The girlfriend gaze

4 December 2012
Only in en
Women's friendship and intimacy circles are increasingly taking on the function of mutual self-policing, writes Alison Winch. In a relentlessly visual landscape, the feminine ideal is the girl and the girled body is an asset.

Popular culture marketed to women has always positioned the female body
as an object of scrutiny and anxiety, offering consumers the aspirational
possibilities of image change, makeover and reinvention. Here, however,
I want to focus on the role played by the “girlfriend gaze” in constructing
contemporary mainstream femininity, which is increasingly written through
the metaphors and language of friendship and girlhood — frequently through
a nostalgic rebranding of the closeness of adolescent intimacy. This culture of
girlfriendship places women’s relationships at the core of feminine identities, rather
than relationships with men, or a search for male approval. The male gaze is thus
rendered benign, and men are cast as an accessory in proving a girl’s worth to the
most important people in her life — her circle of friends.

In what is a relentlessly visual landscape, the feminine ideal is the girl, and
the girled body is an asset. Freed from the marriage market, it is invested in as an
essential part of self branding. But the labour undertaken to achieve this body is
glossed as “me-time”, and portrayed as a strategic means of achieving self-coherence,
empowerment and autonomy. A body image that matches the adolescent norm is a
signifier of success.

Women’s sociality — or girlfriendship — is harnessed as a way of naturalising such
a body — thereby ensuring that women are perpetually in service to the lifestyle
industries’ promise of everlasting youth. Girlfriendships are exploited as a means of
marketing; they act as a system of mutual governance for the attainment of the ideal
body, as women seek to prove their worth for the approbation of other women. My argument is that in so doing women preserve and perpetuate discourses of misogyny.
And that it is therefore essential that feminists — of whatever variety — start to address
women’s complicity in their own disempowerment.

The marketing of eternal girlhood functions in a number of ways. It is clearly
necessary for the health and beauty complexes that women are provoked into
striving for youth, as this means they will spend more on veiling the inevitable.
However, the idealisation of adolescence also forecloses the possibility of not
appearing youthful. The girl is waxed pre-pubescent, flat-stomached, fresh-faced
and happy. And as her dewy teenage skin shimmers through urban public spaces, it
is difficult not to perceive an ordinary woman’s face as abnormally aged. To look like
a mature woman becomes a failure of self marketing. For the spectacular pinkness
of the girl is in no way a return to an essentialized femininity. There is a strong
performative aspect to this striving to become the embodiment of the teenager.
Girlhood is sold as a consumer choice and a form of self-definition that points
up affluence and exclusivity. In an aggressive job market, the perfected girly self
leverages a competitive edge.

The colourful happiness of the girl also functions to offset the punishing
nature of neoliberal society, and reconfigures her anxiety as personal. To be critical
or to opt out of striving for attractiveness is to be melancholic and old. It is no
coincidence that the ubiquitous girl embodies the aspirational qualities sold by
the pharmaceutical, beauty and wellbeing industries: health and happiness. These
nebulous terms connote a middle-class sense of self and an affluent lifestyle — and
they also contribute to the perception of an apparent erasure of labour. Refusal, rage,
or insecurity are coded as personal illnesses or pathological failings. The happy girl
encourages incompetent consumers to recognise themselves as abnormal or “wrong”,
but her freshness also vindicates relentless consumerism, and takes our attention
away from precarious institutional structures and the destabilisation of communities.
The girl glosses over an increasingly business-oriented approach to identity, and
is effective in covering up what the branded spaces disavow: the strategic ways in
which intimacy itself is being reconfigured.

The gaze

The starkest examples of the surveillance of the female body are in celebrity culture,
particularly in gossip blogs and the magazine industry. Heat, Closer and Now all position celebrities as subjects of scrutiny within a world of women. In June 2012
the front cover of Heat zoomed in on the apparently round bellies of five female
celebrities, including Josie Gibson and Colleen Rooney, with the strapline: “In Love
and Ditching the Diet: Who cares about letting go? They’re loved up!”.1 Colleen is “eating more and Wayne likes her bigger”, while Josie “Loves her curries with boyfriend Luke”. Among the omnipresent glossy and airbrushed flat stomachs, these curves are an anomaly. But Heat understands what has happened:

We’ve all been there. You get a new boyfriend, and suddenly the gym
doesn’t seem as inviting as the sofa […] suddenly you’ve gained half a stone.

The “we” speaks to a (mainly) female group who are aware of body image and the
rigours involved in attempting to maintain an ideal look. The readers are on the
same plane as the loved-up women, who are “just as guilty of scoffing junk with their
new men as we are”. The democratisation of celebrity means that all women now
have the potential to be hyper-visible, and so Heat includes its readers in its sphere
of body analysis. And it also includes its readers in its apparent celebration of that
unaspirational and working-class vice — the eating of junk food.

Heat ostensibly celebrates these “happier” bodies — “Ladies, we salute you” — and
insists there is no need to apologise for them; and in doing so it pokes fun at
the mechanics of celebrity culture. However the magazine wants to have it all:
the glamour of skinniness as well as the animalistic pleasures of letting rip into a
takeaway pizza. It wants humiliating photographs of Josie caught with a slow-speed
shutter that captures her cellulite mid-wobble, as well as the delicious revelling in
her rebellious weight gain. And of course, it can have it all. But through doing so
it promotes a volatile and insecure attitude towards the body. Its contradictions
encourage “loosening the reins” of food control as the route to health and happiness,
while at the same time touting skinniness as the ultimate ideal. It both embraces the
working-class section of its demographic and governs them.

The issue here is not so much whether Heat celebrates or condemns fat. What is
important is that the female body is the subject of analysis. In this particular feature,
the women’s weight gain is collected as data. The copy details the women’s dress
size, weight and “love gain”. Josie, for example, weighs 14 st. 7 lb., her “love gain” is 2 st.,
and her dress size is recorded as 16. Her diet consists of takeaway curries.

The volatility of Heat‘s attitude to consumption helps to keep its brand “new”;
its irony and lack of fixity means that it is always in process, always becoming, and
therefore always distinctive. The celebrities’ apparently fluctuating bodies are a way
of writing large its inconsistent messages about consumption. This is presumably
part of their fascination: consumers can read how the celebrities’ weight gain reveals
their lack of discernment over how to have it all. Their failure to make the correct
consumer choices is marked on the body. And the female belly also becomes a sign
of woman’s sexual appetite, evidencing the devouring of food, menstrual bloat or
motherhood.

Across media platforms, the curved stomach is a source of shame. It also betrays
what happens when you become dependent on men: you let go. The only way out of
this trap is to have girlfriends who will advise on the right choices and offer support
through a calculating gaze. In magazines such as Heat the female gaze is honed. It is
trained, guided and informed so that it can always locate the spectacle of the female
body as subject to calculation by other women. But it is not just celebrities who
are held up for analysis in this way, and such detailed body analysis is not confined
to the most obvious outlets — the weight-loss brands such as Weight Watchers or
Slimming World, for whom the calculations of dimensions of the body are central. It
is also prevalent in internet forums marketed to women, particularly those targeting
mothers and brides.

The stupid belly

On 31 July 2012 Candy Crate posted on the enormously popular mumsnet.com:

I have a stupid belly that I need to get rid of. I am 5′ 10, have no idea
how much I weigh but I’m a size 12. I would be perfectly happy with
my body except since I had DS [darling son] two years ago my belly just
seems to always be big and sticks out over my jeans!See: www.mumsnet.com/Talk/style_and_beauty/1527936-is-there-anything-i-cando-
about-my-mum-tum
.

In response, users advise on work-out videos, diets, control pants, tummy tucks or
the MuTu System, which is “great because you get connected with other mums also
trying to get/stay in shape. Brilliant”. Another mum — “tittytittyhanghang” — suggests
that Candy Crate has split stomach muscles and developed a “mum tum”.

puds11 posts:

hate to say this, but you may never get rid of the saggyness of your
belly (if that is what it is?) but you most certainly can get rid of the
excess weight although it will be hard work. I am embarking on a
belly blitz myself starting today. So far i have had my SF shake for
breaky and have done 100 sit-ups and a 30 min cycle ride. Now i have
no intention of doing a 30 min cycle ride everyday but i am aiming to
do 200 sit ups per day. If you like i shall report back after a week to
see if the intense sit up madness has made any difference?

Other users are eager to hear about how puds11 develops, and through this online
community she is inspired and supported in her attempt to rid herself of something
which brings her pain.

On the wedding site confetti.co.uk, the threads are posted under the section “live
talk”, which is adorned with a photograph of two women in an intimate conversation,
to signify the cosy friendliness of the forum. Indeed, the threads are extremely
personal. It seems that the virtual privacy of an online community means that it is
possible to expose insecurities and shame. On youandyourwedding.co.uk there is a
weekly weigh-in.2 Here the body is subject to analysis in a similar way to Heat:

Whether you have a little or a lot to loose [sic], join the rest of the
2013 brides to be with a weekly weigh in every Sunday!
My starting weight is 78.3kg. (I am going with kg as I am using the
wii fit).
My BMI is 29.84 (Overweight)
Aim — to lose at least 13.3kg
Let’s cheer each other on!
I used this website to calculate my BMI
http://www.dropadresssize.myforever.biz/nutrilean/calculators/bmi.
html

As members join they give their measurements: present weight, ideal weight, as well
as the lightest weight they have ever achieved. Armed with statistics, information
and each other’s support, the women unite against the recalcitrant body. It is
significant that the women use misogynist language to describe their bodies —
“tittytittyhanghang”, “bingo wings” or “stupid belly”. This mimics other political reappropriations
of words that were previously abusive, and indeed there is a strong
sense of solidarity. However, in this context — and across girlfriend cultures — such
solidarity contributes to body hatred.

Friendship as market

Girlfriendship is also used to sell things in a variety of ways. Its strong emotional
significance makes it a useful promotional tool: the convergence of marketing
strategies with powerful stories of intimacy gives added value to a product. One
form this can take is the expert bestfriendship of Trinny Woodall’s and Susannah
Constantine’s What Not to Wear brand, or Rory Freedman’s and Kim Barnouin’s
best-selling Skinny Bitch series. The feminine knowledges of these co-authors, as
well as the trust garnered through the performance of their friendship, gives their
co-brand added emotive value. The images and accessories of friendship can be sold
through the intimate and direct language of advertising. Or they can be harnessed as
a means to give a celebrity a more interesting story. Figures like Courtney Cox and
Jennifer Aniston, or Fearne Cotton and Holly Willoughby, can use their girlfriend
performance to add dimensions to their public personae. The representation of
female friendship in television shows is also enormously popular, as evidenced in
such disparate programmes as Sex and the City (1998-2004), 2 Broke Girls (2011), Scott and Bailey (2011-), Mistresses (2008-2010) and Paris Hilton’s My New BFF (2008-9); and also in films like Bride Wars (2009), Baby Mama (2008), The Women (2008), Bridesmaids (2011), Sex and the City (2008, 2010) and other girlfriend flicks, which portray girlfriends through the signifiers of the romcom. In these it is the women’s intimacies — rather than boy meets girl — that provide the source of love,
resolution and belonging.

And girlfriendship is also a market. That is, networks of friends are mined in the
corporate spaces of social media in order to “spread” brand loyalty. Internet forums
are effective in developing trust through the co-production of a brand, especially if
they build on personal and emotive experiences such as motherhood or marriage. In
particular, women who congregate through body anxiety are a prime demographic.
youandyourwedding.co.uk, for example, provides a virtual interactive sociality
around its own products and those of the other retailers it promotes. Users on the
websites cited above spread information about weight-loss brands such as the MuTu
System, Slimming World, bmi websites, or the 30 Day Shred. The forums are crucial
places for these products to develop deep loyalties among consumers, especially if
the interaction is through group participation in weight loss; the brand enables and
consolidates women’s sociality.

Brands also capitalise on the quality of trust that they have established with
their consumers by using them to let their product “go viral”. The “like” function
in Facebook means that a brand can colonise new consumer territories that have
already been opened up through friendship networks. The intimacy of friendship is
appropriated by brand managers in order to open up wider markets of potentially
steadfast consumers. This is particularly effective as it can mine the intimacies of
private relationships in order to extend the reach of its demographic. Significantly,
the emotional investment that women put into their friendships can work to
personify a brand and give it human qualities. Furthermore, female knowledges
and expertise, which play an integral part within women’s intimacies, can render a
brand’s narrative more reliable. This is shown to be the case with the MuTu System,
for example, which is spread by mothers through mumsnet.

These virtual networks and friendships function to provide support, advice and
empathy, but they are also necessary for the promotion of the self. Losing weight is
a bid for individual recognition and self-profiling. Consequently, these relationships
are built around systems of exchange: women support each other in becoming more
visible and therefore apparently more empowered. As the male gaze is mystified as
retro, discipline is meted out between girlfriends. Whereas Heat offers the celebrity
body to be consumed, online women offer their own bodies for surveillance.

In a culture where private lives are increasingly understood through this
commercialisation of intimacy, being seen to have the right kind of friends – such
as on Facebook — is an excellent form of self-marketing. It is a way of accumulating
social capital. It is also a means to display the perfect self to friends — both real
and virtual. The emphasis on photographs and the profile picture means that the
cultivated body can be subject to further analysis by networks of acquaintances,
family and “close friends”.

In addition, insecurities over self-profiling are exploited by the advertising
banners which appear alongside the web pages. Because users’ data is collected
by marketing companies, we are specifically targeted, particularly along the lines
of gender. My Facebook page tells me that Adele has dropped over two stone,
and that 5351 people like this. Underneath is an advert by Fitness Advice Guru,
which promises to teach me how to lose two stone in one week: “Learn how to shed
pounds and pounds of weight from your belly by following this 1 tip!” There is that
hideous female belly again — hopefully not make a spectral appearance in any of my
photographs or profile pictures. If I “like” these brands then this will signify to my
friends and acquaintances how repulsive I find a big belly. It will show how I trust a
particular product to cure me — and them — of this excessive marker of womanhood.
I will make it appear more vital and necessary. I will give it a story and, depending
on how my mediated friends view me, render it more reliable.

The girlfriend gaze as governance

What is striking about features such as the one in Heat discussed above, the internet
forums and girlfriend culture in general is the passivity of the male gaze: women put
on weight because they are adored by their fat-blind and indulgent men. Indeed,
men are cast as benign and friendly. They are outside the preserve of anxiety about
body image and this means that they are loveable. But they are also high-risk and
undependable. Straight men do not have the expertise to recognise the labour and
strategy that has been invested in the body. Furthermore, in neoliberal popular
culture, dependency on the marriage market is promoted as shameful. As identities
become increasingly privatised and individualised, the woman who opts out of
the job market is vilified as a “gold-digger”. Marriage is a gamble, and dependency
on men smacks of old-fashioned victimhood. This is reinforced by the ubiquity
of images of the male slacker, whether in the shape of Homer Simpson or the
bromance characters in buddy movies; in Peep Show (2003-2010), or in more recent
films like Five Year Engagement (2012) and Your Sister’s Sister (2011). What’s more, it is no longer possible to hide from the strictures of body image through the roles of
motherhood and wife. The female body, from yummy mummy to cougar, is subject
to display and analysis.

This obfuscation of the male gaze helps to mystify the technologies of patriarchy
that profit from women’s body hatred, particularly through the beauty and lifestyle
industries. It reconfigures obsession with body image and consumption as an
exclusively female preserve. The women in Heat are in danger of losing their
celebrity status as they are seduced into the domesticated spaces of heterosexual
love. Because the skinny body is a woman’s cultural capital, the magazine’s subtext
implies that to let go of the rigours of self-discipline is a form of naivety. And it also
perpetuates the pervasive discourse that defines women’s empowerment through the
control they exert over their bodies. Being skinny, or a discerning and avid shopper,
is sold as signifier of autonomy: it is because she is worth it that she botoxes, not
because she is a victim of the heterosexual male gaze.

Because women exercise ownership over their bodies and can profit from
this through the processes of branding, the surveillance of body control is sold
as enablement. In an overwhelmingly visual culture, the spectacle of the female
body is necessary for self-promotion and therefore success. As the practices of
beautifying and “girling” become more complex, it is women who are able to
recognise and appreciate the work spent and expertise accumulated. Because the
body is represented as integral to success in the labour market, this surveillance of
women by women through friendship is represented as entitlement. It is marketed as
solidarity or sisterhood through the rhetoric of girlfriendship; it is “girl time”.

Fat, feminism and friendship

Interviewing individual women and focus groups about female friendships is often
revealing. Women’s experience of friendship is diverse, and depends on a number of
socio-economic and familial factors. What is relevant here, however, is that women
feel a complex mixture of love and envy, competition and solidarity, within their
female networks. Thus Ela (34)3 participates in relations of support and rivalry with her best friends, particularly over body image and self-promotion. She finds that
this is exacerbated by personal profiling in social media, such as the uploading of
photographs on Facebook. Helen (39) criticises an increasingly competitive culture
which promises that women can have it all: motherhood, career, beauty, property,
marriage, perfection. She argues that there are no role models or pathways which
explain how, or even if, these routes can be achieved. Consequently women compare
themselves to their peers, with both positive and negative repercussions: “It’s not the
male gaze I’m worrying about so much anymore, it’s probably my peers. They’re the
ones I’d want to have esteem me.”

One group of third-year English Literature students at Middlesex University
discussed how women look at each other. Debbie maintained that “it’s a critical gaze
[…] other girls look at each other […] it’s a derogatory gaze”. Tina agrees:

It is more the female gaze. I’m more worried about what other girls
think of me than what boys think of me. So, like, I might feel fat today
and a boy will say “you don’t look any different from yesterday”, but
girls might think “oh look at her belly”.

These students also feel this pressure in the workplace, and experience more stress
from female bosses than their male counterparts. Clare worries that women have
more expertise around the body — “I feel a lot more pressure from women” — and so
a female manager is “going to be expectant from you”. They also recognise their own
complicity. Debbie admits that she judges the appearance of other women: “I would
say ‘what is that person wearing?’ […] I know that’s mean […]”

Governance in the field of the body divides women, as they judge themselves
through ever multiplying frameworks of analysis, calculation, comparison and
exclusion. Women are uniting in sisterhood against their own bodies. The body is
alienated from the self, commodified and subjected to analysis. Misogyny itself is
being rebranded and appropriated by women for women. Terms of self-abuse like
“stupid bellies” render women apolitical, solipsistic and disengaged. They also sustain
suffering. Moreover, this competitiveness and surveillance is not confined to the
body: in our competitive and individuated culture, where the onus is always on self-responsibility
and autonomy, women are encouraged to — and do — pit themselves
against each other in many other areas. This is evident in academic and political
circles, in the job market and across popular culture.

The ideal body is also heavily influenced by dominant discourses on class, race
and ethnicity. As girlfriend culture utilises the white middle-class gaze and promotes
the white thin body as aspirational, among other things this has implications for
women’s political solidarities. In my seminar groups, for example, female students
unapologetically use the term “chav” to distance themselves from what they perceive
to be undesirable femininities.

Elsewhere I discuss the repercussions of this for women relating across
difference.4 However, I want to end with one interviewee’s more positive take on
body image, and the possibilities that women friends and the media can offer. Jas
(29) describes herself as “British-Mauritian-Indian”. As a child she thought that white
people were more beautiful: “The media does influence a lot […] They used to make
me want to be thin all the time. And I used to have kind of like eating disorders and
I used to make myself vomit, like bulimia.” It was her sister, who is also one of her
best friends, who eventually encouraged her to embrace her body, and supported her
in overcoming these rituals of self harm. Jas explains how she now uses the internet
to explore other ideals of beauty: “I’ll go on the internet and I’ll think what am I? I’m
not thin so […] I’m not fat so […] I’ll put in ‘curvy African woman’.” Jas experiments:
“if you’ve got a bit chub on you, it’s OK you can wear this or do that and I feel it
works for me […] I love my body.”

So there are ways in which popular culture can be used to offer women
alternative means to re-connect with their bodies, and women do have the
possibility of supporting each other in exploding the analytical and misogynist
girlfriend gaze. This means that there is still a potential for feminists to engage with
the female energy that unites against womanhood, and harness it for more radical,
self-loving and friendly ends.

  1. Heat, June 2012
  2. See: www.youandyourwedding.co.uk/forum/weight-loss-for-your-wedding/2013-brides-to-be-weekly-weigh-in-lets-get-motivated/367704.html.
  3. All names have been changed.
  4. See Alison Winch, Girlfriends: Postfeminist Sisterhood, Palgrave, forthcoming in 2013.

Published 4 December 2012

Original in English
First published in Soundings 52 (2012)

© Alison Winch / Soundings Eurozine