What is the male gaze? Lauren Chan says coming out was the 'best thing' for her body image: 'I feel free'

An expert says lesbianism can be 'liberating' — here's why.

Lauren Chan reveals how ditching the male gaze helped her body confidence journey. (Photos via Getty)
Lauren Chan reveals how ditching the male gaze helped her body confidence journey. (Photos via Getty)

Lauren Chan says ditching the "male gaze" when she came out as gay was the "best thing" she ever did for her body confidence. But how exactly is the male gaze different from the female gaze? Here's what you need to know.

The Sports Illustrated Swimsuit model known for championing body positivity, recently shared her journey towards body confidence on "The Confident Collective" podcast. Chan spoke to hosts Kristina Zias and Raeann Langas about the liberating experience of embracing her sexual identity as a lesbian.

"The best thing I ever did for my body confidence was to come out because, along the way, I ditched the male gaze," she recalled, referencing the significant impact societal beauty standards shaped by men have on women's perceptions of themselves.

"Now that I don't perform for men and I don't try to show up physically as what I've been taught by culture men want women to look like, i.e., the beauty ideal, I feel free," Chan continued. "I'm a woman, and I've realized, 'Hey, I don't think women need to be thin, curvy, white, blonde and oozing sex appeal to be attractive.' When I flip that logic on myself, I feel so relieved."

Chan shared a specific example that highlights the difference between the male and female gaze and how it has impacted her day-to-day life, saying:

"I never would have worn this outfit before because I can see my back roll from my bra in the back of the shirt, and I would be getting dressed thinking a man is going to look at this and think, 'Ew, fat girl.' But a girl is going to look at this and think, 'Is that vintage Prada?'"

Yahoo Canada talked to an expert to find out how the male gaze really impacts women. Read on for everything you need to know.

What is the male gaze?

The male gaze is a concept from film theory and cultural studies that describes how visual media often depicts women through a lens that prioritizes male desire. It suggests that modern media is tailored to the male viewpoint, both in how women are portrayed and in assuming the audience agrees with this perspective.

In movies and TV shows, the male gaze can present itself in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. For example, when the camera lingers on a woman's body, or when scenes are shot from a perspective that sexualizes the actress without any real narrative justification. In advertisements, it can look like suggestive, provocative poses, often irrelevant to the product being sold. In video games, it can look like female characters with exaggerated curves or lack of clothing, irrespective of the character's role, often to attract male players.

Now that I don't perform for men... I feel free.Lauren Chan, via 'The Confident Collective' podcast

On the psychological impact of the male gaze, Cheryl Laird, a Guelph, Ont.-based registered psychotherapist specializing in women's mental health, provided Yahoo Canada with a clinical perspective, explaining its origins and its impact.

"The 'male gaze' is a term first coined in the '70s by Laura Mulvey, filmmaker and theorist," Laird explained. At the time, Mulvey suggested that movies and media were primarily created by male filmmakers and directors whose perspectives reflected patriarchal values.

How has the male gaze impacted societal beauty standards and women's mental health?

Lauren Chan at the Mejuri x Ganni Cocktail Party held on February 11, 2024 in New York, New York. (Photo by Dolly Faibyshev/WWD via Getty Images)
Lauren Chan said she feels 'free' when she thinks of herself like she thinks of other women and beauty standards. (Photo by Dolly Faibyshev/WWD via Getty Images)

The way women are portrayed in film, television and other media, affects how women and girls see themselves — in the real world.

"Women are typically viewed as sexualized objects inserted into the film to enhance the profile and character of the male protagonist. They are rarely shown to exert any agency, and their image conforms to unrealistic beauty standards," Laird detailed. Ultimately, this has led female viewers to "internalize" those same values "as normative and perceive themselves to be flawed and defective if they do not align with them... it promotes body image insecurity."

Women internalize these messages of objectification and 'secondary-ness,' which causes them to doubt their intelligence and adopt people-pleasing demeanors.Cheryl Laird

Laird noted while this mental preoccupation with body image has been normalized for women, it is a sign of "mental distress" that may cause them to "lose interest in creative endeavors and social activities that once gave their life depth, scope, and meaning."

"Many rely on losing weight to improve self-esteem, making them vulnerable to eating disorders," she added.

Male gaze vs. female gaze: How lesbianism can be 'liberating'

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - JUNE 02: Lauren Chan attends World Eating Disorders Action Day Luncheon 2023 National Alliance For Eating Disorders x Mental Health Coalition at United Nations on June 02, 2023 in New York City. (Photo by Jared Siskin/Getty Images for National Alliance for Eating Disorders)
Lauren Chan said coming out as a lesbian was the best thing for her body image, as it meant she ditched the male gaze. (Photo by Jared Siskin/Getty Images for National Alliance for Eating Disorders)

According to Laird, unlike the male gaze, the female gaze "does not impose a voyeuristic shadow upon women" and gives them "more freedom to explore their wants, needs and values — regardless of body size and shape."

"Lesbianism can be a profoundly liberating influence on body image and self-perception. Freed from the constraints of the male gaze, women do not have to be self-critical to feel beautiful, desirable, or attractive," Laird explained.

Lesbianism can be a profoundly liberating influence on body image and self-perception.Cheryl Laird

In heterosexual relationships, Laird noted it is often assumed "men prefer women of a certain body type. When pursuit of the male gaze is dropped, many of the dysfunctional behaviours and attitudes are lost as well, enabling women to develop confidence."

Laird said her advice to women on detaching their self-esteem from the male gaze includes understanding that "feelings of inadequacy are manipulated by industries preying on body image insecurity."

"Call out stereotypes when you see them. Wear clothes in which you feel comfortable and support others in feeling good in their own skin," she shared. "Base how you feel about yourself more on things within your control."

Let us know what you think by commenting below and tweeting @YahooStyleCA! Follow us on Twitter and Instagram.