i want to apologise to all the women
i have called pretty
before i have called them intelligent or brave
i am sorry i made it sound as though
something as simple as what you’re born with
is the most you have to be proud of when your
spirit has crushed mountains
from now on i will say things like
you are resilient or you are extraordinary
not because i don’t think you’re pretty
but because you are so much more than that

– Rupi Kaur

Did you notice, Rupi, my gaze? Lingering a second longer than it should. Perhaps you guessed my thoughts as I looked into those eyes? Wondering at the passage of time since we last met? There was a time I told her she was pretty and lavishly bestowed the most saccharine of compliments. A fleeting memory in soft focus carried within the deepest recesses of an active imagination. Could she have once adorned billboards? Tell me that didn’t cross your mind too. Fulfilling the fantasies of every male gaze. Lowered or un-lowered – it’s all the same. To aspire to be beautiful, adored, coveted, envied. And now? A life etched onto the skin’s surface; a story emanating from every pore with the transience of youth swept aside. Women are pretty and men are brave. Society stakes its claim on feminine aesthetics and privileges the right to scrutinise. I know now. Our visual encounters so resolutely gendered as we search female faces and bodies for the covered-up truth. The mask is more than just foundations and concealers and contouring and strobing, hijabs, niqabs and dupattas. Men need only be bare, authentic. What is that I hear them say? A woman employs trickery to enhance? The gaze will see through her ‘mask’, her layers. Every attempt to present the best possible version of her ‘self’. 

And what of this ‘self’ that reveals itself, clear to the gaze that holds it in its view, objectifying and quantifying? Clumsy words defy my attempt to capture what the mind’s eye beholds. Only empty adjectives are prized: ‘pretty’. Who objectifies whom? Why and how? The answer is indisputable – from James Bond films to reality television, the symbolism that envelopes our lives through screens and visual imagery is created for the male gaze. The hierarchy of consumption places his priorities at the centre, behind the lens, directing the action, manipulating the message. Devouring every sexual detail of the female form for simplistic pleasure; objectification diminishes each and every intricate woman, it strips away her tumultuous depth and simmering humanity to a husk, a mere commodity. Insidiously, the gaze is gradually turned inward. Young girls accommodate society’s insistence that their value must be measured according to their physical attributes. Self-objectification pervades, as an individual privileges physical attractiveness over all the multitude of complex, contradictory, dizzying and wondrous non-observable body attributes that make up their fulsome being. 

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