Help me stop staring at other women's breasts
May 18, 2016 2:01 PM   Subscribe

I'm a straight cis woman. I keep staring at other women's breasts. I feel horrible about it. How can I stop? Snowflakes inside.

This often happens when I get nervous in new situations. I am quite shy and have a hard time maintaining eye contact and look down, which means I look down at other women's breasts. I am also a little bit hard of hearing, especially in loud places, and have to bend my head to listen, which means I tilt my head in the line of sight of breasts. I realize that it happens, which makes me feel rude, and then I flush and try to make myself not do it but I can't. And then I feel horribler and more embarassed and end up practically avoiding people especially if they are wearing low cut tops. I don't stare in the way that men stare but I can't stop glancing down, especially once I tell myself to stop.

Complicating factors are that I work in an office with mostly women and women clients. Who should be free to dress as they please without anyone ogling them. I feel awful that this happens and I am sure I will end up getting fired for sexual harrassment. It drives me mad when men ogle my chest, so I absolutely hate that I do this to other women.

I have browsed the internet and have not found a lot of information about this (or even other people that have this problem) except that it might be a nervous tic or OCD-type behavior of compulsive or intrusive thinking. I do notice that when I am stressed (at work or in life) it is worse but when I am more calm and confident, it almost never happens (with the exception of my being hard of hearing and tilting my head down and then putting my line of sight towards someone's breasts).

I was molested by my father as a child and teen and have always had a difficult relationship with my own breasts. I could probably be diagnosed with body dysmorphic disorder as I have always worried about my breasts being deformed, size, shape, and so on which I think has also contributed to this problem. I often wear baggy clothes to disguise my breast size and shape. When I was younger I would always be jealous of other women with larger breasts and wonder when mine would develop into adult breasts (this didn't happen and I have very small breasts).

I'm happily married to a cis man and really enjoy and look forward to our sex. I am not attracted to women, have never had a crush on a woman, and so on. I am quite sure I am not a lesbian.

I was seeing a therapist but found this too embarrassing to bring up. I cannot go back to therapy for Reasons right now, so that is not an option. What else can I do to stop this bad habit? It makes me feel wretched and I don't know what to do or how to approach anyone about it.

Throwaway email for questions or comments:
posted by shamefulsock to Human Relations (28 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I'm totally straight, but had a short phase when I had an OCD-ish tendency to look at a woman's chest if it was in my line of vision (it would start with me being worried that they'd think I was staring at their chest, and then it would be hard to get out of that mental loop). This only happened when I was talking to my therapist (while sitting down) and talking to my roommate (while we were both sitting down and her chest was at an awkward height and the cut was low or something). What saved me was training myself to look at their eyebrows or forehead while I was talking. That way, their chests were too low to be within my line of vision and I couldn't really notice them.
posted by kinoeye at 2:11 PM on May 18, 2016 [2 favorites]

Okay first of all, you are NOT a terrible person! I am a not particularly sexual woman, and for some reason I always stare at women's breasts and men's crotches in conversation. Even worse, my brain sometimes starts to go into the territory of "I bet this person's body looks like [x] under their clothes." Talk about embarrassing! Yes, in the middle of conversation I start to think about naked bodies for no good reason!

I am telling you this because it is A Thing that lots of women do. Like, lots. Maybe most of us. And it's not because we are bad people who have issues or are predators or anything. Maybe it's a tic or just our brains wandering off in seek of something interesting.

So what to do about it? At a simple level, have you tried picking another upper body part to force-focus your attention? I tend to choose the right earlobe, which looks like I am still looking in the other person's general direction. This coupled with my own partial deafness, which causes me to lean in a bit, just makes it look like I am "searching" for extra sound to the right side. Anytime my eyes move down to an unsavory area, I immediately think "earlobe" and adjust.

In the end, as long as you are actually listening to what the other person is saying and participating in conversation, I don't think you are going to get in trouble for this. It is very common for people to not maintain direct eye-to-eye contact in conversation.
posted by joan_holloway at 2:12 PM on May 18, 2016 [21 favorites]

You say that when you tell yourself to stop that it only makes you do it more, but based on the rest of your language I think you are not being very nice to yourself when you tell yourself to stop.

Instead of beating yourself up about it, try noticing it when it happens and just being very kind in your head: "shamefulsock, there you go again, oops, remember to look at her eyes." Try to develop a kind of wry internal voice about it: there you go again, you don't mean to do that, kind of thing. Very nice, nonjudgmental self talk could really help. And I find that looking into someone's face is really uncomfortable sometimes, so I look at their nose or between their eyes sometimes.
posted by sockermom at 2:13 PM on May 18, 2016 [15 favorites]

I have a problem with this for fairly straightforward reasons - I look down to not make eye contact. I'm totally into women but there's nothing wrong with my marriage and I'm not looking for sexual reasons - honestly I'm not even seeing anything, I'm trying to listen. Looking down often means staring at crotches just as easily, which I also do. I'm just saying I think you're taking on more shame for this than you deserve. It's just a thing. You're avoiding eye contact.

So I got in the habit of swiveling slightly so my right [note: better-hearing] ear and shoulder is pointed toward them, which means when I cock my head I am looking slightly up and away. I nod to indicate "hey, I am pointing my ear at you, not turning away from you."

Occasionally if there is a mezzanine or stairway or whatever in my line of sight, I may weird out someone up there who wonders why I'm staring, but whatever, they are less likely to think I'm being inappropriate, which is the goal.
posted by Lyn Never at 2:15 PM on May 18, 2016 [2 favorites]

Honestly, it sounds as though you might not be the most reliable source of information about this problem. First off, you're dealing with a TON of anxiety that could easily be distorting your perceptions of how (a) noticeable, (b) frequent, (c) normal, or (d) problematic this behavior is. Second, while you know where you're looking all the time, other people can only tell (roughly) when they're looking at your eyes.

I think the first step is to get a reality check. You don't mention whether anyone has ever told you this is a problem. Is there anyone you could possibly ask? Even your husband--if this is anywhere near as big a problem as you make it out to be, he will have either noticed or heard someone else talk about it.

Lines like "I feel awful that this happens and I am sure I will end up getting fired for sexual harrassment" and the fact that you were too embarrassed to talk to a therapist about this make it really, really sound like the primary problem here is anxiety, not where you're looking. (But if it does turn out you need to work on where you're looking, that's not a big deal and there are plenty of strategies you can use, like folks are saying.)
posted by cogitron at 2:27 PM on May 18, 2016 [24 favorites]

Could you make a point to look at their shoulders or hands or another body part that isn't breasts?
posted by Sara C. at 2:29 PM on May 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

One strategy might be to change your response when you find that you're looking at breasts. Instead of being ashamed or anxious, if you can frame this as something harmless or a little funny, then it won't have such a stranglehold on your thoughts. When you find yourself looking at someone's breasts, you could try saying silently to yourself, "LOL, BOOBIES!" 'Cause, you know, I am the owner of two of them, and they are kinda funny, and, also, our society's weird relationship with them is definitely funny. It will be a lot easier to move on and look at something else if you can laugh at yourself a little bit ("There I go again, lookin' at boobies!") rather than feeling embarrassed or upset, which will just cause yourself to fixate more on your thoughts and behavior.
posted by BrashTech at 2:58 PM on May 18, 2016 [2 favorites]

I think you'll have more luck directing your gaze somewhere specific, e.g. "Do look at eyebrows" rather than telling yourself "don't look at breasts".

My gaze wanders in a downwards direction when I'm thinking, so I find it useful to e.g. "stare at carpet corner" rather than "don't look at crotch". I am not hard of hearing but I also find it useful to sort of "point my ear" at someone so I feel like I make it clear I'm listening; I of course haven't the slightest what this looks like to the person I'm talking to, but it makes me feel better and that's probably the major issue for you.
posted by nat at 3:20 PM on May 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

I think this AskMe comment from a while back may help you out a little bit as far as self-perception is concerned.
posted by griphus at 3:46 PM on May 18, 2016 [2 favorites]

Maybe I'm an outlier here, but I'm a woman and I'm not even sure I would notice. And if I did, I don't think it would bother me—especially if we're someplace noisy and you are leaning down to listen. There's a difference between leering and your eyes just unconsciously coming to rest. As long as there was nothing otherwise lascivious in your behavior, it wouldn't be a big deal.
posted by she's not there at 3:46 PM on May 18, 2016 [11 favorites]

I went through a period of constantly staring at male crotches. Looking back I think it was related to being overly self conscious and feeling socially awkward. I will share something that I have never told anyone about. During my crotch phase I was at Mass and for some reason we were going to the alter and kissing Jesus's feet on a hand held crucifix. For some reason I felt compelled to kiss his crotch...I was so horrified by my behavior that I couldn't look At the person holding the crucifix. I just had to get out of there.

I am happy to report that my crotch staring days are mostly over.
posted by cairnoflore at 3:56 PM on May 18, 2016 [21 favorites]

I (straight, cis woman) went through a similar phase. It was more about my own insecurity about my body and fashion sense, so I was always looking at what other women were wearing and their shapes to reassure myself that I was within the range of normal. I think it's unlikely that anyone actually notices this unless you are rather obvious about it.

I think training yourself to focus on something else about them might help you - rather than "don't look at breasts!" DO look at ... ears, eyebrows, something like that. I see others have made similar suggestions.

Don't beat yourself up about this, it does not make you a bad person.
posted by bunderful at 4:28 PM on May 18, 2016

^ omg cairnoflore! That story kills me. The hilarity.

So. I do this sometimes too, especially with male bulges. Ugh, it's awkward and I can't even explain why I do it lol. Everytime I do it I make it an exercise in practising eye contact and just look into the whites of the other person's eyes.
posted by rhythm_queen at 4:29 PM on May 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

I agree with she's not there -- I am a woman who tends to wear low-cut tops, and it is SUPER easy to tell the difference between someone who is being gross and ogling, versus someone who simply glances down.
posted by rainbowbrite at 4:29 PM on May 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

Sometimes I notice other women doing this to me, and I really don't mind. (unless they were obviously leering, but I've had that experience with a woman and that's not what you are doing, so I am sure it doesn't come across that way at all.)
posted by bearette at 5:01 PM on May 18, 2016

We all started out with boobs as our very favorite thing. It's ok! Your anxiety is making you feel much worse than is warranted.

Coping: in conversations that make me uncomfortable, when I feel my eyes darting around (or in situations where I know eye contact is what I should be doing but I'm just not up for it) I choose another spot on the person's face to focus on. Between the eyes, sometimes, or chin. Whatever.

And yeah, I rarely notice people looking at my boobs (even people who've told me later that they were. It has to be really gross and overt for me to notice.)
posted by fingersandtoes at 5:02 PM on May 18, 2016

sorry; I have NOT had that experience with a woman....which is to say I think women seem to be less prone to leering behavior.
posted by bearette at 5:07 PM on May 18, 2016

I am a major eye-contact avoider (autistic with auditory processing issues so I do the head tilt too) and I used to do this a few years ago. Just pick something else to look at as your "go to" stress spot (eyebrows, forehead, earlobe, shoulder, pick ONE that works for you) and gently!! redirect yourself there when you catch yourself. The key is to try not to get more stressed about doing the embarrassing thing; it's OK to be awkward, other people do this kind of glancing thing too, you're working on a solution, and I'm pretty sure people aren't nearly as upset with you as you are with yourself.

I've redirected my eye contact to just to the right of the person's head (staring into empty space basically) and nobody has commented on my lack of eye contact. Even if you find it hard at first, remember that it will get easier the longer you stick to it, and remember to be kind to yourself because you are learning and reprogramming this kind of thing is really obnoxiously tricky.

Don't tear yourself up looking for the hidden misogyny that is driving you to do this. It doesn't sound like that's what's going on. Just focus on "look at their eyebrows" when you start to feel yourself doing the thing or when you start to feel your stress spike and worry you're going to do the thing. No self-criticism, just "look at their eyebrows".
posted by buteo at 5:54 PM on May 18, 2016

Earrings? I don't like eye contact some days, so I try to focus on people's jewelry, and making a mental game of spotting their earrings and thinking Nice Things about them, or their hairstyle/spectacles, helped make me focus in their general head area without looking at their gaze.

I am DD on a small frame and I get stared at often, but I feel a big difference between a creepy ogle and someone's gaze just settling on my chest. Your obvious lack of leering and active scoping out my breasts would make this a passive random twitch for me. Other women's experiences will vary, but I think your anxiety may be making this harsher than it really is.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 5:56 PM on May 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm a woman withheld large breasts that look a bit fake tbh and women do state at them a lot. Most of the time I don't notice/care but when I I do notice its because the other woman is obviously comparing my breasts to her own. I've caught people practically looking back and forth from their own chest to mine. So again, I don't really care? Unless she becomes hostile towards me which has happened with insecure women before!

In general most people don't care what you do if it doesn't affect them. Unless someone is making me uncomfortable or being a jerk I barely notice if they look at my body.
posted by fshgrl at 5:59 PM on May 18, 2016 [2 favorites]

Hey, we're all mammals here. Breasts are hard wired because babies need them to live. I believe we remain stuck on them even when it's no longer necessary or appropriate. It's not something to fret about.
posted by Bee'sWing at 6:04 PM on May 18, 2016

Be nice to yourself. We're all a little weird.

If you find yourself feeling like someone has seen you staring and feels uncomfortable, I suggest these stock phrases:
"That's so funny. I think I own that shirt! Mine is from h&m, yours?"
"I like your top/your necklace."
posted by samthemander at 6:43 PM on May 18, 2016 [4 favorites]

Complicating factors are that I work in an office with mostly women and women clients. Who should be free to dress as they please without anyone ogling them. I feel awful that this happens and I am sure I will end up getting fired for sexual harrassment. It drives me mad when men ogle my chest, so I absolutely hate that I do this to other women.

I am just one data point, but I have never, ever noticed someone staring at my tits in this sort of context. And surely it's happened, over the decades. My dress has often been immodest. (Ditto my opinion of my tits.) Sexually, I ought to be an equal-opportunity noticer. But I've NEVER noticed.

Now, excessive eye contact, that's another thing. It freaks me out. Earlobes are fine, eyebrows are probably OK, but eyes themselves? I would much rather you stare at my tits thankyouverymuch.
posted by feral_goldfish at 8:20 PM on May 18, 2016 [2 favorites]

I think you're being way hard on yourself. It's also possible that your looking is not being noticed as much as you may think. At any rate, I think your best bet, instead of trying to force yourself not to look at all, and thereby create a situation where you're thinking all the time about not looking, is to let yourself look, and maybe practice looking in a way that's less "noticeable" (or that you perceive as less noticeable). Like glancing quickly then glancing away or sliding your eyes away. Also, keep in mind, that the reason women find it objectionable when people (usually men) look at their breasts, is that it usually happens in a context where the woman is saying something, and the dude is looking at her chest and objectifying her and not even listening to what she's saying. Since you're straight, that's not what's happening here, so cut yourself some slack.
posted by katyggls at 9:11 PM on May 18, 2016

Can you bend light with your thoughts? :) When I don't know where to place my gaze, there are a couple of tricks I use. One is to try to appear thoughtful by looking at their eyes but then bending the light so that my gaze misses them and goes off into the distance. Another trick is to serially "poll" - glance at my feet, them, the door, them, my hands, them, my hands, their mouth, their left ear, my hands....
Keeps my occupied and actually lets me listen better.
posted by at at 8:54 AM on May 19, 2016

I also tend to look at people's breast area out of anxiety. I've had some luck with redirecting myself to look up at their shoulders and then between their eyes, kind of in a circle around their upper body. Be kind to yourself about it!
posted by cobain_angel at 9:58 AM on May 19, 2016

"I am telling you this because it is A Thing that lots of women do. Like, lots. Maybe most of us. And it's not because we are bad people who have issues or are predators or anything. Maybe it's a tic or just our brains wandering off in seek of something interesting. "

Just as a note relative to prevalence: I can't find the cite at the moment, but a couple sizable eye-tracking experiments were done in department stores, and both men and women disproportionately look at crotches and breasts on mannequins before looking at anything else, and breasts/chests are a close second — both of them above the priority and length of time spent looking at faces. If I recall correctly, the major gender difference was only in length of time — women tended to spend less overall time looking at crotches but more at breasts — but not the CROTCH-BREASTS-FACE order.

A similar eye-tracking study found that both men and women tend to look at dog asses/genitals first, if they're within the field of view, but if I recall correctly, that correlation was a lot weaker.

But the confluence of at least a plausible evolutionary explanation, along with the fact that there are literally billions of dollars spent on media every year that reinforces those focal points, mean that most people you meet have already looked at your crotch and chest whether or not they were conscious of it.

(If anyone remembers the studies, please shoot me a note — I hope I'm not misremembering them, and I thought I saw them here.)
posted by klangklangston at 2:49 PM on May 19, 2016

Thank you to everyone who took the time to answer. I teared up reading the responses. I appreciate the reassurance that I'm not likely coming across as a leering creep. After two days practice and self-confident thinking from your ego boosts, I've felt a lot better about my "problem" and even that it is more manageable. I will not choose a favorite as each answer has helped me quite a lot.
posted by shamefulsock at 12:50 PM on May 20, 2016 [5 favorites]

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