Miss Jay says that social-networking sites mean teenagers now focus even more on how they look. “I know girls who have entire photo albums just of their face at different angles. On the flip side, the unflattering photos can’t just be tucked away somewhere. They become the basis for publicly displayed ridicule,” she says.
It sounds a lot like the way we treat famous people. “The conventions that a lot of these celebrity magazines use have trickled down to everyday conversations,” says Claire Mysko, the author of “You’re Amazing! A No Pressure Guide to Being Your Best Self.” She mentions celeb sites like PerezHilton.com, TMZ.com and photo-rating site HotorNot.com that obsessively scrutinize people’s flaws and assets.
“I remember sitting at a restaurant with a friend who made a comment to me that the waitress shouldn’t wear shorts because of the way her body was shaped,” says Sharon Lamb, co-author of “Packaging Girlhood: Rescuing Our Daughters From Marketer’s Schemes.” And few women seem immune from being the objects of such scrutiny — from people of both sexes. New York magazine columnist Kurt Andersen, commenting on the political prospects of Hillary Clinton, noted that she has a “Wal-Mart shopper’s bad hair” and a “big bum.”
Bum, however, is just the beginning of the bodysnark lexicon. Jezebel’s Ms. Holmes, who has worked at InStyle, says that 10 years ago people would have looked at you weird if you used such now-common and harshly descriptive words and phrases as “pooch,” “muffin top,” “fugly,” “cankles” (fat ankles and calves that lack definition) and “whale tail.” Also, she notes: “In the ’90s, magazines weren’t really publishing unflattering photos. Today we have been trained to look for the potentially mockable thing, whether it’s of a celebrity or of someone we know.”
It seems counterintuitive, somehow, that ugly pictures sell magazines. But according to Ms. Holmes, stories about celebrity weight-loss with before-and-after photos now fly off the shelves.
As the article notes, bodysnarking as sport among women along with fierce competition is nothing new but the rise of social media has propelled this mean-spirited and hurtful pastime to epic, and public, proportions.
Placing women — especially celebrities — under the microscope is certainly not new. Neither is the fact that women can be mean to each other. What’s different now is how new media — blogs, social networks and YouTube — have encouraged and escalated public participation. Where it might once have been considered déclassé to remark on someone’s appearance, at least publicly, today it’s done with the same ease as sending a text message.
And the impact of this public body hazing has tangible consequences. Women and girls understand at a gut level that their bodies are public property and not entirely their own. They understand and expect people they don’t know to survey their bodies, dissect and comment on their appearance. This creates an incredibly vulnerable place to be inside one’s own skin. That vulnerability tends to breed insecurity and insecurity too often leads to dangerous, costly and time consuming body practices.
The next time you feel compelled to call a stranger or your best friend (!) a “skinny bitch” or comment on the size of her ankles, remind yourself that these comments aren’t benign and that we have the ability to create change in our lives and the lives of other women at every moment. Ultimately, this creates cultural change and, perhaps, that shift will foster a healthy, happy environment for our bodies and minds.