The female gaze

I am straight, more or less, but I love looking at other women's bodies -- and not in the spirit of competition.

Published January 30, 2003 8:28PM (EST)

I look at women's asses -- and tits, to use another word I never actually utter, at least not when my mother is listening. I look at women's thighs, too. Their ankles, their upper arms. Now that it's winter, I miss the biker shorts, the halter tops, the skin-licking swirl of summer's sun dresses. Still, there is the great indoors. And on the subway, sometimes, the coats come off.

Women do eye women, no surprise there. What has struck me is that looking at other women's bodies is, for me, a habit as ingrained as tucking my hair behind my ears. It's a tune I can't get out of my head. When teenage girls with their cigarettes out mob past me on the sidewalk; when the weary cashier hands me my change folded into the receipt; when a friend shifts her weight as together we push playground swings -- I realize I am doing it. It's my machinery buzzing, and I can't turn it off.

I suppose that suburban women eye suburban women -- in the Wal-Mart checkout line, from the high roosts of their minivans. But in New York City there is a glut, there is an embarrassment, of women. You can't get away from us. We are all over the place. There are, like, millions of us here, and most of us are walking the streets.

I am straight. More or less. This looking at women that I do isn't sexual. I'm willing to accept the premise that sex simmers under everything I do, including looking at other women's bodies. But this looking doesn't feel sexy. And no, dear pigs, I'm not sizing up the other girls in fits of spite or self-loathing. I don't believe that, in constantly looking, I am constantly rating my body against the bodies I see.

So what am I up to? I don't do this to men. Yes, I will eye that fine park jogger who has just sprinted past. And when my friend's husband leans toward me over dinner, I'll notice the span of shoulders that his woolly sweater hides. But looking at men feels straightforwardly sexy. Images logged for later meditation. They have no content.

A woman's body -- in everything shy of a burqa, I guess -- has a table of contents. At least, to me. Form and fashion play a part: The female body is shapely, and cashmere clings. But women's bodies are not only more sticking-out-ish, more visible, than men's bodies -- they are more informative. They speak -- and I listen.

I meet a friend I haven't seen in a while, and in a glance begin to learn the answer to my first question: "How are you?" She's getting so dumpy -- something going on between her and her husband? One mother introduces me to another as we sit on the sandbox wall. "Hi, how are you?" Depressed, I think. Skinny, and the skin is slack. But on the sandpit's far side? There's a happy woman, a true hourglass. What would it be like to stroll around the city carrying such big, delicious curves? She is nursing. She is not. She has one kid too many; gravity is claiming her awfully early. She is toned to bloodcurdling perfection and has time and money to burn.

On the subway a young woman catches my eye, and I indulge discreetly in one of my ruder habits, anorexic-spotting. The neck is ropy, the outfit ladylike and empty, the face humorless. Fascinated, I have nearly followed a woman out at her stop and out of the station, wanting to see where this sad sister's mania is taking her.

I suppose the idea that I know anything about these women from scrutinizing their bodies is arrogant. Take that chunky Latina, slumped in a corner love seat on this uptown train, complacently tolerating the attentions of her skinny lover. I think, she is proof of a divine hand in creation. I think, if she were with any of the white guys I know, she would call herself ugly. But what do I know about her, really? Every body I see -- on the subway, in the street -- I read in a language I learned at home. This language is historical, demographically determined, and peppered as any language is with racist tropes; I use it according to the quirks of my own screwed-up mind. It may be no more than a flattering illusion of mine that I am seeing her, not me.

After all, richest in meaning for me are the bodies of my friends. Brooklyn mothers, middle-aged. Women with bodies like mine. In their jeans and cross-trainers, their fleece tops and underwire bras, they look mythic to me. Maybe it's because they are not young bodies, not the slim young female bodies that are used to sell us products and services. I guess I am surprised to reach middle age and find that the bodies of women my age do not look young, but are sexy. Even to more or less straight me.

My friends' bodies are strong, with the solid haunches and broad backs that come from lugging double strollers up brownstone stoops. Age and motherhood give these women, in the realm of my private romance, the authority that comes with size. The breasts of these women are full of milk or else well-worn from years of clamorous nursing, and this seems to me a sexier notion than the Barbie-pristine breasts of teenage girls. For me, with my underground worship of the feminine principle, even a little sylph I know carries beneath her schlumpy jeans and blue hoodie a whiff of the demigoddess.

Demigoddess, demon. Is curiosity anything akin to love? I think it is, because it is so tiring. Girls, nannies, dykes, matrons, hags -- all those lovely creatures to worry about. By the end of a crowded day, my irritating tic of empathy has sapped me. Do my neighbors, consciously or not, also register the bodies of friends and passersby as too much humanity, too much news? Do other women do this? Do men? And who is looking at me? I no longer know what someone eyeing me would hear.

By Eileen Kelly

Eileen Kelly is a writer in New York.

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