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The unintended implication of dressing for the male gaze

This is the story of a girl/new adult/young woman who posted a photo to Facebook in August 2009. I found this story when logging into my old Facebook account after seven years to download old photos, ’cause my mom is holding hostage everything I didn’t publish to social media or take myself.

I came across a comment from an ex-boyfriend (I’ve called him CG in the past) that still taunts me all these years later. I don’t begrudge him for anything that transpired between us—it’s just…this comment, yeah?

Screenshot of a Facebook selfie post published August 31, 2009; comment: quot:Look at them short shorts VERY SEXY"

I never interacted with the comment, because it made me feel unbelievably uncomfortable. But, being raised up to never find expressing such a thing to be appropriate or even allowed, I never said anything. Looking back, I can see how and why many people at the church we attended assumed what the rumors said about me were true.

Everything she does, she does it for attention.

Someone needs to tame her! haha. She’s a wild one.

She takes things and twists them so they work as proof for her lies. You can’t trust anything she says.

Forget about her. She’s no one.

Watch her. She’s the kind of girl who’ll open her legs to anyone.

But what I saw the day I took these selfies in the bathroom is the same I see today:

The rare moment in which a young woman felt comfortable enough in her body to take photos of herself—and then publish them to share with her friends and family.

She didn’t care (or even think) about the consequences of her actions, because she was happy—in that moment—with her life, her looks, and who she was. In a world full of magazines photoshopping out all sorts of imperfections, she managed to find the confidence to be happy with how she looked.

But—because she also lived in a world that praised men no matter what wrongs they did, and instituted dress codes longer for females than for their cisgender counterparts—that happiness didn’t last long enough.

The short version of the story of this photo is that, upon reading this comment, she felt dirty and disgusting. She developed a sense of overly consciousness, because this boyfriend turned into her stepdad. It was almost as bad as when he’d commented on a photo her dad had taken of her at a pool party, when she was in a bikini. It affected her, because while it was OK for herself to think she was this or that, for the man she was with at the time to focus (never mind that it was public this time) on what was sexy about her was too much. It wasn’t enough that she felt the pressures to be “loose” with him when he made her generally uncomfortable because she wasn’t touchy-feely like his previous girlfriends, or that he’d assaulted her outside church one Wednesday night while her oldest brother gawked and guffawed thereafter.

Because she wanted to be more than sexy.

The aftermath of this event is that, some years later, it would come back to haunt her. Her mother would spread rumors and lies about her simply because she could—I mean, look at that photo! Soon, she’d develop depression, which wouldn’t help her self-confidence but would definitely help the growing disgust she had with how she looked in general: Not only was she not pretty enough for herself, but she couldn’t figure out how to present herself in a way that pleased everyone around her.

Because so many clothes are uncomfortable on a sensory level. This same girl is someone who despises dresses, because what if someone runs up and looks beneath the skirt? Her stepdad repeatedly reminded her of how she should dress up in sweats, because while he laid on the floor, he could see up skirts and shorts and literally everything else—and even though it never made sense to her because her biological dad wasn’t even bothered by her bikini—he bought it for her, after all, because she’d needed a swimsuit!—this man her mother had married was bothered by it to a point wherein the only reason left after her attempts at logic was to assume him perverted.

Of course, this young lady I’m discussing is me. I don’t know how much more illeism I can take. It’s really hard to write this way. I wanted to look at what it might seem like to an outsider, though, so I tried it out.~ Because just because that was my experience doesn’t mean it couldn’t be the experience of another woman.

I don’t dress to appease anyone, but as a woman I am constantly conscious of the male gaze and potentiality of men checking me out.

You won’t find me wearing pants in 100-degree Fahrenheit weather unless I haven’t shaved and am feeling conscious about my hairy-ass legs (because I have to shave every three days, and that ish gets old fast, okay?).

I’m probably always going to have to at least consider it. An element on my dad’s side of the family is that, while I personally find the second generation (my dad’s gen) a bit more progressive than the first, I am ultimately going to be seen as a preacher’s daughter in religious circles—ergo some kind of rebellious spirit, considering I quit playing the charade of Okay, I’ll be what everyone wants me to be and instead started being myself. I’m going to be seen as bad because while I’ve been hurt by nearly every church I’ve ever visited (at some point), and the Church in a general sense, I don’t go to church because I despise how biased politics is now implemented into it and, around here, there is little room for diversity.

Ah, but I digress.

No matter what I wear, it is always assumed I’m doing it for the male species. When they comment on my outfit, I feel like they’re under the impression that—while I didn’t blatantly ask for it—I was impatiently awaiting their response. I don’t need social media interaction to validate myself—I never have—but then I suppose the implication of wanting validation is there regardless. It doesn’t matter how great a tool social media is for staying in touch and keeping up with my family in bulk. But offline, “in real life”, this happens, too. Even if I don’t look a day over 15, grown men check me out and constantly compliment me on how I look.

So why worry about pleasing them?

You wanna know what else I see when I look at those selfies I took?

To paint the picture, the Family Force 5 shirt I wore is an adult-sized extra-small. I got it from the first-ever concert I ever went to, which my dad and Kim (stepmom) invited me along to. It nearly fits my two-year-old cousin, Solara, who is admittedly a bit small for her age.

Thus, when I look back at old photos, I also see how small I was. It wouldn’t be a concern if I didn’t starve myself.

I never would have started starving myself if I hadn’t been reminded by family and media of the importance of being thin.

Had the male gaze not been such an influential decision-maker, I surmise thin never would have been in.

My personal style is influenced by my past experiences and what I had to recover from in order to make it to this style place in my life, right now.

The same ex-boyfriend would later go to my mom, asking her whether I actually cut myself—because this is apparently something cutters do: tell the world about it. Of course she said I didn’t and that I was lying and that it was where the dog had scratched me, but she and I weren’t even talking—and she held onto this event and later worked to use it against me, going as far as disclosing it to Mimi.

But, because I’ve blogged about it, I surmise the lot of you all know of my struggles with self-harm, no matter how satisfying I oftentimes remember it was.

For me, wearing shorts is a victory. I wore a lot of long-sleeved tops in high school because of insecurities, and the place where I’ve always self-harmed was my thighs because it’s the easiest place to hide. I mean, who suspects someone slices their skin if there are no visible scars?

Nowadays, they’re not completely visible if you don’t know to look for them, but they are noticeable if you’re feeling around within their vicinity (which hardly ever happens, because the most physical action I get is with my bed sheets).

And, what I am most certain of today, is that the last thing I ever want to do is make a young girl feel in such a way that results in her leading a life similar to mine in this department.

So I don’t judge anyone, especially women, based on their clothes. Likewise, I think the definition of “modest” is more arbitrary than something binary, in that it varies across cultures and regions and environments. It’s also about dressing for men.

A good example of this would be the breastfeeding in public debate: should women cover up, or should it be fine without a cover? And if they should cover up, why? There is nothing sexual about a child consuming food from its mother’s body happening at all. Are we uncomfortable because we were raised to believe this activity is shameful—that she should cover up?

Or maybe we should just…stop being personally offended/embarrassed/etc. because someone else’s style doesn’t align with our own. 👌 There’s way more to life than all that shit.

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2 Responses

Author’s gravatar

My feelings of discomfort around dress style are different.

Presently I dress in a gender-neutral way, so I don’t worry so much about random men looking at me.

Growing up though, I was concerned about having to wear makeup to “belong” as a woman. However, I stuck to my guns and dressed the way I wanted to, except on “special occasions” like weddings. Presently, my preference is to not do that.

Although (just thinking about it now) there is a wedding coming up, and I’m feeling uncomfortable about how “gendered” everything is expected to be there. 🙁

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Author’s gravatar

Texas is a conservative state, and southern Christian women are raised to dress modest (for men). Then, regardless of faith, the blame is on women if they’re assaulted or raped or catcalled, and labelled “bitches” (and possibly assaulted) if they do not respond the way women would like for them to. Women are expected to be grateful if men check them out/call them sexy/etc. I wrote this last year, but I thought it was still a good thing to post.

I refer to my youth as “compulsory heterosexuality”. These days, my style is extremely feminine with a bit of grunge, but because I’m used to barely having any boobs anyway, I have considered wearing a binder before, for some outfits, as a way to boycott the patriarchy (and also for some photos wherein I explore my gender identity and sexuality).

As a lesbian who’s accepted herself, I’ve realized more things I do unintentionally for the male gaze, if only because they were taught to me. I don’t dress for the male gaze, nor do I pay mind to random men looking at me, but my biggest issue is when other women presume I am dressing a certain way for the male gaze, to impress men, and because I have low self-esteem. I think a lot of it has to do with Texas being a red state, as well as women being compared against each other by society.

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