A friend of mine was telling me about her new boyfriend. I wasn’t that interested as I’d already seen quite a lot of him on her Instagram.
There was the photo of them when they sat on a picnic blanket with greasy plastic pots of sun-dried tomatoes and feta, hummus, and Pringles cylinders scattered around their legs.
Another of him smoking a cig out of her bedroom window as the light in the sky turned from grey to flamingo pink behind him.
And a third of their hands holding up two separate ice-cream cones, his mint chocolate chip melting down his wrist.
“This is him,” she said, getting out her phone.
“I know, you’ve shown me,” I told her but she ignored me, tapping on a picture of him on her feed, then going on his profile. “Just have a scroll,” she said.
“He’s hot,” I nodded. “Great teeth.”
“Right?” she smiled. “The three of us should go for a walk somewhere soon? Or even just a Zoom call? At least things are starting to open up now. I’d be interested to hear what you think about him.”
By the time I’d gotten home, she had sent me a screenshot of her conversation with the new boyfriend where she’d already told him about my nice teeth comment.
“Love her already,” he replied. I could tell she wanted me to message something back along the lines of, “omg I like him more than I like you!”, but I was tired, so I started reading Line of Duty fan theories instead.
My friend seemed intent on getting me to react to her boyfriend. As though she couldn’t like him unless other people did.
A week or so later, I was reading John Berger’s Ways of Seeing like the smug intellectual bitch that I am and there was a passage in it that reminded me of my friend and her almost compulsive need to publicise her new boyfriend.
Constantly watched by men, Berger argues that one of the central experiences of womanhood is that of surveying oneself in order to satisfy the gaze which follows us around.
“She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself,” writes Berger. “Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping.”
He continues: “She has to survey everything she is and everything she does, because how she appears to men is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life. Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another.”
My friend wants me to meet her boyfriend because it is in other people’s eyes that women believe they have found themselves. She needs a witness to the goodness of her boyfriend – otherwise she cannot believe in its truth.
I understand this need for approval because I’ve looked for it so often myself when existing in public with men. In the old man who leaned over from the table he sat at with his wife to tell me and a past date with a wink: “Trust me, it only gets better.”
In the friend who sat next to a guy I was seeing for a while at a dinner party and joked to me later when we went to the toilet together: “Let’s swap guys?”
Most of the time it is heteronormative models where you feel the approving gaze of other eyes looking at you.
I wish knowing the constructed nature of something was enough to dismantle it, and I suppose for some people it can be, but instead I find myself seeking out men who help me fit myself into that unforgiving model.
Once I listened to a podcast episode where the women on it joked that it’s over for them if they’re on a date with a guy and they have to be the one who says “table for two” when they walk into a restaurant, and I felt a slight ick when I realised I always did that with the guy I was seeing.
I started fancying a friend because I was on his shoulders at a festival and some girls smothered in glitter looked up and said, “I want to do that with Dan but he’s so skinny I’d snap his neck in half.”
Did I even fancy these men, or did I just like how they made me appear to others? That they made me appear at all?