked Boyfriend before, with the effort I used to put in, and now he’d feel cheated or like our first year of dating had been false advertising. (Which it was, of course.)

While we both like to see the other all gussied up on occasion, Boyfriend didn’t seem to mind that the red carpet routine was no longer daily for me. I’ll pretend that I’m too much a proud feminist to have asked him, but really, I just tried to find less direct ways of gauging his opinion on the matter and continued to preen before meeting up with his—now also my—friends, which is par for the course for me anyway.

The point of all that was to say, following my job and location changes, I was making an effort to look presentable-ish, but I wasn’t going out of my way to attract attention most workdays by any means.

The point of all that was to say, following my job and location changes, I was making an effort to look presentable-ish, but I wasn’t going out of my way to attract attention most workdays by any means. And the longer we dated, the more comfortable I felt that I had Boyfriend’s anyway. After all, I think I’m a pretty decent lookin’ gal. But I’d never be confused for a bombshell-sexpot-centerfold by the general public, either, so when men started staring—and I mean staring—at me on the lengthy route to and from work last year, I was confused and I started to feel… guilty? “Ashamed” might be a better descriptor, but it was unpleasant no matter what you call it.

I wear a gold heart-shaped ring with a tiny diamond on my left ring finger to deter creeps, but at some point around spring of last year, I noticed that it may as well have been a Peach Gummi Ring. Sometimes it would be as simple as some middle-aged dude in the bus across the street or in the vehicle next to my bus leering or winking or something while we each waited for our routes to continue. I’d glare daggers and then avoid eye contact. Several times, creepers on the same bus would stare and/or chat me up and I would do my best to be frostily polite so as not to increase my chances of being rage-raped in an alley when I got off the bus. I made plenty of getaway plans in my head, but no one ever followed me off and, thankfully, it was still broad daylight when I got home.

One time in particular, I was sure my luck had run out.

One time in particular, I was sure my luck had run out. On my way to work one day, a burly, tattooed creep sat down next to me in spite of the many, many open seats on my train car, trapping me between him and the window. He mumbled something that I’m probably thankful not to have heard over my iPod and then started at my breasts while he got hard and occasionally glanced at an iPhone that clearly (had?) belonged to a woman. I didn’t know whether he borrowed it, found it, or stole it after he raped and killed her, but I was majorly freaked and everyone around me knew it. But no one did a thing about it, including the transit workers on their way elsewhere, and as we got farther north, the probability of the two of us being alone on the car skyrocketed. Thankfully he got off (hopefully only literally) before I had to, because I’d been prepared to ride the train for days, rather than budge from my seat and try to walk past him.

Each time something like this happened, I would come home to Boyfriend, upset, shaking with rage, and sometimes even crying as I recounted what had transpired and how “My shirt’s not even that tight!” or “I’m not even wearing much makeup today!” or “I kept saying ‘my boyfriend’ and I.” I started to dress like I had when I’d expected to be covered in baby bodily fluids and butt cream by the end of the day—no makeup, all baggy jeans and loose, cheap, long-sleeved tops—and my steely stare on public transit got even steelier. I felt like a slob compared to all the chic young ladies who would board the train downtown, but apparently I was “asking for” harassment when I dressed better. Of course, the great irony here is that I am firmly of the opinion that no one is ever “asking for it,” but it made me feel like a terrible girlfriend to have to half play along with creepers who were well aware that I was taken because I was scared of what they might do if I spoke my mind. I kept feeling that I must have been doing something wrong… giving off some vibe that I was looking to “upgrade” or something.

In fact, at an impromptu gathering of grad students at Boyfriend’s apartment one night, some furry little weasel was going on and on to me about just that—how he’d stolen girls from their boyfriends before and yada yada. He’d even had the nerve to try to one-up Boyfriend about their fencing experience, but Boyfriend didn’t realize what had been going on and was merely jovially amused at this cretin. He was almost a foot shorter than I and I was surrounded by friends of ours—mostly males, due to the gender imbalance in the sciences—so I didn’t feel threatened, but holy hell was I mad. When we said goodbye to the last guests, Boyfriend commented that he’d really liked talking to the creep’s friend—who was, in fact, delightful—and I went off about this sleazeball. What, did I look like the kind of woman who has no respect for her boyfriend? In his own goddamn house, at that?!

What, did I look like the kind of woman who has no respect for her boyfriend? In his own goddamn house, at that?!

It was through a conversation with Boyfriend about “looking nice”—because we both rather fancy spiffy threads, even if we can’t often afford them—that I realized to my great surprise that I have internalized The Gaze and all that victim-blaming, rape culture bullshit along with it. He was saying that he feels powerful when he’s well-dressed and among strangers; I was saying that, at least when I’m well-dressed and travelling alone, I feel very vulnerable. I try to carry precarious heels in my purse, rather than wear them, in case I have to run. (And I’m already 5’10” so they only make me stick out more.) I walk with my keys between my knuckles and check reflections to see whether anyone is following me. I feel much more likely to be harassed because clearly, if I’m dressed up to impress anyone, including myself, for any reason, I must be dressed up for the benefit of every lecherous male in the world, too. Which is particularly ridiculous because even pre-Boyfriend, I would say that I dressed up far more often to improve my confidence around other females, whereas dressing up to impress men would have left me feeling awkward and self-conscious. Maybe that’s petty and makes me an awful feminist, but I’d prefer to experience fashion/beauty as an expression of personality or power, rather than of impersonal desire (as when one dresses up hoping to attract the attention of as-of-yet hypothetical males at a venue) or even desperation.

This is the part of the post where I’m supposed to write about how I magically cured myself of all this nonsense and now I know all the answers. I didn’t and I don’t; all for unrelated reasons, I changed jobs, moved in with Boyfriend, and bought a car. Now, I don’t take public transit much and he’s often with me when I do. I still think about whether I’m trying hard enough to look cute, at least periodically, for Boyfriend’s benefit and about the other consequences that will accompany those efforts, potentially including unwanted attention from his colleagues.

I’m also the CEO of a startup nonprofit these days and try to look the part, but get frustrated when this only draws comments on my physical appearance from males I’m supposed to be engaging with on a professional level. I have no clue where on the spectrum that spans hobos to Serena van der Woodsen I should situate myself so that people will take me seriously at work. What, is, like, mascara but no eyeliner the key? Hair up not down? Heels but no skirts? (Yeah right, I wear heels twice a year for about ten minutes.) I mean, what the hell. Do I adjust these things based on whether I’m meeting with a man, a woman, or a crowd? I like fashion and I like looking more femme than not, so wearing a suit and tie every day is out.

Alas, Jumpers, when it comes to my appearance, I’m afraid I still have no clue how to balance being a desirable girlfriend, respectable CEO, and good feminist against being safe, comfortable, and myself. What are your experiences with all this?


3 thoughts on “On realizing I had internalized The Gaze (and some other stuff)

  1. Maybe it’s a southern suburban city vs northern urban city thing, but I haven’t experienced this nearly to the degree it sounds like you have. Our recent cold weather has meant that I have been wearing more pants/slacks to work recently, but it’s more common for me to wear skirts/dresses. I’m not big on cleavage, and I only ever wear mascara (unless something is holy-cow-special). My hair is in a ponytail if it’s not a wash day, and otherwise isn’t fabulously done and hangs loose without adornment. But I do wear heels (5’2″) and jewelery and I at least FEEL feminine.

    I have noticed something interesting – generally, when I’m looking my worst is when I receive the most unwanted male attention. Sloppy clothing, bare eyelashes, messy hair, and tired expression tend to get me the most pick up lines. Maybe they figure I’m desperate? I don’t know. But in my experience, the more “put together” I look, the less unwanted male attention I receive.

    • Yeah, maybe it’s that middle ground that’s troublesome–too polished to be ignored, but not polished enough to scare them off. Because it’s not catcalls or “Drink for the pretty lady?” type comments, it’s leering creepily and sometimes invading my personal space to ask blunt questions about my sex life or stare at my boobs. Erm.

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