“Taught from their infancy that beauty is woman’s sceptre, the mind shapes itself
to the body, and roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison.”
The early feminists were speaking primarily to other women, but men have much to learn from their insights as well. Wollstonecraft was warning women that the desire to be deemed beautiful is a kind of prison since beauty is in the eye of the (usually male) beholder. No one finds their true worth in the opinion of another.
“The pornographic gaze” is a name given to that way of looking at women that sees their physical attractiveness but is indifferent their intelligence and character. If you look at popular magazines, the camera often centers on the faces of men and then lowers that center when taking photos of women. That is the pornographic gaze, which sees men as persons and women as objects of desire for men.
Men must, if we would be friends and allies to women, take responsibility for how we look at others. Almost everyone wants to be seen as attractive sometimes, but no healthy person wants to be seen primarily as a beautiful object for others. Wollstonecraft’s warning to women informs men as well. If we find the worth of women in how they appear to us, even our sincerest compliments are adornments for a prison.