By Jahanvi Mehta
Image source: thecrimson.com
You’re sitting in the parlour chair, getting your hair follicles ripped off from their pores in an excruciating process called “waxing”. Or you’re sitting on your toilet, an overpriced pink coloured razor in your hand, slicing your keratin strands from the skin. In the midst of this process you wonder, shortly, “why am I doing this?” Indeed. Why are you doing this? You could be studying Spanish with the time you’re wasting shaving hair that will grow again the next day. You could have brought a big stack of Pizza flavoured Pringles with the money you pay the parlour aunty to rip your skin off. Why do you do this? Your mom calls it ‘maintaining hygiene and grooming’.
While your friends call it "looking good in a dress", the media tells you: "so you can look and feel confident," all the while showing Deepika Padukone’s smooth airbrushed skin being shaved. So, the question that needs to be asked here is: how and why did our self-worth come to be tied to how clean and white our armpits looked on a day out?
I’ll tell you why.
It’s because of your internalised male gaze.
Yes, it feels like a concept of a time gone-by. It’s an outdated term, overshadowed by the other gazes- the queer eye, the female gaze. Nobody talks about the male gaze today. Male gaze? It isn’t exactly the trend, is it?
As much as I would love to tell you that male gaze has been blinded, eyes pricked out- It still exists, lingering and looking, very much so. Why do we still have useless item songs in Bollywood movies? Why is it that every romcom has that inevitable slow-motion shot which portrays a hot chick montage that starts at her skinny legs, zooms on her derriere bouncing while she walks and eventually ending on a fair and "pretty" face? And why is it that our cultures place such deep importance on the appearances of women with little to no regard for their temperament, intelligence, or their humanity? Why do people still say, “Women should be seen, not heard.”
And you can guess who does most of the seeing.
First coined as a term by film theorist Laura Mulvey, the "male gaze" describes how virtually everything in media caters to a heterosexual male perspective, with women as the prime object. Every part of a woman’s body is an object that can be treated separately from her being and eventually sexualised. Men controlled the eye- the looking glass that showed women as a spectacle, an often sexual one. Accordingly, men control the fantasy- the depiction of women as sordid and exotic objects- and this perspective is projected onto women, as if they’re a green screen, devoid of their own personhood. As if the purpose of a woman in front of the gazing male is nothing but to be appealing and worthy of male desire!
In The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood writes, “To be seen… is to be penetrated,” implying that the gaze is, after all, inherently sexual in it’s intentions.
There’s multiple sources that perpetuate the male gaze. But, we’ll look at the biggest and most powerful source of it: the porn industry. Psychologically speaking, sex, and the orgasm, is a powerful conditioning tool. Combine that with the (Eurocentric!) beauty standards you see in porn i.e. skinny bodies, huge boobs, hairless and pale skin and big lips; you get a set of characteristics that people condition themselves to think of as something “pleasurable”.
The pleasure derived from the videos is then conditioned to be linked to these sets of characteristics, and the belief in the need to have these attributes concretizes a certain beauty standard that women are unfairly expected to uphold and adhere to. These sets of physical characteristics thus embodied seem to become a cue to be sexualised.
And then any other characteristic becomes unattractive. Hairy armpits, a hairy body? A turnoff. Thin lips? Like the bullying a teenager like Kylie Jenner got for her thinner lips was insane. Small breasts? Breast enlargement is the most sought-after (and dangerous!) cosmetic procedure in the beauty industry. This becomes an unbreakable toxic cycle of feeding the beasts that feeds on you. The need to fit in the beauty standards is not just perpetuated by the women who have the ability to live up to these standards, but also by men who voice their attraction to women who only have these characteristics.
Women’s bodies become trends, something to be molded, pricked, pinched and pulled to make it fit into this standard of desirability. This isn’t to say that people who conform are always perpetuating these standards, they’re not. They’re simply making a choice. But these choices aren’t necessarily empowering. We need to unpack and examine how our surroundings shape and condition these choices. How the content we consume, the people we see and the people that see us informs our choices.
All it takes is a few pictures from the influential elite, for a physical characteristic to become a trend and then, any other characteristic seems to become unattractive, until that trend dies out and some other new feature emerges for women to feel bad about not having.
Women don’t wake up and choose to undergo painful, life-threatening and expensive procedures just because they want to. Women don’t wake up early to spend an extra 30 minutes in the shower shaving their skin because they think it’s a fun activity to do. These activities have been conditioned by the male gaze requiring female and queer bodies to be sexually appealing and desirable all the time. Beauty standards and desire are majorly influenced by oppressive institutions such as the patriarchy. The male gaze itself is shaped by these forces, and thus shapes whatever it falls on. It’s like an ever-mutating monstrous, except there’s no knight in shining armor coming to take its head off.
Beauty standards affect almost everything. From how we treat other women who don’t fit these standards with contempt, to how we treat ourselves with intense self-loath if we don’t fit in these standards. These feelings run deeper into our subconscious than we realise. Several studies show that we deem people who’re more attractive as trustworthy. People are less likely to help people seen as undesirable. Pretty privilege is a thing that exists for many and it's a shameful truth. Being seen, sometimes means being heard. But how does one be seen in this world?
“There is no need for arms, physical violence, or material constraints. Just a gaze, a gaze that each individual under its weight will end by internalising it to the point that they are their own overseer, each individual exercising surveillance over, and against themselves.”