By Ciana Alessi
There are fleeting moments in all of our lives where we catch ourselves policing our behavior. Oftentimes this is a good thing, like when considering others’ feelings before expressing an opinion, but, of course, personal policing has its pitfalls. For many women especially, there are instances where our personal police intrude in our daily life where restriction isn’t needed. This phenomena (which I will continue referring to as personal policing because of both the lovely alliteration and the link between the brute force oft practiced by the actual police and the aggression of this experience) rears its ugly head most explicitly in many women’s continuous awareness of their physical appearance and in the negativity received by women who don’t seem to exhibit this same awareness, or disregard it entirely. Generally speaking, this is an experience people within any culture are personally familiar with, as socialization and institutions consistently teach citizens specific normative identities as the status quo. Fortunately, as with all other unhealthy, learned phenomena, what has been done can still be undone.
First and foremost, we must establish the presence of the big, bad Male Gaze. If you haven’t heard of said buzzword (words?), the male gaze explains how the vast majority of visual media -- specifically TV and movies -- presumes a heterosexual male as the active viewer, therefore visual depictions of both men and women are crafted within this perspective. Since, to our dismay, the vast majority of visual content has been created by men, many women learn to see the world through the male gaze. Coupled with respectability politics, or policing amongst women, we learn what we’re supposed to look like, how we’re supposed to act, and how we will be reprimanded if we don’t play our role properly.
I have oftentimes brushed off my instances of personal policing by labeling them as just “the way things are” or, perhaps more accurately, “the way things will have to be if I want to continue living a non-confrontational, non-socially disruptive life.” As a black woman, this always ultimately came down to my outward appearance and demeanor. I’d find myself reprimanding my passing thoughts, along the lines of: don’t wear X because it will draw too much attention to yourself, don’t say X that loudly because people will assume Y, don’t do Z because girls don’t really do things like that. Now, as a self-proclaimed socially conscious chick, I realize that my policing was heavily influenced by my attempts to navigate my racial identity and ultimately reflected a lot of harbored, unconscious internalized racism. I am, therefore, a passive, female object, aware of my objectivity in the eyes of men, yet, this same objectivity is compounded by my race. So even though by virtue of being a woman I’m automatically a passive female object to men at large, as a black woman I’m a passive, female, overly sexualized object to white men. As a lighter skinned black woman I’m a passive, female, “exotic” i.e. overly sexualized object to black men. As a black woman I’m a still-passive female who is often assumed to be promiscuous by conservative white women due to my race; and again, as a lighter skinned black woman, I’m a passive female who is sometimes considered stuck-up or wrongfully privileged (true) by darker skinned black women. Between the male gaze demanding docile, nubile sexuality and respectability politics calling for some elusive, proper “womanhood,” another roadblock was created by how my race complicated my civil and personal identity even further. Yet, it took me a long time to realize how I was forcing myself into an identity I didn’t actually retain (namely, being as white-washed as possible). I was blindly following orders, doing and being what I was told without considering alternative options, telling myself it was for the sake of convenience. What they don’t tell you, however, is that it is always convenient to be cowardly and it is always inconvenient to be honest.
So now as I sit and reflect, I consider how my appearance makes others feel today, in 2019, at 22 years old -- with many visible tattoos, starting locs on my already natural hair, and my outwardly political and social consciousness -- versus in 2015, at 18 years old -- with no tattoos, straightened hair with extensions, and little understanding of much of anything past my high school life-- I consider, as well, how much I don’t give a damn. I consider, too, how much better off we all are when we stop worrying about rules, social restrictions, and making shallow judgements on ourselves and others who have strayed from the norm. I don’t know about you, but I think my precinct might be downsizing.