How do I stop caring about what men think of me? I place so much worth in whether a guy finds me attractive, even when he's a total stranger! It's like I'm always seeing myself through the eyes of men and I wish I didn't need their approval to feel okay about myself. I guess my question is: how do I stop seeing being attractive to men as the most important thing I can be?
I. Feel. This. I have spent way too many years believing that being visually appealing to men should be my number one priority. I've shrunk, sculpted and moulded myself into whatever shape – both my body and personality – that I thought a man wanted. And I really did believe that a core part of my purpose was to turn myself into something pleasing for them. It took me a long time to see that I'm not a thing at all.
If you are a woman or someone who's had the identity of 'woman' placed on them by others throughout their life, you've probably been taught to value your attractiveness through the male gaze. We are conditioned in lots of little ways to always care about how desirable heterosexual men find us (even if we're not heterosexual ourselves – just look at how lesbian relationships are fetishised and commodified for straight dudes).
And the idea that women are objects for men's consumption is normalised all around us, a quick Google for 'objectifying adverts' will show you how often women's headless bodies are used to sell things to men, from fragrances to shoes to beer. Of course years of cultural messaging that we're here to be attractive, sell things, and be sexually appealing, all add up and affect how we see ourselves day-to-day. Including where we place the power to validate us.
Honestly? I'm still affected by it. Even after years of being immersed in body positive and feminist spaces (and even while in a long term monogamous relationship!) I still sometimes get little brain flashes of “BUT IS THIS WHAT MEN FIND ATTRACTIVE?!”. Sure, I no longer see my body and my personality as play-doh that I need to mould into what a man wants in order to be good enough (the fact that I ever did think that is beyond fucked up), but the conditioned response to see myself through the male gaze still creeps up now and then.
When that happens, all I can really do is remind myself why I'm having those thoughts (a lifetime of messaging telling me that how beautiful I am to others is my whole worth), question whether I want to continue putting value in those thoughts (abso-fucking-lutely not), and try to let them go. Also thinking about how messed up it is that we were ever taught to see ourselves as things that exist for the consumption of other people helps too. Get mad about that.
Whatever decisions you find yourself making about your appearance to please the male gaze, challenge yourself to no longer make them. That might look like holding up each way you choose to present yourself physically – hairstyle, make-up, body hair, clothing – and digging into your true motivations for that choice. Would you make the same choice if you weren't factoring in how men saw you? The same goes for your personality – are you shrinking yourself down in any way to fit into other people's idea of who you should be? Because screw that, life is too short to be a watered down version of yourself for someone else. Even if you have to start small, try to let go of some of the things that aren't truly for you, and see how it makes you feel.
It's also worth noting that some people find empowerment in grabbing hold of the male gaze and using it to their own benefit. Some people can simply enjoy being found attractive without it becoming their entire sense of validation. The difference is each person's motivation in why they're seeking that gaze out, and how much power is being given to the other person to define you. If you can claim it on your own terms and find something empowering in that, then get it hun!
If not, keep questioning, keep unlearning, and keep reminding yourself of what you should have been taught all along: You are not an object made for other people's consumption. Your body isn't a thing to be gazed at and critiqued. Your life's purpose is not to be visually or sexually appealing to others and your validation can come from YOU, their approval isn't necessary.
Even when you are pursuing romantic or sexual relationships, you deserve to be desired as a whole human, not a hollow version of someone you're not. Not a version of yourself that you've crafted because you think it's what they want. Not a thing. You're worth more than that and you always have been.
Love & bopo,
P.S. If you like this column and want more advice like this, I wrote a whole book of it! You can find Body Positive Power here.