Wheezing. As school girls, that was the code word my sisters and I would use when we wanted to point out that some guy was looking at one of us in a lascivious manner. Yes, we were aware of the male gaze long before we even knew there was a term for it. Indian men are, after all, infamous for leching at females like they’ve never seen their kind – and preteen girls are no exception.
Whenever we stepped out of our house, we were greeted with unwavering stares from men of all ages. Rattling as it was, we thought it was normal. That’s probably why we never discussed it. When something is an everyday occurrence, no matter how uncomfortable or wrong it feels, we often accept and internalise it, don’t we?
Anyway, the staring only intensified as I transitioned into a teenager. As my newfound curves piqued the interest of boys and grown men alike, I felt a strange mix of pleasure and annoyance. It was good to be noticed, but at the same time, it was also a serious invasion of my privacy. I began to wonder whether Bollywood had gotten it all wrong – was it really a compliment to be objectified? Weren’t there more respectful ways to appreciate someone’s appearance?
Today, as a full-fledged feminist, I know that just like catcalls, unblinking stares are threatening and totally inappropriate. Getting leered at is objectification – plain and simple.
It is not a way to show someone you are attracted to them – it is only a display of dominance and entitlement. The starer couldn’t care less about how their behavior makes you feel, and that itself highlights how unromantic the act is.
In spite of this knowledge, I question my appearance on days I don’t get my usual dose of unwanted attention. I’m ashamed to confess that I feel both validated and angry when men ogle at me. You see, I’m so used to frequent stares from strange men that they have become a part of my daily life. On the rare occasion their frequency reduces, I feel that something is wrong with the way I look, as if I’m having a ‘bad face day’. As much as I don’t want it to, the reduced attention affects my self-worth. After all, women are programmed to think that no matter how much we accomplish in life, most of our value lies in our external appearance.
One would think that not having a constant spotlight would be immensely freeing. But when you are conditioned to think that your top priority as ‘the fairer sex’ is to look pretty all the time, you begin to feel insecure when you are not ‘appreciated’ as much as you usually are.
Plus, media and society in general never fail to remind us how important it is for a girl to look picture perfect to succeed in her personal and professional life.
Now you might think – I know the truth, so why should I care about what other people think? Well, that’s easier said than done. Awareness is not always enough to destroy social norms, is it?
While I advocate body positivity online and offline, I know how difficult it is to not feel ugly when that young neighbor who usually can’t keep his eyes off of me walks by with just a passing glance. Or when that elderly fellow who is always looking at me from the corner of his eye directs his steadfast stares at someone else.
While I feel more comfortable when I’m not being leched at (please note that I do not say checked out because there is a huge difference between the two) from head to toe, it also instinctively makes me question what’s wrong with the way I look – and what I can do to change that.
As much as I know that my self-worth relies on who I am and not what I look like, I can’t help but be affected this way. It’s a confusing state of mind, particularly because I know that staring, although a ‘mild form’ of objectification, is step one of sexual harassment. It often paves the way to steps two and three, namely catcalling and sexual assault. It goes without saying that no woman wants to end up in such dangerous and dehumanising situations.
As a feminist, it is embarrassing for me to accept that sexism and unrealistic beauty standards have such a vice-like grip on me. But the only way to overcome any form of regression is to have honest conversations so that we can figure out ways to acknowledge and overcome it. I hope that in some way, my disclosure helps not just me, but also other women to accept and fight their own internalised sexism and misogyny.
Because feminist or not, none of us should want to be objectified. Whether I like it or not, even something as ‘harmless’ as staring is objectification.
No matter who is at the giving end and who is at the receiving end, objectification is gross, dehumanising, unsettling, and sexist. And yes, if we try to normalise staring by justifying it as natural or flipping the gender, we are part of the problem.
Originally published on Feminism in India and re-published here with their permission.