When I was 14 years old, I could have caused a road accident.
I wasn’t six foot or blonde or a Swedish supermodel.
I was simply 14 years old and I was turning into a woman. I had curves. I had done since I was 12 but now I was no longer wearing big baggy jumpers.
Apparently, when walking near busy roads, this posed a hazard to male drivers.
I remember a man in a truck, wolf-whistling at me and craning his neck to get as long a look at me as possible. I was almost certain he was going to crash into the tennis courts at the side of the road.
This newfound attention unnerved me. Walking with my boyfriend down Chapel Street in Melbourne one day, wearing a mid-riff top, the male storekeepers literally called each other to the shop front windows to leer and whistle and ogle. They shouted obscenities at me. I remember having a vision of them like salivating hyenas, staring at me from the Souvlaki shops.
And when I looked to my boyfriend, something had come over him as well. He was looking at me in a different way. No longer my best friend, he seemed to step back and start looking at me through their eyes, strangely chuffed by all the attention ‘his’ girlfriend was pulling in the busy street.
It would be dishonest of me to say that at this time I didn't at some level want or seek the attention of men, but what I noticed was that the excitement that shot through me during these types of encounters came with an undercurrent of feeling hunted rather than being adored and it almost always left me feeling uneasy and anxious.
How do you reconcile the attention that you get as a young woman with the quality of the gaze that comes back at you? How do you make sense of something that you think you want – confirmation and celebration of your beauty – when it feels so out of control and at times like an outright violation?
Now that we have Instagram, the intensity of the physicality of a man leering at you in the street is mitigated by the mediation of a screen, and I see increasingly risky shots being posted by young girls to get the ‘hearts’ and ‘likes’ that amount to the looks or whistles I would get in my youth.
It is worth noting though that despite this attention, I did not feel beautiful.
So while there was a part of me that was feeding off the male attention it certainly wasn’t fulfilling me. In fact, I continued to feel increasingly empty.
I would often look in the mirror and pick apart my body parts, staring at myself with intense loathing. My body had purple and red scars where my skin’s elasticity could not keep up with the rate of my body’s shape changing. I guarded my stretch marks like a shameful secret and they were the number one reason in my mind that I could never truly be beautiful to men… and never would be. If I could only actually have a body that was loveable, then, I reasoned, I would feel loved.
Yes, at 14 years old everything was about a billion times more intense than it is now – every feeling, every thought and paranoia. Today my stretch marks are long faded, they are white rivulets on my milky skin and I don’t think of them often, they are just a part of the map of my body. But, at that time of my life, they were the reason for my world ending and no doubt, if it hadn’t have been stretch marks, it would have been some other obsession. For a while it was my nobbly knees, for other girls it is their thighs, their hips, their weight, their nose, their shape, their feet . . . their personality, their shyness. Take your pick, there is no end to the amount of things that we can focus on in order to bring ourselves undone.
But what is really taking place? What are we really trying to undo?
In some ways my insecurities acted as a form of protection. Often when things were happening too fast with a guy it was the shame of my body that stopped me from going further. But the truth was I wanted the true intimacy and care of a guy, not just the physicality – and that care was rarely there, so why didn’t I just say so?
Why did I make the self-loathing of my body my reason for not sleeping with a guy? Why couldn’t I just say no because it didn’t feel right for me?
Only now in my thirties have I come to realise that I actually never truly hated my body.
The hating just provided a distraction from something I was much more uncomfortable with – my power.
And no, at this point the article does not turn into a claim-the-goddess-within-and-do-a-rain-dance-on-the-night-of-the-full-moon type self-help article designed to get you to feel your power as a woman.
Power can be much more subtle than that and it doesn’t need a song and dance. It is a steadiness within that listens to a much deeper inner-knowing – it is in a look, a movement; it’s in the ability to say no. It is a way of holding yourself that allows your depth of beauty to be seen and received no matter the reaction.
Today men don’t look at me in the same way they did when I was fourteen years old. And it isn’t because I am 35 and no longer attractive. I am actually more beautiful than I have ever been, simply because I walk in the understanding that I always was.
Today men look at me with a mix of admiration, respect and true adoration.
Yes, they still see the beauty of my curves but more than this they clock a certain graceful quality emanating by the way I move and live. A way that isn’t seeking out their gaze but conveying the deep contentment I have being in my own skin.
This communicates that it is ok for them to be themselves, to be in their power as well – they can trust their own tenderness will be received around me and so they show it all the more. I am met by Gentlemen nearly everywhere I go.
This is the lost science between men and women.
When we play into the stereotypes of what we think men want, we are actually asking them, or confining them, to play a role that matches our need but never asks them to be who they truly are.
I act sexy and you tell me I am.
That’s the contract.
And yes the emphasis is on act because if we don’t actually feel truly and deeply content in our own beauty and our own skin then it can’t be anything but an act – an act that demands they fill the deficit we feel.
They then have to act in a way that is actually not true to their nature. In this contract we are in effect (whether overtly or inadvertently) asking men to objectify us. We are telling them “just react to the image of sexy I am projecting and don’t you dare call out the insecurity and need that is the driving force behind it.” In order to do this, they essentially have to shut down their sensitivity to the whole picture/package they are receiving and treat you as a body only. Cue: objectification.
And yes, many men shut down their sensitivity from the time they are young boys and so by the time that they are into their teen years many are already heavily conditioned to objectify women. Couple that with a huge dose of teen hormones and there is a lot that comes at young women to contend with. Yet we do men a grave disservice if we call this human nature, ‘machismo’ or use the term ‘boys will be boys’ to describe this kind of objectification.
While it is true to say this behavior is prevalent, it is not human nature – it is man denatured by society’s expectations and pressures.
We only have to look at the tenderness of young boys to know the delicateness and sensitivity that is the true nature of the gentleman.
And while women aren’t solely – or even partially – to blame (simply because blame is never an effective strategy to support change), we have to responsibly ask what part do we as women play in perpetuating the expectations on men that contribute to the level of now normalised objectification of women that we are witnessing the world over?
In my work as a media educator working with young people – a number of teenage boys have confided in me how uncomfortable they are with the expectations that are now placed on them. They tell me that they increasingly get sent semi-nude pics from girls that they barely know without ever even asking for them. “What are you supposed to do with that?” they ask me.
“Delete it, but read it,” I tell them. “Read the girl and why they are doing it. Feel the need, bring understanding, don’t judge, but don’t play ball to that. It is an imposition for them to send that photo.”
In fact it is a form of abuse.
We are horrified when we hear of boys pressuring girls to send them nudes and rightly so. There are sites dedicated to hunting down photos of girls and rating them and using the photos to blackmail them. This article in no way minimises the harms of this behaviour.
But it is time we had a super sensitive conversation about why we use our nudity and our bodies as a form of currency. And yes it is our right to do so, sure, we can argue that if we like, but while we exercise the right to use our bodies and our skin to get the hearts and likes we refuse to give ourselves – we are complicit in a culture that objectifies women.
Now more than ever our representation is in our hands. With the rise of Instagram we are our own media makers. What will we role model to men about what we truly want and how we want to be treated?
Will we buy into the pop-porn culture that is driving celebrity Instagram accounts? Or will we play by our own rules?
Does this mean that we are all to button up our shirts to the top and wear skirts that show no ankle?
No, it means we can start to honestly read what the intention is behind each photo we post. Are we celebrating ourselves? For all the sass and beauty we already know ourselves to be? Or are we chasing the 100+ likes and looking for the numbers on social media to tell us we are worthy?
When we respect how precious and sacred we actually are, and get comfortable with the power that follows, we will move in a way that asks men to honour their natural tenderness too.
Similarly I have seen how men who refuse to shut down their sensitivity and decency, naturally ask women to step up and be who they truly are.
Young men, no different to young women, want to truly be met and loved for who they are and not the image they project.
So who is going to be first to dare to let the projected image finally become transparent? Instead of playing into each other’s assumed expectations, what if we asked ourselves what we truly want and took it from there?
Could this be the key to the beginning of the end of the war of the sexes? Through a return to a truly tender way of being first with ourselves, we can’t help but naturally inspire that in each other.
Rebecca Asquith is a media educator and writer with a passion for women’s health and wellbeing. She is an organiser and presenter for the annual Girl To Woman Festival in Lennox Head, NSW. For more information see www.girltowoman.com.au