The Male Gaze and Its Harmful Effects

Have you ever heard something along the lines of “Ew, why didn’t you shave your armpits? Don’t you have a date tonight?” It’s…annoying, and shit like that is so damaging to women. 

In fourth grade, a boy in class told me that my arms were too hairy. He was probably insecure because I had more arm hair than him, but I remember being SO embarrassed. I went home, stole my mom’s razor, and shaved my arms. Yes. I shaved my arms. In fourth grade. Because I thought having arm hair would make me ugly. Yikes…

Hopefully you haven’t heard something like that too often, but phrases like these stem from the internalization of the male gaze.

This term was coined by a film critic, Laura Mulvey, who noticed something strange, but not surprising, in media and other art forms. 

In movies, shows, commercials, etc., women are viewed through the lens of a heterosexual male. Women exist in media forms for the purpose of sexual pleasure and objectification, not as actual characters with depth and meaning. 

This Tik Tok that inspired me to write this post might explain it better:

This view is often not reciprocated, meaning that in this heterosexual male lens of which the viewer sees the world, women’s bodies are objectified and sexualized, but that does not lead to the same sexualization of men’s bodies in return. How many times have you seen a film fixate on or sexualize the male body without also sexualizing a woman? 

Media reflects culture, and this perspective is definitely reflected in society. Catcalling, sexual remarks towards women, staring at women’s body parts —these actions are all a concrete reflection of the male gaze in the media.

When women internalize the male gaze, we criticize ourselves through that same lens. We see commercials with young women who have literally no hair on their bodies, a flawless physique, and airbrushed skin. When we see that men are attracted to that kind of beauty, we assume we must do the same to be worthy of love and affection.

This has severely damaging effects on the self-image of women, and it goes further than shaving or changing your physical appearance to please the male “lens” through which you view yourself through. 

Kate Bornstein says in “My Gender Workbook” that we construct a part of our identities through gender and sex. 

When we make the decision to identify as a certain gender and decide that we are sexually attracted to a certain gender, we sometimes mold a part of ourselves to fit the “idea” of what we think the gender we are attracted to will like.

For example, freshman year, I enjoyed partying and going out. I wore black skinny jeans that were tight AF and probably caused *multiple* yeast infections, not because I necessarily felt comfortable in them, but because that’s what I thought guys would be attracted to.

I shaved every inch of my body, causing razor bumps and uncomfortable ingrown hairs on my sensitive-ass skin, not because I enjoyed taking the time out of my day to shave, but because I thought guys wouldn’t be attracted to me if I didn’t. I sometimes caught myself acting a certain way because I thought it would make me attractive to guys. *that pick me energy*

This is absolutely suffocating. When you restrict your identity to fit the mold of what you think someone is attracted to, you place yourself in this tiny box that you feel like you can’t get out of.

I say f*ck that box. 

I’m not saying you should stop the things that are viewed as “sexy” through the male gaze, but rather reevaluate how it functions in your life.

Something I have been doing lately is just observing my actions and the intent behind them. I try to ask myself: Am I doing this action just to please other people? Would I be happier if I didn’t do this action? How do I benefit from this action? Asking these questions has helped me evaluate how the male gaze functions in my own life, and moving towards a life and identity that is defined by me and not what others find “attractive.”

After examining the male gaze, I think we can add an additional layer: race. It’s no secret that Hollywood is not inclusive to a variety of perspectives and typically portrays stories with white characters. 

Can we add white onto this male, heterosexual perspective through which the world is viewed through? And what are the damaging effects that women of color face in America as a result of the lack of representation in the media?

Using an intersectional lens (shoutout Kimberlé Crenshaw), I think that Black women may face an amplified effect of the male gaze shown in the media. Not only does the media over-sexualize and objectify women’s bodies from a male perspective, but the woman being sexualized is usually white. This gives off the impression that in order to be beautiful, you must also be white.

Soooo…. We know that the male gaze sucks. It’s another byproduct of the patriarchy. But you do NOT have to let it define you or your identity. No matter how much hair you have on your body, the shape of your body, what you wear, or any of the shit that is defined as “attractive” through the male gaze, you ARE worthy of all of the love and attention in the world. If someone defines your worth through those standards, they are not worth your time or energy.

3 thoughts on “The Male Gaze and Its Harmful Effects

  1. “If someone defines your worth through those standards, they are not worth your time or energy.” — the ferocity of this last line, though! nice work!


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