I think that the reality is that most of the judgments we make of other people and how we may ‘gaze’ at them are not specifically about sex or their fitness for procreative success. They may be unconscious moral judgments about their fitness to be part of the in-group.
So, I listened to the CBC’s Q this morning while waiting in the car for Carolyn to come out of appointment with her optometrist. The interviewee Haley Morris-Cafiero is a fine arts professor at an American University and she’s just recently published a book called Watchers. Obviously, listening to the radio, I couldn’t see what she looked like, but the host, Piya Chattopadhyay’s questioning made it obvious she was trying to get Morris-Cafiero to admit that she was fat and that’s the reason people were glaring at her askance.
The book and the interview are revealing for a number of reasons. I’ll deal with a couple here. For one, people judge each other constantly. It’s a part of being a human being. If a person stands out in any particular way, is a statistical outlier by being super tall, super small, super thin or super fat, tattooed all over the place, a different colour or ethnic group than everybody else in a group, then there will be stares or at least oblique glances or gazes. This we cannot avoid. Morris-Cafiero’s documenting of the oblique glances at her because she’s fat, is what’s interesting here. She is unapologetic for being fat and why should she apologize? Well, some of us see obesity as a moral failure for which we need to apologize. Others see it as just a problem of overeating: we should just stop eating so much. We make fun of fat people. The internet is full of blogs and commentary objecting to obesity. Morris-Cafiero actually reports that there are blogs set up just to make fun of her size. She’s now chasing them down to mock how they look if she can find photos of the bloggers and commentators. Morris-Cafiero claims to be perfectly happy with herself and the way she looks. I have no reason to doubt her.
Her book is not about the issue some women have of being stared at because they are ‘attractive’ to someone or other. They may not be beautiful in any normative sense, but they can and do attract the carnal attention of some men or women. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Of course the fashion industry has no qualms about deciding for all of us who is attractive and who isn’t.
On another CBC item this morning I heard a comment about women’s bodies being a battle ground. Men stare. Men comment. Men catcall. Men, men, men. Of course we do. Some of us are stupid and have no moral or social brakes, so we catcall and make rude remarks. Some of us admire from a distance and would be mortified if a women called us out for staring at her. Some of us get caught on the odd occasion stretching out a glance at a particularly attractive woman and we’re soon reminded of our misdemeanour. Some of us are not attracted to women at all so we only admire feminine beauty from an aesthetic place. But most of us look and assess. We check out people. We watch. We undress people we find attractive with our eyes only. Sex is sex is sex. We may be offended by people looking at us with a carnal look in their eye, but we may be just as upset if they didn’t look. Of course men get looked at too. This is a two way street.
Dress often makes things interesting too. It’s easy to dismiss a focus on dress as just a side issue to the real issue which is physical attraction. Women and men in their dating years often dress provocatively if they can. When they do, it’s hard to feel sorry for them if people look a little too long or too closely. That said, I’m not making any apologies for sexism and discrimination based on sex. It’s just that us humans are geared for sex and that’s a two way thing. Sexism and sexual discrimination mean treating people unequally because of their genitals, not their brains.
Thankfully, us older people are less subject to the overheated, pheromone soaked dating world younger people are subject to. In fact, I think that us older types are more easily capable of thinking of people of the opposite sex in terms of their qualities and characteristics other than their sexuality and sensuality. That said, even as an old man, I can appreciate the aesthetic qualities of a younger member of the female sex. Those inclinations don’t just disappear overnight. I’m sure the same goes for women.
I think that the reality is that most of the judgments we make of other people and how we may ‘gaze’ at them are not specifically about sex or their fitness for procreative success. They may be unconscious moral judgments about their fitness to be part of the in-group. I think that goes for most people, young and old. We even look at children in strollers and unconsciously assess them for their future potential. We just do.
Being human is pretty funny if you can figure out how to get under our common prejudices and ‘see’ other people for what they are. It’s not easy because we have sexuality, procreation and morality all vying for attention and complicating things no end.