For Every Anonymous Internet Troll Comes An Online Platform Sanctioning That Abuse

13 / 05 / 2016

By Jessamy Gleeson.

If you’re a woman, hospital chances are high that at some stage in your life, your physical appearance has been remarked upon in some sort of detrimental fashion. From the blatant (“Don’t you think you’re a little big/old/skinny for that?”), to the more subtle (“You look so much younger/fitter!”), we’ve all been left momentarily gobsmacked by one of these comments.

And yet, if you’ve ventured online any time in the last decade, you may have noticed that the policing of women’s bodies hasn’t been checked at the door to cyber space. Instead, it seems that the ability to quickly share, like, and comment on images online leads us to a place in which we can police women’s appearances with ease.

The policing of a person’s body is essentially that moment when you are made to feel somehow wrong, or less, for your physical appearance. This stands separate to guidelines such as official company uniforms or levels of “recommended” attire for certain events (although these are often misused to reinforce misguided notions of appearance). And although this policing and harassment happen across the gender spectrum, it is particularly common for women.

In an online space, it’s incredibly easy to slip into a vernacular in which we judge women for everything from their knees to their hairstyle to their weight. And it’s particularly problematic when it happens anonymously, or with the passive permission of the site holders.

For examples, you don’t need to look far. Although anonymity isn’t exclusive to the Internet, hiding behind a fake username can embolden people to write any number of horrific comments about a woman’s appearance. Corinne, a fitness blogger from Leeds, recently wrote about her experience of being harassed on Instagram for apparently having “hairy arms”. In another case, a model at New York Fashion Week was attacked online for the size of her lips. Even Serena Williams isn’t exempt (although she does have J.K. Rowling to defend her).

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But for every anonymous Internet troll, there’s an online platform that’s sanctioning the abuse.  Both Facebook and Twitter are notoriously reluctant to remove groups and pages that actively body shame women – you don’t need to look further than the horrifically named “pro-health” Project Harpoon Twitter page for that (and a content warning on that page – body shaming abounds). No matter how many times you may report these pages across social media platforms, they will either a) remain in place, or b) be removed, and almost instantly re-emerge, like some kind of chauvinistic whack-a-mole. The body shaming continues, and the social media sites, for the most, do nothing.

Furthermore, this unwelcome social commentary can move passively sanctioning abuse through to actively banning images. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are some of the biggest social media sites in use across English-speaking nations – and yet each of them have had a number of incidents in which they have reinforced certain ideas about a woman’s body. One the most common examples is Facebook and Instagram’s dispensation for banning any image containing a female nipple (whilst nipples being shown on a man are apparently okay). This idea has its roots in the understanding that women’s nipples (and breasts) are inherently ‘sexual’, whilst a man’s are not.

So where does it end? I wish I had a clear answer, but unfortunately, I’m not some sort of feminist prophetess (yet). The most encouraging recent examples of the debate moving forward have emerged in the backlash against social media platforms. The #freethenipple campaign emerged out of Facebook’s ban, and has garnered continued support from a number of celebrities. The 2013 WAM campaign saw hundreds of women’s rights groups write to Facebook expressing their anger over Facebook’s policies in relation to the representation of women in social media – and it worked (although how well is still up for debate). It’s clear that when women work together, we win. But it’s also now true that the ball has been firmly in the court of the social media platforms for some time. They have the power to change how people behave online, and ensure that when you post a selfie, you don’t run the risk of it being removed for being “offensive”.

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