I had a very interesting exchange with one of my followers this morning.
Last night, I posted a video on Instagram about aging out of the male gaze. It is proposed that women tend to age out of the male gaze at age 33 (a spurious statistic, but it wouldn’t surprise me in the least). My caption read, “don’t threaten me with a good time!” It went on to describe how I used to feel addicted to the male gaze, being unsure if I would feel beautiful or worthwhile without it. And now, in my late thirties, I have finally realized that the male gaze was never a prize to be won. Rather, it was handcuffs around my wrists.
The post was met with a lot of praise and solidarity from other women who have found confidence and security in the post-male-gaze years. But there was one comment that stood out among the rest.
A woman, claiming to be a behavioral psychologist, criticized me for wearing “tight clothing (LuLuLemon leggings and a hoodie), wearing make up, and having my hair done.
She said, “why is she making this post, which is clearly all about seeking attention? Tight clothes, hair done, full make-up and roller skating for ‘grabbing gaze’ if she wasn’t looking to be gazed at? Make it make sense.”
When other women in the comment section, unsurprisingly, assumed she was a man and pointed out the problems with this perception, she added:
“I’m a female, and a behavioral psychologist. She can’t put up attention-seeking posts such as this and try to convince people that she’s not trying to seek attention from men. Because that’s exactly what this is.”
What was immediately obvious to me was that this woman was experiencing something called confirmation bias. What was also pretty clear, speaking as a woman with a doctorate in Cognitive Psychology, is that this woman was either lying about her credentials, or is using them to give undue credibility to her opinion.
Confirmation bias is the natural tendency to interpret novel information in a way that confirms one’s already-held beliefs.
In perceiving a woman on the internet, proudly proclaiming her newfound-confidence outside the male-gaze while being so audacious as to still do her hair and make-up as “attention seeking,” she demonstrated more about her own beliefs than mine.
She believes that women only do their hair and make-up to attract the male gaze.
She believes that women couldn’t possibly wear leggings because they are roller-skating and don’t want their pants to get caught in the wheels and cause them to fall. Instead, they only wear them to excite the men.
And finally, she believes that sharing something relatable and (hopefully) inspirational to other women in a similar position is nothing more than attention seeking.
In believing those things, she saw them in me.
And she projected them onto me.
I explained to her that she was engaging in the same tools of misogyny that men use — centering women’s experiences through the lens of men rather than through our own worth and autonomy. I explained that she has some internalized misogyny to unpack so that she can stop viewing other women this way. I also explained confirmation bias and projection to her (something I wouldn’t have imagined I would need to explain to a behavioral psychologist).
But ultimately, my words fell on deaf ears, as I knew they would.
That’s okay. My reply to her wasn’t really for her.
It was for other women. Women like me who were scrolling through the comments looking for validation, community, and connection. I wanted them to see that I would not let another woman project her internalized misogyny onto me—to show them an example of how it’s done, and to affirm to them that this woman’s projection does not define me. Indeed, it only defines her.
The thing is, we will never change the mind of someone who is projecting onto us. They have their own beliefs, their own reality they’ve built. They must believe that reality or else their entire worldview crumbles. So, when they encounter someone who offers evidence to the contrary, they have to project their worldview onto that person.
Often, this will come in the form of criticism and self-righteousness.
There is no convincing a person who is determined to confirm their already-held beliefs. But I wonder, are we letting them convince us?
I’ll be the first to admit that I internalize people’s projections sometimes. I wonder if they’re right; if they see something in me that I haven’t seen yet. Sometimes, if I’m not careful, that healthy sense of introspection and self-awareness can be easily warped into self-doubt.
Occasionally, I think the reason I feel compelled to argue with those who project their beliefs onto me is because, in part, I believe them. Maybe, if I can convince them that they’re wrong about me, I’ll also convince myself.
How do I stop myself from arguing with the projections that are tossed at me from other people?
For me, the answer lies in knowing my unyielding and undeniable worth. When I know who I am, what I’m about, and what my values are, I am invincible. I cannot be persuaded by projection because I know their projection has nothing to do with me and everything to do with them.
It has taken a long time to reach this place where I am less susceptible to the projections of others. A lot of time and money in therapy, too. But every step I take toward claiming my worth and identity makes me gradually more immune to such things.
One thing I know with absolute certainty is that arguing with other people’s projections has never helped me grow, and never changed their minds.
So, let’s leave those people to their projections.
Let’s embrace the irrefutable fact that their projections say something about them, not about us.
And let’s move forward with our own healing instead.
Amber Wardell is a doctor of psychology and author who speaks on women’s issues related to marriage, motherhood, and mental health. Subscribe to the free newsletter to get exclusive content delivered to your inbox and to never miss an upload.