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@lucy_c0les

23 May 2023

Not Your Body: Escaping the Male Gaze

GENEVIEVE STEVENS

I have struggled with body image for as long as I can remember.

 

In primary school I was always the tall, slightly chubby one in a cohort of stick thin, private school pony girls. I couldn’t help but feel like the odd one out, an anomaly destined for the back row of class photos, twiddling my thumbs on the bench at netball games. Between the ages of nine and ten I lost two stone. If the sheer speed of that weight loss wasn’t worrying enough, what was even more shocking was the reactions of those around me. Whilst a few teachers pulled me aside to ask if everything was okay, mostly, I was praised for the changes to my body. I started being noticed, accepted by my peers, praised by adults who admired my ‘self control’, my commitment to refusing pudding and choosing rice cakes over chocolate chip cookies at morning break. I felt empowered by my newfound confidence, and found strength in the way my clothes no longer fitted. With relative ease the juvenile curves of my body melted into lean, straight lines. 

What felt like a victory then has left its own painful legacy. Because you do not forget how many calories are in a KitKat. Once you have painstakingly committed these statistics to memory, they do not go away. Rather, you learn to live with this awareness. Never again will I bite down on a twirl with the same wild abandon as my eight-year-old self. It’s not that I no longer eat chocolate or cake, believe me I am partial to crisps. But I consume now with a subconscious guilt, a dormant awareness of what is and isn’t good for me.

 

Because once you have reduced food to numbers, it is impossible not to start counting. 

All through my adolescent and adult life I have had a complicated and tumultuous relationship with my body. Whilst I was tall back then, I stopped growing at fourteen and now find myself at five foot two, with the straight up straight down figure of an adolescent boy. Whilst big boobs may no longer be the gold standard for sexy (thank you Cara Delevingne), I have always found it difficult to orient my femininity in a body that looks like it would be split wide open in childbirth. Due to a legacy of long-term boyfriends and my relative insecurity I have found myself relying heavily on male validation to feel like a woman. And if appealing to the male gaze isn’t reductive enough in a relationship, in the cold light of singlehood, relying on male attention to make me feel good about my body is exhausting, disheartening and frankly, pathetic. In the 1970s, Laura Mulvey coined the term ‘the male gaze’ to describe the way women are depicted in the film and media. For Mulvey, the male gaze presents women as sexual objects, constructed through the idealisation of heterosexual male experience. For many years I have found it almost impossible to separate my own body from Mulvey’s construction. I find myself sucking my stomach into tight jeans and layering on fake tan for nights out. I overline my lips and smother them in gloss to make them look kissable. I guiltily shave my legs and apply richly scented moisturiser.  

For many years I have constructed my body as an object, an ornament to be draped in fabric, curtailed through dieting, bleached and dyed.

 

Taking pride in your appearance can be fun and creative. It has allowed me to find community through fashion, artistic expression through the clothes and makeup I adorn myself with. But time and time again I have found myself reducing my body to a two-dimensional object. A carefully manicured façade, a symbol of power in a world of attraction and hypersexuality. I have divorced my body from its biology, the processes that make me function and the consciousness that makes me me. 

In lockdown I began jogging. It started as a last-ditch attempt to stay sane in the slew of quarantines. A hobby that, like quizzes and banana bread, I expected would fall to the wayside once the world became normal again. It started as an escape from my parents, the house and my own overactive mind. Since then, jogging has become one of the single greatest pleasures of my life. I could speak for hours about the perks: the serotonin release, the health benefits, how that runner's high still feels like a shot of heroin to the main line. But you’ve heard that all before. For me, the single biggest change running has afforded my life is the way it’s changed how I view my body. Not as an object of the male gaze but a vehicle, a facilitator of travel and speed, a powerhouse that can propel me from A to B. 

When I started running three years ago, I couldn’t believe how quickly I could power myself from my  home in residential Exeter to the top of a hill overlooking the river, taking in the boundaries of the city and the sea beyond. In half an hour I was on the edge of the city, on top of the world. At a time when driving was prohibited, I found that my own legs could grant me seemingly infinite freedom. Whilst lockdown made me feel small and insignificant, running granted me power. I began to enjoy testing the limits of my body, feeling the all-familiar burn of yesterday’s jog as I hobbled down the stairs. As someone who had largely been exercise-phobic, I began to understand the utility of putting my body to use.

To this day I am awestruck by the power of my little body.

 

Running through Edinburgh in one hour I can take almost a complete tour of the city. Running has given me a sense of ownership over my city that stretches far beyond the confines of bus routes or the few miles radius I would wander on walks. I have traversed the lengths of Slateford canal, explored the suburban streets of Blackford and found myself reaching the sea, all thanks to a beat-up pair of my brother's old Nikes. Through the spatial mapping running affords, I know Edinburgh like the back of my hand. I understand how Morningside makes way for the boutiques of Bruntsfield, how Musselburgh is just a stone’s throw from Holyrood and how, if you follow the river, you can get from The Shore to Stockbridge in twenty minutes flat. I have a sense of ownership, an affective relationship with streets and hills and canal paths. I am strangely proud of my ability to orient myself through suburban streets just from familiar place names and the way the houses are made of different coloured stone in the West and the East. 

Haruki Murakami talks about the meditative capacity of running in his book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, arguing that ‘the thoughts that occur to me while running are like clouds in the sky. Clouds of all different sizes. They come and go, while the sky remains the same sky as always. The clouds are mere guests in the sky that pass away and vanish’. Like Murakami, for me running is not just about exercise but provides an opportunity to allow my mind to move freely between thoughts without pressure or expectation. Running allows me to tune out from the world, to focus on one thing and one thing only. My body, the way it feels, the pain and the ecstasy of putting foot to pavement. I have never been good at meditating; I find myself forgetting how to breathe normally, my mind wanders in all the wrong ways. And yet running provides its own kind of mindfulness. It allows me to escape my intrusive interior monologue and focus on the feeling of my legs, the patter of rain on my forehead, the sound of birds and the low thrum of traffic. In a world of constant distraction, running helps me slow down, tune in and focus on the rhythms of my body. 

Through running I have found a way to evade the male gaze, if only momentarily.

 

I can remind myself that my body is not an object for others’ consumption or scrutiny; it is a powerful living and breathing entity. I have found myself valuing exercise, not for the calories it burns but the strength it builds inside me. Running by its very nature has changed my physical body in new and interesting ways. I have begun to see muscles ripple beneath the skin of my calves. For the first time in my life I am celebrating my body not for its diminishment but for its growth. 

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