I’m obsessed with boys. They come waltzing in when I close my eyes before bed and are among my first thoughts in the morning. I think of them before I put food in my mouth and clothes on my back. But I don’t do it out of love, not even in the name of “like.” No, it’s much more sinister than that.
At some point most girls discover that their worth isn’t derived from some innate goodness within them. Instead it’s to be found in a man, specifically how he values her. This lesson was an especially painful one for me. I spent most of my adolescence caught in that awkward limbo known as puberty, completely deprived of male attention.
Yet as soon as I turned seventeen everything changed. Suddenly I caught men in the street looking at me, and some even tried to pick me up. It was thrilling at first, as if the sun was finally shining on me after all those years in the dark. But it became overwhelming, and I began to feel like I had to perform for them.
What started innocently enough soon devolved into me sleeping with a man I didn’t even like. In that moment I realized something: I felt obligated to please men. Whether it meant changing my looks, behavior, or even my beliefs, I sought their approval.
I thought that this neurotic need to please was personal, that I had some inherent character flaw that made me do this. But then I realized how much society promotes this idea of women living only to satisfy men. Take, for instance, Cosmopolitan Magazine. It often focuses on teaching women how to “please their man”. How odd of a women’s publication to emphasize the importance of male pleasure! For a magazine claiming to be about sexual liberation, it reduces women to objects made simply to help men achieve orgasms.
They aren’t the only offenders. American Apparel ads feature women in suggestive positions, often close to naked. While there’s absolutely nothing wrong with any woman’s clothing choice, these adverts seem to scream “wear this because he’ll be aroused” instead of “wear this because you’ll like it.”
This phenomenon goes hand-in-hand with that of male entitlement. Men expect women to please them, leading women to believe they have to please men. A perfect example is how some men attack fat women. They’re livid that a woman doesn’t exist solely for their gaze, and feel perfectly at ease belittling her. Consequently women go on diets, often to the point of starving themselves, in order to avoid this shaming and be “good” in the eyes of their male counterparts.
Of course, this behavior extends past looks. You may have noticed many women, or even yourself, apologizing even when the situation doesn’t call for it. Why? Because otherwise we might be seen as overbearing and asking for too much, a.k.a. “bitchy.” In other words it earns us disapproval from men, so we shrink ourselves in order not to cause offense. As writer Elissa Stein points out in Am I Really Sorry?, “It subtly squeezes women back into the subservient role that’s been thrust on us through much of history.”
It’d be easy for me to just say “fight back” and not care about what men think. But I realize how difficult that can be when you’ve been conditioned to live that way your entire life. I myself am still trapped by my urge to survive under the male gaze. The only advice I have isto start doing little things for yourself, regardless of how a boy would feel. You are your own person, and you don’t exist for any else’s approval.