I look at Milind Soman and — there’s no delicate way to put this — he makes my lady parts tingle. The blood rushes to the solar plexus and my eyes glaze over every time I think about his could-crack-walnuts flank, in a manner not particularly complimentary to a woman pretty smug about being the possessor of an IQ of 136. He probably gets that a lot; I know at least half a dozen ridiculously intelligent women who have started running only because they hope to, some day, accidentally-on-purpose, crash into his wall of muscles as he trains for his ultrathons, triathlons and whatnot. It’s stalker-ish AND embarrassing. That’s my only slightly abashed, sexually explicit, voraciously hungry, female gaze — a gaze that, thankfully, no one challenges. Yet.
I have a friend. She has what most men hesitantly (in our company) call a banging body. Worse, it is effortless. She could wear a gunny bag and look hotter than the rest of us on a couture night. She recently told us about her newest “admirer” at her workplace — she often finds his eyes following her around like a lovelorn puppy. We made sounds of ‘pig’, ‘perv’ and other uncomplimentary adjectives, and then got on with the real business of the evening — eye-balling the hotties at our swish suburban bar. We fixated on a couple. Some extremely crude and salacious jokes were cracked, the kind that would earn most men a restraining order if the genders were reversed (possibly not in India, because we don’t have time for shit like women’s safety).
Confounded men friends have often asked me — essentially, in a culture where they are still largely expected to break the ice and make the first move, what the fuck are they supposed to do? Do women want to be complimented, or is it safer to hold back? At what point does a hopeless crush turn into sexual harassment in the workplace? What is the age ratio beyond which it is creepy to find a woman hot? Here’s a scary answer: no one knows. I’ve dated a guy who used the exact same cheesy line that earned the one before him a very disgusted eye-roll. I’ve dated someone whose very persistent gaze on my high heels was the starting point of our conversation. I know that’s true for 80 per cent of the women I know. We’ve all, at some point or the other, enjoyed the ubiquitous male gaze. So why do we bitch about it? Are we just a generation of liars? No.
Just like you, dear men, we’re learning how to navigate a world where we get to have a say, and what we say is relevant to the narrative… at least in principle. Most of us are learning to balance years of conditioning (of being thankful for every scrap of attention that comes our way) with a thought-through awareness of how that attention makes us feel. We’re learning how to ignore the parasitic voices that feed off our insecurities, telling us to value our womanhood only physically and straining to hear the quieter, more dignified voices who tell us to find our own special selves. We’re learning how to assert ourselves, and it’s a lesson we’ve just gotten started on. You’ve had years and years of training, so you won’t know how difficult it is. And yes, you’re right; sometimes we’re obnoxious and irritable while putting these lessons into practice. Sometimes, the best of us fall back on a subconscious awareness of class to aid this decision-making process. Poorer men are just that much more likely to be creepy. And “poor” is a relative term, of course.
We’re scared too, because of the stories we hear and the brutality we know so many men are capable of. It’s exhausting to be looked at first and heard only much later in almost every social scenario. It’s difficult not to constantly be on guard about every man’s intentions when we’re still asking questions like “What was she wearing?” or “What time was it?” or “Why was she with paraye mard?” of rape victims, when ‘men will be men’ is an acceptable explanation for anything from pulling a girl’s ponytail in school to pawing one in a skimpy dress on the road. Show us that being a man means more than a license for poor choices of behaviour. And here’s a thumb rule, if you’re genuinely trying to steer clear of the creepy tag — learn every verbal and non-verbal cue that means ‘no’. You spot it, you back off — always. End of story.