To BE or To Be Looked At?
You are capable of much more than looking hot.
Have you thought about this statement? Do you understand the gravity of it? This phrase gave me goosebumps when I let it sink in. Women are always being looked at. And when we aren’t being looked at, we are too often envisioning ourselves being looked at, as if an outsider’s perspective has become our own. In fact, our PhD work makes one thing very clear: Part of growing up female today means learning to view oneself from another’s gaze.
Ever heard this quote? Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object—and most particularly an object of vision: a sight. (John Berger, “Ways of Seeing,” 1977).
This insightful man was referring to the idea of “objectification,” which we’ve all heard once or twice. But when we think of the term, we probably think of sexualized female bodies, or sexualized parts of female bodies, which isn’t the whole idea here. When we understand the whole of objectification, we can better grasp the role it plays in our daily lives and the ways it may keep us from fulfilling all we want to do with our days. When we travel around giving our one-hour Beauty Redefined visual presentation, we explain to our audiences that objectification takes on many roles, including self-objectification.
Say you’re walking down the sidewalk on a beautiful day. Someone who has internalized an outsider’s perspective of herself and is self-objectifying will often spend more time adjusting her clothing or hair, wondering what other people are thinking of her, judging the shape of her shadow or reflection in a window, etc. She will picture herself walking – she literally turns herself into an object of vision – instead of enjoying the sunny weather, looking around, or thinking about anything else. If you find yourself thinking and acting like this, you aren’t alone. In fact, you are just one of millions of females growing up in a world that teaches us to survey ourselves every waking moment. Profit-driven media tells us how we can “Look Hotter From Behind!” in fitness magazines, “Look Wow Now!” on makeover shows every hour of every day, “Look 10 Years Younger!” using every anti-aging procedure and product under the sun. Notice the emphasis on looking … Do you find you survey yourself as you move through life? That you ever turn yourself into an object of vision: a sight?
One way I see self-objectification taking place in rampant ways today is through girls, women, and selfies. You know, those pictures of ourselves we post online at the most flattering angle, with the most flattering photo filter? When I see someone posting dozens of selfies, I think about the ways they are trying to present a perfect vision of themselves to an outside world looking at them. I always want to tell those people and their selfies this true, but cheesy thought:
So let’s talk about mirrors, shall we? Even as I sit in my bedroom typing at 2 a.m., I see a full-length mirror peeking through the closet door, one with hooks hanging all my jewelry, and a centerpiece mirror above my bed. While I don’t think I’m vain or image-obsessed, I spend about 30-40 minutes in front of the mirror every morning, keep a compact in my purse, and apparently have about 100 in my room for safe keeping. I am surveying an image of myself for at least one of the 24 hours in my day, and imagining that image of myself as I move throughout my day. What role do mirrors play in your life? “Women are constantly being looked at. Even when we’re not, we’re so hyper-aware of the possibility of being looked at that it can rule even our most private lives. Including in front of our mirrors, alone,” says Autumn Whitfield-Madrano at her always inspirational website, The Beheld.
The thought-provoking Autumn undertook an experiment I was amazed by: A month-long break from mirrors. Thirty-one days of no mirrors, store windows, shiny pots, spoons, or the dark glass of the NYC subway she rides daily. In her own words: “There’s nothing wrong with looking in the mirror. There’s nothing wrong with sometimes looking to your reflection—even when it is impossibly subjective, and backward at that—for a breath of fortitude, centeredness, and assurance. I just want to see what life is like when I’m not using that image as my anchor; I want to see how it affects the way I move through the world, the way I regard myself and others. I want to know what it’s like to sever a primary tie to one of my greatest personal flaws—extraordinary self-consciousness—and I want to discover what will fill the space that the mirror has occupied until now.” She goes on: “Sometimes I look in the mirror and see myself, or whatever I understand myself to be. Other times, I distinctly see an image of myself. When I see my image reflected on a mirror behind a bar I think, Oh good, I look like a woman who is having a good time out with friends. Or I’ll see my reflection in a darkened windowpane, hunched over my computer with a pencil twirled through my upswept hair, and I’ll think, My, don’t I look like a writer? You’ll notice what these have in common: My thoughts upon seeing my reflection are both self-centered and distant. I’m seeing myself, but not really—I’m seeing a woman who looks like she’s having a good time, or a writer, etc.”
Autumn’s insights echo Berger’s powerful words. Too often, we travel through life with an outsider’s vision of ourselves. We are to be looked at. We watch ourselves being looked at. We become objects of vision: sights. But isn’t there so much more to life than watching ourselves self-consciously stroll through it? Life is beautiful when you live it – really experience it – not when you are concerned about appearing beautiful as you try to live. When you think of your happiest times, were they only when you looked picture perfect? Were you happiest when you were working to appear happy or attractive or beautiful to others? Happiness and beauty come from doing, acting, being – outside the confines of being looked at.
So, today, what will you do to shake off the outsider’s gaze you envision of yourself? Will you do as Autumn has done and experiment with what your life becomes when you spend less time with your reflection and more time doing, acting and being? Will you enjoy the world around you instead of hoping others are enjoying their view of you? Will you do something your self-policing outsider’s gaze kept you from doing before – like speak in front of a group of people? Run without worrying about the jiggle or the sweat? Go to the store even if you aren’t all made-up?
Today is the day to remember you are capable of much more than being looked at. And when you begin to realize that, you can start realizing the power of your abilities and the good you can do in a world so desperately in need of you. NOT a vision of you, but ALL of you. What will you find you are capable of?