So, it’s been a fun couple of weeks, right?
A lady on the internet told us all about how she sits down with her teenage sons to teach them how to judge their female peers’ Facebook pictures, and she implied that said teenage hussies were directly responsible for her sons’ moral weaknesses. I read several blog posts and Facebook discussions in succession moaning about “vanity sizing” and how the fatties were ruining clothes for everyone else (really). Caroline Criado-Perez, who successfully campaigned to have a woman make an appearance on an English banknote, still receives horrific daily rape and death threats via Twitter, accompanied by police incompetence and a chorus from the indignant self-righteous who ask her not to swear. Kate Upton announced she was interested in designing lingerie for slender women with bigger boobs, and her Elle magazine interviewer snarkily implied that there wouldn’t be too many women who’d need it. My UVA Alumni magazine included an article detailing the shameful, embarrassing, hateful addition of “not gay” to the school fight song. SMU has a similarly charming problem of a “rape song” that was taught to incoming freshman. I got yelled at on my way home from the gym by a guy who wanted me to join him at a bar, sweat and all. I got wolf-whistled on my way to work. I switched cars on the subway to get away from a group of drunk students. Someone yelled “LEGS!!!” at me from across the street on my way to the grocery store.
It’s times like these, when I’ve clicked link after link and read article after article and one hate-filled tirade after another, that I just want to quit the Internet. I’m worn out. I’m tired of speaking up, fighting back, and taking a stand, and I’m sore in heart and mind from reading about what other men and women have to deal with from their harrassers. It feels like it’s only making matters worse when women (and others) protest against injustice, and I’m so SICK and TIRED of explaining why something’s unfair, or why, that is, in fact, body snark, or pointing out inequalities, or explaining that, yes, bigotry is a problem THIS TIME TOO. I’m over feeling uncomfortable and unsafe in my own body.
Here’s where I offer the standard disclaimer: I could absolutely have it worse. I could be out of a job. I could be unloved. I could be hungry and cold. One of the men who yelled at me could have touched me, attacked me, hurt me. I could be damaged. I could be dead.
BUT FOR FUCK’S SAKE.
After weeks like these, I can’t help be feel like I’m being swallowed up by a tidal wave of misogyny, body snark, agism, homophobia, and racism. These are entrenched, deep-seated, powerful forces, and it sometimes overwhelms and frustrates me when I try to figure how to fight them, or if I even can, or should.
When the Lingerie Addict recently published her contribution to the #DiversityinLingerie campaign, Why I’ve Been Scared to Talk About Diversity Lately, it opened my eyes to an unfortunate coping mechanism I’ve adopted, both in terms of how I engage in Big Issues and in terms of how I function in relationships: I don’t. That is, I withdraw, I sit down, and I shut up.
There have been days lately when, apart from answering the phone at work, I don’t speak. At all. Well, I might chat at the cats, ask them how their days went, that sort of thing. But I don’t talk much anymore, unless it’s superficial patter designed to fill awkward silences. See, I’ve learned not to respond honestly to challenging situations. I learned not to say “please don’t do that. I don’t like that.” When all you hear in response is “why? You’re wrong. You’re overreacting. You’re too sensitive. It’s not a big deal. It’s just a joke. You hurt my feelings by standing up for yourself. Lighten up. Let it go. Don’t get mad. Why don’t you smile more?” you learn to sit down and shut up and close off.
Worse, I find myself self-censoring online, lest by expecting hate-free and respectful treatment I run the risk of attracting the attention of the sorts of vitriol that women “deserve” when they open their mouths. Careful, monitored speech isn’t all bad: I frequently re-write and reevaluate my posts to try to avoid any unintentional hurts or discriminatory language, and if it gets pointed out to me, I try to correct it. But sometimes I’m scared to say “hey, that’s not cool, that makes me angry, that’s unfair, that’s insulting, that’s uncalled for.” Hell, one of the primary reasons I’ve tried to keep my name and face off the lingerie blogosphere is to avoid the attentions of someone like Mrs. Hall, that policer of teenage boobs and selfies, who would doubtlessly look at my interest in lingerie and infer some sort of moral weakness. Promiscuity. Shame. Sin. I still haven’t told my father that I have this online writing project that I adore and want to make a permanent part of my life, and oh by the way it’s about underwear. He is a kind and loving man, but I was taught a few too many times about the Importance of Being a Lady.
Ladies don’t swear. Ladies don’t get angry. Ladies stay fully clothed. Ladies smile graciously. Ladies don’t react or talk back when threatened. If they stay quiet, then they aren’t really bothered by threats. But if they do react or talk back, then they were clearly asking for it in the first place. Good grief, how can we win?
I’m sick of causing offense by existing. By having a tall (or short) and curvaceous (or slender) and 28 (or 13, or 54)-year-old body. By talking. By smiling. By frowning. By caring. I don’t understand why women are supposed to shut up all the time, and I don’t understand why women’s issues, women’s thoughts, women’s presences, women’s very EXISTENCE manage to stir up so much controversy and anger. We’re half the population! 1 out of every 2 people you meet is a woman! Why is it so unthinkable that a woman (besides the monarch) should appear on a banknote? Why has it sparked so much anger and vitriol and evil? And the injustices don’t just affect women– look at UVA’s fight song, and the anger some people express when they’re told to stop chanting “not gay”. As Caroline Criado-Perez wrote of her campaign: “It was about the criteria we so unthinkingly use, for so many decisions, that shut out over half of the population – make no mistake, these criteria don’t just discriminate against women.”
Sure, Mrs. Hall’s post, which was riddled with pictures of her shirtless teenage sons (originally; she has replaced the earlier pictures), posing and flexing for the camera, was hilariously hypocritical in its chastising of teenage girls’ flirty, sultry selfies. But what struck me in reading the piece was an astonishing and profound lack of empathy, particularly coming from someone who works for a faith-based organization and counsels teenagers. Mrs. Hall, do you know why teenage girls take sultry, red-carpet-posing selfies? Because they have these new bodies and these new hormones, and they’re being told to grow up, and they’re trying it on for size. Your sons try on the personas of athletes and muscle men, and you praise and admire them. Their female friends, who are told to be pretty and sexy at all costs, lest they cease to matter, try on the poses they see in movies and magazines, and you scold and shame them. Sure, the internet is forever and it’s hard for them to see, at that age, why a silly picture could come back to haunt them. I, for one, am relieved I didn’t have Facebook until college, because who knows what sort of cringingly earnest selfies I might have uploaded in my teen years. I remember posing in my pajamas or a towel and making faces in the bathroom mirror, and I’m sure other women do too: did Mrs. Hall just forget?
I don’t want women to feel like they have to be Good Girls all the time, just as I don’t think anyone who’s been the victim of hurtful, hateful language has to be a “well-behaved” victim. I don’t want them to feel trapped or stifled. I don’t want them to feel like their bodies have to be a certain way (thin, curvy, tall, short, young, muscled) before they are deserving of acceptance and love. By the same token, I don’t want to institute some kind of Internet Police that attacks any non-feminist, non-inclusive writing. As much as it infuriated and saddened me, Mrs. Hall’s post, and the some of the funny, thoughtful, insightful responses it inspired, peeled open what was presented as a simple problem– troubled (?) teen girls– to reveal the very layers of complexity and emotions that make us all wonderfully different and human. I liked that. The responses that told Mrs. Hall she was a bitch and evil and awful, or the ones that agreed that Teenage Girls are Harlot Jezebels of Sin? Yeah, those responses need to go.
We can disagree. We can disapprove. That’s called free speech, and discourse, and debate, and it’s the beginning of understanding. But we cannot disenfranchise, debase, or silence. More wisdom from my new BFF, Caroline Criado-Perez:
“But the reality is, I love free speech. I am grateful for it every day. I love how the internet and feminism have given me the permission to use my voice, in a way I didn’t dare to in the past. But this free speech I’ve discovered, the free speech of women, is under attack. And it’s under attack as much from people who tell us not to feed the trolls, to stop attention-seeking, to keep quiet and not be controversial, as it is from men who send us rape threats every time we open our mouths, or those who call us Nazis for objecting to this.”
Reading those words was a big wake-up call for me. Shutting up might keep me “safe”, but it might not, and it certainly won’t do anything to support those who are speaking up and getting attacked for it. Sure, I may not engage on every issue every day. Some days I’ll continue to be quiet. But I, and others, should be able to stick up for ourselves and those around us, without incurring unfair judgment or vicious attacks. It’s not just about women, or body snark, or diversity, or homophobia, or any one single issue. It’s about people.
I don’t have much more I can add, except to remember what my other BFF and Imaginary Drinking Buddy, Caitlin Moran, has to say in How to Be a Woman: “I’m neither “pro-women” nor “anti-men.” I’m just “Thumbs up for the six billion.””