Motherhood Freed Me From The Male Gaze

The Eye started following me at puberty. It watched me from building sites and vehicles and outside pubs. Until seven months ago, its lingering presence punctuated my everyday life as a woman.

And for a while, when I was too young to know better, I reveled in it.

As a teenager, I enjoyed the power this regular attention afforded me, even dressing in short skirts to provoke it. Things were a lot more innocent then — or at least I was. Being whistled at for having nice legs was something I considered a compliment, and I dealt with it either bashfully or arrogantly. No one taught me that The Eye was intrusive, intimidating, dangerous. To me it was admiration, given without expectations and costing nothing.

When the Wonderbra campaign started, I realized that my breasts, until then mostly hidden under T-shirts or my navy school sweater, were something The Eye would like. I was one of the first at my college to get a push-up bra, and I was responsible for many other girls adopting cleavage-enhancing scaffolding. Together, we used our enhanced cleavages — mine was a DD cup by then, thanks to a college diet of carbs and alcopops — to get into the university nightclub for free. The bouncers got a quick flash of scooped-up flesh, and we saved £2.50. I think we even got to skip the line.

Still a virgin at 19, and a very late developer sexually, I had scant idea what I was inspiring or what those bouncers must have been thinking. I thought the deal was equal: they got a look and we got in for free, both parties trading minor trifles that cost them nothing.

I engaged in these transactions because, in my naiveté, I had convinced myself that implicit boundaries were established. Look but don’t touch, I thought I was saying. But more and more, I began to understand that it was more than The Eye’s lustful gaze I couldn’t avoid.

The moments were brief, but left their mark: a brush of my ass in the streets of Istanbul; an anonymous frisk while pushing through a crowded bar in Manchester, UK; a reach-and-grab at my breast in broad daylight on a bus in Bangkok; an “oops, I slipped” grab of my breast on a subway train in Mexico City.

When I lived in Turkey for three years, men would curb-crawl me, asking if I was Russian — which, there, meant, “Do you accept money for sex?” My apparel grew more prudish, but even clothes that had shown acceptable skin in front of the mirror at home — forearms, neck, and from the knee down — enraged my Turkish (now ex-) boyfriend when we were out. My modesty bolstered both his honor and his ego; if I attracted attention from other men, it was a slight to his masculinity. I got it wrong so many times that I grew confused about what to wear; I didn’t know who I was dressing for. Was it for him, who wanted me to look fashionable and attractive, yet modest? For his family, who wished I was Turkish? Or for myself — who just wanted to look like me, whatever that meant?

Eventually, I returned to Europe, where I began to choose clothes based sheerly on what I thought looked good — sometimes sexy, sometimes casual, sometimes smart. Around this time, the video of the woman getting harassed while walking around New York went viral. I posted a Guardian article on Facebook that claimed anyone who was surprised by it had to be a man. The responses from trolls were swift.

“And how come if a woman comes up and pays me a compliment I simply blush and say thank you? Surely it works both ways?”

And:

“Would you rather have big tits and get leered at or no tits and be able to walk freely down the street? If I was a chick I know which I’d prefer.”

And:

“Things you might think are your right but really aren’t: not being uncomfortable, not being talked to, not being looked at, etc.”

The Eye, I was realizing with increasing clarity, was so much more than a passive watcher. It was a pervasive social force with a destructive aim. But I wouldn’t fully understand this until, finally, I experienced life without it.

***

Since my son’s birth, seven months ago, I’m never more than a room away from him. While carrying him in public, I wear clothes in the heat of the Spanish summer that flash the flesh as much as anything I wore as a teenager. Often, I sit in cafes with a nipple exposed while my son decides whether to latch back on for second helpings.

But now, no one sees my exposed breast as sexual.

Having spent my adult life aware of being looked up and down, I am suddenly completely free of it. No comments, no staring, no touching. Like an inverse Frodo’s ring, my baby gives me invisibility from The Eye.

I realized this change had taken place when, one day, I left my partner and the baby carriage at the butcher’s shop to walk to the market nearby. With every step I took away from the carriage, it was as if my breasts jiggled more, my vest top lowered, my skirt shortened. The Eye was back, staring down my cleavage, trying to catch a flash of underwear. I hurried, eyes once again fixed straight ahead, noting, relieved, that there were plenty of witnesses around and no dark corners.

In men’s eyes, we go from Whore to Virgin the moment we provide irrefutable proof that we’ve had sex. Only with this proof, we’re no longer the kind of Virgin they want to fuck. We become men’s mothers, even though we should have been treated with the same respect they pay their moms, sisters, wives, girlfriends all along.

And while I would fight for the right to exist outside of those labels, I’m too busy enjoying my freedom. I wear whatever I want, but I know now that the walk to the store isn’t going to earn me some uninvited “compliment” from men in the street who think I might not have noticed I have “nice tits.”

Contrary to the prediction of Facebook, not only have I not missed the attention, but I hadn’t even noticed its absence until its brief, unwelcome return. As I suspected, I don’t need the compliments, the “Hi theres,” the trailing eyes or intrusive hands.

The moment The Eye turned away was the lifting of a burden I’ve carried since I was 14. And with wisdom I can now say: I hope it never returns.

***

Lead image: Flickr/David Goehring