Dark Web: The online war on women's bodies

Eating disorders, rape culture and toxic masculinity; a look at the war on women’s bodies from an online lens.

In a dark room female hand logs online using a computer keyboard

Through the glare of the computer screen, one overriding discourse appears time and time again. It is a narrative that pairs women’s bodies with the concept of repulsion. I am reminded of the Twitter wars of last month, when a group of women shared pictures of their leg and underarm hair all in the name of ‘Janu-hairy’. As the selfies began to roll in, so too did the online trolls, who were quick to label the growth as disgusting, unnatural, and, bizarrely, unhygienic. In a world where hairlessness is considered to be the natural state for grown women, despite the inherent biological impossibility, not shaving became an act of rebellion.

As the Janu-hairy movement gained online currency, the topic was debated on breakfast shows, with hosts asking guests on both sides of the ‘argument’, whether it is unnatural or not to allow hair to grow on our bodies, when we’ve been conditioned socially to feel repulsed by body hair on women.

I think it’s safe to say that no razor-ditchers were hurt by Piers Morgan when he told them he’d never fancy them if they had hairy armpits.

Though frustrating, it was not exactly surprising. Like-minded trolls emerge from the woodwork with similar reactionary rage literally any time a plus-size model is given the time of day on the glossy pages of magazines. On the rare occasion the media decides to showcase women with large thighs, arms and stomachs, it is only a matter of time before Twitter users comment on the photo with faux concern for the model’s health. The likes of “I’m just worried that this promotes obesity and diabetes” and “I’m honestly just thinking about her health” are the starting points that lay the groundwork allowing other people to feel justified in calling the model “fucking disgusting”.

The same rhetoric rarely applies to slim models with pronounced clavicles, who are, as far as the trolls are concerned, the picture of health. The anti-fat, anti-body hair rhetoric – so loaded with rage and disgust – appears to clank louder than the champions of body positivity and self-love. At the same time, the men of Movember and those with Dad-bods receive an overwhelming amount of support, love and admiration from the online community. This troll-ridden online rhetoric may not directly cause any physical wounds but it helps normalise the policing of women’s bodies.

The internet is a place where large, hairy and opinionated women regularly get chastised for just existing. Meanwhile, efforts to keep women slim, hairless and unhappy represents a multi-million dollar industry.      

Social media has become a marketplace for the sale of thinness. We are told the best way to get beach body ready is to replace your meals with detox shakes and simply watch as those stubborn pounds shift in a whole body cleanse. Weight loss corporations use Instagram to advertise their dodgy lollipops – laced with saffron extract – as appetite suppressants. In reality, these quick solutions are expensive, questionable and, essentially, glorified laxatives. The benefits of Flat Tummy Tea, for instance, have been denounced by medical experts, and sign-posted by eating disorder specialists as being potentially very dangerous. The mental and physical health of Flat Tummy Tea’s reach is not a priority for the multi-million dollar company, and their assembly of celebrity ambassadors is telling of their apathy. Every female Kardashian – bar Kendall – has endorsed the product on Instagram to their hundreds of millions of followers for an estimated six-figure fee. 

Emboldened by celebrity endorsements and big corporations, it’s unsurprising that the ‘pro-ana’ and ‘pro-mia’ movements find their home online (Users personify their eating disorder, often calling them ‘Ana’ – anorexia or ‘Mia’ – bulimia), after all, the internet is anonymous, accessible and always open. In the darker corners of the web those suffering from eating disorders congregate to share tips on how to ‘succeed’ in having anorexia or bulimia. Users ‘support’ one another in their weight loss, as well as share lists of the easiest foods to throw up, the best ways to disguise drastic weight loss as well as tips on how to lie to their loved ones about food restriction. Slim models are put on pedestals as thinspiration.

It is a dangerous community of body dysmorphia, and mainstream websites – such as Tumblr and Pinterest – have barely scratched the surface when it comes to approaching this sensitive matter. Search keywords used by the community will provide you with numbers for helplines before allowing you to proceed to the largely unfiltered content. It’s an alarming and upsetting section of the internet, but when multi-million dollar companies fork out the cash to get Kylie Jenner to endorse appetite suppressant lollipops, ‘pro-ana’ forums seem like a natural progression.

Bizarre body trends seep in and out of those groups via mainstream media as new and obsessive ways to measure thinness attract coverage. Women are encouraged to achieve thigh gaps or bikini bridges or perhaps the most worrying, the ability to keep a fish alive by filling the space between one’s clavicle and neck with water. Aside from being unrealistic and unhealthy means to judge one’s weight, these challenges fail to take into account natural flexibility, genetic bone structure or, indeed, fish health and safety.

Apart from the online rhetoric which serves to continually remind women that thinness is a purchasable commodity synonymous with happiness, the internet plays host to a discourse that seeks to dictate how women behave, from what we eat to where we go to who we sleep with. 

A Facebook page called Women Who Eat On Tubes surfaced in 2011 and continued for several years. The photographer snapped pictures of women eating on public transport without their consent and published them, without comment, online. The project’s creator, Tony Burke, defended the photos from accusations of misogyny by likening it to “wildlife photography”, and dubbing it as “art at its truest form”. Undoubtedly, sharing photos of unconsenting women in which they are likened to wild animals to an audience of thousands is a device of shame, designed to humiliate women for trying to keep themselves alive.

In an online world obsessed with the shape and size of women’s bodies, it comes as no surprise that every aspect of our physicality, including our sexual autonomy is subject to the internet’s toxic gaze.

Narratives drenched in rape culture gain likes, shares and retweets as real life cases of rape and sexual assault are dealt with in the courts. Whether it’s tapes of politicians discussing the ease with which they molest and assault women, or it’s the leaked WhatsApp messages where a group of self-proclaimed “top shaggers” brag about “spit roasting” women, online voices always seem to defend those accused. Their actions are dismissed with phrases like “locker room chat”, “banter”, and “boys will be boys”. Meanwhile, those who hold these “boys” accountable are continuously dubbed as “feminazis” or easily offended or politically correct snowflakes. 

But as this toxic rhetoric persists, outrage and offence has never been more warranted. These dialogues normalise illegal behaviour while minimising the pain and dignity of survivors. 

From a queer perspective we should be hyper-aware of these narratives and the threat they pose to our bodies, our minds and our autonomy. Bodies of research continue to highlight the ways in which members of the LGBT+ community are at an increased risk of low self-esteem, disordered eating and sexual violence. According to a recent study from the National Eating Disorder Association, those who identify as LGBT+ are up to four times more likely to experience disordered eating. Queer women are twice as likely to engage in monthly binge eating than their heterosexual counterparts. Additionally, trans youth are considerably more likely to take diet pills and laxatives and to starve themselves compared to cis gender people of the same age.

Moreover, members of the LGBT+ community are also considered to be at a higher risk of experiencing sexual violence, from date rape to intimate partner violence to corrective rape. Language of casual sexual violence targeting LGBT+ people on Twitter may only exist in an online vortex, but it mirrors a frightening reality. Commenters target queer women with threats to “show them what good dick feels like” or to “fuck them straight”. These can be blocked, deleted or reported, but unfortunately this discourse reflects the hegemony inherent in real-life sexual violence against the LGBT+ community. 

The online language of toxic masculinity shows no sign of slowing anytime soon, however, the countless and aggressive voices of trolls can never match the strength and power of the testimonies of survivors. While Men’s Rights Activists and anonymous hateful rhetoric grow more vocal, so too does the resistance. The internet can seem all at once like a very toxic place but it also blooms positivity and support, especially with regards to the queer community. Logging off can be a helpful reaction, but averting your gaze and redirecting it to the calmer corners of the zeitgeist is not only restorative, but an act of rebellion.

This article was originally published in GCN Issue 351. Click here to read more.

© 2019 GCN (Gay Community News). All rights reserved.

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