The Heck With the Male Gaze

A stockings and heels picture taken with a compact camera during a chat with a good friend. This is also an excercise on how
A stockings and heels picture taken with a compact camera during a chat with a good friend. This is also an excercise on how to exploit an awful auto white balance to get interesting results -- the yellow background wall is actually white.

As someone who goes around mostly in workout wear, I spent an agonizing couple of hours trying to figure out what to wear to a wedding I'm to attend in Manhattan next week.

I get that I'm too old to cash in on the new boho-chic looks with its droopy lace and scallopy hems, but what should I do about my attire, go cocooned inside some brocaded two-piece number with matching hat and shoes? I mean, I admire the Queen, but she's hardly my style model.

The whole question has me looking back to the days when a woman had to dress to go 'out,' trussing herself up so much she must have felt like a Perdue Oven Stuffer Roaster, with the tight rubberized bands of undergarments cutting into the delicate flesh of her hips and thighs.

Then too, she had to work her breasts into these industrial-strength bras that were covered over with so many concentric seams they looked as pointy as the Tin Man's hat.

I was just coming awake in my life at the very end of this era, which I think of as "Early Mad Men," and I do remember wondering: Why did lady grownups have to wear bras that made it look like they had a couple of nuclear warheads springing from their chests, at the same time as they were being urged to be ever so soft and receptive?

I sensed even then that looking as though you were 'sexually receptive' was in there too. That was always the unspoken part. I mean consider high heels alone, which tip the derriere back and up. In the animal world, that's called 'presenting,' and it's how the female of the species signals readiness for the great business of reproduction.

Even today, women are still expected to be presenting: "Here, sir: Here is my pleasant and open demeanor; I present it for you." Or "Here, sir: Here is my meticulously-applied eye makeup; again, for you."

I know we want to believe that we adorn ourselves FOR ourselves, but always the merchandisers and advertisers are subtly evoking that male audience of whom we should be ever mindful.

A man feels free to say, "Why the long face?" to a woman he has never met as he passes her on the sidewalk. A man would never say that to another man, not just because he isn't interested in the answer, but because he knows the inner climate of the person passing him is none of his business.

And yet, "Smile, honey!" is something I have had many men say to me, and what did that even mean? That I couldn't walk expressionless down the street thinking my private thoughts? That I had to be sending fond, affirming gazes around at everyone and everything? But why? Because it was my job as a woman to uphold some idealized image of smiling motherhood or wifehood?

Nowadays, I mostly do walk down the street with a smile on my face, but I don't do it because of the many strange men who have told me to "Smile, honey." I do it because I choose to.

And I guess if that's true then I can probably wear any outfit I want to wear, even for an evening wedding in Manhattan. I have two "finalists," one a pale green dress exactly like a dress Hillary Clinton wore in the year 2000, and the other a calf-sweeping navy number that my 15-year-old bought in 1994 and wore only once.

I'm leaning toward that one, to tell you the truth. It's plain and elegant, it requires no rib-squeezing infrastructure and I now know that, really, I'm the only one who has to like it.