To BE or To Be Looked At?

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By Lexie Kite at BeautyRedefined.net; Cross-posted with permission.

Norman Rockwell's "Girl at the Mirror"

You are capable of much more than being looked at.

Have you thought about this statement? Do you understand the gravity of it? This was the first of the four messages Lindsay and I carefully chose for our billboard campaign going up in June, and it gave me goosebumps when I let it sink in. Women are always being looked at. And when we aren’t being looked at, we are too often envisioning ourselves being looked at, as if an outsider’s perspective has become our own. In fact, our work makes one thing very clear: Part of growing up female today means learning to view oneself from another’s gaze.

Ever heard this quote? Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object—and most particularly an object of vision: a sight. (John Berger, Ways of Seeing, 1977).

This insightful man was referring to the idea of “objectification,” which we’ve all heard once or twice. But when we think of the term, we probably think of sexualized female bodies, or sexualized parts of female bodies…which isn’t the whole idea here. When we understand the whole of objectification, we can better grasp the role it plays in our daily lives and the ways it may keep us from fulfilling all we want to do with our days. When we travel around giving our one-hour Beauty Redefined visual presentation, we explain to our audiences that objectification takes on many roles:

Say you’re walking down the sidewalk on a beautiful day. Someone who has internalized an outsider’s perspective of herself will often spend more time adjusting her clothing or hair, wondering what other people are thinking of her, judging the shape of her shadow or reflection in a window, etc. She will picture herself walking – she literally turns herself into an object of vision – instead of enjoying the sunny weather, looking around, thinking about anything else, etc. If you find yourself the victim of this type of activity, you aren’t alone. In fact, you are just one of millions of females growing up in a world that teaches us to survey ourselves every waking moment. Profit-driven media tells us how we can “Look Hotter From Behind!” in fitness magazines, “Look Wow Now!” on makeover shows every hour of every day, “Look 10 Years Younger!” using every anti-aging procedure and product under the sun. Notice the emphasis on looking…Do you find you survey yourself as you move through life? That you ever turn yourself into an object of vision: a sight?

You are capable of much more than being looked at. Do you know who you are? Have you grasped the powerful role you can play in a world so badly in need of your unique talents, wisdom, and light? Are you aware of your unique mission at this point in your life? You’ve got something great to do, that only you can do. And if you are here to be looked at, to appear, to survey yourself instead of do an inspirational work that only you can do, you are not fulfilling your mission. Cheesy? Yes. True? Oh yes. More true than you know.

I see objectification playing out in my own life in many ways. Here are two: When I’m walking past people, I always imagine what I look like to them – from the front and from behind – and think irrational thoughts about what the people walking behind me or past me think about me. I often adjust my clothing to what I assume is the most flattering position as I walk. I can admit I’ve been known to look at my own Facebook profile to see what I look like to the cute guy who just added me or the friend I just added. I look through my photos and try to gauge my looks from the perspective of someone who is not me. If that isn’t self objectification, I don’t know what is! Tell me I’m not alone in doing this…?  I am a body image activist and I’m getting a Ph.D. in research on self-objectification, yet I still spend time envisioning myself from an outsider’s perspective instead of moving on to so many things more meaningful and productive. This just goes to show it’s a constant battle. I am constantly working to remind myself I’m capable of much more than being looked at. My self-objectification is complicated by the fact that I am an identical twin, so in some ways I see a body of a person with identical DNA in real life in a way that most people cannot experience. Unless you have an identical counterpart, your vision of yourself comes from photos, videos, and your two-dimensional reflection.

So let’s talk about mirrors, shall we? Even as I sit in my bedroom typing at 2 a.m., I see a full-length mirror peeking through the closet door, one with hooks hanging all my jewelry, five small decorative mirrors, and an IKEA centerpiece mirror above my bed. While I don’t think I’m necessarily vain or image-obsessed, I spend 45 minutes in front of the mirror every morning, keep a compact in my purse at all times, and apparently have about 100 in my room for safe keeping. I am surveying an image of myself for at least one of the 24 hours in my day, and imagining that image of myself as I move throughout my day. What role do mirrors play in your life? “Women are constantly being looked at. Even when we’re not, we’re so hyperaware of the possibility of being looked at that it can rule even our most private lives. Including in front of our mirrors, alone,” says Autumn Whitfield-Madrano at her always inspirational website, The Beheld.

The thought-provoking Autumn is currently undergoing an experiment which I cannot deny reflecting upon: A month-long break from mirrors. Thirty-one days of no mirrors, store windows, shiny pots, spoons, or the dark glass of the NYC subway she rides daily. In her own words: There’s nothing wrong with looking in the mirror. There’s nothing wrong with sometimes looking to your reflection—even when it is impossibly subjective, and backward at that—for a breath of fortitude, centeredness, and assurance. I just want to see what life is like when I’m not using that image as my anchor; I want to see how it affects the way I move through the world, the way I regard myself and others. I want to know what it’s like to sever a primary tie to one of my greatest personal flaws—extraordinary self-consciousness—and I want to discover what will fill the space that the mirror has occupied until now.

She goes on:  Sometimes I look in the mirror and see myself, or whatever I understand myself to be. Other times, I distinctly see an image of myself. When I see my image reflected on a mirror behind a bar I think, Oh good, I look like a woman who is having a good time out with friends. Or I’ll see my reflection in a darkened windowpane, hunched over my computer with a pencil twirled through my upswept hair, and I’ll think, My, don’t I look like a writer? You’ll notice what these have in common: My thoughts upon seeing my reflection are both self-centered and distant. I’m seeing myself, but not really—I’m seeing a woman who looks like she’s having a good time, or a writer, etc.

Autumn’s insights echo Berger’s powerful words. Too often, we travel through life with an outsider’s vision of ourselves. We are to be looked at. We watch ourselves being looked at. We become objects of vision: sights. But isn’t there so much more to life than watching ourselves self-consciously stroll through it? Life is beautiful when you live it – really experience it – not when you are more concerned about appearing beautiful as you try to live. When you think of your happiest times, were they in front of the mirror? Were you happiest when you were working to appear happy or attractive or beautiful to others? Happiness and beauty come from doing, acting, being – outside the confines of being looked at. So, today, what will you do to shake off the outsider’s gaze you envision of yourself? Will you do as Autumn has done and experiment with what your life becomes when you spend less time with your reflection and more time doing, acting, and being? Will you enjoy the world around you instead of hoping others are enjoying their view of you? Will you do something your self-policing outsider’s gaze kept you from doing before – like speak in front of a group of people? Run without worrying about the jiggle? Go to the store without your makeup on?

Today is the day to remember you are capable of much more than being looked at. And when you begin to realize that, you can start realizing the power of your abilities and the good you can do in a world so desperately in need of you. NOT a vision of you, but ALL of you.  What will you find you are capable of?

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Comments

  1. Jinanne says:

    I really like this piece, thanks for writing it. I also laughed at the (unintentional?) pun that you are ‘reflecting’ on Autumn’s challenge of giving up mirrors :-)

  2. This piece sounds like it was super powerful. In media literacy, the meaning of what we create changes depending on who we are and who the audience is. If the viewer is a lesbian (and the artist isn’t) then the layers of interpretation and meaning can get complicated. Never the less, as a hetero my interpretation is that the piece was brilliant!

  3. This piece was destroyed by a lesbian woman who didn’t get the point. Long, long ago. I was still in college. I had six or eight vertical mirrors gessoed white and painted women in various circumstances like shy, turning away or bold, confrontational. In the upper right hand corner would be an accusation such as “slut”,”ugly”, “bitch”, “lesbian” and there would be a portion of the white ground scraped away so you could see your eyes reflected in the mirror. To show that no matter how you would present yourself it just would not be OK in some way.

  4. That is awesome. There is a tradition of paintings depicting women looking in mirrors. It’s a great vehicle for expression because you can show the woman both from the back and from the front or from the side and front and in a moment of …”self-reflection!” However, it has been said that this set-up is accusatorial of vanity. This is art history/femme art history stuff. I did a mirror piece once, but it was very, very different.