As someone who likes to bake and doesn't own a car, I have schlepped a lot of cakes on a lot of trains. I've maneuvered pies over subway turnstiles and Tupperwares between strangers' elbows. What was unusual about this one lemon cake was that I wasn't carrying it—and that's where this experiment was born.
My husband and I were going to our friends' house for dinner, two trains and a bus ride away. I had volunteered to bring dessert and now I foisted it off on him for the long trip. As we changed trains at a crowded platform in downtown Boston, all eyes seemed to be on Doug and the lemon cake. He ducked his head and hurried past the stares until we reached the farthest, emptiest part of the subway platform, where we stopped. He said, "Is this what it's like to be an attractive woman?"
I laughed but I also started wondering: is it? Sometimes it seems like he and I walk around in two different worlds. By simply toting something delicious-looking, can men get a taste of the constant public observation that women experience?
I began recruiting my subjects.
This experiment would not be scientific. There would be no control group and no statistics. But I did have a hypothesis. I also had five subjects, local male friends who are good sports (and who would get to eat the baked goods afterward). I chose men with female significant others, so that they could offer their own perspectives on a woman's experience in public.
I whipped up some treats: chocolate cupcakes, lemon squares, a giant batch of iced pumpkin cookies, and of course the inspirational lemon cake. After packing them in Saran wrap or a clear plastic carrier, I dropped the goods off with my subjects. I asked them to spend some time carrying their treats on public transit or on their daily commutes—and to pay attention.
All my subjects live in Cambridge. Some carried their treats on the bus or the train, and others walked, either in the morning or the evening. A few of the men made trips out of their way to give the experiment extra time.
For some perspective on the question of people in the public eye, I called Sarah Gervais, a psychologist at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, who studies dynamics of power and prejudice between men and women. She's especially interested in staring, or what she calls the "objectifying gaze." In one recent study, for example, she used eye-tracking technology to learn how men look at women with different body types.
"What we know about this kind of public gazing is that it has really negative consequences for women," Gervais told me.
Being stared at is distracting, for one thing. It can also lead to increased anxiety or shame about your appearance, as well as worries about safety. Women who report more experience being objectified and harassed score higher on measures of "self-objectification," or thinking a lot about their own appearance and comparing it to an ideal.
An objectifying gaze can affect women's behavior and even their cognition. In one study, women spent less time talking about themselves when they thought a man in another room was watching a video feed of their bodies, compared to women who thought the observer was another woman (or was watching their faces). In one of Gervais's studies, women who received an objectifying gaze from a man performed worse on a math test.
Gervais was enthusiastic about my experiment, despite its lack of scientific rigor. She thought having men carry around "something that is desirable in the eyes of others" might be a good way to attract an objectifying gaze.
"So," she said, "what did you find?"
The first thing I found was that my subjects really wanted people to look at them. Most of them told me afterward that they'd hoped for a lot of gawking, for the sake of the experiment. They acknowledged that this probably wasn't much like a woman's experience. "I wanted people to inappropriately stare at me," Martin said. "That's the opposite of what I'm supposed to be feeling at this moment."
Although all the men seemed to expect more stares than they actually got, they and their baked goods did get checked out.
Chris described a man ogling his plate of cookies as he walked past, and admits he may have accidentally stared at some people while waiting for them to look at his pumpkin cookies. Arvil and his cupcakes received some lingering glances—more when he was walking than on the train, he said, and more from women than men. (He tried holding his cupcakes at different heights to see if he got more reactions, and results were inconclusive.) Martin's cookies got some "sideways glances" on his commute and outright stares when he carried them into a restaurant. At one point, he ran into his graduate-school advisor, who asked about the cookies, and when Martin explained they were part of an experiment and offered him one, his advisor declined. Martin's wife, Alex, saw some men give them "judgy eyes" outside the subway station.
Jamie said the hardest thing about this experiment was keeping his balance on the subway while holding the plate. He noticed a few looks at his lemon squares on the train and got comments from coworkers on his office elevator. Peter, who carried the lemon cake, didn't attract much attention on the bus. But he got several conspicuous stares when he took the cake on the train at night—including from a "group of drunk bros," one of whom told Peter the cake looked delicious. Peter said thank you. "I felt good," he told me. "Even though I didn't make it."
When they did get stares, the guys weren't sure whether it was because people were attracted to the pastries, or just surprised to see a man carrying homemade food. Jamie thought it was the latter. Martin, who cooks and bakes often, has experience schlepping food on public transit. He thought the cookies I gave him were too subtle. "Wandering around with a cake, people will stare at you," he said. (He suspects people are waiting to see him drop it.)
The men were all hoping for attention, and didn't report feeling uncomfortable when they got it. In this way, they probably didn't get a good sense of what it's like to be female. Being stared at is "a pretty novel experience for men in this situation," Gervais said. "And that does not really map onto women's experiences, because we know that women's bodies are scrutinized and evaluated very, very frequently."
My male subjects apologized to me, thinking the experiment had failed. They hadn't found themselves trapped in a gauntlet of unwanted attention, even though they were waiting for it.
And here comes the twist that I would like to tell you I planned all along, but in reality snuck up on me—the unexpected growth in the Petri dish that turns out to be the most interesting result.
While they carried their pastries, all the men had become hyper-aware of the people around them, watching for anyone who might be staring. "You're already changing your behavior on the assumption that people might be looking at you," Chris's wife, Katie, pointed out to him. "You're kind of seeing what it does feel like to be a woman on the street."
All of the men described being distracted, watchful, on alert. "A hundred percent," Arvil said when I asked whether he felt self-conscious. According to their significant others, they were on the right track.
"Once you're established and you're on your own as a woman, you're taught to be more aware of things," said Sophie, Jamie's girlfriend. Safety is always a consideration, conscious or not. "I sort of trained myself to be more aware of my surroundings because of times when I felt vulnerable, and I just do it constantly now," Sophie said. Peter's girlfriend, Kayla, said she usually walks in the middle of the sidewalk because she doesn't like to be too close to the cars or to the buildings.
Discomfort is another factor. Especially on the train, "I'll definitely be aware of whether people are looking at me or not," said Eva, Arvil's girlfriend. "I don't like people looking at me if I don't know they're looking at me—that's kind of a creepy thought."
Gervais says that scientific research agrees with my friends' observations. "Women come to expect and sort of internalize that gaze," she said. "And in the end they don't actually have to have someone looking at them to experience the negative consequences"—the self-objectification, the stress, the distraction.
"Even if no one ever harasses me on the street again, I already have changed things that I do. And I already changed ways that I am," Katie said. "The self-policing, I think, becomes the more powerful thing."
The men all described their everyday, cake-free experiences in public as anonymous and unseen. They don't expect anyone to watch or notice them. "Being looked at is not something I think about," Jamie said.
"I am not aware of who's looking at me," Arvil agreed. (Eva replied, "Really?")
During the experiment, the men left that anonymous feeling behind. "Perhaps it sort of gives men a sense of what it might be like" to be a woman, Gervais said. They didn't exactly walk in women's shoes, but for part of a day they carried some of the watchfulness that women do.
Now all the cakes and cookies are eaten, and the men have gone back to traveling the city in their usual way: unobserved.
"I wouldn't give it up," Peter said.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby