Beauty Standards and the Male Gaze

Whenever we discuss issues and ideals related to physical beauty and women’s bodies, we need to be conscious of the “male gaze.” In basic terms, the concept refers to heterosexual men objectifying women and judging their value almost entirely on physical characteristics. Beauty Ideals are sure to be distinct among different racial and nationality groups. 

The “gaze” is a term that describes how viewers engage with visual media. Originating in film theory and criticism in the 1970s, the gaze refers to how we look at visual representations. These include advertisements, television programs and cinema (Loreck, 2016). When talk about the gaze, they are often referring to the “male gaze”. But what does that really mean? And is there a female equivalent?

Image: Stella Tennant for Yves Saint Laurent

Where did the concepts of ‘male gaze’ come from?

In feminist theory, the male gaze is the act of depicting women and the world, in the visual arts and in literature, suggests a sexualised way of looking that empowers men and objectifies women. In the male gaze, woman is visually positioned as an “object” of heterosexual male desire. In the visual and aesthetic presentations of narrative cinema, the male gaze has three perspectives (Walters, 1995): 

  1. That of the man behind the cinema
  2. That of the male characters within the film’s cinematic representations
  3. That of the spectator gazing at the image. 

The cinematic concept of the male gaze was introduced by scholar and filmmaker Laura Mulvey in her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (1975). 

Although sometimes described as the “male gaze”, Mulvey’s concept is more accurately described as a heterosexual, masculine gaze. Visual media that respond to masculine voyeurism tends to sexualise women for a male viewer (Loreck, 2016). As Mulvey wrote, women are characterised by their “to-be-looked-at-ness” in cinema. Woman is “spectacle”, and man is “the bearer of the look”. 

As fiction imitates life, and vice versa, the male gaze has become a familiar cultural perspective. Yet, research finds that the male gaze has significant and pervasive psychological costs for women that they might not even be aware of. The male gaze plays out most obviously in two main areas: actual interpersonal and social encounters and exposure to visual media that spotlights women’s bodies and body parts, depicting them as the target of a non-reciprocated male gaze (Well, 2017).

Different Ways of Looking

Through media representations and direct experience, both women and girls learn their appearance is social currency and begin to take the male gazer’s perspective (Fredrickson and Roberts, 1997). The process of habitual body monitoring, wherein women monitor their bodies as they believe outside observers do is called self-objectification. 

Over time, as women place more attention on their appearance, they began to internalise this observer view of their bodies as a primary way to think about themselves and end up placing greater value on how they look rather than how they feel. In everyday life, women experience multiple physical and social contexts (i.e. social media, magazine, conversations) which trigger self-objectification (Fredrickson and Roberts, 1997). Self-objectification are triggered in a variety of contexts, and negatively affect women’s well-being as indicated by their reports of diminished feelings of vitality, flow, and positive effect throughout their day (Well, 2017).  

As Psychologist Well (2017) suggested:

“Performing daily grooming rituals in front of a mirror is perhaps one of the most common ways women self-objectify, taking the perspective of another before they appear in public. In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir suggested taking back the male gaze through gazing at her own reflection in the mirror. She spoke of the euphoria of drowning in one’s own image as a decidedly private experience.”

The mirror can be used to find how self-objectification is affecting one’s internal state by observing one’s own emotions. Women can then shift from objectifying themselves and feeling anxious through the male gaze to seeing their own identity and feeling self-compassion. 

What I would explore further is, though at first blush it may seem a bit narcissistic and self-involved, women can and do derive pleasure from gazing at their own image without comparison to cultural beauty standards or intrusion of the male gaze (McGill, 2016). Meanwhile I am trying to figure out by the end of this project and intend to somehow express: in a society that tells women their external appearance matters—perhaps more than anything else, gazing at oneself can be a way to take power back, to claim oneself fully and lovingly.


Calogero, R. M., et al., (2011). Self-Objectification in Women: Causes, Consequences, and Counteractions. American Psychological Association.

Calogero, R. M. (2004). A test of self-objectification theory: Effect of the male gaze on appearance concerns in college women. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 28, 16-21.

Crocker, J., & Garcia, J. A. (2008). Self-objectification and well-being in women’s daily lives. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34, 583-598.Fredrickson, B. L., & Roberts, T. A. (1997). Objectification theory: Toward understanding women’s lived experiences and mental health risks. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 21, 173-206.

Korsmeyer, Carolyn. “Feminist Aesthetics (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).” Stanford.Edu, 2017,

Loreck, Janice. “Explainer: What Does the ‘male Gaze’ Mean, and What about a Female Gaze?” The Conversation, 6 Jan. 2016,

McGill, M (2016).  Young women, narcissism, and the selfie phenomenon. Tedx Talk Galway.

Mulvey, L. (1975). Visual pleasure and narrative cinema. Screen, 16, 6-18.

Suzanna Danuta Walters. Material Girls : Making Sense of Feminist Cultural Theory. Berkeley, University Of California Press, 1995.

Well, Tara. “Taking Back the Male Gaze.” Psychology Today, 6 Nov. 2017,, J. G.,

Well, T., et al. (2016). The Benefits of Mirror Meditation. Paper presented at the American Psychological Association Convention in Denver, CO.