Nora Byrne
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Words

Arts, Arabic, Adventures

My Male Gaze

This is a re-posted piece from the early days of this blog, when I wrote about my experiences as an art model. It combines most of my favorite things: revered academics, art and nudes. 

I majored in Art History at a small liberal arts college, advised by the formidable John Siewert, Whistler scholar and the kind of lecturer you try to quote directly in your notes because everything he says is so eloquent.

"She's so hot." (Direct quote)

But I digress...

I love how modeling informs my interest in art that has come before, and vice versa. I began my love affair with Art History during Siewert's “Gender in 20th Century Art” class, which began with the required reading of an essay out of John Berger's Ways of Seeing.

Berger, John.. Ways of Seeing. London: British Broadcasting Corporation and Penguin, 1972.

Berger, John.. Ways of Seeing. London: British Broadcasting Corporation and Penguin, 1972.

This art historian’s insights into the role of the female nude in art put my feelings as a modern woman (granted, possibly an overly self-reflective modern woman) in the most explicative and eloquent fashion, putting my own everyday sensations into words in a way I would never have been able to. The ability to see my own experience as a phenomenon integral and influential in the world of art was what attracted me to Art History to begin with.

 

The article in question begins by illuminating the difference in social presences of men and women, continuing to define the ever-prevalent “male gaze,” which is the gaze of the viewer in art. 

“Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.” 

Hara practices her male gaze on Charles' pastel of me and my own reptile friend.

Hara practices her male gaze on Charles' pastel of me and my own reptile friend.

That one sentence introduced me to an explanation of a feeling I had always had, that of constantly evaluating my behavior in terms of how it looked to others. 

"A woman's presence expresses her own attitude to herself, and defines what can and cannot be done to her." 

With this in mind, establishing and maintaining my presence was my most prevalent social concerns. Before this had been done mostly unconsciously, but after reading this article I could think of it in these terms. While it did not change the inherent self-consciousness I felt as a woman, the fact that the discrepancy in male and female presences had not gone unnoticed was something of a comfort. It may have been my individual personality that related so entirely to this article; I wonder if my own self-awareness is more pronounced than others'. However, the relative self consciousness of others has little bearing on me coming to terms with my self awareness.

Apparently I never tried to see myself through Kim's eyes, who consistently got the strangest angles to paint..

Apparently I never tried to see myself through Kim's eyes, who consistently got the strangest angles to paint..

 

I read this essay years ago and, far from making me reject the idea of caring about how I presented myself to the world, it heightened my awareness and legitimized my thoughts. My hyper-self-consciousness was no longer my fault but rather a product of the society in which I was brought up. Released from accountability I reviewed my appearance and behavior over and over, able to control what others saw by watching myself. In some ways I resented this constant effort, which I now could believe was brought on by exterior pressure and not just my own neuroticism. 

Modeling brought an entirely new element to this habit of self-reflection. Suddenly watching myself was a useful thing; it was actually my job. In order to determine what kind of poses to do, I had to remove myself and try to see myself from the outside. I had done this anyway, but now it had a real purpose. I was no longer being forced into it by my personality and culture. With the added choice of pose and added "feeling" of the pose, my male gaze and female self were working together, or even at time I was able to have my female self control my male gaze.

Also, it really hurts your arms.

Also, it really hurts your arms.

I consistently refused to adopt the "Venus pose," which I was introduced to as the ultimate in feminine submission to the male gaze, and adopted the poses of women that I had learned "defied" the male gaze, one of which I plan to spend an entire post on. I spent so much time looking at and evaluating myself while modeling that I had less and less interest in doing so in other situations. I had successfully taken control of my male gaze and made it useful to my feminine self. This was one of the most beneficial results of my beginning to model, an unforeseen change in my sense of self that initiated a resolution of one of the stresses of my female self-perception.


I am re-posting this piece following the death of John Berger, and would like to add an aside from 2017. Not only was that chapter of Ways of Seeing a path to heightened self-awareness and platform for me to critically reflect on my modeling career, the class in which I read it convinced me to study Art History. Other chapters explore the form of photo-essay, blending words and visuals, occasionally using only the juxtaposition of images to form a vague and reader-centric narrative. I owe a large part of my educational and professional career path to Berger, who continues to have a profound affect on my writing. I am eternally grateful for everything this man taught me about communicating ideas, about art, and about myself.