Women looking at women

Strange things happen when you unpack stuff. My things were delivered this week from Australia, and while unpacking, I cried over an old blanket that originally belonged to my parents, I dumped all my clothes on the bed in my spare room in disinterest, I had a lump in my throat gazing a vase I ‘stole’ from my mum, I gave myself the finger while sorting through the paperwork I decided was ‘essential’ to bring to the UK, when it really isn’t.

But then, I started thinking about something else. I looked around my living room – currently the only room with any substantial number of wall art – and noticed the specific subject-matter of many of my pictures. I had a limited budget when moving my stuff, and so, I had to pick a select number of pictures to take with me. This means I had to give my choices some considered thought. I find it telling that many of the pictures I’ve chosen to bring over have women as their subject.

I find this fascinating. Here’s why. There are so many levels to this in terms of identification vs. objectification, desire vs. a general appreciation of beauty, what is acceptable for women vs. what is acceptable for men. And this post is me thinking out loud about these things without offering any conclusive answers, or pretending that my personal view is the world view, the default view, on this subject.

The first thing that occurred to me as I looked around my living room was: are we so used to looking at women in our culture, that this is normal? It’s far more acceptable for women to talk about other women – their appearance, their bodies – to admire them, but also, to judge them. I rarely hear my male friends, for example, talk about male celebrities the way many women talk about female celebrities. And let’s face it, we do scrutinise female celebrities to an uncomfortable degree – what are they wearing, have they lost/gained weight, have they had plastic surgery, are they wearing makeup, etc. It’s so obvious it almost doesn’t require stating, but this is sexism and misogyny at play, and sometimes we and I unwittingly participate in this vicious little game that keeps women in their place by indirect means.

I question myself, for example, when I immediately gravitate to ‘perfect’ images of women in art. I both admire the skill of the work, the beauty of the body presented, and at the same time, acknowledge that I can’t separate the appreciation of beauty from a history of objectification. We are not yet at the point where we can innocently admire images of women – whether in art or in tabloid magazines. And by ‘innocently’, I don’t mean without desire, but I mean without sexism.

But let’s talk about desire too, because heterosexuality is not the default status, and also, because even if you are heterosexual, like me, desire does play a large part in the appeal of these images. As a woman who is attracted to men, I like gazing at images of other women because it gives me this sense of identification which plays into my attraction to men. It’s hard to explain, but I’ll do my best.

I’m generally pretty happy with my body. This does not mean I have a daily love fest with myself, or don’t have off days. But it does mean I don’t spend an enormous amount of time wishing I looked different, or even thinking about the way I look, because I’m busy and generally have more interesting things to think about. Now I know a lot of women don’t feel that way, and I know a lot of women wish they were different, and I know much of this pressure is societal rather than part of their personality. I know I am the way I am because I grew up loved. Not everyone is lucky enough to have grown up that way.

But the fact that I have no major issues with my body does not mean I don’t think about the female body, or enjoy looking at it. The fact that I’m not attracted to women doesn’t affect that either. I enjoy looking at beautiful images of women because I like myself, if that makes sense. It’s an indirect way of identification. I like those images because they are a reflection of me and my taste, and that reflection ties into my attraction to men – because I need confidence for attraction to occur, I need to like myself first before I can like a man.

But, I don’t exist on my own, I exist in a culture that has a history of valorising the female form over the female mind, one in which images of women are far more prevalent than images of men because men’s bodies are historically more ‘invisible’ as objets d’art. And ‘invisibility’ here is a state of privilege, not disadvantage; it is the default status of objective humanity, the opposite of which is women’s ‘special’ status as ‘unique’ beings that are endlessly documented like a separate species. So then I wonder, how much of my taste is shaped by the culture I’ve inherited and of which I’m a part?

The thing is though, even this question seems inaccurate in part, because these images, and my appreciation of them, depend on different contexts. That’s to say, what I’ve written here could be both right and wrong. And maybe, just maybe, I need to also put the brain to rest and simply allow myself that time to gaze at things that give me pleasure without asking questions. Maybe not, though.