Beauty Redefined Blog

To BE or To Be Looked At?

47


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?artgirl

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:

You are capable of much more than being looked at. Do you know who you are? Have you grasped the powerful role you can play in a world so badly in need of your unique talents, wisdom, and light? Are you aware of your unique mission at this point in your life? You’ve got something great to do, that only you can do. And if you are here to be looked at, to appear, to survey yourself, instead of do an inspirational work that only you can do, you are not fulfilling your mission. Cheesy? Yes. True? Oh yes. More true than you know
I see objectification playing out in my own life in many ways. When I’m walking past people, I often catch myself imagining what I look like to them – from the front and from behind – and think irrational thoughts about what the people walking behind me or past me think about me. I often adjust my clothing to what I assume is the most flattering position as I walk. I can admit I’ve been known to look at my own Facebook profile to see what I look like to the cute guy who just added me or the friend I just added. I look through my photos and try to gauge my looks from the perspective of someone who is not me. If that isn’t self objectification, I don’t know what is! Unfortunately, I know I’m not alone in doing this.  I am a body image activist and I have a Ph.D. in research on self-objectification, yet I still catch myself envisioning myself from an outsider’s perspective instead of moving on to so many things more meaningful and productive. This just goes to show it’s a constant battle. I am constantly working to remind myself I’m capable of much more than looking hot. My self-objectification is complicated by the fact that I am an identical twin, so in some ways I see a body of a person with identical DNA in real life in a way that most people cannot experience. Unless you have an identical counterpart, your vision of yourself comes from photos, videos, and your two-dimensional reflection.

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.”

Berger Beauty Redefined 6Autumn’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?

 

  1. Jennifer Shewmaker
    Jennifer Shewmaker05-13-2011

    Beautiful and honest, Lexie. I’m going to share a link to this post on my Facebook wall today and on my blog soon. This is why we’re talking about more than brushing your hair and wearing make-up. We’re talking about understanding yourself as a whole person, not just a visual object. Inspiring!

  2. Amy
    Amy05-13-2011

    Great post. Additional points for being able to write so coherently at 2am. :)

    It is interesting that you mentioned going to the store without make-up. I started wearing make-up every day when I was 14. I had horrible skin and was constantly at the dermatologist, trying to fix it. I put a full face of make-up on every day to cover up the redness and acne. It just got worse. When I started dating my future husband, he encouraged me to not wear make-up, because he (rightly) reasoned that the make-up was contributing to my acne. I finally stopped wearing make-up every day, and eventually gave it up altogether (I still wear it for dance performances). It was one of the most freeing thing I have ever done. My skin healed after I did so – the redness didn’t go away (it’s hereditary) but it didn’t look “sick.” It still has acne scars and redness but I am so much happier. I don’t freak out when I get a zit. I’m not so concerned when I see photos of myself with no make-up.

    Wearing make-up is not bad. I still have fun with stage make-up when I dance, and I like to experiment with eye shadow. Sometimes you just want to look a little polished for an interview, or dramatic for a night out with friends. But I think relying on it as a safety blanket is wrong. And believe me, it was a hard choice and an even harder process to stop wearing it, but the confidence and peace I gained were well worth it (as well as being able to sleep longer in the morning).

  3. Kjerstin
    Kjerstin05-14-2011

    I found this post through Autumn W-M at The Beheld, and just had to comment. I *know* Autumn because we are both blogging about life without mirrors. Anyhoo, from one PhD-student-studying-beauty-culture to another, I truly appreciate the way you’ve carefully incorporated research on body image into your posts. It grounds your writing as an intellectual conversation, yet you stay at a level that is approachable (and entertaining!) for your readers. Thanks!

  4. Kjerstin
    Kjerstin05-14-2011

    One more thing: The title of your post reminds me of something Courtney Martin writes about in her book Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters. Basically, she notes that there is a distinction between “being looked at” (i.e., superficially) and being “seen” (i.e. understood and appreciated as a unique individual). Too many women focus on the fleeting pleasures of “being looked at” for their outer beauty, when a deeper satisfaction can be found when one is truly “seen” by a loving friend or partner.

    I think your post touches on this, and I’m excited to read more! I’ve added you to my list of “Sweet Blogs I Admire”.

  5. Pia Guerrero
    Pia Guerrero05-15-2011

    Great piece. We’d love to cross-post on adios barbie–with your permission and credit. You can email me directly pia(at)adiosbarbie.com

  6. Michelle
    Michelle05-23-2011

    “Too many women focus on the fleeting pleasures of “being looked at” for their outer beauty, when a deeper satisfaction can be found when one is truly “seen” by a loving friend or partner. ”

    I really like this. I would add being ‘known’ which is, what I think you are driving at.

    I think it reflects the tension, too, between not caring at all about our presence (which includes appearance) and caring too much about it. I don’t think going to either extreme is healthy. But I think part of what makes it all hard is that 1) it’s a tough balance, and 2) I think the line is probably different for everyone. I think self-honesty is really important in analyzing why we do what we do, and if we rely on what we do too much for our sense of self-worth.

  7. Prathama
    Prathama06-07-2011

    I really like this post.

    Social conditioning can push us into believing and doing things all the time believing we really want when actually, we just can’t make out the difference between if ‘we want to’ or if we feel ‘we have to’.

    Thanks for the eye opening perspective. It inspired a post from me on Body Image with plenty of references to your website.

  8. Kathy LaPan
    Kathy LaPan06-10-2011

    We as women have bought into the patriarchal image of women to an extent where we teach our daughters their only value is how they can impact and serve other people (not necessarily only men, but largely). We are not taught to seek personal satisfaction or personal pleasure – in fact, most women are taught from girlhood that it is selfish and wrong to act in our own self interest. Boys may be taught it is manly or masculine to be assertive and work towards goals. Girls are taught that assertive = bitchy, and that work towards goals is only good as long as “no one gets hurt in the process” and the goal is agreed-upon by all those in the girl’s life.

    I used to teach middle school math in the South, and I will never forget a 16 year old 8th grader telling me the only purpose of college was to get her “MRS” (this was in 2005), and that she didn’t bother herself too much with math because the only figure she had to calculate was her own.

    Of course there is nothing wrong with being married, but to “be married” should not be your only goal, and certainly not when your goal of becoming married is the end of it for you – there was nothing past the point of becoming married, preferably to someone rich, and being pretty, forever.

    It is ingrained in Western culture that girls must be pretty, and must be concerned always with the feelings of others. Our own needs, our own feelings, must always come second – otherwise we are bitches, and despite Meredith Brooks “bitch” is still a pejorative term.

    In my own life, I have always believed that fat people do not deserve nice things. I can’t say this was consciously taught me, but I definitely got it somewhere. Attempting to life positively with the constant nagging guilt of caring for myself – a fat person, no less – is a daily struggle. Despite an MBA, or perhaps because of it (the guilt over the expense and time spent on something that is largely for my own benefit, despite rationalizations of the benefit it may provide my family) I am still the little fat girl in the back of the classroom, afraid to raise my hand (even when I knew the answers) because the teacher would sigh, reluctantly call on me, and in some way manage to make me feel as though, despite my brains, I was a bother on his time, because I wasn’t what a little girl ought to be.

  9. Erin
    Erin07-05-2011

    OMG – the “self-policing outsider’s gaze” is a hugely powerful force. It keeps me in makeup and self-tanning lotion and well chosen outfits. But I bet I would be more fun if I felt in the least bit comfortable about just letting those things go sometimes. Thank you for writing so beautifully about this.

    • Beauty Redefined
      Beauty Redefined07-08-2011

      It definitely exerts a powerful influence on us all! It is interesting to think how our lives would change if we could try a little harder to let go of that self-policing. “More fun,” like you said, is probably a good guess! Thanks, Erin!

  10. Keri Skousen
    Keri Skousen08-03-2011

    As much as I agree with the fundamental message in your article, I am truly concerned with the amount of time you admit thinking about your image. I believe most women are not as self conscious as you are. Really, one hundred mirrors in your own home? I was taught: take pride in your appearance, do your best each morning to groom yourself; then walk out the door and forget yourself – work hard, serve others, be happy. It has worked for me. Serving others with sincerity, whether your own family members or those in your community, will help you to forget yourself.

    • Beauty Redefined
      Beauty Redefined08-03-2011

      Hi Keri, that 100 mirrors quip was actually just sarcasm, so no need to feel truly concerned about me. I’m doing my best to contribute light to a world that needs it and encourage others to do the same, and it sounds like you were taught the same thing, too! I’m glad we’re on the same page :) I think this post has resonated with so many people because of that encouragement. Have a good day!

  11. Stacie
    Stacie12-15-2011

    I just had to comment to say thanks- this was a huge wake up call for me. I honestly thought I was the only person that did the self-policing and I was just crazy, over-anal and self-conscious to the point of actually envisioning what the person across from the dinner table is seeing- making a point to swipe my teeth with my tongue to ensure I don’t have anything stuck, constantly touching my hair to make sure I don’t have fly-aways, and tugging at my shirt so it’s not stuck in the folds of sitting down- all while picturing myself in my head as if his eyes were a mirror. I had no idea that a lot of women do the same when passing by a stranger ‘I wonder what my butt looks like if he does a double take’ or wondering while I’m at the gym what I look like in the mirror to the guy a few benches down from me. It sounds so silly to say it out loud but I do it, ALL THE TIME. This was just the slap in the face I needed to realize, 1) I’m not alone 2) You can take steps to being comfortable in your own skin- ‘cause right now I’m not and honestly not sure if I will. So thank you, I love your blog :)

  12. Kristen
    Kristen12-15-2011

    This is a really powerful article. I don’t think I had ever clearly articulated this idea of always looking at myself from an outsider’s perspective, not in my own mind or to anyone else, but you’ve described it perfectly. I’ve wasted tons of time looking at my own facebook profile, flipping through photos of myself, judging… When I was younger, and less aware of these “radical feminist” ideas like, having worth as a human being beyond my looks, I would find myself day-dreaming about other people watching me live my life (past, present, and imagined).

    Anyway, it’s insane, it’s distracting, and it’s a waste of energy. Thank you SO MUCH for this article, for putting into words something so destructive that has had such a huge affect on my life.

  13. Hayley
    Hayley12-27-2011

    This topic is one that people have be concerned about since the 70s. Jean Kilbourne is a crusader in the war to bring awareness to the public on how much media effects the way women see ourselves. She talks about how the world today expects us women to be seen, but silent and be nothing more then a beautiful object. Her video’s are called Killing Us Softly: Women in Advertising. There are 4 versions, with number 4 being the most recent. Thank you for being another voice in the fight against this warped view women in America are being taught from a very young age.

  14. Sherry
    Sherry02-06-2012

    I love what you are trying to do.. the truth is though, that this isn’t just a media issue… This has been happening from the dawn of time!! A woman is beautiful and visually pleasing. Vision is one of our senses. That cannot be done away with. But… the WAY we view ourselves and allow ourselves to be viewed by others is, I believe, a big factor in the objectification of women. It is a balance and a battle to embrace the beauty that God created you with, BOTH inside and out, and to fight the myths that societies feed you about what beauty is and whos approval really matters.

    • 057
      05710-06-2012

      Men are beautiful too eh. Somehow they arent digging thru the same amount of rubbish as women are, so I doubt its a ‘dawn-of-time’ type issue. Im not seeing as many mens mags with “50 sex tips that will blow HER mind!” or seeing an advertisement for diapers with a baby & his FATHER in it or even a picture of a proud MAN with his new vacuum cleaner.
      We’re all talkin bout “society this, society that…”
      We are all society. Change yourself. Change the world.
      I do not accept to be ‘visually pleasing’ anymore.

  15. Samantha
    Samantha02-04-2013

    http://fitisafeministissue.wordpress.com/2013/02/04/body-positivity-and-queer-community/

    My latest on loving the body you’ve got.

  16. autti34
    autti3403-21-2013

    it beter to be acttrived thenb to be ugly .it the only thing that give me self esteem is how i look well have a few other things .but being over weight would be awfull

  17. Rose
    Rose11-05-2013

    This site is more than just an eye opener. It is life changing. I’ve never fit in – the only mixed race kid in an almost entirely white school, taller than my friends from my teen years till now, not pretty (but can feel mildly attractive on a good day) and slightly androgynous. After many years of putting mirrors all over my house and obsessing about how I look from every angle (including video taping myself) I have long since stopped trying to feel good about how I look. Not because I’ve decided not to care, but rather I have given up. I have realised I will never look the way I want to so have accepted myself as the fat, ugly(ish) middle aged woman I am. I considered plastic surgery when I was younger but, thankfully, realised that I disliked so much about myself, surgery wouldn’t fix it. I would never be satisfied. There are things about myself that I like but that doesn’t make me kinder to myself. It just makes me think that if I can be honest about what is good, then I am also being honest about what is bad, and I am right to be ashamed of those things. I am an intelligent, sensitive person who has been waiting for the day when I can just accept and love myself but it never came. I suppose that’s because there is a part of me that thinks I will be kidding myself if I start loving myself and liking what I see. It kind of feels like I would be pulling some kind of Jedi mind trick on myself, which would be my only option if, as an unattractive woman, I want to feel attractive.

    One interesting, and less self-indulgent, thought I had recently changed the way I think about the way I view myself and others. I used to look at pics of women I consider beautiful, like Halle Berry, and feel comfort because I could see things about her that weren’t perfect. I honestly didn’t think I was being negative about her to make myself feel better. I thought I was making myself feel better by realising beautiful woman aren’t perfect either. One day though, a thought hit me out of the blue and I realised that all I was doing was looking at Hallie and other women in the same way I looked at myself. I focused on what I thought was was wrong more than I focused on what was right.

    Sorry to ramble on. As you can probably tell, I’ve been waiting for an opportunity to unload my thoughts on this subject in a safe, understanding environment. What I wish for, more than anything, is to not care whether I am attractive or not. I thought getting older would help but it hasn’t yet. I am nearly 50 and notice that I am becoming invisible, but yet I still beat myself up about this. And I feel like a nutjob for doing it.

    • Melinda
      Melinda11-26-2013

      I just wanted to make a quick comment. I have learned so much from reading the articles on here and doing my own self evaluation and learning. One thing I have learned that Rose reminded me of, is that none of us are ‘ugly’. Since coming on this site I have talked to many of my friends and family to discover that the phrase ‘Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder’ is so very, VERY true. What my friends find attractive many times is very different from what I find attractive. Also with my siblings. So, what defines beauty? We do. And there isn’t anything wrong with variety and differing opinions. That is the spice of life!

      So before we look at ourselves and think we are unattractive and unwanted, we should remember we are insulting the people that look at us and see beauty.

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