Slut Shaming

Aren’t shoulders just so sexually suggestive? I mean, I love a good shoulder – they really get me going.

When in the history of ever has anyone said the above? The answer is probably once or twice – to each their own. But the pinnacle of sexual appeal is definitely not shoulders.

So, answer me this: Why, in fourth grade, did the principal take me out of class to tell me that my tank top was “inappropriate?” Mind you, I was also wearing a cardigan over said tank top.

My TEN-year-old mind had far too many questions. But mostly, I was ashamed. Being the nerdy, little goody-two-shoes that I was – I had never gotten in trouble. The principal and I were pals. And for that reason, I also did not question her assertion.

I wasn’t sent home, but I could almost argue that for my self-esteem at that age – that was worse. I sat through class the rest of the day paranoid. Tugging at my sweater to make sure I didn’t have a shoulder slip out. Normally the first person to raise my hand, I held back because I didn’t want to risk jostling my clothing out of place. Really, at that point, I wanted to go home.

The media has been chalk full of stories like this in the past couple of years and the cultural consciousness seems to have progressed to understand that this shaming of young girls is wrong. Yet, we haven’t evolved past the over-sexualization of women’s bodies in general.

Shame on You

My wonderful personal trainer shared on her social media the other day that members of her family had repeatedly confronted her regarding what she posts on her social platforms. They were concerned that she was showing too much of her body. Initially I was furious. First, she is studying within the realm health and human kinetics, and she works as a personal trainer. Secondly, her athletic prowess and her strength is a testament to that success. She should be afforded the space to be proud of her body.

When I came in for a training appointment, she told me more about it. Now to my surprise, her family specifically called out old pictures from parties early in college. Frustrated at this, she said that she was just a, “stupid little sorority girl.” That broke my heart even more. Outside of the slut shaming, the age old double standard surfaced. The shaming by her family is point blank wrong. In fact, they themselves are objectifying and sexualizing her by making such comments.

example of slut shaming image of girl lifting skirt. her thigh is marked at different points to connote that her skirt length makes her: flirty, cheeky, provocative, asking for it, slut, whore.

But, what broke my heart was that she reduced herself to a very harmful stereotype – a “stupid little sorority girl,” to agree that those photos were inappropriate. I hate that that message has been internalized by so many women – including myself at times. But I argue that that is not the case.

Would we make the same judgements about a photo of young men laughing and holding red solo cups? Yes, we might make some. But we wouldn’t (A) sexualize them and (B) demean their intelligence.

Why do we do this?

Here lies the problem. As a society, when we sexualize women, we’ve also connected that to their intelligence. We say things like, “they brought this upon themselves,” for any negative attention that a woman receives, as well as, unfortunately, things like sexual harassment and assault. The problem isn’t what they’re wearing. We make the problem their intelligence. They should know better. They should have gotten the memo that their body is inherently sexually pejorative back in fourth grade when their principal told them so. (Insert eye roll here)

Further, and I can admit my own bias here. On social media we assume that those who post often, and mainly of themselves or their bodies, are self-centered and attention-seeking. Things that are also often stereotypically tied to low intelligence. And this is wrong.

Image of Diana Muzina as a kid in a halloween costume giving a condescending look.
This is how I feel about slut shaming.

This sort of shaming and policing behavior in society reinforces traditional gender norms. In my senior honor’s thesis in college, I discuss gender performance in women’s Greek-lettered organizations, and how those organizations often also serve to reinforce traditional views of femininity and “correct” gender performance. Sadly, something that I watched play out with a member of my own organization. A woman who is intelligent, comfortable in and proud of her body, who owned her sexuality was rejected as, “inappropriate” and, “bad for” the organization.  Point blank, she was slut-shamed. I struggle with the fact that many cannot see that they policed her gender performance. She’s badass, and it’s their loss.

Continually sexualizing women’s bodies is malicious, and only serves to further bolster the geography of fear that many women experience. It also maintains current power structures we have in place. But, on a slightly different note, we cannot shame those women who do embrace their sexuality. There are infinite expressions of womanhood. No one expression is wrong, and no one expression warrants violence or discrimination. But, women should be given the freedom to determine what that expression is.

If you’re interested in reading about the effects of Slut Shaming, click here!

Shame About Having a Body

1. Isolation

Slut shaming has been identified as a “reputational threat,” or social identity threat.  This means that it directly threatens someone’s character and reputation. Extremely isolating, this shame about having a body often separates people from those around them. And isolation is hypothesized as one of the largest contributors to the high rates of self-harming behavior observed in those who have been slut shamed. This can also lead to depression, anxiety, and thoughts of suicide. There are far too many reports of young women who took their own lives after being slut-shamed (particularly online).

2. Increased Cortisol Levels

Studies about shame have shown that experiencing feelings of low social status lowers an individual’s self-worth and increases cortisol levels. Cortisol is the stress hormone. Usually after a perceived threat is over, cortisol levels return to normal. But when they don’t, your health can suffer negative consequences. This includes, but is not limited to: depression, anxiety, digestive issues, headaches, sleep disturbances, weight gain, memory impairment, and heart disease.

3. Sexism & Rape Culture

Slut shaming can be nuanced, and subtle. As one HuffPost article puts it: “slut-shaming can come in the form of telling girls that they have no self respect if they wear short skirts or low shirts. It can be calling a girl attention-seeking or pathetic for having had several boyfriends, or actively seeking one out. It can be calling a girl desperate or overly-aggressive for “making the first move.”

As I talked about in my post, Slut Shaming, this phenomenon is a double standard. Many behaviors that women are shamed for, warrant applause for men. (Though men can be slut shamed too!) There can be very real consequences for women. Many of us self-police our behavior and our social media posts because we have increasingly received the message that certain imagery is considered inappropriate and unprofessional. Dominant social norms and this pervasive sexism could potentially lead to a woman being fired, or not hired, for how she presents herself on social media.

The tie to rape culture should be apparent. Rape culture is blaming the victim of a sexual assault for what happened to them, rather than blaming the perpetrator. Often this is framed to say that the victim did something to provoke the attack. I couldn’t put it better than this HuffPost article:

“Rape culture is when the victims are blamed for “asking for it” by wearing the wrong clothes, being out at night, walking alone, being flirtatious or pretty, or any number of other things. Slut-shaming contributes to the idea that girls who are more flirty or provocative deserve less respect than girls who aren’t, and that leads to the idea that something they did lead to them being raped.”

Sabrina Nelson, High School Journalist <—- you go girl

So what now?

As something that has such real consequences, it amazes me that more is not being done to combat slut shaming. As a woman, I am conscious every day of what I’m wearing, how I do my makeup, where I am walking (especially at night), where I am driving, and who is looking at me. I have been trained to be afraid.

I experience the geography of fear day-in and day-out, as do many women. And often feel anxiety regarding potential professional and personal consequences I could encounter based on what I post on social media. I struggle with shame about having a body, and for embracing my sexuality. And I experience anger that any of this has to happen to anyone.

A study conducted by Ditch The Label found that 52% of misogynistic tweets over a four year period were penned by other women. And more often than not, slut shaming happens between women. There needs to be a tremendous amount of change in how we teach young boys about masculinity. But, I also think that we as women have a huge responsibility.

The next time you see another woman on social media and start to judge her based on what she posts, stop yourself. Maybe count in a week, or a day, how many times you do that. And maybe instead, throw her a like or a comment. We need to support each other if we are going to combat such toxic, entrenched behavior.