We need to take a long, hard look at why we’re so ob­sessed with beauty

The National - News - - OPINION - SHE­LINA JAN­MO­HAMED

Any woman who dares raise her head above the para­pet will be fa­mil­iar with the fol­low­ing sce­nario: woman makes pub­lic state­ment about her rights and place in the world.

Abuse in­evitably fol­lows, usu­ally con­cern­ing her ap­pear­ance. It’s the most com­mon cur­rency to at­tack women in the pub­lic sphere and why fem­i­nists are of­ten de­scribed as unattrac­tive or lack­ing in fem­i­nin­ity.

The more women’s pro­file is raised, the more acute the fo­cus on their looks.

But heart­en­ingly, the re­sponse from women in the fir­ing range of these crosshairs is in­creas­ingly to co-opt the at­ten­tion and proudly re­claim it for them­selves.

So­cial me­dia brings with it many perks, among them a plat­form where women can talk about beauty on their own terms and start de­vel­op­ing forms of self-ex­pres­sion.

The aim has been to fight the con­straints that tra­di­tion­ally have shamed them or ob­jec­ti­fied them, in some cases lead­ing to an im­pact on their phys­i­cal and men­tal health.

Among some of the most in­spir­ing beauty blog­gers, for ex­am­ple, are Evita Patcey Del­mundo, a Miss Uni­verse Malaysia con­tes­tant who proudly posted pic­tures of her many moles, YouTu­ber Michaela Davert, who suf­fers from brit­tle bone dis­ease and is be­hind the on­line show FunSizedStyle and Abu Dhabi’s own alope­cia suf­ferer Yas­min Tay­lor.

But as women’s power and self-de­ter­mi­na­tion have grown on­line, so has the vol­ume of misog­y­nis­tic abuse – and the looks-based bul­ly­ing has in­creased ex­po­nen­tially in a phe­nom­e­non called beauty cy­ber­bul­ly­ing.

New re­search from the non-profit Cy­bersmile Foun­da­tion sug­gests that girls are nearly twice as likely to have been sub­jected to cy­ber­bul­ly­ing com­pared to boys while one in four sec­ondary school stu­dents suf­fer from re­peated in­ci­dents.

The vol­ume of abuse is so great that, ac­cord­ing to the foun­da­tion, 115 mil­lion im­ages were deleted last year.

It is the ul­ti­mate form of self-ef­face­ment, when abuse gets so em­bed­ded in women’s psy­ches that they start to re­move them­selves from the pub­lic sphere. How­ever, the de­sire to tackle beauty cy­ber­bul­ly­ing is gain­ing mo­men­tum.

In Septem­ber this year, celebri­ties got be­hind Diesel’s “hate cou­ture” cam­paign, which en­ables cus­tomers to per­son­alise hood­ies and tee shirts with the worst com­ment made about them on­line, with the mantra “the more hate you wear, the less you care”.

Ear­lier this month, pop group Lit­tle Mix’s song Strip dis­cussed toxic so­cial me­dia. The promo for the song fea­tured a much-dis­cussed im­age of their naked bod­ies cov­ered with the hate­ful com­ments they re­ceive on­line.

Most re­cently, a cam­paign from make-up man­u­fac­turer Rim­mel, star­ring Rita Ora, Cara Dele­vi­gne and Kuwaiti life­style blog­ger As­cia Al Faraj, tack­led cy­ber­bul­ly­ing with the hash­tag #IWil­lNotBeDeleted.

All of this tells us that the abuse must stop.

And while it’s great that women are stand­ing firm, there is a para­dox we need to grap­ple with.

Beauty is still be­ing used as the yard­stick – so does it make a dif­fer­ence who is us­ing it as a mea­sur­ing tool if looks are still the ul­ti­mate cri­te­ria of suc­cess?

As a lot of these cam­paigns rightly sug­gest, we need to take re­spon­si­bil­ity, as fol­low­ers and con­sumers of so­cial me­dia, for the com­ments we make and to call out beauty cy­ber­bul­ly­ing.

But we also need a more strate­gic in­ter­ven­tion to change the con­ver­sa­tion.

Ul­ti­mately, that means we need to break out of the cy­cle of talk­ing about women in terms of beauty and move the con­ver­sa­tion onto their other achieve­ments.

In im­age-driven so­cial me­dia, that can be hard to do, par­tic­u­larly as so many plat­forms fo­cus on vi­suals.

But it is fea­si­ble. Sa­har So­hail in Pak­istan has the In­sta­gram han­dle “the Pak­istani Martha Ste­wart” and uses her art to ex­plore dou­ble stan­dards in so­ci­ety and ex­plore so­cial is­sues through satire.

In Shar­jah, Bodour Al Qasimi ef­fort­lessly show­cases how a work­ing mother can run a busi­ness and in­flu­ence pol­i­tics through snap­shots of her events and meet­ings.

A study by Vue­lio on blog­gers in the UK showed a vast dif­fer­ence be­tween what men and women blog about.

While men have a mixed reper­toire of sub­jects, women tended to fo­cus on life­style, fash­ion and beauty.

This is where au­di­ence par­tic­i­pa­tion is hugely im­por­tant. As fol­low­ers, we need to choose wisely.

We need to re­alise that by one click, fol­low or like, a seem­ingly in­signif­i­cant choice has been made to demon­strate what is im­por­tant to us and what agenda we would like to see set.

For years, bul­lies have been telling women their value is based on how they look.

It is time to tell the bul­lies what val­ues we hold dear in­stead.

While so­cial me­dia has given women a chance to ex­press them­selves, it has been ac­com­pa­nied by a rise in cy­ber­bul­ly­ing

She­lina Jan­mo­hamed is the au­thor of Love in a Head­scarf and Gen­er­a­tion M: Young Mus­lims Chang­ing the World

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