When I was growing up, and I dreamed of being a writer, journalists typically didn't publish a photograph with the stories they wrote. And back then, the only way to comment on an article was through the Letters page, where only a handful would be carefully selected to be featured.
But media, of course, has changed. Dramatically.
We've gone digital, and in many ways, this has made for a better, richer experience—readers feel more engaged, they are able to hold the media more accountable, and writers and journalists can access different perspectives that they might not have thought about. It's easier, in the world of blogging and social media, for aspiring writers to get their material out there.
But there are some definite downsides to this brave new world of journalism—particularly for women. And I know this first-hand.
Recently, I had an article featured on the Guardian Comment is Free page. It wasn't about beauty, appearance, or anything remotely related to these topics. But still, a few commenters completely ignored what I'd written and commented on my appearance in my headshot instead, one even calling me "seriously ugly." I didn't see the full extent of the attacks, as thankfully, the Guardian moderators are sharp and removed any abusive stuff pretty quickly.
Still, I was shaken after I saw it, particularly since I'd been bullied in school over my appearance. Being attacked again for how I looked triggered unwelcome memories. And frankly, I was surprised the commenters went there.
I had prepared myself for people disagreeing with me, or even telling me outright that I'd written total rubbish. If you write opinion pieces, you have to have a thick skin about those things. But attacking my looks? Really?
My first reaction was to rationalize it—my headshot wasn't flattering, I took it in a hurry, I should have taken a better picture. And okay, maybe I could have gone to a professional and had the photo done at the right angle, in the right lighting, with the right makeup. But then I realized, what the hell am I doing? Why should I have to even think about how the photograph I include with my story might make people abuse me?
I worry about female journalists being bashed for their looks for reasons that go beyond my own personal pain in dealing with the attacks. It's becoming commonplace now for journalists, particularly younger women, to have to learn to deal with sexualized abuse, and I'm concerned that younger women who want to go into journalism or the media may be dissuaded from doing so—even subconsciously so.
The comments I dealt with, after all, were nowhere near the worst I've seen. And it gets particularly ugly if you campaign on anything seen as feminist. Take the case of the No More Page Three campaigners who fought to shut down The Sun's topless-girls feature. The below comment on a Telegraph article about the campaign is not atypical of the responses faced by women who joined the cause:
Attacks like these aren't based on anything of actual substance, but on a knee-jerk impulse to trash a woman's appearance when she has anything contradictory to say. More troubling still, even other women joined this abusive fray; Clare Short, the Labour MP who helped attack the Page Three girls, was called "fat, ugly, and jealous" by then-Sun editor Rebekah Wade.
Personally, I'm not jealous of Page Three girls—but I certainly was jealous of the girls whose looks were deemed acceptable enough that they escaped the abuse that I received.
On the positive side, since I've been out there writing (with flak jacket firmly in place), I've learned that it really isn't my fault—it just seems that "ugly" is the weapon of choice to fling at women when people dislike something we say or do. Because you know, women are meant to care about that stuff, aren't they? Whether we are actually ugly or not appears to be a moot point. It's meant to silence us.
Some will say that if you are in the public eye, this is something you just have to live with, and I'm not suggesting that we should never be critical—of course we should. But we should be critical about the right things.
For that reason, if you ever see a commenter attack a woman's looks—or, for that matter, slut-shame, threaten, or otherwise abuse her—challenge it. We need the next generation to grow up with the idea that women deserve to be heard as much as men. The way women are being treated is really what's "seriously ugly."