To Men Who Stare At Women: Check On It


Recently, Burt’s Bees released a new "Flame Body Butter" lotion, whose tagline— "Soak in the moisturizing seductiveness of shea butter and indulge in the scent of vanilla and rice milk. And let the catcalling commence" — generated a major backlash from women and from the activist group Hollaback!.

Image credit: the Huffington Post.

While cat-calling is never appropriate, the uproar over the new lotion got me thinking: When is it appropriate for men to check out women? Is it ever?

To help answer this question, I turned to a much-discussed recent study from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, which officially confirmed that men first look at a female’s breasts before looking at her face.

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It additionally concluded that women check out women about as much as men do, making both genders more equally culpableof objectifying women. (To be clear, the study found that both men and women spent much more time looking at the subject's face than her body, even if the guys did start with the breasts and waist.) These findings basically just confirmed to me that everybody looks at everybody else all the time.

But clearly, there is a line. Actually, I accidentally experienced it once.

A few years ago, I was walking on a sidewalk right along the road. A lady was walking towards me. Just as we passed each other, a car full of young dudes hollered at her. I hadn’t really registered the lady any more than "person walking towards me," so for a split second, it felt like the guys were hollering at me. It felt terrible! Degrading, condescending, disrespectful, and a little scary.

A second later, I realized they weren’t hollering at me, but the impact lingered. I vowed never to do that to anyone.

Now, hollering out a car window is a fairly clear-cut example of grimy behavior, but there are other actions we guys see (and take) routinely that are a bit harder to classify.

For guidance on the question of how and when to check someone out, I asked seven heterosexual millennial women from around the country how they felt about getting checked out by guys and received some fairly consistent answers.

All but one agreed with Karlee's, 24, assessment. "If it's an innocent look, and I catch his eye, it's flattering and I don't mind," she said. Several said that they often barely notice a passing look, because it happens so often.

The word "creepy" came up a lot when distinguishing between acceptable and unacceptable looks. I asked each woman to drill down on what "creepy" meant, and the reponses were again similar. Laura, 27, says a flattering look can become unwanted if the guy keeps staring and "doesn't leave you alone." Stella, 23, echoed that sentiment, saying that if she has to stop what she's doing to address him, "that's just intrusive."

Then, of course, there are obvious no-nos. "Some guys lick their lips. Really creepy," Carmen, 25, told me. Uh, yeah.

Some of this may seem obvious, but as comedian W. Kamau Bell found out on the streets of New York, some guys still don't get it.

It seems to me that the line between 'acceptable' and 'unacceptable' is not necessarily defined by the initial look, but by the follow-up action. A smile, a 'hey,' an initiated conversation were all cited as perfectly acceptable, as long as the lady reciprocates the interest.

It also helps if you're good looking. According to Alyson, 26, "A gross old dude could give me a glance that I would find innocent coming from the Matt Damons of the world, but coming from him I might automatically consider it unwanted." Sorry, creepy old dudes — try to look a little more like Matt Damon next time.

Image via Oakland Local.

To me, the backlash to the Burt’s Bees campaign, the results of the UNL study, and the interviews confirm what I feel are some fairly common-sense assumptions. Everybody looks at everybody else, largely in order to evaluate them. While men often begin with the boobs, which women don’t like, this doesn’t mean men can't ever look at women, but there are some clear lines in terms of what's acceptable and what isn't.

Now, this isn’t meant to be a guide for picking up chicks, but I will say that for heterosexual dudes in the U.S. who are genuinely interested in starting a conversation with a lady, whistling or licking your lips is not a good place to start. And while averting your eyes will definitely keep you out of trouble, you almost certainly won’t get a conversation out of it either.

As Alyson asked me, "How would we meet each other if it were unacceptable to check each other out?"