Slut-Shaming and the Attractiveness Factor

For the majority of my grown up life, I’ve been deeply skeptical of feminism. Mind you, I don’t want women to be barefoot and pregnant, despite my blog title. I believe that women and men are equal in value, even if they are fundamentally different in nature. In fact, one of my earliest college memories was a moment in Lit Trad IV, when I nearly jumped over the tables in a fit of rage after a boy insisted that “Sonia is a filthy whore.”

When he said that, my cheeks went red like I had just been slapped, and I kind of felt like I had. “She’s selling her body to provide food for her siblings,” I said in a low, dangerous tone. My professor looked at me in alarm. I probably looked a little frightening, with my hands planted on either side of my open book, palms pressed into the table, fingers splayed, my whole body tilting slightly forward. All I remember is watching the kid watch me, seeing his lip curl in disgust, and mentally thinking, don’t say what I know you’re going to say. Just don’t do it. Don’t be that person.

But he did say it. “She’s still a dirty whore. Doesn’t matter why she’s a slut. A slut’s a slut.” I fired back, “so if you were her brother, would you refuse to eat the food she buys with that money, then? Would you help her find other work? Would you work yourself so she didn’t have to sell her body?” He smiled then, and said slowly, “No. I’d eat the food, then I’d slap her across the face and tell her that her sin is disgusting in the eyes of God and man.”

It was at that point that my professor bodily removed me from the class, since I was halfway over the table with my hands balled into fists. Outside the class, she hugged me and told me that she completely understood and was also upset, but there were some people who only want to provoke and condemn, and words were wasted on them.

He was the exception, though, not the rule. I was sure of it. I was sure of then and I’ve been sure of it ever since. And seeing my husband do battle with the feminists in the years between that moment and this have left me without one iota of sympathy for anything that reeked of feminism. He’s been accused of misogyny more times than I can count because he’s a straight white Catholic male. I’ve been sure, just sure, that feminists see sexism wherever they want to, that it’s not really there, not really, not anymore. And women who talk about sexism in language, well, they should hang out with this girl:

(start it at :50 to avoid the “B” word)

YouTube Preview Image

Lately I’ve had that assurance rattled. Mostly because my online BFF, Kass-tacular, has been having some feminist angst. I sort of brushed it off at first, like, oh, she’s just moved to NYC and is swinging the pendulum in reaction to her ORU days, just like I’m swinging left now in reaction to my uber-right days. It happens to us all, it’ll correct itself, it’s an Aristotelian phase.

So when the Patrick Madrid Twitter-swear-gate happened, and the focus was immediately on the perceived sexism behind his tweets, I brushed it off too. I really didn’t think there was anything sexist behind him calling out women for swearing. After all, as I told Kassie, he was born in a different era, when men didn’t curse in front of women because chivalry, that’s why. And that’s dead and gone and makes me sad because I hate trying to wrestle doors open on my own with a baby on my hip and two toddlers in a double stroller.

Then two things happened. Clare Coffey pointed out, on Twitter, that “the idea that it’s somehow okay to specifically call out women for swearing is close to the definition of sexism.” Cari Donaldson, in a separate forum, pointed out that the language he used was specifically based on appearance. Jess has a good run-down of the conversation on CathoFeminism if you want to see all the tweets about the topic of women swearing. Some of the descriptions used about swearing female Catholic bloggers were “disgusting,” “major turn-off,” and “(they) have really let themselves go.”

This has been making me uneasy. Ever since this happened, I’ve started noticing the same trend…everywhere. Men judging women for what they do based on “attractiveness.” Women judging women for what they do based on “attractiveness.” Me judging myself for what I do or write based on “attractiveness.”

Last night it all kind of blew up for me when the tweets and status updates about Beyonce’s halftime performance started pouring in. Here’s what I wrote on facebook:

I did not watch the halftime show or the game, thank God. But I’m appalled by these status updates and tweets. Everyone commenting on how “disgusting” or “not sexy” or “unappealing” Beyonce was is part of the problem. The problem of judging a woman based on her appearance. What happened to objective morality? What happened to virtue? Why is no one appealing to right or wrong, but only their own sense of what’s “hot?” Shaming someone into behaving a certain way by telling her she isn’t attractive is what got us here in the first place, where women feel they have to cavort half-naked on a stage in order to be deemed worthy of praise.

Some of my friends seemed to think that I was defending Beyonce’s apparently obscene show. I wasn’t. What I was trying to point out is that turning off the TV or using this as a moment to teach your children about virtue, modesty, our culture’s objectification of women (which women are in some ways responsible for, y’all) is one thing. I’d argue that it’s a good thing. This:

is something quite different, and something very bad.

And it’s pretty much the same thing that happened on Twitter.

It is wrong to call out a woman for doing something because it’s unattractive. This type of behavior has nothing to do with the objective ideal of beauty. It’s all about trying to get a woman to change her behavior because you (or someone else) doesn’t find it attractive.

It’s wrong because that is the same attitude that got us here. Men and women have been changing the expectations for women’s behavior for years, maybe even decades, maybe even centuries based on what’s attractive. Men are not held to the same standard. No one says to a boy, “don’t cuss, it’s not attractive.” They say, “don’t cuss, it’s wrong.” (Personally, I say, “don’t cuss, because you don’t understand what you’re saying or how and when to use those words.” But then, I’m raising heathens.) But it’s so common to hear someone say to a little girl, “don’t cuss, it’s ugly” that I didn’t even blink twice at it on Twitter.

This is a problem for a lot of reasons. It’s a problem because we’re holding our boys and girls to two different standards of morality based on a subjective standard instead of an objective truth. If you’re thinking, “oh Calah, stop overreacting. It’s just a figure of speech, it doesn’t effect real life,” think again. A Catholic school in New Jersey just implemented a no swearing rule for girls only.

It’s a problem because by carelessly using this kind of language, we are still teaching our girls that their worth is measured by how they appear. The criticism of women swearing was not concerned with an objective sense of right or wrong. It was a criticism that relied entirely on the premise that swearing negatively affects a man’s attraction to women. Patrick Madrid literally said, “when women swear, I find them less attractive.” And that was echoed by men and women all over Twitter. “Yes, yes, it’s so disgusting for a woman to have a potty mouth! Yuck!”

This is disturbing. Now that I’m really seeing it, I’m really disturbed by it. Why is this okay? Why is it permissible for anyone to judge a woman’s actions based on how it affects her level of appeal? It’s just like the “pants are for sinners” post, where it’s ostensibly about the relative morality of women’s fashions, but if you scratch the surface you see that what’s really being said is, “I like to see a woman in a skirt, and since I’m a good, God-fearing man, you women owe me that visual pleasure. So put a skirt on and I’ll find you more attractive!”

For many years, I tortured myself over my appearance. I still do. Whether we want to admit it or not, our culture shapes women to believe that their value is measured by how they look. And it’s not just the secular culture. Religious cultures do it too. Pat Robertson thinks that women whose husbands drink are at fault because they’ve let themselves go. There it is again, “let themselves go.” Like I’ve let myself go with my cursing? Somehow, I’m unable to torture myself over that one. It’s jarringly liberating, in a way. After 28 years, I’m finally at a place where the fact that a man I’ve never met finds me unattractive because I swear fails to shame me into a bout of mental self-laceration. Two years ago, it would have been a different story.

 I do not want my daughter to grow up in a world where the boys and men around her constantly judge her morality in terms of physical attraction. I don’t want her to hear things like, “waiting till marriage is sexy” or “it’s a turn-off when girls smoke”. I want her to hear things like, “your virtue is worth too much to throw away on someone who is not going to commit his life to you.” I want her to hear someone say, “smoking damages your body, and you’re too precious to damage for recreation.” I want her to grow up in a world where men and women talk about issues of virtue and modesty in terms of objective truth, not in terms of sex appeal. I don’t want my daughter to be shamed into acting virtuously because if she doesn’t, some anonymous internet guy is going to tweet about what a turn-off she is. I don’t want my daughter to spend the better part of three decades torturing herself over her appeal to men before she can finally get enough distance to see things objectively. She deserves better than that. And if I ignore these things because I’m tired of feminism, or I think it’d be swell if there were more chivalry around, I’m failing her.

  • calahalexander

    I’ve screen-capped it so your handle and avatar don’t show. I’m really confused by your reaction, though. Twitter is a public forum. Your account is not private. And I really don’t understand how my interpretation is sick and twisted. I’m under the impression that you have a moral objection to Beyonce’s show but you used language of attraction to convey it. Am I wrong?

    As far as threatening Patheos and getting a written apology, well, twitter is public domain and there is no way to copyright a tweet.

    I am sorry that my use of the screen-cap upset you so much. I never dreamed that you would be upset by it, since you posted that commentary with your name and picture attached in a public forum already.

  • http://geeklady.wordpress.com GeekLady

    To sum up, you can publish something, publicly, on a social network sharing service, but no one may quote your own words, or use a screenshot to establish you did say what you are quoted as saying, or comment on your words can be interpreted as part of a larger discussion.

    …Right
    /sarcasm

  • srocha

    (name redacted by admin), if you’re so juiced up about this, you may not want to comment with your Twitter handle noted parenthetically.

    I find that men who degrade women are like any other bully: they are simply projecting their own weakness and insecurity. They also tend to be rather dull, which might also explain the present absurdity of (name redacted by admin)‘s ridiculous objection.

    • kara

      No. You basically said “even if I was horny, I wouldn’t want to tap that.” That, sir, is degrading. As if her only value lies in whether or not she is someone you would want to procreate with. That is quite demeaning. If you don’t want someone to interpret what you say as ugly, don’t put the ugly out to air.

      • kara

        If that was what you meant, then you should not have couched it in terms of your “lust-filled times”. That makes most women think that you are indeed thinking in terms of taking their clothes off. It would have been more prudent, in a public forum, to say something like “I hope she fired her choreographer.” See? All the “I thought her dancing was bad” and nothing about whether oe not one wants to bang her (or not).

  • http://www.carmelsundae.org Christina

    I don’t think that the criticisms were really about it not being attractive. I think the point they were trying to make was that she was *trying* to be sexy, but not successfully. I think they were saying “if you must try to be appealing, don’t do it by being crude. Appealing and crude aren’t the same thing.” Few people of quality would criticize someone for not being sexy, but they might criticize someone for being crude while using trying to be sexy as their excuse.

  • http://a-star-of-hope.blogspot.com JoAnna

    (name redacted by admin), perhaps you should follow a very simple rule, one that has served me well: Do not put anything on the Internet that you would be ashamed to have on the front page of a newspaper. That goes double for a public forum like Twitter.

    If you want your tweets private, so only your followers can see them, you can make that change to your account. But even that only makes them less public.

  • http://charmingdisarray.blogspot.com/ Io

    This post is also a great example of why it’s so disturbing that “modesty” gets so much attention among Catholics. It gets far more attention than any other virtue. People are obsessed with telling women how they should look, and condemning them for not looking the way some arbitrary man thinks they should look. Or some arbitrary woman, I suppose.

    • Corita

      Word.

  • Elizabeth Scalia

    Sir, I am the Managing Editor for this channel. We all of us comment on twitter understanding that by the very action of tweeting we are giving our assent to other people seeing our remarks and pictures, and interpreting their meaning. Sadly, we have little-to-no control over how our remarks are interpreted; we might send out successive tweets attempting to clarify, but in the end we have no control over how a thing is received by another, and our only recourse is to try to use civil dialogue within comboxes to say, “you misunderstood; let me better-explain my meaning” (which can often help to broaden a conversation for the good of all us). I am sorry that this is the reality of social media, and one that all of us are subject to, and yes, we’ve all tweeted something we’ve probably wished we hadn’t at some point; is one of the downsides of social media. In this case, Calah interpreted your remarks as she did. In these comboxes you call her interpretation “sick, twisted” and others will again interpret your remarks as they will. You demanded that Calah pull your name and avatar, and even though she was under no compulsion to do so, she has done it, (she is a nice person) but you do realize that your name and avatar are showing up in this thread as well — again (as with Twitter) with your own permission as demonstrated by the very act of posting — and therefore your remarks continue to be associated with your name and avatar, even though they have been cut from the tweet. If you truly want your name and avatar disassociated from your twitter remarks, I suggest you ask Calah to remove your comments here (you’ll notice I have thoughtfully not used your name in this response). If you want to further end any association with your remark, you might consider deleting your tweet from your timeline.

    With all due respect, sir, this is simply the nature of social media; we say what we say and we either stand by it or we delete it and hope no one scrambles to retrieve it. We either choose to deal with it, in all of its positives and negatives, or we sign out. If you have ever seen the “Twitchy” site then you know that tweets are not copyrighted, and — at this point in time, anyway — tweets are routinely reprinted all over the internet without need of stated permissions. Again — when we publicly tweet something, we are demonstrating our intent that our remarks are meant to be public, and all we can do is try to clarify, when we think they’ve been misconstrued. If you want these remarks removed from these comboxes, please let us know, and we will be happy to oblige you.

  • http://www.catholicfword.com Christine Falk Dalessio

    Well said. “based on a subjective standard instead of an objective truth.” There IS an objective truth – that we are ensoulled bodies, made in the image of God out of His gratuitous love for us. There are differences between men and women (thank God) but these differences do not determine our moral behavior. You have made a very intelligent point about “attractiveness,” clearly a subjective connotation.
    Also – as a “new feminist” myself, I truly sympathize with the women who just give up on men for their objective gaze. But I agree that women do this to women as well. And rather reject or objectify in return, I would like to think that if we were indeed “pro-woman” as “feminism” implies, that we would necessarily be “pro-humanity”, and start treating those around us with dignity and care.

  • Pingback: Sex, Shame, and the Superbowl

  • http://theimperfectcatholic.blogspot.com Kate

    I think we all need to lay off criticizing (name redacted by admin). I know I’ve put my foot in my mouth more than once (& I’m sure you all have too). Give the guy a break. We’re his comments dumb? Yes. But really– he was NOT saying “I wouldn’t tap that.” Give me a freaking break.


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