the culture of criticism: women’s bodies online and in the community
Discrimination against women based on appearance is rife in our universities. This harassment is allowed to grow unchecked online, and the combination of the two denies women a space to feel safe and comfortable in their bodies. A saga has unfolded online through late July and early August that shows the extent of sexism in the material and online communities populated by young, educated Australians.
There are many groups on facebook that encourage connectivity between students at university in the spirit of fun or flirtation. Because they are ‘open’, anyone can join, and anyone can post within them. One such group is ‘Monash Stalker Space’. It is not associated or endorsed by the university, but it is populated with its students. The group describes itself as: ‘a community message board for the good student’s (sic) of Monash Uni’, but the propensity for young people to use the space to harass others has earned the observation that ‘Stalker Space is to racism, homophobia and misogyny what sweet and sour are to pork.’
One incident stands out among these for the enormity of response it has generated.
A young man demonstrated staggering hatred and ignorance in July with the following post:
‘Fat, Chubby or “I’m a real woman, not like those skinny model bitches” girls at Monash Clayton, please STOP wearing leggings. They are one one (sic) of the only clothing items that ONLY fit/skinny girls can pull off. Accept this and move back to Jeans. I don’t want to walk around university covering my eyes like its (sic) 45 degrees. You burn my retinas more than the bright, hot fucking summer sun. Please stop.’
Despite the claim by the group’s moderators that sexist comments would be removed, the post was still up nine days later, and had 477 ‘likes’ and 471 comments.
This post is inexcusable for a number of reasons. It is sexist – targeting women on their clothing choice as though women should dress for men in general, and this man in particular; it vilifies according to size; and to a lesser extent, it insults the intelligence of any of the 14870 members of the group, plus members of the public who read it for the afore mentioned reasons and the numerous grammatical flaws within.
The responses to the post were mixed. Comments ranged from the insulting: ‘where is all that built up feminist rage I know everyone is waiting for?’ (from a guy) and ‘Yeah leggings ain’t pants cover up your ass… Even some skinny girls that are not muscular look gross… Their minimal meat flobling (sic) around to and fro. Grotty.’ (from a girl) to the heartening: ‘I thought upon leaving high school I would no longer be surrounded by bigot sexists. Sadly, this was not the case.’ (from a proudly feminist guy). They showed that many young men still believe women’s bodies are theirs to control, and sadly, that women are just as keen criticise other young women based on size and appearance.
I openly admit that I neither wear leggings (outside the house), nor do I think they work as pants – on anyone. It isn’t a position based on size or gender. This stems from my personal opinion that they are too revealing, and open the female body up to the putrid objectification demonstrated above. It is a sad truth that women cannot control the attention they receive based on their appearance. I abhor victim-blaming, and know that if I wore leggings it wouldn’t be my fault if I received unwanted attention as a result, but I would rather avoid that harassment if possible, and so generally wear jeans or dresses. This is for my own (emotional) comfort, rather than the visual satisfaction of men who might object to my ‘real woman’ body. In short, I do not champion the wearing of leggings, but I would wear them every day if it made that comment’s author’s life miserable.
The most constructive of the responses was the creation of an event called Fuck Yeah Leggings Day! The event’s creators took the negativity created by the comment-maker, and turned it against him: ‘LETS GO BURN SOME RETINAS!!’ These young women recognised the harassment that was directed against them, and proudly took a stand against it. The internet and the ground of a university should be as safe as any place for women. Whether you find leggings aesthetically pleasing or not, the point remains that women should be free to dress for themselves without fear of public shaming.