Gender Studies: The Male Gaze - une femme d'un certain âge

Gender Studies: The Male Gaze

So Saturday night on our way to dinner, thinking of comments on my post here and Duchesse’s follow-up post here, I asked mon mari, “what kinds of things do you wish I’d wear more of?”

“Besides whipped cream?”

Then, “Seriously? That’s a loaded question and I’m not going to go there.”

As I mentioned in comments at Duchesse’s post, my husband’s style preferences for me often collide with my own. He used to encourage me to wear colorful tailored skirted suits (which I mentally categorized as “Nancy Reagan suits” and made me feel like I was wearing someone else’s clothes, most likely a real estate agent from Costa Mesa) or garments that are much tighter or show more skin than I’m generally comfortable with. In a way, he’s as blind to my figure flaws as I am to my assets. After a few years of my brushing off his suggestions, he’s stopped offering them.

So after repeated assurance on my part that I wasn’t setting him up, he finally said, “here’s what I think: you dress like someone who is comfortable and fashionable but not fashion-conscious. You stick to neutrals; everything in your closet is black, brown or a dark color. If you had to choose between two identical tee shirts, one in color and one in black or white, you’d choose the black or white every time. You dress like someone doesn’t want to draw attention.” What he didn’t say but what I know he thinks is, “and it’s boring.” And in a way, he’s right; with the exception of some of my accessories, I do dress to blend in.

On one hand, I think that the style of dressing I’ve evolved in recent years is very practical, and at times quietly chic. I can get dressed in a flash most mornings, and am not limited in what scarf or bag will work with my ensemble. In the workplace, an understated style comes across as more professional, less distracting. On the other hand, I’ll admit that I dress to camouflage my body and deflect criticism. In addition to growing up with the sartorial rule that too much bright color is “garish” and to be avoided, being on the receiving end of The Gaze has rarely felt safe for me as my body was constantly (and sometimes publicly) critiqued by my parents. “Pull that shirt down, it’s hiking up over your butt.” “That dress makes your tummy look fatter.” “Solid dark colors will make you look thinner.” “You shouldn’t wear something so tight, it looks slutty.” And I unconsciously sought out those critical eyes in some of my early romantic relationships. Despite the fact that I was quite obviously short and curvy, I seemed to continually fall into relationships with men who were quite open about preferring slim, willowy women, and who insisted that I could be that if only I tried hard enough. And until my mid-30’s, my women friends were also similarly weight-obsessed and critical.

Yet there have been times when I felt thin enough or nonchalant enough to dress to be attractive to men, and enjoyed the attention I received. I know some women who say that dressing in a more sexy way feels powerful, but I’ve rarely felt that way. At best, I’ve felt accepted, included. At worst, vulnerable; I’ve never enjoyed having to fend off unwanted advances. If I could have figured out a way to dress to only attract those I was attracted to, I suspect I’d be a millionaire several times over. If I were in my 30’s still, I’d probably be trying to dress like Joan from Mad Men, though I probably couldn’t tolerate the undergarments necessary to achieve that look for very long . Now, at my age, I’d be worry about appearing too “cougar-on-the-prowl” if I tried to emulate that femme fatale style, or like a woman desperately trying to cling to her youth. It was bit of a relief after decades of being looked up and down by random men (in that way that they do to quickly assess desirability), to begin mostly flying under that particular radar a few years ago. I really don’t want to start attracting those random looks again, or dress in a way that feels wrong for me, but I do want to dress in a way that pleases the main man in my life.

Having read Duchesse’s post again, perhaps I need to keep a more open mind to mon mari’s preferences, at least to try to find a middle ground . Perhaps I’ll arrange a shopping trip sometime in the next few months for just the two of us, and we can pick out a few items for each other. Oh, and today I’m wearing a bright green tee shirt.

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  1. greying pixie
    January 19, 2009 / 6:25 am

    This will be my only comment today as I’ve a really busy day ahead. But firstly I’d like to say what an enjoyable weekend this has been dipping in and commenting on your and Duchesse’s blogs. I can’t help smiling to myself at the thought of three innocent unsuspecting husbands being put on the same spot in three corners of the world symultaneously!

    With regard to knowing what they (men) like to see you wearing, I would like to offer my opinion in my capacity as a designer. I’ve learned from experience that often people think they know what they like until they actualy see it on and that is where good designers come in. I have had experiences of working closely with clients who have tried to control the design of the garment (be it colour, shape, size, length, other details) and I have let them have a free rein and followed instructions, only to find that they are not happy with the end result. I would say that on the whole men might well fall into this category.

    It’s true that if a man loves you he won’t see your faults, but just because he likes seeing Michelle Obama in that purple dress, doesn’t mean it’s going to look good on you. Love really is blind.

    So it’s a careful line we tread as women wanting to feel good for ourselves and look good for our men.

    And I’m very interested to read your comments regarding low self-esteem in your youth as I know I fit into that category too. And I’m sure that is the reason that I was also attracted in the past to non-deserving men who urged me to lose weight. It is certainly the reason why I refuse to comment on my daughter’s figure and tell her frequently that she is beautiful both inside and out. Throughout my childhood and youth I was constantly told that my younger sister was the pretty one of the family. My mother even told me in my early teens that I was not good looking enough to be a secretary! I have over the years proved her wrong of course, and about two years ago she paid me a compliment that almost made me cry when she said that she thought I was getting more and more beautiful with age.

    I think colour is a wonderful way to explore new clothing and living in your part of the world where summers are long you can really let go. I would suggest that the unexpected pairing of colours can also be exciting, eg. red and orange, pink and red, blue and purple, aubergine and pink, rather like the combination of colours in your Hermes scarves.

    Green, I must admit, is a colour I would be very careful with unless it is a fresh spring shade. In the fashion industry it is known as the colour that sells least of all and the one that is most often left on sales rails.

  2. January 19, 2009 / 6:49 am

    I’m going to take you shopping for a tight, bright dress.

  3. January 19, 2009 / 7:44 am

    Aaarrghh, just wrote a long comment and it got ‘error’ed.

    Anyway – I dress to suit myself, but always in a feminine way (showing off my female form, never baggy or boxy), my husband prefers more classic clothes, I like the more creative (deconstruction), but I just think that he doesn’t understand deconstruction as he’s more classic.

  4. January 19, 2009 / 2:00 pm

    It’s fun to wear something the partner likes. Just do it once in a while. You might be surprised at his or her sartorial skills.

  5. January 19, 2009 / 2:13 pm

    greying pixie – I’m actually hoping to do some work in a few months with a stylist/ aesthetitician. I feel as though I really need some objective input. It’s so true that love is blind. Sometimes my husband will see something on a tall slender woman and say, “you could wear that,” and I’m thinking, “yeah, if I grew six inches overnight.” I’m sorry you had the same kinds of negative feedback as a child; I’ve found that programming really takes constant effort to overcome. And it’s funny, green is one of my very best colors, whether especially in the bright green, kelly green, or dark olive or pine.

  6. January 19, 2009 / 2:21 pm

    WendyB – I’m game to try. If you find one that I can actually wear, you’ll have my husband’s undying gratitude.

    Imogen – I guess it’s the “showing off my form” part I really haven’t figured out. I’m quite short, broad shouldered, busty and short waisted. I’ve always assumed that very simple, long skimming lines look better on me.

    Rooi Skoene – well I’m starting with some color and we’ll see where it goes from there. 🙂

  7. karinnska
    January 19, 2009 / 3:35 pm

    I too do not wish to appear as a “cougar on the prowl” in the workplace, and believe the male gaze there is a counterproductive distraction, but I am surprised at the number of women I see who apparently think otherwise! An article here in New York magazine about women who dress sexy for success (who are not necessarily in the sex industry). I guess I’m just from another planet.

  8. January 19, 2009 / 3:43 pm

    karinnska – I’ve griped here before about the women in my office who seem to dress more appropriately for club-hopping than conferencing. I Just. Don’t. Get. It.

  9. January 19, 2009 / 3:59 pm

    re dressing for work, there seems to be two schools of thought: a) work it- and I have seen executives totally witless at the sight of a woman leaning over a boardroom table revealing a bit of cleavage- and b) hide it. I always belonged to the latter.

    There will always be a certain kind of man at work (or on the street) who undresses women with his eyes. This is not respectful. When I received that x-ray gaze I was scared and outraged.

    re experimenting with colour, I read one of the old-school designers (maybe Blass) saying women looked good in colour above the waist. If an entire ensemble feels too garish try just a jacket. What works for me is a scarf (Hermes or a jamovar shawl) over a neutral.)

    GP: I so enjoyed your comments.Once more they make me mourn the demise of the skilled modiste.

  10. January 19, 2009 / 5:49 pm

    Great post, Pseu, and lots of thoughtful comments. I think we can all remember comments from our families and friends that affected us for years. As for dressing in sexy clothes for work, this seems to be more common among younger women who haven’t yet figured out that attention isn’t all positive. Pixie, you have a good point about people thinking they know what they like, but not being able to really visualize it on themselves.

  11. January 20, 2009 / 1:08 am

    This was a very interesting post in oh so many ways. I think men often think they know what they like, until they see it, but then again, your husband’s comment that a little more color might be interesting seems like sound advice.

    I don’t like overtly sexy clothes at work either and I think neutral colors are just so much easier and elegant also. Maybe I just think that a hint is sexier than a shout. That said, I do love color and am always fighting with myself over it, because basically wear neutrals. It comes to that shouting versus whispering thing. The trick is how to include the color without looking like I just plopped it in there to break up the neutral or to feel like an escapee from Barnum and Bailey.

    It sounds like you and your husband both want a way for you to wear your comfortable neutrals while finding a way to not just disappear into the woodwork, but show the interesting person you are.

  12. January 20, 2009 / 2:11 am

    Duchesse – I’ve known several women who *love* to get wolf-whistled and hey-baby’d by men on the street. That always struck me as less about perceived attractiveness and more about asserting dominance and intimidation (you notice that happens much more when they’re in a group?). On the other hand, I once passed a stranger on a NY city street who looked into my eyes, smiled, and said, “hello, pretty!” as he passed. That felt very different and I took it as a compliment.

    I probably will not give up my neutrals. But I may start to play with cuts and shapes, and remember to always add some color near the face.

  13. January 20, 2009 / 2:16 am

    Rita – I’ve also found that younger women who “work it” often don’t realize that strategy has a shelf life. I’ve seen a couple of women who really have to make a major paradigm shift when they hit an age where that approach stops working (and it usually does, very few of us are Candace Bergen). Some women never get over it. I’ve always been a “keep it under wraps” in the workplace type too.

  14. January 20, 2009 / 2:24 am

    Belle_carys – that self esteem thing is a bear, isn’t it? I try to remind myself that most people really aren’t noticing my tummy bulges; they’re all too busy worrying about how *they* look!

    Mardel – yes, I agree that dressing in neutrals makes it easier to create an elegant appearance. My husband’s taste is actually much more conservative than mine (hence the Nancy suits) but I think what he’d really prefer is that I wear more body-conscious clothing, which right now is a bit of a struggle for me.

  15. belle_carys
    January 19, 2009 / 7:01 pm

    Only saw that post right now and it got me thinking.
    You’ve brought up good points here, and I think, eventhoug the loving eye of a husband might be blind to your flaws, it still might be inspirational to try something that you would not have chosen yourself.

    I know the problems of dressing a shape that’s not exactly picture perfect, and I just see myself getting caught up in the security-departement dressing-wise. I’m deliberately chosing classic garments that can’t do wrong, so I look well-dressed but wont get the attention, because I think, once the attention IS on me, they’ll realise that maybe the clothes I’m wearing are pretty but that what is inside this clothes is not. I’ve got a hell of alot to work on regarding my self-esteem I guess.

  16. January 20, 2009 / 4:40 am

    can’t seem to squeeze the time to add anything worthwhile to this discussion, but I want/need to say how much I appreciate reading it and appreciate your post, Pseu — very thoughtful, perceptive, and provocative, as always.

  17. January 20, 2009 / 3:05 pm

    I’m still old school in my taste for work clothes and my experience has shown me that if you dress well you will be taken more seriously. My color choices have always been the “dress for success” serious neutrals; black, charcoal and navy with maybe some burgandy or olive green…I know…boring!

    I’ve always thought that the most practical look for the office is a form fitting knee length sheath dress with a jacket or belted sweater, scarf (for color)and jewelry (good watch, bracelet and earrings).

    The dress is sexy but not revealing. It lengthens the body like a well fitting pencil skirt does, particularly if you wear it with some sleek pumps. If the dress is well cut it improves the figure….and I mean even Queen Latifa can pull off this look. The jacket or sweater adds gravitas and coverage.

    After work, take off the jacket/sweater and scarf and meet your husband for dinner. What’s not to like about you in a figure flattering dress.

    And if I look like a Costa Mesa real estate broker, so be it.

    Speaking of dinner, let’s go out one of these evenings…

  18. January 20, 2009 / 5:45 pm

    mater – thanks!

    Belle – I’ve been on the lookout for sheath dresses lately; the problem I’ve found is that “sheath” often seems to mean “sack” to clothing manufacturers! Some tailoring, please!

  19. January 21, 2009 / 1:09 pm

    I’ve also found that younger women who “work it” often don’t realize that strategy has a shelf life.

    I’ve also never considered this. Oy. Is it OK to feel scared at 26?

  20. January 22, 2009 / 7:02 am

    My advice to every man out there – if you want a women to wear something you recommend, don’t criticize what she wears. Why should she trust your opinion if you don’t respect her own? There’s more to it than that obviously, but this is a comment not a diatribe.

  21. Linda S.
    September 16, 2016 / 7:49 pm

    I think we are twins, separated at birth…that’s how much you and your blog speak to me.

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