The male gaze has controlled how women look and behave for centuries. In ancient China, that view of women as decorative objects led to the brutal practice of footbinding that crippled Chinese women for a thousand years. Today, women in the West are still expected to be pleasing to men in how we dress and act. In celebration of National Coming Out Day, writer/ performer Yang-May Ooi looks at how coming out as lesbian can be a defiance against that objectifying gaze that is as much about personal empowerment as it is about sexual orientation.
The Controlling Power of The Male Gaze
In ancient China, women were treated as decorative objects for the pleasure of the male gaze. They were expected to stay within the home and be beautiful trophy wives. They bound their feet to make them small and dainty. This involved breaking the bones, cutting the flesh and tying the whole mess up in tight bandages so that the feet became smaller and smaller over time. The smaller the foot, the more beautiful it was thought to be. Their bound feet immobilized the women and became a symbol of their husband’s social status. Because a man who could provide hand maidens and sedan carriers for his wife, whose feet were so small she could not walk, was a rich and powerful man. Men also fetishise these small feet and love to gaze, handle and smell them.
In the modern West, we may not have footbinding in our culture but women are still expected to be decorative objects. In the media and in public discourse, women are judged by their looks and what they wear as much as, if not more than, what they have to say. We are expected to be quiet while men speak. Men feel they have the right to tell us to not look so glum and smile. They think have the right to comment on our appearance or whistle at us in the street. If we do not comply with the expectation of what we should look like or how we should behave under that male gaze, we are abused, trolled, bullied and shamed. No matter how intelligent, educated or high powered we may be, we feel judged, silenced, and threatened. The male gaze requires us to be compliant, complicit and self-judging.
In my twenties, I felt the internalised pressure to fit into that conformist idea of what a woman should be like. I was super feminine with big hair (it was the 80s!), beautiful clothes and beautiful shoes. I played up to my feminine, petite, feline looks. I let the men in my life take charge and let them be the heroes while I was their attentive audience. So long as I looked conventionally feminine, under their gaze I felt accepted.
But the disguise was crippling me. I suffered from depression and insomnia and had terrible back pain – all of which I hid from my friends and family. My acne was out of control but I managed to cover it with layers of make-up. I had a bad stammer which I managed by avoiding words that triggered it or by simply not speaking. I felt as if my spirit was broken.
Unbinding Our Sexuality
In my solo story performance Bound Feet Blues – A Life Told in Shoes, I explore the trauma of suppressing who we really are in order to fit in with cultural norms that require us to be a certain way. By interweaving the story of my great-grandmother in China who had bound feet and how I crushed and bound up my true sexuality, the brutal practice of footbinding becomes a metaphor for the broken sense of self that many of us have experienced as lesbians and as women.
I did come out. It felt terrifying and exhilarating all at the same time – as if I was jumping off a cliff. I portray this moment in Bound Feet Blues, this moment when I realised I was in love with my best friend, and also the morning I told my mother I was gay. Coming out was like an unbinding of my spirit.
By coming out, I stepped out of the male gaze. I no longer care whether they look at me or not – or if they do look at me, what they think of me. So I dress to please me. My style is tomboyish, a mix of masculine and feminine. I never wear skirts any more nor high heels. I don’t dress this way to defy or challenge the male gaze. The way I live my life is not to express opposition to men in the way that my earlier conventional femininity was a way of pleasing them. I make choices for me.
Coming out was not just about coming out as lesbian, but also coming out as my most creative and most powerful self. My acne cleared up with a few weeks of my coming out. My stammer is gone. I’ve been fit and healthy ever since. I have been able to combine my corporate career where I am out at work with a career as a bestselling author, award-winning TED speaker and acclaimed writer/ performer. I have been with my partner Angie for 21 years and we have the love and support of family and friends.
Coming Out As Our Best Selves
For me, National Coming Out Day reminds the world that we all deserve to be our fullest, most creative and powerful selves. When we are forced to suppress the core of who we are, we end up suppressing all of who that we can be. We live small, crushed lives beneath a judgmental gaze. If we can come out in all our glorious sexuality, we can blossom into the amazing human beings that we truly are.
For the women of ancient China, the male gaze is so internalised that they voluntarily cripple themselves in pursuit of a brutalised beauty. In our modern world, we may not be practicing footbinding but the male gaze still dominates our culture and keeps women, and others who are unacceptable to that gaze, belittled and judged. What would happen if we all stepped out of that judgmental normative gaze?
What if we all just simply stopped caring what men – or the mainstream – think? What if we just got on with our lives as noisy, boisterous, do-what-we-like, look-how-we-like uncontrollable women, lesbians and more?
What if we could create a world where we gazed on each other with acceptance and love? What if we all took inspiration from lesbians – and the LGBTQ+ community – and let our capacity to love create life-affirming change despite abuse, judgment and shaming.
What if we all came out as our most creative and powerful selves?