Men don’t look at me the way they used to. In general, they don’t look at me at all. This is what happens when a woman turns 40 (50, 60 etc.). It’s a fact of life.
In theory, this is supposed to be an exhilarating passage in the life of a woman. At last we’re liberated from the tyranny of the male gaze! We don’t have to care what men think of us any more. We’re free to be our true, authentic self. We can wear a red hat.
In reality, it sucks. I’d give a lot for men to look at me like that again.
Two weeks ago, Ian Brown wrote a marvellous, candid, brave account in these pages in praise of girl-watching. It was a paean to the power of young female erotic beauty, from the point of view of a middle-aged man. It was brave because men aren’t supposed to look, especially if they’re older (dirty old men!), and they certainly aren’t supposed to talk about it, unless they confess they’re deeply ashamed of themselves. Some of the reactions to his piece bordered on the hysterical. Readers accused Mr. Brown of moral turpitude. Some conjured up the bad old days when women ran a gauntlet of hooting males at every construction site. Some practically equated his (purely theoretical) appreciation of younger women with sexual assault.
I was ticked off, too, but for a different reason. In his essay, Mr. Brown referred offhandedly to a woman he knows who just turned 50, “and is still attractive.” Still? What a slap.
The trouble with our repressed, Anglo-Saxon and drearily indoctrinated culture, where we’ve all had the evils of sexual harassment pounded into us for years and where even the mildest flirtation in the workplace has become impermissible, is that we’ve shut out an emotionally enriching part of life. This is the mutual appreciation of men for women, and vice versa. The French, who regard our mores as shockingly stifled, know how to do this. It’s as essential to them as eating well. In French culture, even women of a certain age are still considered erotically attractive. Christine Lagarde may run the International Monetary Fund, but she’s a woman who obviously enjoys her femininity. I’m certain men flirt with her. Still.
Older women also enjoy lustful thoughts, even age-inappropriate ones. I blush to say I sometimes encounter the handsome twentysomething son of some friend and secretly dissolve into a pile of goo. That chiselled jaw, those washboard abs, that lean physique and fine head of hair – no wonder one’s knees go weak. The reason we don’t confess to these attractions is not because people will think we’re predatory. It’s because they’ll think we’re ridiculous.
The worst injustice of being a woman is not the indignity of objectification by men. It’s the asymmetry of aging. Men are perfectly free to acquire younger mates and be admired for it. They’re blessed with nubile wives, second families and, later on, a faithful caregiver to spoon-feed them their Jell-O. But older women with younger mates remain a rare exception. In popular culture, at least, things usually end badly for the woman. Look at Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate. Or Demi Moore.
The reason for this cruel asymmetry is biology, of course. Once we’re past our child-bearing years, men are primed to lose interest in us. Our desire remains as strong as ever. But they stop desiring back. Curse Mother Nature.
When I gaze at the girls of spring, it seems like only yesterday that I was one of them. I wore long hair and short skirts, and sometimes men would pester me unpleasantly – far more unpleasantly than men would dare to do today, before the rules changed. But, on the whole, being gazed on was not at all demeaning. It was empowering. I was the one in charge, because the choice of how to handle any given male’s response was entirely mine. No matter how sexist or unfair it seems, no one in the world has more erotic power than a 20-year-old girl.
The trouble with the SlutWalk argument – that women should be able to dress as provocatively as they wish without being ogled or desired by men – is that these women want to have it both ways. They want to display themselves as sex objects without being regarded as sex objects. This isn’t going to happen. Women have a right not to be pestered, no matter how they dress. But if they really want to shut down the male gaze, they’d be better off to don the burka.
Memories of the erotic power conferred by the male gaze are essentially what keeps women wanting to look good. That’s why we make the effort. The other day, I ran into a guy I hadn’t seen for a while – a younger guy – who actually complimented me on my appearance. (He was gay, but so what?) “You look hot,” he said. And for one delicious moment, I believed him.