"Male gaze" is a term coined by film critic Laura Mulvey to describe the cinematic angle of a heterosexual male on a female character. As fiction imitates life, and vice versa, the male gaze has become a familiar cultural perspective. Yet, research finds that the male gaze has significant and pervasive psychological costs for women that they might not even be aware of.
The male gaze plays out most obviously in two main areas: actual interpersonal and social encounters (e.g., catcalls, “checking out,” gazing at women’s body parts, making sexual comments) and exposure to visual media that spotlights women’s bodies and body parts, depicting them as the target of a non-reciprocated male gaze.
Through media representations and direct experience, both women and girls learn their appearance is social currency and begin to take the male gazer’s perspective (Fredrickson and Roberts, 1997). The process of habitual body monitoring, wherein women monitor their bodies as they believe outside observers do is called self-objectification. Over time, as women place more attention on their appearance, they began to internalize this observer view of their bodies as a primary way to think about themselves and end up placing greater value on how they look than how they feel.
Laboratory experiments and surveys find that self-objectification increases body shame, disrupts attention, and negatively predicts well-being (Calogero, et al., 2011). Specifically, when women are prompted to take a self-objectifying perspective, they experience anxiety about their appearance and physical safety, along with reduced mindfulness of internal bodily cues, and decreased ability to focus on immediate mental or physical pursuits.
In an experiment by Calogero (2004), women were told that they would either be experiencing a male gaze or female gaze. They found that the mere anticipation of a male gaze increased self-objectification in young women and led to greater body shame and social physique anxiety when compared to participants who anticipated a female gaze or no gaze at all.
In everyday life, women experience multiple physical and social contexts (e.g., mirrors, fashion magazines, conversations) which trigger self-objectification (Fredrickson and Roberts, 1997). Using experience sampling methodology, Breines et al. (2008) investigated self-objectification in the daily lives of 49 female college students. They found that self-objectification was triggered in a variety of contexts, and negatively affect women’s well-being as indicated by their reports of diminished feelings of vitality, flow, and positive effect throughout their day.
Performing daily grooming rituals in front of a mirror is perhaps one of the most common ways women self-objectify, taking the perspective of another before they appear in public. In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir suggested taking back the male gaze through gazing at her own reflection in the mirror. She spoke of the euphoria of drowning in one’s own image as a decidedly private experience. Though at first blush it may seem a bit narcissistic and self-involved, women can and do derive pleasure from gazing at their own image without comparison to cultural beauty standards or intrusion of the male gaze (McGill, 2016). In a society that tells women that their external appearance matters—perhaps more than anything else—gazing at oneself can be a way to take power back, to claim oneself fully and lovingly.
Now there’s research evidence that mirrors can be used not only to trigger self-objectification and anxiety but to create beneficial and soothing effects as well. Psychologists have been using mirror and video technology to help anxious patients recognize their own emotions, and then learn to self-soothe through a self-mirroring therapy (Vinai, et al, 2015). By observing their emotional expressions, patients can easily come into contact with their condition of discomfort and suffering. Becoming aware of their own emotions, their thoughts, beliefs, and expectations is a necessary first step toward acceptance and self-compassion.
Research on mirror meditation (Well, et al, 2016) finds that 10 minutes of looking at one’s own reflection with no goal other than to be present with oneself reduces stress and increases self-compassion (and has no effects on narcissism). Female participants report greater comfort with their appearance (e.g., more comfortable not wearing makeup) and more focused attention on their internal feelings than their external appearance after doing the practice regularly (Well, 2017).
So in this way, the mirror can be used to track how self-objectification is affecting one’s internal state by observing one’s own emotions. Women can then shift from objectifying themselves and feeling anxious through the male gaze to seeing their humanity and feeling self-compassion. Ultimately, this new mirroring perspective may inspire women to remember how they’re feeling in the moment and to see their own image with compassion as a regular practice.
Copyright Tara Well, 2017, all rights reserved.
Breines, J. G., Crocker, J., & Garcia, J. A. (2008). Self-objectification and well-being in women’s daily lives. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34, 583-598.
Calogero, R. M., et al., (2011). Self-Objectification in Women: Causes, Consequences, and Counteractions. American Psychological Association.
Calogero, R. M. (2004). A test of self-objectification theory: Effect of the male gaze on appearance concerns in college women. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 28, 16-21.
de Beauvoir, S (1989). The Second Sex (H.M. Parshley, Trans.). New York, NY: Vintage Books (Original work published 1952).
Fredrickson, B. L., & Roberts, T. A. (1997). Objectification theory: Toward understanding women’s lived experiences and mental health risks. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 21, 173-206.
McGill, M (2016). Young women, narcissism, and the selfie phenomenon. Tedx Talk Galway.
Mulvey, L. (1975). Visual pleasure and narrative cinema. Screen, 16, 6-18.
Vinai, et al. (2015). The Clinical Implications and Neurophysiological Background of Using Self-Mirroring Technique to Enhance the Identification of Emotional Experiences. Journal of Rational-Emotive Cognitive-Behavior Therapy 33:115–133.
Well, T., et al. (2016). The Benefits of Mirror Meditation. Paper presented at the American Psychological Association Convention in Denver, CO.
Well, T. (2017). Why more women are happily going without makeup. Psychology Today.