The proverbial “male gaze” leaves many women to feel hyper-sexualized and guilty about their very femininity while others feel desexualized, as if they are nonexistent.
For many young women and adolescent girls in particular, male acceptance is tied to feeling looked at and watched. Girls who feel they are not attracting male attention are left to feel unaccepted, alienated and like their femininity is in question.
As a result of experiencing these extremes, many prefer to at least feel they exist through being noticed and viewed by the opposite sex. The alternative is to feel less than human. In adolescents we see this phenomena occur as young girls begin to adopt an extreme air of femininity or girlishness through embracing a kind of passive, easy, giggly, even ditzy persona. Some adolescent girls begin to opt out of the more aggressive sports that they so enjoyed in middle childhood. They give up doing what makes them feel strong and replace this pursuit with a hyper-focus on appearing physically appealing. All of this may feel risky and confusing to parents, but generally these tendencies represent adolescent girls’ fears of being unnoticed, and therefore, unaccepted.
Girls learn early on that if they make it easy on boys, through appearing attractive and adopting a non-threatening, non-challenging attitude, they are more likely to gain that male gaze. This can be frustrating to caretakers who may feel like their solidly sure-of-self girls are disappearing before their eyes.
The reality is girls are working hard to cope in a culture that tends to hyper-sexualize or desexualize women. The adolescent age bracket takes this cultural trend to an extreme. For girls to feel they matter and exist to adolescent boys, they must be noticed.
As a result, girls focus on feeling accepted at whatever the cost. Being sexualized by men is a way for many women to feel their own femininity, to get confirmation. The catcalls, the yucky stares, all do leave a woman or girl to feel uncomfortable; nonetheless the attention means she exists.
As I describe in Having Sex, Wanting Intimacy—Why Women Settle for One-Sided Relationships, when being viewed and evaluated is the only means for realizing ones’ femininity and existence, girls dismiss their internal feelings. They become so out of step with their own drives and emotional needs that by the time they enter adulthood they find it natural to embrace those who do not take their feelings seriously. As women they continue to turn to external avenues for self-validation, focusing on how they appear for that male gaze while neglecting the pursuit of self-knowledge and authentic emotional intimacy.
Help girls by talking with them about how they feel, how they matter and how they can be appreciated in more ways than their external appearance. Speak directly to them. Let them know that fostering healthy, sexually fulfilling and emotionally intimate relationships with men in adulthood means training oneself in girlhood to stay steadfastly connected to what she herself values emotionally.
Jill P. Weber, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and author of Having Sex, Wanting Intimacy—Why Women Settle for One-Sided Relationships. Click here to follow Jill on Facebook or here to follow Jill on Twitter @DrJillWeber.