"Nothing hurts more than the suffocation you'll feel from letting yourself be silenced." Photo: Stocksy
I've been writing and speaking publicly about feminism now for a decade, and one of the most common issues I'm asked about is how to handle online abuse. Feminists have always faced a backlash of some kind or other, the most benign and common of which has been to ridicule and question their status as women. As the old joke goes, do women become ugly when they become feminists or do they become feminists because they're ugly?
Either way, if you dare to identify as a feminist you can expect to be regularly told by strangers that you're ugly, fat, lazy, stupid and unfuckable. The insults are asinine and predictable, yet always offered with the expectation of applause for wit and originality. Just this week, two guys dropped by uninvited to tell me that, if I wasn't such a hideous trashbeast, I might be able to find a man to have sex with me. Thanks guys, but it's not like I haven't already been told exactly one million times that my desire for women to be liberated from patriarchal oppression really just stems from depression that a man doesn't want to wiggle his wang in me. You cut me real deep there. Waaaah.
I might have grown used to men calling me all manner of names designed to strip a woman of her worth, but these insults can still be really hurtful and damaging for those just beginning to find their feminist voices. Fear of facing abuse causes many women to stay quiet, or retreat as soon as the mindless bullies tumble out of their troll-holes. So back to that question. How do you handle online abuse? And, more importantly, how do you learn to ignore it?
Well friends, these are some of the tools I've come up with over the years.
1. Stick a fork in it
Even if you don't speak publicly about issues that tend to make people uncomfortable, if you're a woman you've probably had at least a handful of experiences of men calling you fat or ugly or slutty or bitchy or whatever other word they want to use to silence you. This might have been retaliation for something as simple as you objecting to a sexist joke, or not wanting to show them your boobs at a traffic light. Girl, why you gotta be such a fat bitch? I didn't even want you anyway. Etc.
The first time we hear these words used against us, it hurts. A lot. It hurts so much that we might even think twice before opening our mouths to object next time. The end result is that we end up smiling and nodding as our feelings of self worth are insidiously eroded, just to avoid having to have them directly degraded.
But the thing I've realised is that you can only hear the words 'you fat bitch' so many times before they become meaningless. Like, literally meaningless. You know how when you repeat a word over and over and over it ceases to take on any kind of meaningful form. Try it. Say 'fork' twenty times straight while picturing a fork. By the sixteenth repetition, you'll have no idea what a fork is or why that sound is related to it. Words like 'fat', 'ugly', 'bitch' and 'c**t' are pretty much the same. Once you realise that words designed to hurt you have no tangible meaning to your life or your sense of self-worth - that, in fact, they reflect far more about the values of the person throwing them at you than they do you - you realise that they might as well be yelling 'fork' at you.
2. Laugh at them
Margaret Atwood famously said that women's greatest fear is that men will kill them while men's greatest fear is that women will laugh at them. Now, there are a lot of men who can handle a woman poking fun but online trolls are not among them. The kinds of men who make a habit out of typing abuse with one hand while fapping with the other do not take kindly to women making a mockery of them. That's why it's so much fun to respond to these goons by letting them know exactly how ridiculous you find them. You'll figure out exactly what tickles your funny bone there, but never underestimate a good gif response. My favourites include Emma Stone crying into a bucket of ice cream and a clip of an orangutan peeing into its own mouth.
Note: The best part is when, out of sheer anger that you haven't crumbled beneath the weight of their devastating comments, they respond to your gifs by complaining that it's 'typical' that you resort to abuse. There is no one more thin skinned than a whiny baby-man troll and I love prodding them where it hurts.
3. Remember what matters…
….and it isn't the opinion of some basement dwelling jockstrap who isn't even brave enough to put his own name and face to his accounts. So what if he thinks you're fat and ugly? Who cares? What's so wrong with being fat and/or ugly? It doesn't change the person you are inside and it doesn't invalidate the strength of your opinions or convictions. Don't be swayed by the inane ramblings of someone who thinks women are only entitled to speak if they pay a beauty tax. Fat isn't an insult. Hairy isn't an insult. Ugly isn't an insult. An insult is letting someone scare you out of not speaking because they use sexist expectations of femininity to make you feel like you're not entitled to take up any space. You might think it hurts for someone to call you fat but trust me - nothing hurts more than the suffocation you'll feel from letting yourself be silenced.
4. Understand that you are not obliged to reply
It isn't your job to justify your feminist beliefs to anyone. You are not required to convince anyone, least of all men, about why feminism is important. You don't have to answer their cynical questions or respond to their stupid attempts to checkmate you. The only obligation you have is to be true to yourself and to your beliefs. You haven't failed yourself or the feminist movement if you walk away from a conversation that is destined to go nowhere because the person you're having it with is determined to trip you up. Save your energy for where it counts, and reserve your intellect for the people who are genuinely willing to engage. Walk away and have a whiskey. I promise you, it will be a lot more productive and a lot more fun.
Go forth and conquer, she-demons! And remember…