Ever since I was a little girl, I yearned to be pretty.

I wanted to have the wavy blond hair of Sleeping Beauty, the doe eyes of Snow White, and the skinny figure of my plastic Barbie dolls. Even when I was as young as six years old, I would stare at myself in the mirror, disgusted by my choppy bangs and chubby face. I used to pray that I’d get prettier overnight, transforming from an ugly duckling into one of the Disney princesses from my favorite movies.

At that age, I never realized how toxic my mindset was. All I knew was what I saw and was told. And I was told that the prettier I was, the more likely I was to attract a man. If I wanted my crush to like me back, I’d have to fix my posture and get rid of my acne. I’d have to constantly think about how I looked, as though someone was always watching me. 

Recently, while scrolling through TikTok and hopping between YouTube videos, I found a lot of people talking about something called the male gaze.

The male gaze is “a way of portraying and looking at women that empowers men while sexualizing and diminishing women.” It generally refers to films and the way that female characters are unnecessarily eroticized for the male viewer. An example of this is how the camera will often pan up a woman’s legs or follow her butt while she’s walking.

When it comes to society as a whole, the concept of the male gaze can expand to refer to the way women feel as though they’re constantly being watched by men. They’re told how to take care of themselves and what to wear, all for the purpose of pleasing male passersby. It’s the pressure to wear makeup and look exactly like the supermodels on the covers of sports magazines just to attract men’s attention.

Growing up, popular media convinced me I needed to look beautiful for men. Family members would make casual comments about my appearance. Over time, I became convinced that if I didn’t look pretty, no man would ever like me. I truly internalized it to the point of looking at my reflection everywhere I’d go. If I was on a bus, I’d look in the dark mirror to make sure my butt still looked good and my winged eyeliner wasn’t smudged. I’d take bathroom trips at events just to make sure my hair hadn’t gotten too frizzy. I’d constantly use my Snapchat front camera to check my face from different angles, see which angle suited me best, and try to force my face to look like that to anyone who might see me.

I did all of this without realizing I was never doing it for myself. I was doing it because I’d been told to.

Only recently, after doing research on the male gaze and watching body positivity TikToks, did I realize how long I’ve spent trying to please people I shouldn’t care about. I shouldn’t care what random men think of me. I shouldn’t be constantly double–checking how I look to make sure I’m at my absolute best at all times. I shouldn’t critique every photo of myself and wonder if I was hot enough at the time it was taken for a man to ask me out.

So I’ve reconditioned myself to stop caring. To wear what makes me happy and stop fixating on my reflection. I’ve allowed myself to wear winged eyeliner every day even though I know it’s going out of trend. I’ve allowed myself to eat what I want and not have to worry about how thick I look in every photo.

I’m still not perfect at it. There are days when I look at my body in the mirror and wonder why I’m not prettier. And there are days when I compare myself to other women, and I think about which of us men would find more attractive. It’s a struggle, but I know I will never be truly free to look as I please until I overcome my internalized misogyny.