What does it mean to live in a world in which every fashion mistake, bad hair day, or wardrobe malfunction can be instantly beamed across cyberspace? I’ve been wondering about this, and not only because my deepest, darkest fear is that I will someday wind up starring in a humiliating YouTube video.
This recent blog post about Chelsea Clinton’s wedding got me thinking. The post criticized a fashion reporter for making snide remarks about Chelsea’s fashion and hairdo choices on her big day. Part of the writer’s point was — did Chelsea ask for your opinion? What gives us the right to judge?
But here in our 24-hour media culture, we are always judging. And now that there are so many unflattering photos of everyone, everywhere, it’s just so easy. In the old days, if you had to leave the house looking like a wreck, you just avoided cameras and got on with it. Today, though, those pesky hidden cellphone cameras are everywhere. I’ve seen them in lots of places where I’d rather not: in the classrooms where I teach, in the nightclub where I go to hear live music, even outside the dressing rooms where I try on clothes.
Is my fear of online humiliation really so irrational? How do I know my students might not mock my fashion choices via Facebook? How do I know that my dorky dance moves won’t wind up in a ridiculous montage of Bad Dancing? (I can see the comments now: “Menopausal meltdown!” “Do the Frumpy Chicken!”)
Now, granted, I’m not a celebrity. It’s highly unlikely that anybody cares about me enough to waste time appropriating my likeness. But I can only imagine the fear that celebrities must be feeling now. Look around online, and you will quickly see numerous unflattering photos of famous people, accompanied by withering commentary from the journalists or bloggers who posted them or, as is often the case, in the comments added by viewers.
It’s sort of like this: you know that recurring nightmare you have? The one where you find yourself in the wrong place, at the wrong time, dressed inappropriately (if at all), and everybody points and laughs at you? It’s just like that, except now the whole culture can join in and belittle your appearance. We are all, suddenly, experts on what is acceptable when it comes to physical appearance. We have all been given license to mock. We don’t even have to prove that our own looks or wardrobes are above reproach, because we are invisible judges. We are free to pile on, at will.
I know most people don’t feel sorry for celebrities who get trashed online.
They signed on for this, people say.
They want to be in the public eye, people say.
They have chosen to trade on their looks, people say. Aren’t they being paid to look better than the rest of us? If they can convert good looks into cushy lives on the mountaintop of wealth and privilege, shouldn’t we at least have the right to throw stones from down below?
I understand the argument, but I still feel guilty and conflicted any time I’m tempted to participate. Even though I love beauty and fashion, I will always be ambivalent about the fact that people — women, especially — are judged so heavily for such things. I will always be uncomfortable any time I see a woman’s appearance being eviscerated in public. That’s just my own baggage, apparently. (And for more about that, read this post, or perhaps this one).
Part of the problem is this: I know that even when the criticism is aimed at celebrities, the damage spills over onto innocent readers. How many women, especially young women, read the contemptuous comments and get a sinking feeling because they can’t meet those standards of beauty, either? I mean, who can? Once again, we internalize the message that we are just not good enough.
So I was thrilled — THRILLED, I tell you — to read this little article about Courtney Love. Now, I’ve never been a big Courtney fan, but I love this. She has started her own website, the aptly named WhatCourtneyWoreToday.com, documenting her daily outfits. Her motive? She was tired of seeing horrific photos of herself on the internet, so she decided to neutralize them by flooding cyberspace with images of her own choosing. Ha! Take that! “I was so embarrassed to go on Google and see myself look like a crazy person,” she explained.
And really, who among us doesn’t understand? Think about it. Do you remember the worst school photo you ever took in your life? Think back, now. For me, it was back in eighth grade. So you destroy every print but — oh no! That photo is going to be used in your school yearbook! Seen and gloated over by Jocks and Mean Girls and all your worst enemies! Now imagine that said yearbook photo can be accessed by every computer user on the planet, at will, forever. Are you screaming yet? You should be, my friend.
I think Courtney Love’s idea is awesome. Look, I know celebrities, celebrity culture and celebrity narcissism can be annoying. I know that it’s a little galling for people to crave the public gaze and then complain about how it makes them look. I even know that it’s dangerous to allow some public figures — politicians, for example –to control their public images by obfuscating the truth.
But I’m sorry: until the day I die, I will fight for the right of all human beings to avoid being haunted — for life — by their worst photos. Courtney Love, you have my blessing.