The Female Gaze In The Digital Age

What’s my mind saying when it types in the first few letters of the web address of a favorite fashion or beauty blog? Something like: Show me all the pretty colors. The human brain apparently wants to be used, wants its storage to be filled, sorted, cleaned out, reorganized, refilled. But these digital — they are mostly digital now — compulsions of mine exist to give my brain a break. As if it needs one: vast regions of the mind appear to never be used; they rarely, if ever, light up. But the pleasure center of my brain certainly lights up when, for example, I look at a slideshow of different colors of NARS Satin Lip Pencils on the blog Into the Gloss. This blog is a stop on my daily Internet vacation, my rountine jaunt away from work and general difficulties. The vacation is, at this point, well-planned, controlled. My itinerary no longer permits me to scroll through Twitter because that almost always elicits a (not totally justified) feeling of despair, or at least malaise. I want to admire, and I want guaranteed results. This means looking at photos — of clothes, makeup, and sometimes interiors.

I live in Manhattan, a visually-minded city. It is a place at which people unfairly hurl insults like “ugly” and “dirty” (a friend prefers the pairing “caustic and toxic.”) It’s place where it’s admittedly difficult to remember to stop and smell the roses (“What roses?” you say). But there is beauty everywhere here: often in front of you, and invariably above you, on the facades of old buildings.

The easiest way to find visual pleasure here is of course to look at what people — increasingly both sexes, not just women — are wearing. New York is a city where women often engage in what my boyfriend calls “sizing each other up” but which I prefer to call “admiring observation.” We are gazing, a word which has some unfortunate synonyms (“scrutinizing,” “inspecting”), but which, to me, only has positive connotations. We are taking note. We are impressed, even if we don’t have enough presence of mind to smile at the objects of our admiration. We mean well, and sometimes we mean far more. Sometimes we fall in love.

I fall in love a few times a week. The last time was with a woman standing on a street corner wearing suede platform booties, skinny black jeans, and a tailored knee-length single-breasted black coat. She had a common color of brown hair — my color, light brown — cut to somewhere between earlobe and chin. She had so much hair, more even than Alexa Chung, patron saint of the short blunt cut, ensuring she could pull off this cut any day of the year without styling it much. She was at least 5’10” with the booties on, towering over her well-dressed if slightly paunchy boyfriend, who (naturally) wore a thick beard, as well as a maroon wool scarf tucked into a navy blue blazer, expensive-looking dark jeans, and probably some kind of Redwing-esque “work” boot — I was too captivated by her to notice his shoes.

They stood on the corner of Second Avenue and East Houston Street at ten o’clock on a Saturday night looking unjustifiably nervous, given how serenely perfect they looked. They were not trying to catch a cab; they were not lost. They were waiting for someone important — a boss, a client. She picked lint off the shoulders of her coat by the light of streetlamps and car headlights. She was more nervous than he. Her clothes and lightly made-up heart-shaped face were armor against the newness soon to be before her. She seemed not totally convinced that the armor would protect her, but I was. I watched them from across the street. Eventually the other pair arrived; she shook hands with both newcomers and they all made their way east. I wanted to know their story. Specifically, I wanted to know from whence their power came, because that was the essence of what they were conveying: power, in their own unique but recognizably New York way, and unshowily, unaggressively, gracefully.

This kind of real-world stimulation seems to negate the need for the Internet. Or rather, the city is so stimulating on its own that when I go inside, I should probably just stare at a white wall (certain gym treadmills can provide occasion for this). I would like to say that at home I only stare at white walls, read books, and listen to the radio (in other words, give visual stimulation a rest) but the reality is different. Though it has no real point, no professional function (professional function being the most important kind of function in this town), I do a lot of reading of fashion and beauty blogs (and, lest I forget, watching of makeup tutorials on YouTube). I am feeding a drug-like addiction, a need for colors and beauty, for variety and novelty. These can all be obtained in books, if I am willing to use a little more of my brain. But visuals are a quicker fix, an immediate surge of pleasure. Looking at faces made up in the latest lip innovation, and photos of regular people wearing beautiful clothes, is a kind of gallery-going, a form of art patronage.

Companies like Facebook and Twitter are obsessed with trying to monetize our gaze, particularly the gaze of women in my age bracket: potential moms and moms. Neither company has figured out how to earn its valuation yet, perhaps because they don’t have the right kinds of people working for them (they definitely don’t have enough women working for them). A Facebook ad for a wedding company called Weddington Way showing a selection of indistinguishable, ugly bridesmaids dresses photographed against a stark white background is not going to entice me to buy any Weddington Way product (in fact, all Weddington Way ads make me want to punch my computer screen). What do I really want to see? Put simply: regular people looking incredible. I want to see how beautiful things exist in the real world. The Internet is the great democratizer, and over the past decade and a half, it has trained my brain to want things presented reasonably, fairly, accessibly.

I still enjoy a good magazine editorial, but my visual compulsions veer toward street fashion blogs; interviews with interesting women about their makeup and beauty routines; makeup tutorials; and the Instagram accounts of well-dressed people. Each of these is a marriage of fantasy and reality, a marriage of the unaffordable and the everyday, of splurging and making do. If and when print magazines die, I will not mourn those that have tried, on every page, to perpetuate a fantasy that only the one percent can afford to recreate. Those magazines appear to think that the one percent is the only slice of society buying expensive clothing and beauty products. Not so: millions of us who can’t even afford luxury items still buy them. But we don’t do it as reliably as the one percent, so in moments of panic (2007-present), the magazines appear drop us, if they even cared about us in the first place.

The Internet has helped push aside the negative emotions people can feel toward fashion — envy, resentment — and brought admiration to the fore along with curiosity, individuality and rebelliousness. A fashion blog is an open door, while certain magazines feel like impassable velvet ropes, doors slammed in your face. There are thousands of points of entry now, not eight. The points of entry are mostly free, but they shouldn’t be, and in the future they might not be. The price we currently pay to read a blog like Into the Gloss is that we have to look at a few ads for beauty products, and read a few ads that read like blog posts. This is a very small price to pay (as a writer who writes for many Internet-based publications, I admit bias in favor of paywalls). Yet it appears to be working. Why can’t more companies do advertising as well as blogs like this one do? That is to say, why can’t more companies actually give us what we want?

If certain overvalued social media behemoths die along with print magazines, it’ll be hard to care much. I’ll miss having an online address book of my 512 Facebook friends, but I won’t miss whatever Facebook is currently trying to sell me. These companies don’t seem willing or able to step in our shoes. But it’s surprisingly easy to do: look at what your smaller peers — the blogs — are doing. Spend more time searching for beautiful things on the Internet, and think more about what it means, in the digital age, to look. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

image – Shutterstock

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