Our Islamic studies teacher at school would tell us, “Women must always cover their chest, and men must always lower their gaze.” I believe that instruction for men was merely my teacher’s way of making the rules of modesty look equal for both men and women (when they really aren’t). In any case, the whole thing seemed ridiculous to me, it seemed like a very rigid and conservative view of sexuality and sexual attraction. It was also heteronormative to its core.
Yet, the male gaze is toxic for so many of us. As women, we are told to constantly pursue it, to see it as the ultimate validation of ourselves. We are told to spend hours and hours wishing our flesh thin and gone. To count calories. For that goddamn male gaze. Every advertisement tells us how to win that male gaze. The male gaze objectifies us, reduces us to our bodies, the male gaze refuses to see that while we have a body…a body isn’t all we have.
However toxic the male gaze is, there is still something really toxic about the way religious people take that very legitimate concern of the objectifying male gaze and use it to objectify women further. The responsibility is placed on women to stop the objectification by covering themselves – this covering gives a certain degree of legitimacy to that objectification, it says that you are indeed an object that must be covered to avoid the objectification. This is incredibly convenient for the religious: They get to promote further objectification while pretending to care about stopping it. Even women are guilty of it, I can’t count the number of times I have heard: “My wearing the hijab is defying a society where women are objectified and treated like meat.” This kind of bullshit would never work on me. I have seen the ramifications of this kind of toxic thinking play out in ways I wish I never had.
I am also careful when approaching the topic of male gaze in progressive circles. I absolutely do see male gaze as a toxic thing and a problem, and yes, the way progressives talk about it and the religious talk about it are very different. However, sometimes the lines do get blurred. Sometimes you will even find feminists (anti sex-work feminists in particular) talk about the male gaze in a way that undermines a woman’s sexual agency.
The male gaze is a by-product of a culture too fixated on the sexualization and objectification of women, but it doesn’t make a woman’s expression of her sexuality wrong by any means. Free and independent sexual expression of women should not constantly be measured against the risk of male gaze. Reclaiming your sexuality often means reclaiming it despite the objectification one will receive. To confront that objectification, to make the objectification fall flat on its face. This is why I have grown increasingly wary of a lack of nuance surrounding the discussion of objectification that permeates certain progressive circles.
Miley Cyrus could be licking 20 strap-ons while also wearing one in a video for all I fucking care, and that still doesn’t give anybody the right to treat her as anything less than a person (and for the record, I hate Miley’s music). I am more concerned with the ways that objectification hinders our daily lives as women, especially in male dominated work places, and a lot less concerned with how women choose to represent themselves to the world. We must be careful not to to have subtle hints of religious puritanism when expressing our concern for the very real issue that is objectification. We must not constantly weigh women’s decisions against what her male oppressors might think or how they might react.
I like celebrating my body, I like showing it off, it is a luxury (which feels so much like a privilege) that I was deprived of for far too long. And sometimes I might wear the shortest of shorts to grab the attention of a man I find attractive but that is me doing it on my own goddamn accord (and I do not feel that this personal decision of mine is one that people should scrutinize or write 100 sociological analysis about – go read Sexuality 101 instead). I also post pics of me showing off my ass and my legs on Facebook. I have worked my ass off to tone my ass and my legs and my body in general, so I absolutely deserve celebrating it (but I deserved celebrating it even when it weren’t all that “toned”). And because I was deprived of this luxury for far too long, reclaiming my sexuality is also a way to reclaim my person-hood and my woman-hood. It isn’t me asking anyone to treat me as less than a person, it is me wearing my sexuality comfortably regardless of that fucking cursed male gaze.