I ride my bike to and from work every day. It’s a half hour each way, and I am blessed with a gorgeous, wide bicycle path for most of it. I’m writing this in May, and I’m reflecting on the abundance of wildflowers that populate the embankments, and how beautiful it is.
The cycle path is peopled with retired folks out walking their dogs and, of course, other commuters like me taking advantage of the bounty of cycle paths York has. I see a lot of new people, and a lot of the same people every day.
Over the year or so I’ve been doing this daily ride in, I’ve noticed an odd trend. It’s nothing hugely noteworthy, just the kind of small coincidence that, when it happens five times a week, every week, starts to weigh on you.
The women I pass, whether they’re on foot or on bikes like me, will quickly glance up, and then look away, minding their own business. They, like me, have days to focus on, to-do lists to build, meetings to prep for.
They’re in their own little world, whether commuters, dog walkers, or simply strollers. Their stares don’t linger. They spot the oncoming movement, account for it in their paths, and carry on.
Sometimes we’ll exchange a nod, a smile, as we recognize one another after a year of crossing paths, or just if we’re feeling friendly. But for the most part, their gazes slide quickly from meeting my eyes onto the next thing in their line of sight. They’re focused on the path ahead of them.
The men’s gazes? I find them a bit stickier.
What I mean by this is that they persist. Men’s eyes will curiously consume my face as they walk or bike past me, taking their time, examining my features, my clothing. They don’t glance quickly and look away, as I do. These men have a good, long look at their leisure.
I don’t know what they’re thinking — I doubt it’s sexual in nature, or inappropriate for the most part. I don’t think I’m so extraordinarily beautiful that men must stop and stare.
I simply believe that men are used to being the observers of this world.
They gaze out into it, commenting freely and at will about what they see and experience. The world and its women are here for them to consume.
“The terms scopophilia and scoptophilia identify both the aesthetic pleasures and the sexual pleasures derived from looking at someone or something.” — Laura Mulvey, British feminist film theorist.
The women they encounter? We are the objects, there to be gazed at but never to do any gazing of their own. We can be looked at for as long as these men want — after all, we’re here to decorate their journey. Men stare. It’s a fact of life.
Normally, when I pass men, women, dogs, whatever, I keep my eyes from their faces. It’s polite. In polite society, we’ve been taught not to stare. Sometimes I have to struggle not to stare, for example, if someone is wearing a particularly loud outfit, or has a striking makeup look. But I manage. Because, as I said, it’s rude to stare.
“It can sometimes feel like your art is being put to one side for your sex appeal and I don’t like that.” — Kit Harington, male actor on Game of Thrones.
Gazing impassively ahead as I do, I can still always tell, out of the corner of my eye, when people — men — continue to stare at me, far longer than polite society dictates appropriate to look at someone. Far longer than there is any legitimate reason to. Long enough to make me uncomfortable.
So one day, after a particularly long and blatant stare from a pair of men who candidly and openly looked me up and down for a solid five seconds as I approached and eventually passed them, I made up my mind. I was done being polite. I was through ignoring these rude mannerisms. I was over pretending I didn’t notice how annoying it was.
I was going to stare at men.
Staring at men: an underappreciated art form.
When I first started my experiment, the first thing I noticed was how men did double-takes. After a lot of consideration, I have to think the reasoning is something along these lines:
Imagine if you frequently took in a lovely view — maybe a seaside cliff, or a vase of flowers. You admired it — or thought it was ugly, or were contemplating what features made it particularly attractive or especially unappealing. Imagine your surprise if the flowers suddenly sprouted eyes and started looking as searchingly at you as you had been at them. Imagine your astonishment.
“A man’s face is his autobiography. A woman’s face is her work of fiction.” ― Oscar Wilde
This emotion, this complete shock as the object they were so used to looking at and thinking of as mere decoration on their journey abruptly developed sentience and dared to observe them right back, is what I believe I spotted on these men’s faces.
As I unapologetically stared at men, looking them up and down openly, pedaling swiftly towards them, it gave me a surprising amount of gratification and pleasure to see how their gaze towards me changed: first appraising, then curious, then indignant, and usually landing on confused or angry.
How dare this woman stare at me? How dare this woman, this object I was so peacefully enjoying looking at, how dare she turn around and stare at me?
Here’s the kicker: I passed the same two men who triggered this experiment a second time. This time, I watched closely, aggressively, as their gazes slipped from the face of the woman ahead of me to mine, and I clocked the very second they recognized me, eyes widening, and dropped their gaze to the floor. It was beautiful.
I love subverting those expectations. I thoroughly enjoyed being this cause of consternation. I stare at men on my commute, and I will not apologize.