I long suspected that I hadn’t yet earned my feminist writer credentials when I would hear about the relentless onslaught of online harassers who descend on any woman daring to assert her humanity online. Though I’d written decidedly feminist stories and tweeted downright shrill screeds about cis male behavior often, the worst things said about me were usually confined to swampy forums, hidden where I had little inclination to venture. I was happy not to be a target, but frankly, I thought I was doing something wrong.
Then last week, I published a story called “The Dickonomics of Tinder” on Matter that bemoaned, among other things, the failure of men to treat women with respect when they were attempting to get laid using the app. Despite the use of the motto “Dick is abundant and low value” that I learned from @moscaddie, I made a point of praising men who are respectful and presentable and with whom I happily and regularly have sex. The story also contained descriptions of men as “the boner-wielding heirs apparent to Beavis and Butthead” and women as “Simple girls, horny girls,” so I thought it was clear that the piece fell under humor more than hate speech. But it seems hell hath no fury like a boner scorned.
Having our appearances picked apart endlessly online by strange and uninvited men on the Internet is not a mere nuisance. It’s a form of aggression.
A pick-up artist of some renown tweeted a link to the article, commenting “Aging and possibly balding woman @AlanaMassey is not impressed with guys who have 6 pack abs,” and attaching this photo of me.
My first reaction was minor annoyance over the use of “aging,” seeing as all humans are aging because mortality is like that. I wasn’t bothered because I felt it was a rather nice photo of me. But then began a slow trickle of replies: men who included my Twitter handle but who wrote about me as if I wasn’t there. They picked apart my appearance like I was auditioning for America’s Next Top Twitter Avatar.
It was my first taste of what we so clumsily refer to as “trolling.”
One man said that he was going to be “generous” and guess I was in my mid to late 30s, complete with the old woman emoji. One wrote “Would not bang” as if I had extended him an invitation to do so. Another said, “when women claim to be not impressed by abs, money, fame, logic etc it only tells me that’s where the extra goodness is.” I simultaneously wanted to say, “I love those things, do you have them? Can I have them?” but also ask why he felt so certain that women’s stated preferences are actually not ideal attributes in the quest to get laid.
Hell hath no fury like a boner scorned.
One benevolent soul correctly guessed that I’m vegan and speculated that severe malnutrition had advanced me in years. Some called me bitter and clearly on the receiving end of bad dick. Another enterprising fellow found and tweeted a photo of me where I’m crying in a veterinarian’s office because my cat was possibly dying as evidence that I am… not a monster who is nonchalant about a sick animal? Frankly, I was delighted that someone did the labor of searching my name in Google images, seeking out the worst photo available, and that it was still a fairly endearing photo of me crying over a goddamn cat!
But as I lay in bed, my phone filling with a scroll of messages directed at me but not to me, I felt just what they’d wanted me to feel. I considered the possibility that I dramatically overestimated my attractiveness. That I was malnourished. That I was the haggard old witch on the outside that I’ve always kind of felt like on the inside. My otherwise positive and validating online environment was permeated for days with jabs at my appearance, delivered by men outraged about my sexual standards—but so disgusted by the fact that I was having sex at all that they had to dream up phantom low-quality dicks in my life to assuage their own panic.
Writer Sarah Hagi experienced a similar onslaught when Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper called the wearing of facial and head covering niqab “anti-women” and “offensive.” A Twitter campaign followed, using hashtag #dresscodepm to call out the Prime Minister for his attempt to police women’s clothing choices. Hagi tweeted a photo of herself in hijab, smiling ear to ear and holding a mug with the accompanying text: “do you like how my hijab matches my mug of your male tears? stop telling women how to dress @pmharper #dresscodePM.”
The off-the-cuff tweet caught the attention of conservative pundit Tarek Fatah, who accused Hagi of being a man dressed as a woman and clearly seeking female attention. She then began receiving online abuse. (She’s since deleted the tweet.) “It felt like a really cheap shot to be targeted because of my appearance, but at the same time, it was all that could be said about me which kind of made me feel vindicated,” she told me. “The whole point of the hashtag was to not tell women how they should look.” She was also caught off guard because, like me, she had really liked the photo now spreading via social media as part of a campaign to tear her apart. And there are few things more dangerous to the lurking hordes than women who like themselves.
They picked apart my appearance like I was auditioning for America’s Next Top Twitter Avatar.
Though my writing about the annoyances of Tinder and Hagi’s activism against Islamophobic double standards are vastly different in the seriousness of their aims, they share a lack of shame about calling men to task in public. We critiqued people with more social and political capital than us. But the responses were direct and personal, focusing on our looks rather than the substance of our messages. Dismissing these attacks as mere trollish mischief excuses behaviors based on the belief that a woman’s value is linked directly to her appearance. Calling it “trolling” puts the onus on the targets—women who dare to speak in public, and who are then asked to accept insulting responses as inevitable but harmless—while excusing the aggressors.
Women in public are not supposed to openly care about their looks, despite being told from birth to meet conventional beauty standards by mass media and by our socialization. This contradictory expectation is both absurd and self-sabotaging when perceived attractiveness is linked to everything from political success to trustworthiness and ideas of romantic and sexual worthiness. The notion that we ought to plug our ears and avert our eyes from messages about the importance of beauty—or somehow “rise above” such discussion—willfully ignores that beauty is a valuable social, political, and sexual currency. Attacking women based on their appearance undermines their perception of that personal value, and inhibits them asserting themselves in digital public spaces.
And women can recognize the impossibility of meeting standards of beauty and youth but still be frustrated and hurt by their perniciousness. “I know I’m not conventionally attractive by certain stupid standards because I’m black and wear a hijab,” Hagi said, “but I’ve always felt good about my appearance and I do like how I look, so I felt kind of defeated being hurt.”
As I lay in bed, my phone filling with a scroll of messages directed at me but not to me, I felt just what they’d wanted me to feel.
When my photo was being shared, I wanted to both deny my harassers the satisfaction of knowing I’d bothered to look at their insults but also to posture as if I didn’t care. After the mild flood of insults, I waited more than 24 hours to return to social media again. When I did, I posted a selfie of my face contorted in displeasure. A male follower responded within minutes with the photo run through the Microsoft age-guessing app that shockingly guessed older than I really am—because I was willfully wrinkling up my face.
Attacks on women’s appearances are not isolated incidents; in fact, they are an all-too-common tactic. Recently, the #FeministsAreUgly hashtag reappeared, part of an occasional campaign to put feminists on the defensive. But feminists who flooded the hashtag with pictures of conventionally attractive and usually gender-conforming people with socially acceptable body types, sent the wrong message, effectively saying, “Feminists are not ugly, look at these hot people!” rather than, “Who the fuck cares what a person looks like when they have a just and humane worldview?” But we do care about how people look in a society that puts endless pressure on women to be young, feminine, symmetrical, light-skinned, thin but shapely, shiny-haired, smooth-legged, clear-skinned, full-lipped, possibly sparkly, totally effervescent, and basically impossible.
Having our appearances picked apart endlessly by strange and uninvited men on the Internet is not a mere nuisance. It’s a form of aggression meant to make us devalue ourselves and subsequently retreat from public visibility. This is not the harmless mischief of trolls. It’s a powerful attack that exploits gendered assumptions about how women should look, while simultaneously undercutting their belief in not taking those assumptions seriously.
I’m glad to have not given any of these harassers the satisfaction of a real-time response. But I also refuse to believe that identifying this behavior as truly harmful is an overly sensitive reaction to boyish Internet games. I’m tired of having my emotions policed alongside my appearance, and if my inability to care what people think about my reaction is a sign I’m getting older, then bring on the grandma emojis.
Illustration by Jason Reed