I Sing the Body Electric

The first recorded instance of body-shaming in modern culture took place in 1863. That’s the year when Édouard Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe (Luncheon on the Grass) made its exhibition debut in the Salon des Refusés, shortly after being rejected for inclusion to the Salon. In the painting, we see a nude woman relaxing between two respectably dressed men in a pastoral setting. When writing about the painting, art critic Jules-Antoine Castagnary used the word “flabby” to describe it. But there is more to the story than a woman’s physique.

Manet's Lunceon on the Grass

The painting generated controversy for reasons other than the stark nudity of the woman in contrast to the male figures. At the time, rampant prostitution in Paris was considered too inappropriate for even casual conversation, let alone to be displayed on an oversized canvas. Viewers expected the presence of a nude woman among clothed men to hold a certain mythological or allegorical significance, neither of which Manet chose to reference in his work.

It was not the nude that most infuriated audiences, however, but rather what appeared to be a lack of technique on the part of the artist. Manet painted his characters in such a way that they didn’t seem to fit inside the composition, his landscape portrayed as a sloppy sketch of monochromatic brushstrokes. The artist’s deliberate exclusion of depth, subtlety and perspective infuriated critics who chided him for seeing the world in high-contrast swatches. Manet’s vision of the world (and the female form it contained) did not align with that of his audience.

proportions of the female formDéjeuner sur l’herbe is today considered a primary departure point in modern culture, gaining significance as one of the watershed moments in art history. Body-shaming endures as well, serving as a form of conjunctive imperialism among those who have very specific expectations of what the female form should represent.

Examples of celebrity body-shaming are rampant in social media. When Selena Gomez posted an image of herself on a Mexico beach, it didn’t take long for the trolls in Twitter, Reddit and Instagram to pile on with comments about her weight. Almost instantly, Gomez joined Demi Lovato, PinkKelly Clarkson and other female celebrities who dared to leave themselves publicly exposed to a jury of online executioners and self-assumed fitness experts. Gomez addressed her critics with a suitably appropriate response:

Selena Gomez self-portrait announcing that she is comfortable in her own body

Mary Poovey book coverBody-shaming isn’t limited to comments about a woman’s dress size. The message being imparted to females is clear and direct: don’t gain weight, don’t get old, don’t wear shabby clothes, don’t cut your hair, and don’t own your sexuality. In general: don’t put forward an image unless it’s been sanctioned by a societal norm. Our expectations of how women are supposed to present themselves are calibrated, at least to some degree, by centuries of misogynist behavior. This is a theme with many cultural precedents. Consider this essay on Charles Dickens’ classic David Copperfield by historian Mary Poovey, which describes how the relationship between the titular character and his mother influences his actions:

“The ideal that David will strive to re-create throughout the novel is the discrepancy between what Clara seems to offer and what she indirectly causes … the gap within himself between the infatuations he suffers and the perfect love he imagines [is] the symbolic reworking necessary to transform woman into the idealized mother. If his mother is not the ideal, then she must be transformed into this figure.”

Rachel BrykFemale celebrities are not the only targets of body-shaming. It could be argued that the transgender community is particularly vulnerable to online trolling, since the affected victims are people who have made the conscious (and often difficult) choice to alter their self-image on a very public stage. Rachel Bryk posted her last words in a posthumous Twitter message last week, after the transgender 23-year-old’s suicidal jump off the George Washington Bridge: “Guess I am dead. Killed myself. Sorry.” Bryk had previously complained about the “constant transphobia” she experienced online. Of note were the anonymous trolls who goaded Bryk to kill herself at a time when the pain she suffered from rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia was unendurable.

The Latin phrase “Mulier est hominis confusio” means “Woman is the confusion of man.” The theological context for this quote was to question whether a woman had a soul, from the Biblical concept of original sin to Helen’s role in the Trojan War. It could also be interpreted, however, as the challenge of ingenuity that men have always held regarding their female cohabitants. The unstated rule is that so-called “feminine” traits, especially those that can be detected by sight, must be accompanied by “feminine” behaviors. In the minds of body-shamers, any deviation risks upsetting the balance of power upon which rests their formulaic assumptions regarding gender roles.

Or maybe it’s not that complicated. Kellie Maloney, a boxing promoter who previously lived as a man, suggests that perpetrators of online abuse have something more on their minds than what a woman is supposed to look like:

“You’re always going to get the keyboard warriors and the guys who want to make a name for themselves. I’ve had some messages like ‘You’re always going to be a man, just because you’ve had your genitals cut off doesn’t make you a woman’. I just laughed, even when it got really abusive and personal. I would think if people want to say these things they are hiding secrets of their own. “

The Words Bounce Back

If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?

Portrait of William ShakespeareWilliam Shakespeare’s famous lines from The Merchant of Venice are a reminder that our emotional response to trauma is a natural part of being human. Our nervous systems use feelings of regret and despair as learning signals, helping the prefrontal cortex of our brains frame the best solutions to problems from multiple options.

We like to think in terms of everyone following a moral compass: the inherent understanding that the world around us operates according to a general sense of fairness and doing what is right. As a result, we delicately balance our levels of trust according to the social situation before us. A conversation we have with a longtime friend will have a different weighting than one with our employer, for example, and we expect a certain degree of reciprocity in return.

Rollo MayThe problem is that compasses break. In his book Man’s Search for Himself, Rollo May wrote that “the person who feels weak becomes a bully, the inferior person the braggart; a flexing of muscles [and] cockiness are the symptoms of covert anxiety.” We can take this a step further by stating that bullying is a compensatory exercise, often committed in isolation from the accepted standards of right and wrong in which we believe to reside.

Cyberbullies operate in a sort of anonymous netherworld, whereby they feel unaccountable for the consequence of their actions. Perpetrators of online harassment see themselves from a distance, almost as benign observers psychologically shrouding themselves from personal repercussion: I’m just someone on a computer. Usually, the only way to bring any sense of fairness to the cyberbullying equation is to expose instigators on a public or legal platform.

The good news is that victims of cyberbullying are taking strong steps to reclaim their lost dignity in the digital ecosystem. Consider the case of Cassey Ho, a physical trainer who this week released a video in which she edits her body according to nasty recommendations she received online about her physique:

Or this revealing segment produced by the Canadian Safe Schools Network, showing students reading messages criticizing their weight, appearance, ethnic background and more:

The Canadian example above is indicative of the creative ways in which schools are removing the veneer around cyberbullying. In North Sydney, Australia, a group of touring high school students performed a musical called Connected, which has already been staged at ten schools across New South Wales. Lana Nesnas, a vocal coach and director of the program, reinforced Rollo May’s assertion that insecurity is the root cause of all forms of harassment:

“A cyberbully will pick on everything you don’t like about yourself. They are cowards who think they are anonymous and won’t be held accountable, and while you stay afraid in your room and don’t tell anyone, the bully has the power. You can tell the students that have been dealing with it by the way they react to the show.”

Lana Nesnas, one of the team behind Connected, a high school musical based on the topic of cyberbullying. Picture: Elenor Tedenborg of the Daily Telegraph
Lana Nesnas, one of the team behind Connected, a high school musical based on the topic of cyberbullying. Picture: Elenor Tedenborg of the Daily Telegraph.

Of course, there are more traditional methods of dealing with cyberbullies: lock them up. This week, Robert Campbell received a six-year prison sentence for creating fake social media profiles of people he believed had slighted him in the past. Campbell also sent emails of a crude sexual nature to his victims, sometimes twisting personal details of their lives to portray them as racist. “He studied his victims to find their vulnerabilities,” said Judge Ann Alder during sentencing. “He made it very personal and very real.”

Lest we applaud the use of revenge to get back at cyberbullies, we should remind ourselves that personal vengeance is often the inspiration that drive this behavior from the start. “Revenge porn” cyberbully Kevin Bollaert was sentenced to 18 years in prison for running a website featuring explicit photographs of his victims, which he removed only after extorting money from their accounts. Bollaert’s primary targets were ex-lovers who had rejected him; the website was his way of getting back at them. As with all matters related to the heart, there is a deliciously Shakespearean theme to be unearthed:

But love is blind, and lovers cannot see
The pretty follies that themselves commit.