Design critic Stephen Bayley's smug Telegraph-framed assertion that "taking an educated pleasure in the shape and style of women is not belittling, it is elevating" smacks of Mad Men-style paternalism. But as a straight female girl-watcher, I sort of agree.

When Troy Patterson wrote a light-hearted piece about "girl-watching" in DoubleX last month, it provoked a predictable controversy in comments. Some women brought up serious larger issues of objectification, sexualization and the fact that the male gaze is by no means always innocuous and should not be trivialized. Others said they were flattered by respectful glances. Some men wrote in to say that their looks were natural and expressed nothing but admiration of a far wider range of characteristics than women might assume. Objectification, predatory behavior, sexualization - these are all things we've discussed, and bear discussing more, although it's not what I want to talk about now, to the extent they can be separated. My own feeling, frankly, was that anyone worrying about keeping his gaze respectful isn't the one making my walk home from the subway a daily ordeal. And contrary to what guys may believe, we can generally tell the difference between an insolent, visually-stripping leer and an admiring glance.

And then there are those guys who make such intense eye-contact that it becomes almost weirder than if he'd just looked down and gotten it out of the way. I get wanting to look, and for me it's not even sexual. People look at each other. And women's bodies are beautiful. They draw the eye, and sometimes you just want to look, stare even. It's like Isaac Mizrahi once said, "I mean, breasts! They're beautiful! All breasts!" Now, he's a habitual gay boob-grabber, which is a whole other thing and Not Okay, but I feel him: maybe it's because we all had moms, but what's not to love about female curves? Sometimes there are days (granted, usually when I'm in an emotional frame of mind) where everyone is so stunning and in such wholly different ways that I get tears in my eyes. (These tend to be the same days the bounty of produce at the greenmarket makes me sob.)

Of course, women have other reasons to look. Sometimes it's about comparisons. Not so much qualitative, for me, as "she's about my size - could I get away with that length?" or, "she looks like my friend," which I suspect isn't something men do, because I know men in my life have been less than scintillated when I've made such looks-like-friend-whom-you-may-not-know observations. And then of course there's clothes. I love looking at outfits, getting ideas, admiring creativity and proportion, seeing "runway-to-reality," guessing what people do. Do I check out men? Sometimes, I guess - but like men's clothing, it's so much less interesting! I might think a guy's cute, sure, or dressed like an ass, but by and large I find it a lot less engaging. Men, at least in America, tend to be less expressive with their bodies and faces and certainly with their clothing, and for the most part make for dull viewing.

I don't mean to suggest I sit around like some peeping Tom with binoculars. But if I'm eating on a bench, it's the ladies I'll watch. And sometimes, yes, it's awkward. You simply can't stare at a woman's body for a long time without it being inappropriate, and you simply can't look down women's dresses, even if it's totally asexual and she's wearing a really low-cut dress and it's just like an arrow pointing down and, like shouting in church, you just want to do it because it's bad and it's there and you could and it's forbidden. Or nipples. If there are visible nipples it's really hard, both because you empathize and because, well, there they are! I can only imagine what it would be like if there were also a sexual imperative at work. Similarly, sometimes you catch women staring at your breasts. And even if it doesn't feel sexual or predatory, it's a little weird. Because you've caught her doing something, and you both know it, and you don't have necessarily the visceral sense of violation you would if it were a man, and you wonder if maybe the weirdness is just conditioned because, what? They're just breasts - but it's weird nonetheless. The difference is, when it's a woman, I probably won't reflexively cross my arms. Something Bayley wouldn't really get.


Taking Pleasure In The Female Form [Telegraph]

Related: A Dandy's Guide To Girl-Watching [DoubleX]