By Anna Johns
I was twelve when I first realised I wasn’t the only one who was interested in my clothes. It was our termly non-uniform day and, inspired by the YouTube girls of the early 2010s, I had donned a skater skirt, floral vest, and flower crown to match. Just before period two, a supply teacher pulled me aside and reprimanded me for the bra strap that was peeping out from under the vest. It was a disgrace, she said. It wasn’t fair on the male teachers. Being a fairly sensitive pre-teen, I promptly burst into tears.
This was my first experience with the “male gaze”. The idea that women were passive, sexual objects that existed to be watched by men.
As a kid, my relationship with fashion was centred mostly around enjoying myself. I’d dress myself head to toe in vibrant reds, greens or purples depending on which Rainbow Magic book I was reading that day; I begged my mum for leg warmers on the way home from gymnastics class; I rifled through Primark with my friends on Saturday afternoons, searching desperately for the latest moustache-themed t-shirt. There was no audience for my outfits, just an expression of the things I loved, found funny, felt comfortable in.
Still, I got older. And time and time again I encountered images of the “perfect woman” created by the beauty and fashion industries: in magazines, on TV shows, on Instagram. I was advertised makeup, clothes, skincare that I was told would make me “beautiful”. My favourite YouTubers sold me lipsticks and beauty blenders whilst my friends and I asked each other if our clothes made us look fat. I learnt to equate my happiness and self-worth with whether I was deemed attractive to men.
Every day, I would put on a full face of makeup to go to school. By sixth form, I chose clothes in colours that made me look skinnier, opted for cuts that hid my broad shoulders, wore skirts that made my legs look longer. I claimed I was doing these things for myself – it was empowering to feel beautiful.
But why did I want to be “beautiful” so badly? And what is beauty anyway?
It wasn’t that I was trying to impress any specific boys at school. Instead, I was aspiring to beauty standards that society had told me men would find attractive. I’d internalised the male gaze so much that I wasn’t even aware I was catering to it – yet it was so present in my life that my whole style revolved around impressing it.
I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with dressing in a way that conforms to beauty standards, but I think it’s important we examine why we’re doing it. There was definitely no joy for me in waking up an extra thirty minutes early to paint my face in makeup before school.
Slowly I became aware of this phenomenon and how it affected my style and behaviour. But it’s one thing to become aware of the male gaze, it’s another thing entirely to unlearn it.
I’m trying my best to bring the naivety of my childhood back into my style. To dress, as I did then, for nobody but myself – for real this time. I know I’ll never quite bring back that childish carelessness, not with the awareness I now have of the value society places on women’s beauty, or my constant underlying desire to be perceived as pretty that it’s proving hard to fight.
However, it’s been liberating all the same. No longer feeling constrained by a need for my clothes to make me look slim and gorgeous, I’m free to experiment. Sparked by a newfound obsession with crystals and horoscopes, I raided charity shops for maxi skirts and boho trousers. An admiration for the styles I’d seen whilst living in Paris last year led me to introduce business casual and menswear silhouettes into my wardrobe, no longer worrying that the boxy cuts of these clothes would hide my figure. I’m making a conscious effort to stop caring if these styles make me “pretty” or “desirable”, and instead asking myself if they bring me the comfort and self-expression that those Rainbow Magic outfits did all those years ago.