“Men look at women, women watch themselves being looked at,” hypothesised art critic John Berger back in 1972.
Since then, the male gaze theory has been discussed and dissected countless times: from film theorist Laura Mulvey’s seminal 1975 essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema", right up to illustrator Florence Given’s continued critique of society’s objectification of women. It should come as no surprise that an idea first posited five decades ago still resonates today, given that this culture of objectifying women is very much alive and well.
But what happens when women look at men? If the male gaze lingers on the most sensual parts of a woman’s body - the curve from the hip to the waist, the swell of cleavage - where does the female gaze linger? What do women see when they look at men? Tori Telfer, writing in Vulture back in 2018, had a simple answer: the female gaze “sees people as people.”
This idea that the female gaze sees men as people - not objects - is currently all over TikTok. The app is brimming with videos from men asking for feedback on their dating app profiles, with many questioning why photos of them looking ‘conventionally attractive’ don’t do so well. Women in the comments are quick to point out that they aren’t as focused on their partner’s appearance as men.
Alejandro, 29, was one straight man who thought muscle pics would be a surefire way to rake in matches from straight women. When he realised that he was having more success with photos in which his muscles weren’t centre stage, he made a TikTok asking women why this was the case.
“I was curious to find out why I was getting more matches when I wasn’t as fit compared to when I was super fit,” he tells Refinery29. “Before I saw the responses I honestly thought that girls wanted a guy that’s fit, has muscles, abs, biceps, triceps, and all that. I was very surprised to find out that it’s the opposite of that.”
The comments prove that Alejandro couldn’t have been more wrong in assuming that all women want muscles. “The first guy looks like he would cheat on me,” the top comment reads, referring to the photos of Alejandro tensing his muscles. Another user writes: “Because honestly only men are impressed by muscles like that.”
Dr Claire Hart is Associate Professor of Social and Personality Psychology at the University of Southampton. She suggests that women aren’t judging the content of these photos, but their implications instead. “Research suggests that women (and indeed men) find well proportioned muscular men more attractive. Based on our ancestral past, signs of physical strength would be linked with an increased chance of survival,” she explains.
“[But] without knowing much else about that person other than what is presented on their dating profile, you may make certain attributes about them which negatively impacts their desirability,” she continues. “For example, how much time do they devote to maintaining their musculature body? Would they do this at the expense of spending time with you? Do they have narcissistic tendencies? You might not stop to find out.”
This links back to Telfer’s idea that the female gaze sees “people as people”: instead of honing in on the desirability of men’s muscles - no matter how fit a man may be - women on dating apps seem more likely to consider what type of person would take a dozen mirror selfies with their abs out. “It is worth noting that the man in the TikTok video still looks well built and strong in both of his profiles,” Dr. Hart adds. “He may just appear more approachable in the latter one.”
Claire, a 23-year old student, is one TikTok user who replied to Alejandro’s original video with a TikTok of her own. In the video, she explained why she thought his pictures didn’t do so well. “The reason you didn’t get matches when you were super fit like that is because what you were subscribing to was the male power fantasy, not the female gaze,” she says. “The truth is that men tend to care a lot about aesthetics in their partner, but women don’t really care that much about it.”
Speaking to Refinery29, Claire expanded on this point. “Men tend to value power, strength, and hypermasculinity, and therefore assume that women find those things attractive just because men value them,” she explains. “I think women tend to just put the focus less on appearance and a lot more on emotional intelligence and how kind a man is.”
Dr. Hart affirms Claire’s suggestion that women are less aesthetically-focused than men - and explains that it’s an idea backed up by research on human evolution. “Most evolutionary theories would agree [...] they claim that both sexes need to assess potential mates carefully but there are different drivers for men and women,” she says. “A man’s main criteria in choosing females should be to ensure they are fertile. Attractiveness cues serve as indicators of reproductive status – a youthful appearance, curvaceous body shape, etc.”
“A woman’s investment in parental efforts is substantial in comparison to men,” Dr. Hart continues. “Her best chance of reproductive success is to ensure survival of her few precious offspring. Females’ optimal strategy is to be choosy in choice of mate and seek a committed partner.”
It seems that, in part, this disconnect between what men think women want and what women actually want springs from the fact that many men struggle to imagine a woman’s perspective - in any context. It’s not only why dating apps are flooded with gym selfies, but also why so many men expressed shock (or disbelief) when it was revealed that 97% of young women have experienced sexual harassment. These may seem like two extreme and discordant examples, but it’s symptomatic of a wider societal problem: a chronic lack of empathy towards women.
As Claire says: “perhaps if more women were telling their stories and sharing their view of the world in the media, then society as a whole would begin to trend towards being more empathetic towards women - which would really be an improvement for society as a whole.”