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Of course your body is yours! But first, put on some lipstick...

Updated: Nov 9, 2021

By Jacqui Smith

I want to feel like my 10-year-old self again. It was the last time in my life that I can remember feeling free, unencumbered, and oblivious to judgment.

My sturdy little body allowed me to run, jump, climb, swim and swing with gleeful abandon. I moved through the world unfettered. And then I turned 11. My breasts swelled and I started to bleed. Enter the world of bras and female sanitary products.

My mother presented me with a packet of pads, gave me ‘the talk’ and lectured me about sitting properly with my legs together and not swinging upside-down on the monkey bars anymore. I remember vividly, sitting on my bed staring at the packet of pads utterly devastated, mourning something, but I wasn’t quite sure what it was.

It’s not that I’m about to swing upside-down on monkey bars anytime soon, but I would love to feel that glorious lack of inhibition again. To move through the world feeling safe, secure, and unburdened by societal norms and what I have come to understand as the ‘male gaze’.

My lived experience of the male gaze was the sudden self-awareness that I could be seen and looked at, I was a visible ‘object’, I had to conform. And with this realisation came an aching loss of self.

The male gaze, is "the act of depicting women and the world from a masculine, heterosexual perspective." The term was coined by a filmmaker, Laura Mulvey in a paper written in 1973, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.

The transition to womanhood is subjective. Each woman will experience it differently. Mine was not a celebration. I felt freakish and uncomfortable in this alien body that I could not control. The next two decades were spent doing battle with my body, but that is another story in and of itself, for another day.

My lived experience of the male gaze was the sudden self-awareness that I could be seen and looked at, I was a visible ‘object’, I had to conform. And with this realisation came an aching loss of self.

While the term applied to the male gaze implies the concept is perpetuated by men, it is a societal construct, perpetuated by men and women. For example, I remember one Saturday afternoon, about to leave the house to play a game of squash with a friend. My mother looked me up and down and offered that I should go and put some lipstick on to put some colour in your face. I was going to play a game of squash. But I obediently went back into the bathroom and applied makeup… to play a game of squash. Even as I write this, I am struck by the absurdity.

While the male gaze is not the exclusive domain of men, my experiences show that some men fully embrace the ideal. Have you ever noticed there are men who feel it is an innate entitlement to critique women, despite their own shortcomings?

I had a male co-worker verbally dissect my body once. He told me I had a beautiful upper half, but my lower half… and here he made gagging noises. This from a man with missing teeth, a beaked nose, a very prominent facial tic, and eyebrows like Oscar the Grouch. It would never have occurred to me to suggest that he wouldn’t be too bad looking if he fixed his teeth, waxed his eyebrows, sought help for the tic and did something about the nose only a Roman Emperor could love! While it may seem poor form to criticise a facial tic that was beyond his control, I argue that my body's morphology (my family’s propensity for females with a Rubenesque form) is also beyond my control.

The constant judgment is draining. For me, the older I get, the harder it is. I admire those women who have embraced ageing. Allowing themselves to go grey, presenting the world with an unadorned face. It appears liberating. The irony is that I almost feel like my ten-year-old self: I’m struggling with a new transition from being acutely aware of being seen and looked at, to not being seen at all.

And what is this juxtaposition? I’ve spent much of my life conditioned to conform, but unhappy with the hypocrisy and now I’m not ready to let it go?

I’m not ready to embrace my grey hair or ‘character lines’, as I feel this will further diminish my relevance. I don’t want to be invisible. The ageing process brings further marginalisation or intersectional discrimination for women adding another layer of complexity to moving through the world. Much has been written about additional challenges for woman of colour, women with a disability, woman from a low socio-economic background or trans women. I can’t begin to imagine their struggles as they move through the world.

Womanhood, I’ve decided is like navigating our very own maze without a map, each lived experience impacting on our psyche and the women we become.

I am heartened today as I listen to or read about young woman like 2021 Australian of the Year recipient, Grace Tame, who advocates for survivors of sexual assault or award-winning author and campaigner, Caroline Criado-Perez or, closer to home, my strong and independent nieces (you know who you are) or my own capable and determined daughter. I am in awe of them. No doubt they are navigating their own mazes and have encountered their own challenges as they move through the world, but they seem to be doing it with greater confidence and an unwillingness to compromise. The world for women of the future, it seems to me, is in good hands.

Read more by Jacqui Smith:

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