As we enter the dog days of summer, men across the country will be engaging in the same time-honored tradition: Girl-watching. Last August, Troy Patterson examined the intricacies and history of, well, checking out women. The article is reprinted below. See our Magnum Photos gallery on girl-watching. Follow Slate’s Today’s Pictures on Twitter.
I write to you at one of the three peak seasons for girl-watching in North America. Sweater-sheathed Ms. October will knock ‘em out in the fall, and the darling buds of May will spring fresh in their sundresses all too shortly, but meanwhile this is sultry deep August—impossibly flimsy fabrics, exquisite lengths of limb. Addled by murderous heat, provoked by brutal hot-to-trotness, I here risk gathering some modest notes on visual experience and modern manners.
Shall we define our terms? When I say girls, I am employing a common archaism meaning women, also known as chicks. For the purposes of this discussion, any woman who is older than a child and younger than a matron is a girl. By watching, I mean checking out. Despite all the many philosophical inquiries into beauty since the Greeks and into sidewalk scenes since Baudelaire, there is an acute shortage of discourse on the subject of checking out hot chicks, a silence all the more appalling because they are famously difficult to ignore.
To understand this lack of critical inquiry, we might revisit a New York Observer piece written 11 Augusts ago by a hot and bothered George Gurley. He described “a standoff between men and women” in public spaces: “While the happy gains of post-feminism may have given women permission to wear skimpy garments in the city heat, the earlier and more sober gains of feminism have made it very uncouth indeed for any civilized man to acknowledge the delights that meet his eye.” Not much more interesting has been said on the topic. What academic work there is on the subject tends to get bogged down in a male-gaze sound bite from the critic John Berger: “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.” That quote is also a favorite of people producing social-science papers on body image, sexual harassment, and gender equity. Those are all very serious issues, none of which will be addressed here, this not being a very serious article, I hasten to clarify for those readers already drafting indignant letters to the editor.
The rest of us can get our bearings by recognizing girl-watching and people-watching as distinct activities. An illustration: The alert people-watcher observes that two girls going out about town together, each clad in shorts, are very likely to be wearing shorts of precisely the same length. The girl-watcher, confronted in the flesh by a pair of shorts-clad women, may not notice the identical brevity of their garments, concentrating as he is on how one of the girls is wearing her shorts beautifully. The pleasures of people-watching are anthropological; those of girl-watching are aesthetic.
Modern girl-watching began in 1954, when Harper published The Girl Watcher’s Guide. It is still the great text on the topic, a delightful and occasionally profound novelty book constructed on the model of birding manuals: “Although we believe that girl watching has it all over bird watching, we feel that these two hobbies do share one important feature. They are both genteel. They both respect the rights of the watched … A girl watcher never leers, nor does he utter any sound which might betray his joy.”
Author Don Sauers wrote The Girl Watcher’s Guide during hours stolen from his job as—what else?—a New York City ad man. Indeed, there is a distinct Mad Men vibe to the production, much helped along by the va-va-voom illustrations from Eldon Dedini. In fact, Sauers went on to design girl-watching-themed ad campaigns for Pall Mall and Diet Pepsi. For nearly a decade-and-a-half—until about the time of the Miss America Protest of 1968—the author received invitations from the likes of the Tonight Show, Expo 67, and Life (where he once helped out with a photo spread about ski pants).
Sauers’ recommended “girl watching centers” in Manhattan include Fifth Avenue between 49th and 59th Streets, and 58th Street between Madison and Sixth Avenue, selected on their strength as shopping areas. Employing that standard, the Manhattan girl-watcher is today best served by Prince Street between Sullivan and Elizabeth, where some girls distinguish themselves through their alluring poise, others through flamboyant bralessness. In order to investigate possibilities further uptown, I arranged a lunchtime rendezvous with a friend who works on the same block that Sauers did, Fifth Avenue between 57th and 58th. Before embarking on our field trip, we digested the book’s instructions on “mastering the once-over,” which are predicated on the idea that “it is never in good taste to look down after watching a beautiful girl’s face.” Rather, after sighting a striking face, you quickly look at girl’s shoes, then “slowly, taking about three seconds, raise your eyes … remembering always not to move the head.” That last directive reminded my companion of instructions he’d gotten on his golf swing.
Put off by the fanny-pack’d tourists of Midtown, we turned north, discovering a great density of impressive subjects on Madison between 59th and 72nd, which is to say between Barneys and Ralph Lauren’s Rhinelander Mansion. This stretch has its limitations, given the notably homogeneous collection of subjects it presents—cf. the marvelously diverse Union Square—but we nonetheless managed to excite our eyes, each murmuring internally about fine necks and necklines. It happens that Ralph Lauren isn’t very far from Lenox Hill Hospital; thus, near the end of our excursion, I chanced to discover that it can be entirely gratifying to check out a girl clad from ankle to v-neck in sea-green medical scrubs if she holds herself well. I impulsively shared this observation with my companion who, contrary to protocol, moved not just his head but his whole body and shanked.
Though Sauers’ three-second bottom-to-top once-over is quite a useful guideline, adhering rigorously to it is not without complications. For one thing, the human eye more naturally moves downward in attempting to pursue an approaching target smoothly; working up from a well-turned ankle to a pretty face, it more likely fixes a series of looks. Which is to say—indulge me a whim here— the most correct girl-watcher apprehends passing loveliness in a sunny flutter—as a series of little thrills to the soul. (Watching a stationary girl—or the mobile rear of a girl—is a whole different thing and affords a rather more meditative experience of physical virtue.)
For another, the human eye has a whole new range of eyefuls to reckon with these days, as mores are not what they were in Sauers’ day. Any given girl might be watching the watcher with aesthetic or anthropological or plainly libidinous interest. The counterwatching complicates things, sometimes enrichingly. And notions of decorum have very agreeably shifted such that it is not uncommon for girls pushing baby strollers to strut as if working a catwalk. And it may be the case that a liberated girl may court extended mental admiration in any number of ways—by coquettishly tossing her hair, say, or pedaling a Schwinn while wearing a miniskirt. The contemporary girl-watcher may permit himself an extra moment of wonder or an extra degree of frankness in certain contexts, exercising his best discretion in the matter of how little discretion to exercise.
To be a gazer, some say, is to place oneself superior to the gazed, which works fine as a tenet of film theory and feels notably more dubious as a premise of girl-watching analysis. The girl may be an objectified being, but it is practically a subclause of the social contract that we all objectify ourselves in the mirror every morning. Meanwhile, the girl-watcher is subject to the absolute rule of his powers of vision and carries a distinct whiff of comic pathos. Figure, carriage, finish, charm, flesh, cool—these are omnipotent. It is the nature of beauty that the girl-watcher is helpless before the wonders of nature.