Feminism

How Internet Trolls Improved My Self Esteem

I’ve never been a shy or unsure person, but I grew up a girl in the US, so of course I have a set of insecurities I’ve nurtured over the years, like worrying that I’m fat, or that my nails are all broken and busted, or that I’m too hairy.

As you may be aware, a few years back male supremacists, mostly atheists and skeptics, started regularly attacking me online. Some of them send death threats, some rape threats, and some gendered slurs. Many of them, though, choose to insult my various features in an attempt to make me feel bad about myself.

The easiest of those to deal with, at first, were insults regarding my intelligence. One of the awful consequences of early ’90s “Gifted and Talented” programs was instilling kids with an unshakeable confidence in their own smartness, and I am one such result. There is literally nothing you can say to me to make me think I’m not smart. Even if I’m standing in a zoo’s bear enclosure waving around a slab of raw meat, I will know that I am doing the intelligent and sensible thing regardless of what you say. I know, it’s a real problem.

Then there were the insults about my body. As I said, I have insecurities. Obviously. Back when the insults began in earnest, it would have been shockingly easy to hurt my feelings. What I realized, though, was that the trolls were so terrible at it. The earliest trolls were so bad that I made a YouTube video helping them out:

They seriously would try to insult my eyebrows, one of the few physical attributes that I have zero insecurities about. I have awesome eyebrows. Every few years, “strong” eyebrows come into fashion and so not only do I have objectively awesome eyebrows but I often have stylish eyebrows, too, and I don’t even have to pluck that shit very often.

This sort of thing happened over and over and over again. Last year some time I got a message from someone on YouTube trying to make fun of me because my eyes were too far apart. When I was a teen, I used to worry that my eyes were too close together because I read somewhere that that was a trait associated with low intelligence and I wanted to look as smart as I felt.

So there we have an old and buried insecurity that has, ironically, been completely and utterly evaporated by a troll.

After several years of thousands of men devoting tens of thousands of messages and posts to attacking my physical appearance, the thing that has stood out the most is that there is no consensus about what features I should be embarrassed about. If I really did have some feature I should be ashamed of, surely this flood of hatred would have pinpointed it.

Instead, I get insults like this:

This person was trying to insult me, but in order to insult my appearance he had to compare me unfavorably to this woman:

emma_watson_2013

My thought when I realized that: “Holy shit, I must be pretty fucking good looking.”

The same was true a month back when a friend sent me this Tweet:

Which links to this amazing image:

beauty queen

For those who can’t view that, allow me to describe it. It says, “Rebecca Watson all the vapidity of a beauty queen but without the looks!” And there’s a picture of me, but that picture is obviously a low resolution video still in which there’s an artifact over my face that, at first glance maybe, looks like my mouth is a little deformed, like a cleft lip. The image of me has been cut out and pasted over some other image but I can’t tell what it is or why that was done.

Again, this was my first thought upon seeing that image: “I am so fucking good looking that in order to insult my physical appearance they had to pause a video at just the right time and then take a screenshot of the distorted result.”

So here I am, years after the start of an unending campaign of bitter hatred focussed on me, and I’ve honestly never felt better about myself. It’s actually had a negative impact on my life because I’ve been shopping more for new clothes, because I feel so good about my body and the way I look that I constantly want more cool things to wear.

But on the positive side, I think it’s actually encouraged me to get back into being more physically active. I had a pretty catastrophic back breakage a few years back that made it difficult for me to exercise, but feeling better about my body has motivated me to work on it and get back into fighting shape. I’m now running a 5K every other day or so.

So anyway, the moral of the story is that I’m super good looking and the trolls know it, the end.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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33 Comments

  1. May 9, 2014 at 11:55 am —

    I already knew you were smart and funny and articulate from listening to SGU, but the first time I met you I swear I thought, “Holy shit, she’s gorgeous too!” So there.

  2. May 9, 2014 at 12:05 pm —

    Feh, your eyebrows are total lightweights. I have awesome eyebrows. I have Gandalf eyebrows. So there!

    • May 9, 2014 at 2:11 pm —

      Whenever I’m getting a haircut and the stylist says, “Would you like me to trim your eyebrows?” I say, “No way. Those caterpillars are the one thing I got going for me.”

      • May 11, 2014 at 10:04 am —

        I was sERIOUSLY heading to world record stray eyebrow hair length. 1.5 inches, and my GF gave me a haircut and clipped the sucker off. Some things are hard to forgive.

        • May 11, 2014 at 11:57 am —

          I always let the stylist trim mine because I’ve come to realize that looking like a wizard doesn’t make me a wizard.

          • May 11, 2014 at 10:06 pm

            This is the saddest thing I’ve read on the internet today.

          • May 11, 2014 at 11:27 pm

            Yeah, it made me sad too.

  3. May 9, 2014 at 12:59 pm —

    It is an intelligent and sensible thing to do if your objective is to be mauled or eaten by a bear. Context is important.

  4. May 9, 2014 at 1:12 pm —

    See, proof that homeopathy works! Take negative messages about appearance, dilute it down with enough blatant mysogyny, risible incompetence, and childish obsessiveness, and it’ll cure your insecurities right up! Like cures like indeed.

  5. May 9, 2014 at 1:12 pm —

    I’m impressed you’ve taken all this so well. You’re a very strong person.

  6. May 9, 2014 at 1:57 pm —

    That image of a video still of your face superimposed… on another face for some reason? What’s happening there? It’s Babby’s first photoshop.

    The obsession these people have with you is almost as impressive as your resolve. Keep being awesome, Rebecca.

  7. May 9, 2014 at 2:03 pm —

    The way you handle all the hate is an inspiration to me.

  8. May 9, 2014 at 2:09 pm —

    I’ll just say first that you are obviously smart. And then not to get into the objectifying stuff but trying to insult your looks? Pffft. All of those losers were in love with you and proposing on the SGU back in the day until you “made fun of them” and they found out you were one of those feminazis.

  9. May 9, 2014 at 2:33 pm —

    Yessssssss I’m with you on the thick eyebrows! If the “worst” a troll can do is try to shoot someone down by criticizing their physical traits… I just find that sad. All bark and no bite.

    Reminds me of the fact that for years boys in school would look at mine and “tease me” by saying “YOUR BROWS ARE THICKER THAN MOST BOYS” and I would just smirk and ask if they were jealous. I’m sure they were, as my brows are majestic beasts~<3

  10. May 9, 2014 at 2:41 pm —

    I think that FB Twitter, and all blogs should have a “Stomp Trolls” button and when you press it, it links to this post, and others like it you have written over the past couple of years. This way, everyone who is trolled can read about how to successfully deal with it. You are one of the most amazing people I’ve had the pleasure to meet (yes, we’ve met, a long time ago at a conference far, far away). Besides inspiring me to become a skeptic, you continue to inspire me to become a better person as well. Thank you!

  11. May 9, 2014 at 2:54 pm —

    That their only recourse is to insult your looks is a sign that they have no ground to stand on. Glad to see you’re keeping strong in the face of their pettiness.

  12. May 9, 2014 at 3:51 pm —

    I wish I had your eyebrows. I overplucked mine years ago and now I have to augment them with makeup or it looks like I don’t have any.

    See you at SkepchickCon!

  13. May 9, 2014 at 4:02 pm —

    If your appearance offends someone else’s eyes, the problem is with their eyes.

  14. May 9, 2014 at 5:03 pm —

    If all they can come up with is “lol your not as hot as Emma Watson”, clearly, you’re right.

    By the way, that thing on your tongue is called a frenulum.

  15. May 9, 2014 at 5:42 pm —

    thank you for not giving in to the trolls. it is very difficult and it is hard. it happens on a daily basis to most of us.

  16. May 9, 2014 at 6:35 pm —

    There’s a lesson in this for everyone. All those nagging insecurities you have about yourself are most likely illusory. For all the time and attention you pay to them day in and day out, most people probably don’t even notice them. Or at least, they probably don’t put much priority on them. Even if they do, they probably have different tastes than you do. There are a lot of cognitive biases at work:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spotlight_effect
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Illusion_of_asymmetric_insight
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Illusion_of_transparency
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Introspection_illusion

  17. May 9, 2014 at 7:00 pm —

    Rock on, Rebecca. I’m going to show this blog post to my 12-year-old daughter. The quality of what you produce and the fact that you stick with it in face of the stupidity and bile is a great example for anyone, but especially young women like her.

  18. May 9, 2014 at 11:01 pm —

    Yesterday I had a troll trying to tell me that writing cryptographic code for security apps was easy and anyone who thought it might be difficult must be ignorant and stupid.

    Then there was the guy who was really upset that Democrats aren’t as upset about GOP fake scandals (Benhazzi!) as Christie’s bridge scandal. Why aren’t Democrats treating the two cases equally? Hypocrisy! Only the ex-Governor of Illinois, Blagoyovich is currently in jail and Democrats abandoned him the minute that the tapes came out proving that he was a crook. So in similar circumstances, similar decisions.

    It is really very easy to be an Internet troll but most end up looking rather stupider than they imagine.

  19. May 9, 2014 at 11:20 pm —

    Haha. This is great! I was recently thinking about how the harassment I have endured over the last few years has made me feel so much stronger too. People tried so hard to intimidate us and frighten us and drive us away, yet here we stand stronger and more confidant than before. Cheers Rebecca!

  20. May 10, 2014 at 1:22 am —

    They are such farts in a hurricane, the hate-on-skepchicks or hate-on-FtB or hate-on-A+ crowd. Perhaps eventually they might realize that, but I’m not holding out hope.

  21. May 10, 2014 at 2:18 am —

    Awesome post. Powerful women like you who stand up to the haters are super inspiring, so thank you. <3

  22. May 10, 2014 at 4:04 am —

    Rebecca Watson, you are not quite as attractive as Emma Watson, not quite as smart as Albert Einstein, and not quite as athletic as Kathy Freeman! HAHAHA!!! BUUUURRRRNNN!!! #iambadatthis

    • May 10, 2014 at 10:45 am —

      Not quite as pretty as Emma Watson when Emma is wearing a $10,000 gown and has spent a couple of hours and $500 on hair and makeup.

      When being pretty is essentially your job and your net worth of $60m plus puts you on the Sunday Times UK rich list and you are attending a major press event then you make a different level of effort.

  23. May 10, 2014 at 9:09 am —

    Awesome x 2 = More Awesome! Way to go Rebecca. Putting it in the context that you do reminds me how petty people really are and how a person just has to get busy and do their thing regardless.

  24. May 10, 2014 at 12:13 pm —

    Being called “fat” and “old” doesn’t bother me because not only are these self-evident, they aren’t really flaws to me. But I’ll admit being called “crazy” can get under my skin. Anyway, the bottom line is that being singled out for abuse from these misogynistic trolls really is a badge of honor. It simply demonstrates how little substance they have.

  25. May 11, 2014 at 7:24 am —

    Being an older guy and having not grown up with the internet, it sometimes amazes me how lifeless, faceless confabulators have so much relative power over others just by commenting on a blog post or news piece. Back in my day, enemies usually showed up at the cafeteria lunch table at school to throw your tray to the floor, or confronted you at the mall in front of the powdered wig emporium. I have come to realize that words can hurt, especially after you’ve crafted a well-conceived and written essay on the Big Bang Theory or a new way to craft bacon dishes, or some such thing.

    But in all seriousless, take a page out of my book dear – when the words get too much and all you can think about is ‘Now where did I hide my rat poison?,’ just do what I do – record their IP address, give it to the pallid geek in the condo across the way who hasn’t seen the sun since Brownie and Katrina got together to get the address of the bridge the troll lives under, then take a few days off to hunt the fucker down and paste his sorry ass to the wall. Good luck hunting!

  26. May 12, 2014 at 10:30 am —

    On a more serious note, there are a lot of people who can’t just laugh off trollish comments of this sort. People (especially women) who don’t fit society’s narrow rigid standards of acceptable bodies, or who have been raised to believe they don’t. Even if those hateful remarks aren’t explicitly directed at them, they still see them and feel hurt by them, and are discouraged from opening their mouths about anything lest the (verbal) guns be turned on them.

    So even if these trolls aren’t stopping Rebecca and Amy et al. from speaking, they’re still silencing a lot of people. Making the world a less safe space for ordinary (=not all that self-confident) people. IMHO, that’s the real abomination here.

  27. May 14, 2014 at 9:46 am —

    Fabulous post.l

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