Sunday, August 5, 2007

The Male vs Female Gaze

At left: Girl before a mirror by Pablo Picasso.

When I first saw the Picasso painting, I didn't know squat about art or cubism, but I remember thinking, "She doesn't like what she sees." (Rorschach test, anyone?)

In the discussion over my last post (about the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival), a related issue came up: Do we feel our appearance is judged more harshly by women or by men?

Maggie Jochild wrote:

I was not visibly disabled the first time I went to Michigan in 1977, but I was fat. Very fat. And it was the first place in my life where I ever went naked in public -- even with my lovers, I'd not shown my body. Michigan created enough safety for that to occur. It was also where I learned that women have beards, have mustaches, have flat chests, have enlarged clitorises, have mastectomy scars, have unimaginable scars (like I now have), have every kind of body type you can imagine, -- that women often look like what our culture calls "men" -- because bodies are on full view and it's just not voyeuristic. We come out of our mothers this way. It was tremendously validating and educational.
I am now really fond of nudism, and have often gone to events where clothing is optional. And the fact is, at venues where men are present (even or sometimes especially leftie/gay men), I get snickered at. Always by a man. NEVER by women. I do believe this is conditioning -- and what I refer to as ideology is conditioning, not hard-wired into any brain -- but it's so entrenched and laid in so early, the only way around it is a complete re-do of identity. NOT appearance.
Others immediately disagreed. Bint commented:
I have often had my body ridiculed by women. I remember when I was going through radiation and the skin on my back was burned to a crisp. It wasn't a bit contagious or oozing, just charred. I was engaged and had gone to try on wedding gowns. Of the people who saw me in that store, daring to show my non-conforming body, feel free to guess the gender of the person I could see sneering at me when I turned around to face them. I could give even more accounts of situations like this. The idea that men are conditioned to be less accepting to variations on body types is a joke to me and many other women of color and women with disabilities.
Octagalore has also felt more *judgment* from women:
Bint: I too think what you said was very reasonable, especially the above. Most of my friends are women -- I'm not someone who claims "women don't get me" -- in fact, women usually get me better. But I've also gotten the most heartbreak from them.

I was horribly unpopular in grade school through high school. Although I became identifiably conventionally attractive during this period, I was very "different" in religion, how my parents dressed me (awful crocheted ponchos, "interesting" ethnic outfits) and in other ways. New boys would come to the school, hang out with me, then inevitably a girl would tell them how weird and oddly-dressed and outcast-y I was and they'd back off. High school was more of the same.
How about you? More nasty comments from men or women? Has that changed since you have aged vs when you were young?

If you agree with Bint and Octagalore, do you think women's negative judgments are due to oppression and rivalry, or is this just because we are also so hard on ourselves? After staring at ourselves in the mirror a long time, it seems likely we have developed a hypersensitive awareness of physical appearance, which we then turn on each other.

On the other hand, men have this way of humiliating women that, for me, far exceeds anything women do. It just feels different. The misogyny? Aggressive language? The tone of voice? I'm not sure why. Is there a possibly-physical threat present in men's statements, that is not present in women's?

As a child, were you ever picked on for looking different? Did this come from boys or girls, mostly?

On a related note: Do lesbians have more positive experiences with other girls, regarding personal appearance, than hetero girls? I'd be curious to know if lesbians ever wanted to tell their friends they were pretty, but refrained from doing so. Or did you go ahead? As a child, I had a friend who always told me I was "pretty like a doll" (I wasn't, but I loved hearing it), and I have always wondered if she grew up to be a lesbian or was just being a nice friend.