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Gender query: Self-consciousness of image

I read a blog called The Beheld.

In this post, "Recommended Reading," Autumn Whitefield-Madrano discusses Naomi Wolf's The Beauty Myth and recommends some books that "go beyond" and "work alongside" Wolf's book. One of them is Ways of Seeing by John Berger. Whitefield-Madrano includes the following quote from the book:
A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. … And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman. … Thus she turns herself into an object—and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.
Whitefield-Madrano says that she relates to this quote.

I don't. Sometimes I dress to look and/or feel a certain way, but once I'm dressed, I don't go around constantly surveying myself. And when I do feel that way, I hate it.

So I'm trying to figure out whether this is in fact a part of being a woman or identifying as feminine (and thus my not doing it is part of my being genderqueer) or whether the author maybe doesn't know what he's talking about or is exaggerating what he's talking about (by using terms such as "continually" and "scarcely avoid").

I'd love for people of all genders to comment on this. What is your gender? Do you constantly watch yourself and feel aware of your image of yourself most of the time? Do you think women or people who identify as feminine usually do that?

Ways of Seeing was published in 1972. In what ways do you think enforced image self-consciousness for women or people who identify as feminine has changed since then?

This entry was originally posted at http://firecat.dreamwidth.org/765199.html, where there are comment count unavailable comments.

Comments

( 16 comments — Leave a comment )
moominmuppet
Mar. 11th, 2012 10:36 pm (UTC)
I identify as genderqueer, and don't usually feel this way unless I'm "dressed up" in some way, especially any kind of femme drag. A lot of it has to do with how the rest of the world reacts to me, too. I feel much less observed when I'm not in girl-drag.
graymalkin13
Mar. 12th, 2012 12:15 am (UTC)
A lot of it has to do with how the rest of the world reacts to me, too. I feel much less observed when I'm not in girl-drag.

This resonates with my experience. I wear baggy, shapeless dresses and birkenstocks whenever I'm out in public because they're the most comfortable option for me physically and emotionally. I don't feel like my outfits are girl-drag. If I were going to dress up in femme drag, I'd add jewelry, stockings, shoes with heels, and makeup. And I'd feel horrendously uncomfortable, and also very much observed, whether people were actually looking at me or not. The self-surveying thing would definitely kick in.

So even people who normally wear dresses aren't necessarily in girl-drag! I never thought of it in those terms before. I love it!
moominmuppet
Mar. 12th, 2012 12:22 am (UTC)
*nod* I have dresses that definitely aren't girl-drag for me. Then again, to assuage my own genderstuff I tend to refer to them as "utiligarments".
sashajwolf
Mar. 11th, 2012 11:09 pm (UTC)
I do feel that way all the time, but I have no way of telling whether that's because I'm a woman, because I'm femme, or because I'm a recovering bulimic.
baratron
Mar. 11th, 2012 11:52 pm (UTC)
I identify as "mostly female" and "geek girl". In my usual state of being dressed like an engineer (i.e. clothes that are comfortable & practical & cover the parts that make people scream if seen in public), definitely not. If I'm dressed up in girl clothes, especially traditional middle class woman clothes (e.g. at a family wedding) rather than my own preference of lolita-goth, absolutely. The more uncomfortable I am (both physically & socially), the more I feel like I have to watch myself.

I think I've established that the constant vigilance needed for traditional smart woman clothes is so bad for my mental health that I shouldn't ever do a job that requires them. Which is interesting, because I hadn't ever put that into words before now.

Does this answer your question?
graymalkin13
Mar. 12th, 2012 12:09 am (UTC)
Yes, yes, YES!!!!! to all of this!
slothman
Mar. 12th, 2012 02:10 am (UTC)
As a cis-male software engineer, it’s much the same for me— my daily wear is jeans and aloha shirts and I only worry about keeping the shirt tucked in and not spilling things on myself. If I’m in a tux, I pay a lot more attention to these details. The cut of the suit tells you how to move while wearing it, which gives a constant feedback that maintains that awareness the way something more comfortable wouldn’t. (I’m always surprised when I see people slouching while wearing a suit jacket, because you can feel the cloth tugging you the wrong way if you slouch.)
bunnybutt
Mar. 12th, 2012 12:03 am (UTC)
I identify as cis-female, and I have worked very, very hard to get past and beyond that sort of self-surveying and focus instead on actually experiencing the moment.

I credit a lot of therapy, fat-acceptance work, and, ironically, a brain injury, with my no longer engaging in that behavior.
graymalkin13
Mar. 12th, 2012 12:06 am (UTC)
I'm not current with genderqueer thought and writing, but I'll do my best to respond to this. I remember reading Ways of Seeing decades ago, but can't remember anything about the book. I think I liked it a lot at the time. The quote Whitefield-Madrano pulled out is conceptually consistent with the radical feminist theory I was reading in the 1980s and in that context, it still strikes me as well observed and well expressed. In other words, before feminism brought this constant self-auditing into the light, I think most women (probably including trans-women) in my culture and many others lived this way without even being aware of it. I believe that a lot of women still live this way. I would be interested in knowing whether this quote describes the experience of people of genders other than mine.

I am pansexual cis female. I would say I have a mostly feminine appearance. (By which I mean that I wear dresses 100 percent of the time and keep my hair as long as it will grow, but I don't wear makeup or non-flat shoes or nylons. I don't shave anywhere and I don't remove the small amount of facial hair I have.) But I experience myself as an androgynous being, not invested in "being a woman." I have various drives and fantasies that are considered "masculine" in my culture.

For much of my life, I often experienced what Berger describes. Even after exploring radical feminism and identifying with it, I was aware of my image most of the time. When I began to gain weight rapidly because of illness, my self-awareness turned into harsh self-criticism. It took years of work and interaction with the fat-acceptance community to find some acceptance of my body as it aged and my appearance became less "desirable."

These days, I'm not constantly surveying myself. I'm comfortable in the clothes I wear and I'm not trying to think of ways to "improve" my appearance (for example, by coloring my gray hair). My appearance is what it is, and I'm only conscious of it if someone comments on it. It's a much more serene way to live than the self-consciousness I had when I was younger.

In what ways do you think enforced image self-consciousness for women or people who identify as feminine has changed since then?

I'd guess that since the feminist discussion of "feminine" appearance entered mainstream culture (became more accessible to more women), it has created space for women to play with their image if they choose to do so -- even in small ways such as wearing green nail polish. So their image-consciousness could become pleasurable. It has also created the option of working to stop the constant self-surveying, by putting forth the idea that it's OK and liberating to do so.

As a side note, I find the notion of "people who identify as feminine" puzzling. It's not just because "feminine" has so many potential definitions. It's also because I don't think I've ever known well anyone who fits that description. I know people who identify as female, and people who prefer to look like the cultural standard of "feminine," but I really can't claim to understand people who specifically identify as feminine.
clawfoot
Mar. 12th, 2012 12:27 am (UTC)
I identify as female (cis), and I do the self-monitoring thing quite a lot, although I won't say "constantly."

I really can't tell, however, if I do it because I'm female, because I'm fat, or because I'm fat-female.

Probably "yes."
(Deleted comment)
pachamama
Mar. 12th, 2012 09:45 am (UTC)
Actually this sounds more like an age than gender thing to me -- when I was younger I was very concerned about how I appeared to others and self-monitored a lot. At half a century, I frankly don't give a damn and therefore don't.
pachamama
Mar. 12th, 2012 09:46 am (UTC)
And my gender identity is cis-female.
cakmpls
Mar. 12th, 2012 02:49 pm (UTC)
I am a cis-gendered straight woman, I guess. Dressed certain ways (for warmth and comfort, not gender presentation) I have been taken for a man a handful of times in my life, but overall I think anyone who sees me would say "female." However, when I think of "who/what am I," the first thing I think of isn't generally "a woman," and whenever someone says, "Women are this and men are that" or makes a quiz/test about it, I am as likely to fall into one category as the other.

I do not relate to the quotation, and to the best of my memory (I am almost 65)I never have. I have had situational concerns: Am I dressed appropriately for this potential employer? Will this boy I like think I look good? Will the nuns say my skirt is too short? and so on. But what the quotation describes? No.

ETA:I have never identified as "feminine." How much of that is just me, and how much is that from 1st through 12th grades I was the tallest girl in my class and I always thought of "feminine" as describing the petite girls, I can't say. Female, yes, to some extent; feminine, never.

Edited at 2012-03-12 04:33 pm (UTC)
ljgeoff
Mar. 13th, 2012 06:47 am (UTC)
I identify as female (cis), and I don't self-monitor much at all, nor do I tend to monitor others, so maybe it's simply that I don't much notice how people present themselves, as long as it falls within a fairly broad norm.

I am most comfortable in jeans and a tshirt, but wear buisness casual to work; I tend to ignore my clothes once I'm dressed. I notice if I've slopped something onto myself, but that's about it.
jillzilla
Mar. 14th, 2012 01:18 pm (UTC)
(I am writing this without reading any of the other comments so I won't be influenced by them)

I am a cis woman who isn't particularly "feminine" in how I present myself. I have started to discover in the past several years that there are a lot of people who pay this kind of attention to themselves, and I find it astonishing. I am very aware of my body, but of how it feels from the inside, not what it looks like from the outside. I do look at myself in mirrors (and I like what I see) and I'm rarely surprised when I see photographs of myself, so it's not some kind of disconnect from the visual side of myself, but I just don't think about what I look like. When I'm going into a situation where I'm expected to do so, like appearing on stage, I find that I don't really know how.

I've also wondered if it's part of why I've failed to find a partner, the most painful failure of my life so far. Maybe if I knew how to be aware of what I look like people would find me more interesting or valuable or sexy..but that might mean I would be a very different person, and there are people who find me very interesting, valuable, and sexy now.

( 16 comments — Leave a comment )

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