Getting called ugly online has always been a huge fear of mine. It was a fear so great it almost paralyzed me. For years, I only ranted and raved on local niche blogs with a strategically fantastic picture of myself.
And then my big “break” came. I successfully pitched a column to the RedEye, the free newspaper in Chicago geared towards 20-somethings, a Tribune-spawned daily with a circulation of 200,000.
I was thrilled. I was finally going to have column I was proud of printed in a “real” paper with a circulation twice the size of my hometown. But underneath that bliss, was the dread; I was terrified of the reaction, the reaction to the photo a hipster-y type woman with the short funky hair next to the almost too bold header: “Feminism is Your Friend.”
I envisioned almost every single horrible insult I could imagine appearing in the comment section, although usually my brain didn’t get past the basics: ugly or fat. I believed that if I could envision these horrible words they couldn’t hurt me.
And yet after the article went to print, nothing happen. For nearly 7 months, every piece of beautiful criticism I received from my columns was about the content of what I wrote, mainly about how I was such a “fucking liberal.”
It was fantastic. Really it was. Although some of the criticism made my blood boil, it was all grounded in real arguments, on how to look at debt reduction and when government-sanctioned life should begin. They were real arguments I was happy to have with someone.
But then it happened. An anonymous blogger on a conservative website ran a header with this doozy in it: Feminazi Fritz.
The header was hyperbolic, insensitive and rather ridiculous but also kind of entertaining in that, “I guess I’ve made it if the conservative blogosphere is now hating on me.” It was almost brag-worthy until I read the comments section where that thing I had been worried about for so long finally happened.
Someone so eloquently commented: “Yeah, but…she’s cute.” To which the anonymous blogger responded, “Wrong tense there. That is an ancient photo from her college era Myspace page. Today she looks like the harridan that her writing suggests her to be. Reminds me a bit of my old German aunt Marcella.”
I know what you all want me to say. You want me to say that silly unrealistic insult just rolled right off of me and added to my conviction of needed social change. You want me to say it made me stronger, wiser, more determined. You want me to say I belted Kelly Clarkson while taking make-up free photos of myself and posting them to Facebook. You want me to say it made me better.
I know that is what all my dear feminist friends, my stoic Wisconsin mother and all my mentors want me to say. I know that want me to say, that guy was mean but I know better than to believe him.
But in that moment, when I read those words, I didn’t. I didn’t feel strong or determined or even pissed. I felt cold, frozen. I felt this lump in my gut like my heart had just sunk into it. I felt fear and I felt shame, shame that I didn’t belong anymore, fear that I never had.
For years I had been afraid of being too feministy, too masculine in the strength of my own voice. So I kept my hair nice and long and wore dresses. I tried very hard to be “pretty,” just pretty and nothing more. But the more I tried to push it down, and cover myself up with pretty, the angrier I felt.
And then, life just changed. I changed. I cut my hair short. I bought cute combat boots and wore them with lace tights and a satin dress. And I owned it. I stopped being so angry; I stopped shouting and I just wrote.
I became a feminist writer. And I felt accepted, heard — until the name calling, until one person brought my appearance into the discussion about the validity of my words.
And suddenly it was as if none of the “you go girl” emails mattered. All that mattered was this one man’s opinion on how I looked.
I know some people will say this is my fault. And they would be right. I chose to put my words out there. I chose to post my picture. And I can control how I react to those comments.
But it is silly and ridiculous to pretend I can control how to feel. It is damaging to pretend this doesn’t hurt. All my lovely preparedness from my mentors, all the love and support from my family, all my boyfriends over the years telling me how sexy I was, these things, in that moment, don’t weigh as much as one stranger’s words.
This is what happens when we put so much insane pressure on women to be perfect, to look perfect, to write perfect, to exist just pretty perfect. They start to weigh one man’s cruel words more than a mountain of love and support, because one flaw, or one man’s belief in a flaw, makes the whole woman imperfect. Which is the true insanity here; women are expected to be pretty but also not care if people call them ugly, women are to be perfect but they are not to hurt when their perfection is shattered.
Of course it isn’t just me getting called ugly online. It is a trend I’ve noticed — and so have my editors who tend to filter the majority of the hate mail. When critics, particularly anonymous commenters, want to criticize a female writer, they go for looks first. Female writers are too fat, have too small of tits, wear too much makeup, have too frizzy of hair, should really try putting on some eyeliner or don’t wear the right crop top to have an valuable opinion about politics, the economy, reality TV or the state of the education system.
There is this idea that female writers’ appearances somehow are “free game” for commentary, and appraisal of a female writer’s appearance somehow equates into the worthiness of her story. This, of course, is bullshit. Total fucking bologna.
And it needs to stop. Positive or negative, we need to stop evaluating women first based on their appearances. It is not about telling women they are beautiful, it is about their appearances not being the first point of reference. It may be an uphill battle but the first step is to call people out on their snafu; stop letting the trolls get away with their ugliness. The second is for more women to write and be published.
I’m not going to lie and say future insults won’t hurt me. They will. Some more than others. But hurting and quitting are two different things. I’m going to keep writing because it is what I was born to do.
And to my future name callers, when you say mean things, they will hurt me. And then I will text all my closest friends and make them tell me I’m pretty. And it will be a huge waste of everyone’s time and energy. But that is better than pretending these cuts we are giving each other don’t hurt and scar; it is better than pretending we are perfect; it is better than becoming numb.