Growing Up Online: Why & How I Care About the Comments
This post contains graphic discussions of bodies and pornography. TW for body image issues.
I can’t pretend that some of my reasons for engaging in the comment sections aren’t personal.
I first hopped online when I was just over a decade old. As I had been socialized almost exclusively among other Muslims, the Internet was my chance to interact with people who resembled the mean and mode in American society far more than my family and community did. Had I stayed a good Muslim girl, what I learned online about gender and sexuality would have affected me very little. Instead, I left Islam and began to navigate the world of dating and sex with the assumption, courtesy of the comments, that I was so physically repulsive, any male attention would be a boon.
Because almost every body type can be found depicted in a sexualized fashion online, the Internet is often hailed as a great sexual equalizer. It is far from so for those uninterested in seeking out visual sexual imagery. I fell into that camp; accordingly, whatever I saw in the way of porn was a video or picture link that I encountered on non-porn sites.
I am a child of the much-maligned self-esteem-obsessed 1990s. Jean Kilbourne had made her Killing Us Softly presentation at my school, I had heard Oprah talk about loving yourself, and so on. Despite all that, I fell for the Internet’s version of the beauty myth. I failed to apply media literacy to what I saw online since what I read did not represent The Media. No one was trying to brainwash me into thinking that I wasn’t beautiful so that multinational corporations could sell me stuff, the commenters were men directly informing me of their desires.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with people expressing their sexual desires. The problem was that they didn’t stop at “she’s hot” and instead defended their lack of interest in the women they found unappealing with incredible vitriol. Their vicious verbal evisceration of images of women whom I found to be impossibly attractive led me to wonder how exactly I could hope to be found beautiful by anyone but my mother. Any dissent from the overall opinion of women was so rare that, out of all the things I saw in the hours and hours I spent online, I can remember the specific instances when it occurred.
In two words, I learned that what straight men physically craved in women was not me.
Convinced that I had to compensate for my utterly flawed body, I paid attention to the most-repeated complaints that straight men made of straight women. As was the case with my exposure to porn, I did not seek out the information as much as stumble upon it during my usual Internet use. The consensus in the comments was that women are invariably terrible for a variety of reasons and the only reason to bother with them is their sexual desirability. Although my own experiences directly contradicted many of the things the men said about women, I resolved that no man would ever complain about me like that. After all, with my inadequate body, what else did I have to recommend me to a man? It took me years to even realize that I had such a hot mess of internalized misogyny entangled in my brain, let alone that I ought to rid myself of it.
My particular extenuating circumstances are certainly not common. Being young, naive and online, however, is a situation that grows more common by the day. Whenever someone tells me that it’s not worth the effort to provide a dissenting voice to a shitty opinion on a mainstream website, I relay the implicit message back to my teenage self and her current-day compatriots:
No one’s time and energy, even in the small amount that is required to drop off a comment, is worth your coming to understand that what is said here is not the only way of seeing things.
This is not to say that I recommend that everyone get on YouTube or any of the other more mainstream yet vile places and engage in ceaseless debates with obvious trolls. Lowering yourself to the level of the lowest common denominator can affect life outside of the comments there, and not in a good way. What I do advocate is, at the very least, a drop-off.
Whenever I can, I drop off a simple “no,” “that’s not always true,” or pointed “for you” into comment sections dominated by unquestioned yet horrid opinions. By this, I mean that I make as reasonable (and pointed as well as funny, if I can manage it) of a comment as I can muster, downvote a few things, and leave. This isn’t due to some vague hope that the asshole I’m responding to will suddenly have a change of heart thanks to a single comment, it’s so that the kids following along at home know that the opinions they’re reading are, at the very least, not quite unanimous.