Friday, 17 May 2013

Don't Gaze at me, bro...

So I was feeling super deep and decided to broach a subject a bit more serious than usual... But still - don't expect anything academic or intellectual (my academic writing is for no eyes other than my professors! :P) - this is just my personal experience relating to a topic of great interest and importance to me, the objectification of woman. So here goes...

I first heard this dubious term "the Male Gaze" 5 years ago in my first year at uni in a Sociology class. Now I don’t want to get too far into the academics of it all, but what it basically is, in layman's terms, is that omnipotent presence of judgement women experience everyday – that feeling of constantly being under surveillance, of being on display, of being judged (by members of the opposite sex around you) and the way in which this objectification results in the woman’s loss of a degree of her autonomy. The resultant effects of the male gaze on the female psyche, cause most to feel a (most often sub-conscious) constant need to adjust our appearance and behaviour to meet the standards of the gaze, an ever present sense of anxiety and insecurity at living up to its’ expectations – not to mention the effects of being reduced to nothing more than an object for appraisal and consumption by all men around us on our sense of self-worth, our capabilities and our possibilities. The male gaze exists all around us, in many forms of voyeurism enjoyed by men in private and in public and is demonstrated most obviously in advertising, and as argued by feminist thinker (pictured below), Laura Mulvey, in film.

Now all these years after that fateful Sociology class, having been a political philosophy scholar with a keen interest in gender studies issues (and now proudly calling myself a feminist, however complex and often misunderstood that term is), I have, in my university career, covered a fair amount of theory relating to this subject. And while small instances in my life could most certainly be related to it, I found that it wasn’t until I had left uni and taken up a temporary job waitressing to try and save up money for my working gap year, that I really felt the full force of this oppressive force weighing down on me in my own personal life in terms of the people around me.

As a waitress it is quite literally your job, naturally, to wait on people, to serve them and attend to all their needs while they are in your care in the restaurant. Little did I know that this being the nature of the job, would put me in the most compromising of positions when I encountered what would become the many ‘romantic advances’ from the male patrons. At first, of course, it’s sorta flattering when strangers off the street give you compliments, or (as was most common) asked how much you’d like for lobola (the traditional form of dowry paid by the husband to the wife’s family ‘in exchange’ for marrying her, in many of the local cultures within South Africa, where I live). But that wore off incredibly quickly, let me tell you. Now I don’t wanna be one of those annoying girls who sit around complaining about how guys are just absolutely fawning over them and its “oh so terrible,” while loving every minute of it – to whom most people roll their eyes and respond with something like “Sure, sure – awful to be loved, hey!” And I actually did get this highly annoying response from some people to whom I tried to express my dismay. But seriously, it really is not fun. And it did a lot more, psychologically, than give me even more reason to hate wearing skinny jeans. (Being much more of a floral summer dress kinda gal to begin with, I wasn’t a big fan of pants in general, but this job made absolutely loathe the required uniform item of jeans, which hugged and highlighted what became my most appreciated body part by said male customers.)

Imagine a man, in about his late 40’s say (I’m 22 by the way), walking into the restaurant, spotting you bustling back and forth serving your tables, and asking HIS waitress to call you over. He initiates a conversation about how he just HAS to get your number/take you out sometime/MARRY YOU etc. etc. You need to be serving your customers, are exhausted, and quite frankly pretty grossed out by this guy and his advances. But, the mere fact that you are in this position of service, forces you to have to smile coyly, and desperately try to turn down his advances while still appearing cheerful and flattered by them – often having to make up excuses like imaginary boyfriends or restaurant policies, just to try and get said guy off your back. And all the while you are just thinking: “Firstly, you don’t stand a chance in hell and what I really mean to say when I say ‘aw, that’s so sweet’ is that is so damn objectifying, please could you just stuff right off, thank you very much.” Which of course, you can’t show.

And now imagine this is actually one of your customers! Once you have turned down the repeated advances, painfully trying to maintain a convincing smile through it all, you have to constantly return to the table another 10 or 20 times while they persist with them. And imagine that this happens ALL DAY LONG. And when especially explicit comments have been made about your appearance (most often to the other waitresses in Zulu, which they in turn relay to me, and most often involving my bigger-than-most-white-girls’ butt) I have to then literally feel their piercing gaze every time I am forced to walk back and forth past their table, simply trying to get on with my frikken exhausting job. All the time never forgetting to flash that award winning smile but still trying to strike that balance between being a nice, polite waitress, and desperately not wanting to encourage any more attention. Such attention even coming from people as “high profile” as one of the president’s sons, a notorious business man often mentioned in the news, whose first words to me were that “I had the body of an African woman” and that it was for this reason that he just “HAD to take me out.” And who, when I did my usual trick of stating the obstacle of the imaginary boyfriend, responded with “Well, he doesn’t have to know.” So sleazy, right?

The feeling of literally being reduced to nothing but my ample behind by so many men walking into the restaurant really started getting to me after a while (and not a very long one). I mean, not one of them actually tried to ask any real questions about me, or try and ascertain if I was a nice person, if I was smart, if I had any ambition or even any personality to speak of. Maybe if any of them really seemed interested in any of that I wouldn’t have felt so bad. But that’s just it. Who I actually was didn’t matter. And you would think that for a girl who has been plagued all her life by crippling self-esteem and body issues, who most, I am sure in describing me would put me in the smart-nice-sweet-pretty-face girl category (rather than the oh-my-goodness-she’s-so-drop-dead-gorgeous one) – would appreciate some good unadulterated appreciation of nothing but her looks. But, you’d be wrong. It really did make me feel like shit (excuse my French). The fact that man after man who walked into the place simply felt they had the right to give me such an unrequested appraisal on my appearance right off the bat, the right to look me up and down, to very obviously nudge their colleagues with a creepy smile on their face and discuss my “assets” with them over their meal, the right to so explicitly make their interests known – was mind boggling to me. And that fact that all these pot-bellied, balding old dudes would actually think that I would, what, simply fall into their arms, that they actually stood a chance, was even a little insulting.  

All my discomfort at these constant advances, at this quite literal male gaze I was exposed to for hours on end while at work, culminated in a really rather nasty experience with one customer in particular. This time it was with a younger guy, probably in his late 20’s by the looks of it, who strolled with what could only be described as some attempt at white-boy swagger on a Sunday morning, and while I was serving him innocently slips me a completely inappropriate and lewd note (the contents of which I won’t repeat here), after not even having said more to me than pointing out which breakfast he’d like. Having been handed this note and instructed to read it in private, I walked back to the kitchen, I expected it to simply be his number or something (having had numbers handed to me countless times before) – but oh boy, was I wrong. I was so shocked and taken aback by it that I immediately tore it in half and threw it in the bin, not knowing what to do next. Should I go and tell the manager? Should I throw the coffee I was about to take back to his table in his face?

While I certainly would have liked to do the latter, accompanied with some choice words on what an awful pig he was, I was literally paralysed inside. I took him his coffee and then asked one of the male waiters to finish the table for me, ‘cause I didn’t know how to react when I went back. I didn’t tell my manager until much later when he’d already gone. And I didn’t show anyone the actual note. The shock just took over me. And while a little scribble on a piece of paper from some low life should really be something I could easily shrug off, I had the strangest reaction to it. I was in a haze all day, feeling gross, and strangely violated by it – even though nothing really happened. And I even felt quite ashamed. Like somehow this was a reflection on me. I didn’t want to tell people because I felt they’d somehow make assumptions about me based on it – “maybe she had been flirting with him, somehow indicating such an advance would be appropriate.” Now obviously this is utterly ridiculous, I know, but is very obviously, in hindsight, a reaction stemming very clearly from the victim-blaming culture of gender-based violence today (even though this was such a minor little case of harassment). It really affected me. And the powerlessness I felt (as someone who has been known to speak her mind quite openly, even when it was unpopular or unwanted) to deal with this situation was crippling.

I quit that job a few weeks ago (not because of this constant objectification, although it certainly contributed to making this work environment really unsuitable for me). And the relief of not having to deal with this on a daily basis, at least not at that concentrated level, is immense, I must say. But the experience did really open my eyes to just how much our mere presence, our physical being, is quite literally owned in spaces filled with men like these. We are walking objects to be examined, judged, consumed, acquired. And to downplay the significance of the effect of this objectification on one’s sense of self really cannot be underestimated – most importantly by men. I think most guys really struggle to understand how these daily encounters make us feel like (whether they are themselves sexist or misogynistic, or not). Even my own big brother, when I tried to explain it to him, nonchalantly said “Well don’t think about it like that, just don’t let it affect you.” But what people don’t understand is that the emotional effect that this male gaze has on us simply is NOT our choice. We cannot control how we feel about it just like we can’t control when we’re going to encounter it and from whom it is going to come. It is all around us, it is pervasive, it is present in all forms of media and in all our encounters with people in all situations. And because of its omnipresent external existence it is imbued upon our being and becomes unconsciously and uncontrollably self-imposed from the inside out. It is not our choice. And that is the whole point. We, as women, are once again thrust into a space of choice-less-ness. And this space is our whole world. 

Whew... Enough intense-ness for now! :P 

Here's wishing peace and love and better times ahead to all you lovelies out there <3 

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Random rambling about love and stuff…

So I’ve been thinking a lot about love lately. About how it happens. About how we fall in love and when and why. About what it does to us, how it makes us feel and act. And about how we even know that that’s what’s happening, that that’s really what we’re feeling. I have felt very differently on the subject at various times in my life. Depending, I suppose, on where exactly I sat with love at each particular moment.

Like, for example, how do we really know that we are not duping ourselves into this magical fantasy borne by a need to fulfil our desperate longing for comfort, for company, for acceptance – and ultimately to be loved back? I know, that I, for example, have an abundance of issues (daddy issues, abandonment issues, insecurity issues, body issues etc. etc.). Basically, I am a basket case. And at times I have worried about these things both perhaps making it too easy for me to fall in love, and at the same time, making me too insecure to accept the reality of someone actually loving me back. (You know the old “we only accept the love we think we deserve” thing.)  

The first time I realised (decided?) I had found this amazing, wondrous thing called love – as in I had FALLEN IN LOVE with someone, it was simultaneously the most exhilarating and most terrifying thing I had ever felt. It was a reality that had been creeping up on me for a while, but which, once I had allowed it to take over me, did just that – latched onto every ounce of my being, refusing to dissipate.

I also remember, admitting this to the person with whom I had these oh-so-overwhelming feelings for, and it being one of the most awful experiences of my life. It’s something I haven’t thought about in such a long time, and even know, my chest is physically tightening just at the memory, welling up with anxiety recalling how I felt that momentous night. Now, I realise now, although the delivery could have admittedly perhaps been a tad more tactful, that the person in question was in fact doing the right thing in being honest about where they stood in the grand scheme of this while love deal. (Even though, it was perhaps not the most conducive space for that person to be in for my very first declaration of such feelings from my side – though this was no fault of their own). But basically, the response I got consisted of two things – 1. I didn’t really know what “being in love meant” and 2. He couldn’t promise me that he would reciprocate such feelings (due to past issues in this area). The first thing infuriated me (how could he presume to tell me what I was and was not feeling), and the second thing very nearly shattered me (being an already incredibly insecure girl to begin with, with a mortal fear of having no one ever falling in love with her). I remember, running in tears to friends and sitting crying my eyes out for what seemed like ages at having received this response, after having made myself so vulnerable to this other person.

Obviously, this memory is such an ancient one, and it barely seems to factor in the grand scheme of that relationship – for we both did go onto having an incredibly intense connection in the end, and undoubtedly both fell very much in love with one another (despite it not ending in the greatest way). And as first loves go, despite the eventual pain caused later on, I certainly did experience something magical and wondrous. I truly did learn what it felt like to get completely consumed by this powerful force, and what it felt like to truly and unshakably (however fleetingly) loved by another human being.

But this memory does make me wonder so much about this intangible, unquantifiable thing that we all long for so much and yet which we cannot define or explain with any kind of certainty. How much of love is a decision? How much of it is steered by our past experiences, our deep rooted needs? How much do our scars hinder or heighten our ability to even fall in love in the first place?

The only other person I have had this real love experience with provided me with an admittedly much more positive “declaration moment,” if you will. It actually is one of the loveliest memories I have of our relationship and still makes me smile to this day. After weeks of us saying other silly things to each other while really knowing what we meant, but not daring to use those actual three little words, I finally felt the time had come for me to pluck up the courage and just say it. After my first experience of doing so, I was understandably super nervous about repeating this experience, it not exactly having been something which had imbued me with much confidence. But I was going to do it anyway, I decided. And as I sat there in front of him on the bed, my nerves absolutely killing me, I thought I should start with a little disclaimer, you know – I want to say something but I totally don’t expect you to like reciprocate or anything, etc. etc. – which I rambled off rather incoherently and at lightning speed. And realising exactly what I was obviously about to say he quickly interrupted and said it first. Of course his flippen competitive self had to beat me to it. :P But it wasn’t just that, I’m sure. I think he knew that that was exactly what I needed – to hear it as a first offering rather than a response, to quell my ever doubtful and insecure self. It truly was a one of those movie type moments, too adorable to feel real, and filling me with a kind of giddiness I cannot explain. (And now I am tearing up just writing about it! I am hopeless, I know.)

How is it that, even though these experiences of love happened so long ago, and even though so much has happened since them, they still touch me to my core when I think about them? Both my experiences of love ended in quite soul destroying ways I must say, though both very different from one another. And some days the pain caused lingers more than the love does. But mostly it’s not actually the bad things that happened that hurts the most – but rather the fact that these things meant the loss of love. They meant I had to give up something I was desperate to hold onto, something that was so precious to me that I had found in this other person – that exquisite and magical and wondrous feeling of love.

Ultimately, I don’t have answers to any of these questions (like most of my blog posts – this one is utterly void of any real use :P), but in saying that it probably doesn’t really matter that much in the end. Don’t get me wrong – from really, really young I have always thought that it is extremely important to be self-aware, to understand who you are, what you have been through, and how your past experiences have an effect on the choices you make later on in life. But really, no matter where this love thing comes from it is something beautiful – a feeling which really can’t be compared to anything else in the world. Of the many negative effects of being in this space of in-love-ness, I shall not speak now; this is perhaps another blog post for another day. For now I just want to say, I really cannot come anywhere close to adequately expressing how much I appreciate those people in my life who gave me the opportunity to love them, and to be loved by them.

To all those in or out of love – I wish you peace and love like you’ve never felt before (even if you have to wait a little while for it to come along), and in the mean-time – there are always chocolate chip cookies! :)

Hellogoodbye - Oh, It Is Love
Your heart may long for love that is more near
So when I'm gone these words will be here
To ease every fear
And dry every tear
And make it very clear
I kiss you and I know

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

I want to fly away

So, I finally gathered up the courage to quit my AWFUL waitressing job that was making me utterly miserable and am now on the look out for a new job to tide me over until I (hopefully) hop on a plane and fly off to South Korea in August. But in the meantime, I must say, I am getting cabin fever of note… I haven’t even been back in Durban for that long, I realise this. But still! The monotony of everyday life and the extreme FOMO of seeing all the wonderful things other people are doing all over is starting to get to me a little. Ok, a lot.

I do feel somewhat like a big unappreciative baby, I should just suck it up, make the most of this down time I have, and generally just CALM THE F**K DOWN. But I am having a whiney moment and I’m going to make the most of it in this space – because after all, I do moaning sessions so very well on this thing. :P
I just want to be shot of here! I know it’s gonna be crazy hard, and crazy scary. And I know the hardest thing of all will be to leave my friends behind indefinitely – because they absolutely mean the world to me. But I feel like my life hasn’t started until I have actually left. I need this to happen and I need it to happen soon. A complete life change. Something to mark the beginning of things for real. A real job, a new place, complete independence. A real adventure!!

So for now I will continue to long for new, unseen places and feel sorry for myself :P Hopefully not for too much longer though. Still got a ton to do to actually make that adventure happen…

Forgive me, for I know despite my unappreciative impatience, that I am very blessed.

Peace and love and new adventures to you all <3