This morning, when I was getting dressed, I changed my outfit three times. The first outfit I pulled out was my favourite orange pants and a groovy new jumper I got the other day, but I decided to change into something more comfortable because I thought the colours would be too bright and attention-seeking.
Changing my outfit multiple times every morning is something I have always done, and it was not until recently that I realised through my Fine Arts project that I did this, and that other people do too. This led me down an endless stream of questions… why do I do this? Who am I actually trying to impress? Am I dressing for me or for someone else?
After far too many Google searches, I found the culprit—a not-so-wonderful thing called the “internalised male gaze.” I had heard of this term before but had never really thought much about it or that it applied to me because I rarely considered how men are going to perceive me through my clothing choices. It wasn’t until I learnt that the influence of the male gaze is not a conscious realisation, that my clothing-dilemma started to make sense.
From a young age, we are exposed to expectations, in film, media, advertising, literature… the list is endless. Within these, women are taught how we should look and act to gain male attention, and that male attention should be something we want and strive for. We all know about the shy, nerdy girl who has a massive glow-up and becomes prom queen and gets the coolest guy in school. As Taylor Swift says: “She wears short shorts, I wear tee-shirts. She’s Cheer Captain, and I’m on the bleachers.” In other words, the girl who’s Cheer Captain and wearing the short shorts is getting the attention of the guy Taylor’s interested in, as she is dressed and acting for approval of the male gaze, whereas Taylor is not. This narrative has been fed to us from such a young age and so many times that it is ingrained into our psyche. This allows the male gaze to subconsciously influence everyday decisions such as clothing choices and how we act around men and others.
Going down this rabbit-hole, it made me reflect on times when I was growing up that my clothing choices may have been influenced by the male gaze. One of these memories was brought up by Taylor’s extremely profound lyric, and I feel it is an experience shared by many people who went to co-ed schools: the issue of the “short shorts.” In my primary school, it was a requirement for girls to wear long shorts in the summertime, and if we were caught wearing short shorts, we had to go to the nurse and get changed into spare clothes from the lost property. I remember being so confused as to why the boys could wear whatever they wanted and why this rule was exclusively for girls. I got told off by a teacher one lunchtime and she told me that I had to go buy some longer shorts for school. But I didn’t want to—I thought they looked cool and I was comfortable… in my naivety, I guess. Upon reflection, I think it was pretty gross that my teachers were reflecting the male gaze onto literal children, even if it was to protect us from being sexualised, but then again, maybe the gaze is just so internalised they didn’t know what they were doing…
The anger and confusion I felt inspired me to create an art project which allows women to be feminine without the influence of the male gaze. This sounds great in theory, but it then led me to question… is the male gaze so ingrained into femininity that femininity and the male gaze are not mutually exclusive? I wanted to know what other women thought about this and whether they have shared similar experiences with the male gaze and how it affects their clothing choices, so I conducted a survey and 44 women shared their opinions.
I started the survey by asking the question that led me to this dilemma in the first place: “While getting changed this morning, was there anything you were self-conscious about in regard to how your clothing was portraying your body?” followed with “if so, what did you change?” Many people were worried about the length of their tops, skirts and dresses, which made them change into things that were more concealing such as baggier tops, jackets and hoodies. I found this interesting as when the women were dressing to the male gaze by wearing things they felt were revealing, they felt uncomfortable and got changed into something that deflected the male gaze, which was also the experience I have most mornings getting changed.
The next questions I asked were, “describe the outfit you like the look of the most” and “describe the outfit you feel most comfortable in.” Despite getting so much fashion inspo by clearly very stylish people, the answers to each question were generally very different. Lots of people said their favourite outfits were some really funky pants and skirts (some honourable mentions were: 70s flared jeans, cord pants, fishnet tights, men’s dickies and a tan pencil skirt), lots of people said they love wearing corsets, midi skirts and really bright colour like orange, light blue, yellow and hot pink. On the other hand, people said they felt most comfortable in oversized clothes that don’t show-off their body such as hoodies, sweats, baggy jeans, and long sleeve shirts. In my experience, I understood this as women feeling uncomfortable when gaining attention from men in the outfits they liked the look of the most, and that’s why their most comfortable outfits were nonconforming to avoid unwanted attention.
Some of the answers to the next question: “Are there any other ways that you think your physical presentation is influenced by the male gaze?” attested to my assumption. One respondent said, “I used to try and dress in a stereotypically attractive way when going out but realised I didn’t want male attention so stopped dressing this way.” Another said, “I’ll adjust the way I look and not wear makeup to avoid catcalling, but in an ideal world, I’ll wear a full face of fairy makeup all day every day.”
This feeling of wanting an “ideal world” where women can wear what they want without being sexualised was a common answer for this question. But as one respondent highlighted, “We live in a society which prioritises our desirability above anything and everything else. This means that life is easier when we dress up, shave, wear makeup and make a visible ‘effort’ with our appearance.” This is what we have been taught to do since we were young and impressionable. Therefore, for many, letting their clothing choices be influenced by the male gaze is easier than trying to dress for yourself, because no matter what you wear, the male gaze will always be there.
To try and find a solution to this problem, I finished the survey by asking, “What do you think defines physical femininity?”, to determine any ways in which femininity was different from the male gaze itself. Many thought the male gaze and physical femininity were very tethered and influenced each other, but that the male gaze influenced traditional femininity more so than modern, and that we are on our way to breaking out of the control of the male gaze.
Although women are able to gain the attention of men when wearing clothes that conform to the male gaze, for many women who answered this survey, they are starting to feel more empowered in their femininity by redefining it for themselves rather than gaining positive reinforcement from men—something I think is long overdue.
So where have all these insightful answers led me on my journey to understanding why it takes me so long to choose an outfit in the morning? Unfortunately, I don’t see us getting rid of the male gaze or the patriarchy—it will always be there no matter what. What we can do is focus on ourselves and what we define our femininity to be. If there are enough women that are able to redefine femininity for themselves, then maybe we will be able to separate femininity and the male gaze. So fuck it, wear what makes you feel feminine… if that’s dresses, skirts, baggy jeans, hoodies, corsets, short shorts, or cool 70s flare jeans, wear it! And I’ll wear those orange pants and groovy sweater next time.