The nonsense of dressing for the male gaze

Trigger warning: there is a discussion of suicidal ideation in relation to being transgender. There are discussions of patriarchy and male privilege, and the toxic effects of this are linked to the social malaise that can lead to trans self-harm.

The shame police would have women think that they were “asking for it” when they receive unwanted male attention.  That a woman who dresses in a way that shows off her physical charms, or assets, is somehow making herself a public good, the property of all.

And yes, I do agree that a beautiful woman enlivens a room in a way that a hunk of a man cannot.  Millions of years of evolution in the male and female brain perhaps have created a reverence for beauty—that which we might regard as delicate is actually power.  That power, in this sense, be held in a delicate container, the female form, technically “weaker” than the male form, is not germane.

What of the flower.  A quintessentially weak vessel.  A flower exists solely to drive the cycle of life.  The bright colours and intoxicating scent drawing bees, butterflies to its shimmering abundance.  You might say that this is nature.  The way.  But does a flower give consent?  Is there even a parallel?  I think not.

As a lifelong student of the power of clothes to help express identity, and one for whom finding said expression was essential for survival, I have lived inside this question my whole life.  What do clothes mean?

In recent conversation with Star Child who was asking about my life and evolution with innocent curiosity, we discussed this in relation to my wife.  When I first began dating soon-to-be-ex I told her about the women’s clothes in my closet.  In those days it was a few pieces.  I had a black lace dress, elegant.  I had a few other pieces, even trousers, chosen because I liked how they made me feel when I wore them, and how they embodied the kind of woman I wanted to be.  Professional, competent, but also elegant.

I had a few “wardrobe errors” in my early life.  When I was 10 or 11 I bought a purple satin garter belt.  I still have it, now more for its sentimental value.  I bought it at a now-defunct retailer, a true “five and dime”…thus dating me.  At the time I thought it was elegance personified.  I had a gorgeous black tube skirt, made in Germany, and still have it and wear it from time to time.

And in those days, I mostly wore panties.  Sometimes women’s loafers—they looked just different enough to make my feet look “cute”.  I loved being undressed by a woman and for her to get to my knickers and be pleasantly surprised.  It seems that they were always pleasantly surprised.  Not my wife, though.  [Perhaps that was a sign?  No matter, I made the choice, and would do it again—the good dwarfs the bad—and anyway, we always make the best decisions we can with the information we have].

My wife wanted to understand.  First, “are you gay?”

“No.  And most people who cross-dress are not.  Most of us are straight.”  She explained that she had a real problem with certain items of clothing.  With a “man” wearing a bra.  She didn’t like it because we didn’t need to.  And in truth, I had no bras in those days unless they came as part of a lingerie set, perhaps one or two that I never wore…exactly for the same reason—it didn’t look right.

She had a blanket ban on lace.  It was too feminine.  On makeup.  And above all on wigs.  Her issue with all of these things was that it was like being in hiding, a mask.  She had a primordial fear of someone not being what they said they were—her ultimate nightmare was for me to tear my mask off and show I was something completely different.  In retrospect, my total openness about this, about all aspects of my sexuality, was what allowed her to marry me, anyone for that matter.  She might not have liked what she saw, but the honesty was more valuable to her than her distaste was a deterrent.

As for me, I explained with the language that we had available at the time what wearing “women’s” clothes represented to me.  I was not a transvestite.  That much was already clear.  I could explain that dressing in this way was not about sexual thrill, it was about my identity.  I wore women’s clothes not because I wanted to get off, but because I needed them to breathe.  I needed to feel myself comfortable in them.  It was a question of survival.  

Even then I found drag offensive.  My apologies to anyone who likes drag.  I know that drawing a parallel to “black face” is possibly extreme, but there is something fundamentally disrespectful for me about drag—I accept that this may be my problem but drag insofar as it makes a caricature of certain feminine traits, makes me uncomfortable.

Drag is something which comes at the topic of this post from another way altogether.  Its proponents might say that it is weaponizing emancipation, but that doesn’t feel right to me.

Men don’t think about clothes in the same way as women do.  I say that in a general sense, particularly sensitive to the use of phrases such as “men don’t” as being just the kind of language that hurt me so much over the years.  As a “man” my experience of being a sharp dresser was one of projecting calm, confidence, and perhaps power.  Professionalism.  Dressing down was never my thing.  And I had plenty of compliments, male and female alike—but they came as if it was a given, as if I knew, as if what I looked like was a privilege and something they often envied.  It was.

I remember having phone call with a headhunter I had never met, who got through my secretary to me right after I had been appointed as CEO for the first time in my life.  I was standing at my desk, looking out over the rooftops of central London, and she said, “I already know what you look like.”

“How’s that?” I asked, curious.

“The XXX family hires a type.”

“Is that so.”

“Your tall, aren’t you?”

“Lot’s of us are.”

“Okay, you’re very tall.”


“You’re also probably gorgeous.”

“How do you want me to answer that?”

“You don’t have to, you just did.”

“That’s absurd.”

“Look around you.  Be honest.  Have you ever worked with a more beautiful group of people?  I mean look.”  I did.  Even the clutch of people hired before I started who were now working for me were invariably tall, white, and attractive.  Fast forward six months to a ride in the lift with one of the owners who casually remarked that I had hired the rainbow nation…and I thought to myself, ‘but that’s what hiring for competence looks like’.  Never mind, they didn’t argue with profitability.

I began this job when I began dating my wife.

So, yes, I inhabited a male persona.  And at times during our marriage, over the course of the years, I could go for stretches of time without feeling dysphoria…it was not because I was ‘cured’ or that it wasn’t there, it was just that it all seemed so difficult.  Suicidal ideation is described as wanting to commit suicide, wanting to take one’s own life.  That is an act which is the darkest side of dysphoria.  I wonder of my own musings on the topic, and the distinction between suicide, wishing one was dead, or wishing one was never born.  It was the latter two that came to me most frequently, not the act of taking my own life, though this has been present too.

Clothes, in this sense, were very much the antidote to suicide.  When I say they helped me to breathe, you have to ask yourself, from what, why?  It can only be societal.  The idea of being able to take hormones, of having access to surgery, not just cosmetic, but more fundamental options is a “privilege” of the modern world.  But would I or any of my trans brothers and sisters have needed access to these options if how we are/were was part of mainstream.  Did the transgender shamans of “primitive” societies have dysphoria?  Was being in the privileged position of being the third sex enough to prevent that from arising.  

Today, a trans person is 100x more likely to attempt to take their own life than someone in the general population.  100x.  What were suicide rates for transgender people in “primitive” societies, in societies which were tolerant and respectful of these differences?  I don’t know, but knowing what causes dysphoria in me, I would say that it would have been non-existent, on par with society generally.  [If you, dear reader, does know, please share].

So, in this sense, women’s clothes were a lifeline for me.  That such a lifeline should exist in a state of shame was always anathema to me.  Why should I be made to feel ashamed of something I need to survive?  Why should items of clothing be so charged with gender norms that to wear them is to do more than appropriate their symbolism?  The conversation always drifted to how threatening it was to the patriarchy for a man to give up his power by overtly embracing the symbols of female power.  That answer seems wrong.  It is the same answer that comes back when a man says lesbianism is wrong—the man inserts himself into the mix.

Does a woman who wears a beautiful bikini at the beach do more than celebrate her own body?  Is there something innately provocative about a woman celebrating her own body?  There shouldn’t be.  Is a woman who celebrates her own body doing anything more than embracing herself, or is she saying that she is for public consumption?  I don’t think so.

A reader of these pages will know how much this soul loves the dominatrix.  There is an aspect here, which has not been previously covered.  A dominatrix owns her sexual expression in an overt way, and says to her clients, ‘you may look, you may desire, you may perhaps even get to touch, but all of the above, on my terms.  You will surrender yourself to me and will do so even before you get to speak.  Those are my terms’.  This is a challenge to the patriarchy, and the man who accepts must check his privilege at the door.

It is also a microcosm of the discussion of who we dress for.  The male gaze is a gaze of ownership.  It feels entitled even though it has no entitlement.  Wanting to look good, is also about wanting to feel good, and that can be about the body, can be sexual even, but has nothing to do with the male gaze, wanting to be ogled, stared at, even noticed. That “ownership” feeling comes from the man, the one who is doing the looking, and is an overt message within the gaze itself.  The act of dressing sexily is not dressing for the male gaze.  She may choose for it to be so, she may choose to surrender autonomy in this regard, but it is far from automatic.

I am reminded of this topic, of this sense of the power of clothes, as I change out my wardrobe, and see how people process me.  Mostly, the regard is different—‘oh, a trans person’ and that can be processed in whatever way.  Bless the people who come up to me and offer their solidarity and support.  But suddenly, my breasts are no longer invisible.  Unless I wear a binder.  No, my breasts are now a fact.

And I can see from the scrambled stares, mainly of men, when they take me in, it is the breasts that seem to anchor their attention.  No matter what I wear, they see them first, their eyes flutter around the rest of me, and then they become fixed on my chest.  I am sure women everywhere know what this is like.  And I mention it because it is the cornerstone of the male gaze.

Men, in looking at me in this way, or at women generally, are sexualizing our visual aspect.  It doesn’t matter what I wear.  To look at someone with impunity, which is what staring at my breasts feels like, is to show entitlement…and that very word begets objectification, says that physical attributes are ownable assets.  I have never experienced that from a woman.  Ever.

When I experience the female gaze, when I can feel her desire on me, it is filled with curiosity, a desire to explore, a sense of the possible.  It feels inherently more equal.  I do not feel taken, sullied, owned.

In other words, what we wear has nothing to do with the clothes themselves, it is a man’s sense of whether they justify a pre-existing sense of entitlement.  And I say this profoundly aware that many men, most, would find me ugly, unattractive, not at all desirable…and yet, I still get to experience the reductive feeling of a man staring at my chest, or of touching me inappropriately.  

In other words, the male gaze is all about the man.  The rest of us don’t have anything to do with it.

5 thoughts

  1. mmmmmm very complicated – i accept all that you say – and i am pleased to say that i can look at a well dressed woman and not fancy her – but predominantly i have to admit to looking at her and wondering how she looks naked – i know thats naughty but thats me – i love women especially Dominant ones – i love pleasing women both in a normal way and a sexual way – in matters of love i always want to try and let / encourage the woman to orgasm two or three times before i think of any pleasure for myself – i love to please women with my lips tongue and hands – they are as you say a flower that is delicate and needs looking after – and when they have Dominant tendencies it is jut so exciting – sorry for rambling – i think what you are doing is very admirable and i (along with a lot of your other friends here) wish you every success in your total transition and hope that you have TOTALLY put any thoughts of self harm behind you. have a lovely weekend – best wishes alan

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi Alan. I apologise being on such a rant lately. I have few more of these coming. I have no doubt that you are a sweet man, and my current love interest, Star Child, is teaching me that the things you are expressing are okay. That it is healthy and normal for a man to be attracted to a woman, that it is healthy and normal for a man to desire her sexually, and even to fantasise and think about what it would be like to be with her. She finds this appealing, and explicitly disconnects that from a sense of entitlement, which is where the “toxic male” lives.

      As a submissive man, you will understand, as I have understood, that being submissive to a woman is a sign of respect, that we learn through our submission to celebrate her boundaries, to celebrate her on her terms, and that this is a good and beautiful thing.

      A famous sociologist once said, “you can tell a lot about a society by how it treats its criminals”…what he was saying was that the most marginal people in society are those who have sinned so egregiously against the norms of society as to be locked up. There is a parallel in his thinking to how a society treats its weakest members, its children, its women, its minorities. Of course we see everywhere so much that is disturbing…but on a personal level, we can each contribute to making a better society.

      I believe that an enlightened man begins this path through submission. I do not equate submission with weakness, but rather strength. Submission is respect. Respect for another human, particularly a human to whom we are connected through sexual energy, and one with whom we can step away from ownership and all the toxicity that this represents, whether dependency, taking for granted, micro-abuse, whatever, and simply be honoured and honourable and open and curious and innocent, then we are in a good place.

      Do not be ashamed of your own desire. Love it, embrace it, live it. It is beautiful. And as a man, it can have a magnificent expression when it is held in true service in loving support of another human.

      Liked by 3 people

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