A Tentative Exploration of the Female Gaze

The first thing I noticed? The thighs.

Several years ago, I was taking a class where I hit it off with one of my classmates—our first conversation was one of those where you wind up gasp-laughing in a way you normally only do with people who are already your friends (or people who are as drunk as you are). He was new to the city, and while he’d made friends at his job, his wife hadn’t had such luck, and would I like to go out to dinner with them on Thursday?

I would, and I did, and I was rewarded with more of that good cheer; I liked her as much as I liked him. And when she got up at one point to visit the restroom, I found myself doing something I hadn’t done before: I did not look at her thighs. 

To be clear, it wasn’t like I made a point of looking at the thighs of every woman I met. I’m not saying I’m above ever having compared another woman’s figure to mine, but for the most part I think I approach other women as potential allies, not competition or a measuring stick of my own appeal. No, my thigh-checking was more akin to a tic, like compulsively clearing one’s throat, or saying “you know” all the time. I knew I did it, but it was such an automatic act that it wasn’t something I ever thought I could not do. Plus, it’s not like I’d go around staring at other women’s legs or anything. It was always a glimpse, a landing point for my eyes, and I’d look away quickly thereafter. I didn’t think anyone noticed. I mean, I barely noticed, really.

That is, I barely noticed until I noticed that I didn’t do it. It had been a while since I’d met someone new who so easily gave me a sense of mutual recognition—and a couple at that! the holy grail of people my then-boyfriend and I could maybe hang out with together!—and I didn’t want to blow it. When the woman rose from the table, my brain slowed down for just long enough for me to recognize that I was anticipating, as in I was really looking forward to, being able to look at her thighs. Which meant my brain slowed down long enough for me to stop it. It’s not that I was afraid she or her husband would see my eyes flicker down to her legs (though I do always wonder how perceptive others are about the object of our gaze); it was that I recognized that I really didn’t want to know what her thighs looked like. If I knew what her thighs looked like, I might begin to care—I mean, not really care, not care enough to measure her as a person by it or anything remotely that distasteful. But I’d care in my own, private, ugly little way. I’d know whether her thighs were as large as my own, or larger; I’d know whether they were firm and muscular or soft and fleshy. I’d be able to add it to the enormous resource bank of thigh-images that I’ve catalogued in a dark part of my psyche for as long as I’ve recognized that women were supposed to think thighs were A Problem. And I realized I just really, really didn’t want to add this awesome woman’s thighs to that collection, and that I didn’t want to add any woman’s thighs to my image bank ever again. (Hell, I didn’t want an image bank at all, but you’ve gotta start somewhere, right?)

So I didn’t look at her thighs. Not then, anyway; at some point, months later, I recalled that moment, and realized that at some point since then my mind’s eye had gone ahead and taken a snapshot anyway. But I’d taken in the larger point: My eyes automatically went to women’s thighs, any woman’s thighs, every woman’s thighs, upon first seeing them. And if I could recognize this, maybe I could stop it.

But you’ll notice the first words of this post: Several years ago. I’ve noticed it, but there it is. I don’t think I literally look at the thighs of every woman I pass on the street, but do I find myself still looking at women’s thighs on the street, in the coffeeshop, in the gym? Yeah, I do.

I’d be more embarrassed to put this out there were it not for my hunch—now verified by Science!—that this is so common as to enter the realm of “duh.” recent eye-movement-tracking study shows that women spend more time looking at one another’s bodies than they do looking at their faces. (The same was true of how men look at women, but that’s another story.) To add to it, men and women alike visually process women’s bodies as being parts, but see men’s bodies as being whole. (Thanks to Sally for the link.)

Both of these facts seem to come into play with my thigh gazing, but when I looked at the studies, I was thrown for a moment: The scholars identified themselves as objectification researchers. Which makes sense; after all, when you see a human and focus first and foremost on particular parts of it, you’re, ya know, reducing them to an object, at least in part. But I’d never stopped to think of the ways I’d been participating in objectifying other women, even if my motivation (or what I assume was my motivation) was more tied to my own anxieties than tied to a predatory mind-set. For that’s what I primarily associate with the word objectification—predatory men, or at least men who bathe in the power imbalance that comes when half the world is seen as parts, not people. If I ever thought about women objectifying one another, I thought of it cartoonishly: Women tucking dollar bills into strippers’ g-strings, getting lap dances, raunchily commenting on babes walking by—Female Chauvinist Pigs-type stuff. And that’s part of it, yes.

But this sort of objectification—the kind of objectification I subtly take part in when I gaze out the coffeeshop window and, if I don’t consciously work my way out of it, see a parade of lady-thighs—seems more insidious. Not only because of what it says about how women’s own gaze might be defaulting to what we used to call “the male gaze,” but because of what it says of how we view ourselves. One of the reasons beauty can be so effective as a bonding mechanism between women is that we see ourselves in other women. It’s also my explanation of why so many straight women become aroused by watching women in porn, not just men or male-female couplings: We see the image of sex itself as being inherently tied to our bodies as objects of desire. Desire including our own. (Cue a Google Scholar rabbit hole for search term “self-objectification.”)

At this point, it’s no mystery why my brain chose to zero in on thighs. Thin Thighs in 30 Days was first published when I was six; not long after that, I heard a television character use the phrase “positively bulbous” used to describe her own thighs, and I instantly knew that’s what my own stubby, childish thighs were—positively bulbous. (The one and only critical comment my mother ever made about my body was about my “Gaskill thighs”—in other words, it was a criticism of her own thighs too.) As Natalia Mehlman Petrzela writes in her fantastic, spot-on take on all that Lululemon jazz, women’s thighs are “one of the most fraught areas on women’s bodies.” And I’m beginning to understand my thigh thing intellectually, though who knows how much good that’ll do me in actually changing the behavior. So my questions are to you: Do you find yourself zeroing in on certain parts of women’s bodies? Do you notice it when you’re doing it? Are you bothered by this, or do you see it as something neutral or positive? And a plea, from me, who really wants to stop this automatic zoom-in on the thighs of the world: Any thoughts on how to put the kibosh on this?