Dear Women, Don’t Let the Male Gaze Change You

Digital illustration by Nava Mach.

Dear women,

We are all likely familiar with the term “male gaze”—some may even believe the term to be trite and overused—but in recent personal reflection, I have discovered that the male gaze affects me nearly every day. It affects me in ways both that I am conscious of and that I cannot pin down without deep reflection. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the male gaze as a “characteristically male perspective,” especially one “thought to reveal chauvinistic, misogynistic, or voyeuristic attitudes.” I believe there is more to it than that.

I view the effect of the male gaze as the feeling you have as a woman that everything you’re doing is wrong, or that you could always be doing better. It inhibits my ability to celebrate my accomplishments or live life mentally freely. High school is the time when all people, not just females, are encouraged to step outside their comfort zones and try new things. It isn’t the case that the male gaze affects me more now than when I was younger, but rather that I have grown to become aware of its effects in the things I do daily and of how it perpetuates negative thought cycles. 

Because the notion that women are sexual objects and are inferior to men has been ingrained in our society in many ways, I have seen women—myself included—internalize these stereotypes and misconceptions, forcing us to constantly doubt ourselves. I could be doing any activity, from biking to studying for my calculus test, and I get the sense I am being watched over. In the case of the former, I notice myself having thoughts like “how do I look right now?” or “would I look better if my hair were pulled back instead of let down?” I feel that I am being perceived in a way that affects my ability to enjoy the activity to its fullest extent. In the latter situation, I feel what many would refer to as imposter syndrome. Because women have historically been discriminated against in math and science fields, my view of my own ability to succeed at these subjects is affected. When I study difficult mathematical content, I have thoughts pertaining to my intelligence, like “I’m not smart enough for this.” And then, like what many believe to be a stereotypical teenage girl, I’ll resort to scrolling on TikTok to do something that feels more comfortable.

From what I’ve seen, overthinking is typical for a teenage girl. I’ve noticed that when my friends are doing a number of activities similar to the ones I mentioned, they express their worries about not being good enough. I would not in any way try to claim that my thought process’ toxic nature lies in its uniqueness; in fact, I claim the opposite. The problem is so embedded in society that many people believe that because self-critical thought patterns are common, we should just accept them.

The effects of the male gaze in my life go beyond just negative and degrading thought cycles; I also notice their direct impact on my conversations with boys at school. I am a naturally confident and outspoken person, but when I am in conversation with boys, I am hyper-aware of how I come off. It doesn’t affect me to the extent that I change how I present myself, but the mere fact I become aware of how I come off is problematic. The presence of these self-conscious thoughts is a sign that male perception affects me in some way.

For others who are struggling, I would like to offer some bits of advice on how to approach the problems the male gaze presents. The first is to become aware of your thoughts. Thoughts are powerful, and the negative and doubtful thinking caused by fear of male perception contains us in a chamber of self-doubt. The best way to combat this problem is by becoming conscious of it and changing your own perception by understanding there is a deep reason for your hyper-awareness; your unnecessary self-doubt stems from the consequences caused by the male gaze. You are allowed to be athletic without worrying if you look good, and you are allowed to work hard at math without feeling like an imposter.

The second piece of advice is a more outwardly applicable approach. In situations where your so-called non-feminine traits, like boldness and confidence, are diminished, stand your ground. Don’t take criticism of your femininity personally, because much of the time, people will be provoked simply when a girl strays from how she is conditioned to act. 

The societal constructs rooted in male perception are set up to diminish women’s power. I implore all of you to recognize that these exist and, rather than let them define you, understand that their effects shouldn’t determine how you define your self-worth.

Yours truly,