Culture of Shaming Women Must End

From Rihanna's love life to a TV anchor's weight, women are scrutinized for their so-called flaws.

Kevin Mazur/WireImage/Getty Images; Jezebel; YouTube
Kevin Mazur/WireImage/Getty Images; Jezebel; YouTube

(The Root) — The “flaws” of women are often used as fodder for jokes, gossip and plain old bullying and mean-spiritedness. Many people — including women — are socialized to embarrass, humiliate and highlight the perceived flaws of women on a regular basis.

That highlighting can happen under the guise of entertainment (insert almost any reality show featuring women), news or gossip (see your local church or temple or Kristen Stewart). Women are often shamed for things they can control (affairs with married partners or poor decision-making) and sometimes for things that are beyond their control (health issues, religious or spiritual practices and mental illness).

It is the latter that most interests me — the idea that there are no boundaries when it comes to publicly shaming women, despite what issues they may be facing. With the pervasiveness of the Web, this public shaming has moved beyond neighborhoods and institutions — the real world, if you will — and has landed squarely at our fingertips by way of laptops, cellphones and tablet devices, taking the public shaming of women to a different level.

Not surprisingly, a lot of the shaming of women has to do with physical appearance, since this is the way that women are often measured in society and, quite honestly, it is the way that many of us measure our self-worth. Despite what might be going on underneath (physical- or mental-health issues, religious beliefs or ideologies that choose not to privilege physical appearance over other aspects of the body), we cling to the culture of shaming women around what they look like, as opposed to who they are as whole people.

One doesn’t have to look far to find examples. Take, for instance, the news story about a Web user with the e-handle “European_Douchebag,” who posted a photo on Reddit of a Sikh woman with a visible beard standing in line, minding her own business at a restaurant. The caption read: “I’m not sure what to conclude from this.” What we can conclude is that the user, who posted the Sikh woman’s photo without her permission, wanted to embarrass or shame her for having “excessive facial hair,” according to dominant beauty standards.

Cultural critic-comedian W. Kamau Bell has done a fantastic job of showing us how little Americans know about the Sikh community, so it is no surprise that the user obviously did not know that Sikhs do not alter their physical appearance, because of their belief in the sacredness of the body. The user, who eventually apologized after the Sikh woman in the photo learned of the incident and responded with an eloquent and informative post, admitted that the initial intent was to embarrass and degrade this woman under the guise of humor.

I immediately thought to myself, why would a presumably grown person have the intent to cause pain to or ridicule another person under any circumstances? The short answer is that the user is, in fact, a “douchebag” — his or her words, not mine — or is caught up in this culture of shaming, which is an extension of bullying women because there is an audience for it.

Another recent example of shaming women comes from La Cross, Wis., where TV anchorwoman Jennifer Livingston responded to an email from a viewer, who admitted that he didn’t watch her newscast but felt the need to comment on her weight anyway. The viewer had stated in the email that Livingston was not “a suitable example for this community’s young people” because she is overweight. Livingston, the mother of three girls, responded with an on-air editorial about bullying and why her weight should be of no concern to the viewer or anyone else, for that matter.