Cover Photo: Craig Sunter
Craig Sunter

A Hunger for Men’s Eyes

“Their eyes peeled off my clothes.”

I was in SoHo, struggling to find the nearest train to get back to my Harlem apartment. I had just moved to the city two days prior, and I was pacing back and forth, clumsily using the GPS on my phone, which could have explained why I became prey to a group of black men. They all towered over me by at least a foot. Their eyes peeled off my clothes. I gave them a half-smile. The one closest to me asked if I needed any help. His tone was smooth, his smile cordial. I politely declined, but that didn’t stop him from trying to obstruct my path and extending his hand to pull me in. I got away eventually, after he followed me down the block. As I descended underground, I wondered: Why didn’t his two other friends stop him? Why didn’t anyone tell him to back off?

Before I could process what had just happened, I felt a tug on my right arm. Another black man, with infinitesimal wrinkles in his face, was behind me. “Don’t be afraid,” he said in a small voice. He told me he was from France and asked if I were married. I lied and said I was on my way to see my fictitious husband. He left me alone.

I returned to my brownstone apartment building to find my male roommate sitting on the stoop. When I recounted the two incidents to him, he nonchalantly replied, “Welcome to New York,” with a smile and a nudge.

Before I moved to New York, I imagined the male gaze to be like Doctor T.J Eckleburg’s eyes that stood watch over all of The Great Gatsby’s Long Island. You could never be out of their sight. I perused tweets and countless essays from women whom I admired, and they’d proclaim that they didn’t need men to feel beautiful, let alone desired. I envied them for their confidence. Most of them were in long-term relationships, whereas I had never been in one and wasn’t quite sure what men wanted. I viewed men as potentially scary. If I didn’t stay out of their way, I’d be subjugated as soon as I was in their line of view.

But now that I’m in New York, I’ve begun to think it is normal to live under the male gaze. These men were attracted to me. I wasn’t attracted to them—but was it okay that I was flattered by this attention? Can I admit that, when getting these compliments, I felt like a child tasting something sweet for the first time?

*

After I graduated from college, I went home to Williamstown, New Jersey, where I found there were many rungs to climb before I could connect with someone else. I hardly stepped outside my house because I was depressed from heartbreak and had no job prospects. One morning or afternoon—I wasn’t sure because I’d had the blinds closed—my mom pulled back the curtains and said, “You’re getting out of this house. You gotta meet people or else you’re gonna get sick.” So I signed up for dance classes and started to drive an hour and a half to Cherry Hill, an affluent town right outside of Philadelphia, three to four times a week.

I tried Rumba, Hustle, Swing, Salsa, Tango, Foxtrot, and Waltz. My instructor was a charismatic twenty-something man. No matter how quickly I picked up the steps, he tended to criticize me for failing to make eye contact. He told me that dancing was an intimate activity and I needed to connect. “Treat it like as if you were having sex,” he said. But I couldn’t. I didn’t feel like my gaze was just as powerful as his own. I felt subjected. I was looking up to him as a student, while he looked down at me as a teacher, scrutinizing my body and how it should look and move according to his standards.

Although I stayed with the company for about ten months, I never made any real friends and I definitely didn’t meet anyone. Most people in my class were at least ten to fifteen years older than I was and already partnered up. I always walked back to the parking lot alone. I unlocked my door, got in, and drove along back roads along acres of farmland with grazing cows. I remember countless nights coming home, feet tired, temples sweaty, my body starved for attention.

In suburban life, there are strict delineations between public and private spaces and bodies. If you want conversation, you call up someone on the phone or are introduced to new people through friends. You don’t sit next to someone on a crammed subway ride during morning commute. But oh how I wish I did.

I had hidden my natural hair under weaves for years. I didn’t like my squeaky voice, and I hated smiling because it never looked elegant. My cheeks were so plump that they would reach the edges of my glasses whenever I’d pose for a picture. I didn’t grow up hearing about my beauty. Rather, I grew up hearing about my intelligence, and how it exceeded my years.  

I decided that my studies would be my life. At college, I realized my male classmates would entertain conversations with me about Plato and W.E.B Dubois, but would never talk about getting Indian food or frozen yogurt. I didn’t feel much like a woman most days, more like a brain levitating through and around a picturesque campus.

*

The first time I walked down the street in central Harlem and I saw a man’s head turn as I walked by, it was like an electric current inside of me. I felt human. I realized that I still had a body, that there was more to me than books and literature.

So I invested more time in my appearance. I decided to wear MAC Satin lipstick instead of Frost lipstick because the former, with its deep purple hue, dramatizes my face. I preferred wedges over flats so that my five-foot body is more easily seen. I expected the same response—the head-swiveling and the compliments— and if I didn’t get it, I thought that I was doing something wrong. Being seen as beautiful mitigated the truth that I’m in a massive city where few people know my name and even fewer care if I’m doing well. The only people with whom I share substantial conversations were my two roommates. Most days I wouldn’t receive a text message from anyone besides my mother. If just for a moment, I could matter to the gender that I was trying to attract, it momentarily erased my invisibility. But when the moment ended, I’d search for the next fix.

Whenever a man asks for my number, I lie and say that I’m in a relationship. I can never say “no” outright, because I’m afraid of hurting his feelings and being attacked. And always—always I ice my rejection with a smile. My smile is what catches men the most. I once sat on the uptown 2 train and heard a group of men discuss how beautiful my smile was; I pretended I didn’t hear them.

This same smile made a man attempt to woo me after I made brief conversation with him about a crazy person yelling obscenities on the other side of the tracks. He asked me if I had a man, I lied and said yes. He smirked and replied, “I’m still gonna get you anyhow.” Intrigued that he was a native Harlemite, I spoke to him about the dilemma I was facing, about how accessible I should be to strangers. He replied in a strong New York accent: “If you don’t want to be spoken to, then move to Minnesota or Oregon or somewhere. I don’t get why some women have to be a bitch about it.” My smile weakened.

This is the subjugation that I was concerned about. I don’t want men to block my path or to grab me or tell me whether I should like being spoken to. My body is my own; I need my boundaries respected.

I want men to acknowledge my presence without encroaching upon it. I want to be complimented, not consumed. When I walk up 117th or 125th and Lenox, a man might approach me and say, “I just want to say that you look gorgeous,” or “Have a nice day, beautiful,” and that’s it. They don’t touch me or thwart where I’m trying to go. Their voices and smiles are just as genial as the men who tried to touch me. How can I gauge who’s good or bad? It’s hard to eschew any attention I receive from male strangers because I never know who might be good company.

I’m also a hopeless romantic. I browse the internet for Rumi poems and try to memorize pieces of them so that one day I can recite them to my future lover. I watch Sex and the City and listen to R&B music as I write. I believe in serendipitous meetings, organic collisions. That’s another reason I cannot be so extremely strict. What if I miss out on a man who could be in my life because I immediately cast him off as the aggressor, because he stopped me on the sidewalk?

One afternoon, I was on my way to SoHo again when a soldier came on the train. We made eye contact until my stop came up. I got off and then I felt another tug on my arm. Before I could gasp, he held up his palm and said, “I’m sorry I scared you,” in a warm voice. “I know this isn’t the best way to approach you but could I maybe have your number?” I ended up dating that guy, eating at a Japanese restaurant then strolling around Central Park with an ice cream cone in hand. Although we ultimately weren’t compatible, I found him to be sweet and gentle, not aggressive.

The male gaze is an abstraction. Meanwhile, I’m out here living real life. Men are not always the aggressors and I am not always the victim. I make conscious decisions to command attention. I also am well aware of the consequences of such attention; I am not blind to how male desire can spontaneously switch into domination, and how my agency can weaken into submissiveness. What if that guy from SoHo pulled me in and assaulted me in broad daylight because I rejected him? Could the guy who tugged at my arm have raped me?

I’m not the same woman as I was last year or when I was in college. I know that I’m beautiful and I’m intelligent too, and part of the reason why I know this is the validation I’ve received from others. When I hear it from women, it’s like a cozy embrace. It’s solidarity. From men, it is coming from a different place. Their words feel like an electrifying, all-consuming kiss, pulling me into the tide. Sometimes, I do want to yield and get pulled under but not at the expense of losing myself. Do I need their words like food and water? No. But I like pleasure and I have a right as a person to respond to it.

I will not walk out of my apartment afraid. I will continue to strut down Harlem and SoHo. Is it okay for me to say all this without being branded as insecure, immature, or naive? I don’t know. I just don’t know.

But what I do know is that I have no shame in these questions. I’ve felt so conflicted because I’ve been ashamed to confess these dilemmas to anyone, especially feminists. But I decided I will not any longer. Being a woman is a process. Living in a female body is an investigation. So I’ve done what I always do best to feel less lonely in my quest: devoured some prose.

I submerge myself into the works of Pearl Cleage and Maya Angelou, Claudia Rankine and Toni Morrison and Edwidge Danticat.  In a 1971 issue of The New York Times Magazine, Toni Morrison wrote of the black woman and all of the oppression and loneliness she has endured for centuries. “And out of the profound desolation of her reality, she may very well have invented herself.”

I know I cannot pass my burdens, my anxieties about romance and relationships, to anyone. But I also know I am able to evolve. I wrap myself in the eccentricities of being a black woman, all the hypocrisies and all the confusions. Their words feel so close to me that I feel like I’m sitting on their front porch or on a quilted mat, listening to their most heartfelt secrets. And it is there that I realize how expansive my body is, that I realize I’m allowed to question, doubt, and wrestle with my thoughts, as long as I keep trekking along this process of becoming.

Morgan Jerkins is a writer and contributing editor at Catapult.co.  Her work has been featured in The New Yorker, The New York Times, Elle, Rolling Stone, and BuzzFeed, among many others. Her debut essay collection, This Will Be My Undoing, is forthcoming in 2018 from Harper Perennial.