I love this brave and thoughtful Salon essay by Caitlin Seida so very much: My embarrassing picture went viral. It begins:

I logged onto my Facebook one morning to find a message from a girlfriend. “You’re internet famous!” it read. She sent a link to a very public page whose sole purpose was posting images that mock people’s appearances. There I was in full glory — a picture of me dressed as my hero Lara Croft: Tomb Raider for Halloween — but written over the image were the words “Fridge Raider.”

Initially, she wasn’t angry, but then she saw some of the comments:

“What a waste of space,” read one. Another: “Heifers like her should be put down.” Yet another said I should just kill myself “and spare everyone’s eyes.” Hundreds of hateful messages, most of them saying that I was a worthless human being and shaming me for having the audacity to go in public dressed as a sexy video game character. How dare I dress up and have a good time!

We all know the awful humiliation of a person laughing at you. But that feeling increases tenfold when it seems like everyone is laughing at you. Scrolling through the comments, the world imploded — and took my heart with it.

In addition to issuing takedown requests to various web sites — which she was able to do because the photo was hers — she also confronted people directly about their nasty comments:

…Facebook made it easy to find people who had commented on the images. By now, the picture had metastasized through reposts on Twitter, Tumblr, Reddit, 9Gag, FailBlog. But looking through the Facebook “like” function, I could track down the most offensive commenters.

Most of them were women. Shocked? I wasn’t. Anyone who’s survived high school can tell you how women slice each other up to make ourselves feel better. I sent several of those women a message.

“You’re being an asshole,” the note said. “Why don’t you just do the right thing and delete the post and stop sharing it?”

The most common response was not remorse or defensiveness but surprise. They were startled that I could hear what they’d been saying. Their Facebook pages were set to private, after all. Most didn’t realize that when you post to a public page through your Facebook account, it doesn’t matter that your own content is restricted: The whole world can read your words anyway.

And of course, they hadn’t really thought of me as a person. Why should they? These images are throwaways, little bursts of amusement to get through a long workday. You look, you chuckle, you get some ridicule off your chest and move on to the next source of distraction. No one thought about the possibility that I might read those words. Far less, that I would talk back.

Read that last paragraph again. Personally, I’m going to be more careful about the funny things I share. I don’t want to be even a small part of any social media wave that makes a decent person’s life miserable.

Of particular concern, I think, are seemingly hilarious commentaries on the supposedly bad behavior of other people, such as this one by Elan Gale: This Man Is Hilariously Live-Tweeting His Flight-and-Feud With The Woman in #7A. I thought it mildly funny until I read the other side of the story: Bullying at 35 thousand feet. Of course, I have no way to determine the veracity of either story: both might be inventions. Yet the incident is instructive, I think. As I posted to Facebook:

It seems high time for everyone (including me!) to be suspicious of reports of god-awful behavior by random strangers. Perhaps the story is fabricated or embellished — or perhaps the circumstances aren’t quite what they seem — or perhaps the person who “schooled” the jerk just enjoys feeling like a self-righteous, sanctimonious prick. Surely, any truly awful person isn’t going to reform due to being the laughingstock of the internet… and it’s too likely that a good person will be unjustly vilified instead.

I love laughter, I really do… but there’s plenty of funny in the world without being unjust or malicious.

  • John Pryce

    Speaking as an overweight man, there’s a reason that I don’t don costumes meant for someone in good shape and expect anything but mockery: I WOULD LOOK RIDICULOUS.

    When someone who has the wrong body type for a particular cosplay scenario, the only way it’s proper is if parody is the intention. Lara Croft is a female character with an idealized athletic and sexually robust figure; fashion models shouldn’t play her any more than grossly overweight women should (the choice of Angelina Jolie was a good one, for example). By the same token, I would love to cosplay as Brad Pitt’s Achilles, but I would look more like the actors in “Meet the Spartans”; ie. I would look like I was parodying the role. If that isn’t my intention, I should select a costume more befitting my body type, or else work harder at my diet/exercise program in the months prior to donning the costume.

    Seeing this photo… Frankly, she looks ridiculous. It’s not even cute, like when people put frog costumes on their pet dogs. She looks ugly. Call it what you want, but this is an ugly picture of someone who looks like they are parodying the character. Rand wrote about someone who went streaking through an awards ceremony as intentional mockery of positive values. The question of whether this woman did the same thing is the question of whether or not she expected anyone would think she looked anything but ridiculous in that costume.

  • c_andrew

    Hi John, I tend to be a bit body conscious myself with a bit of a belly (a residual from a long stint on corticosteroids) and extremely pale skin (from an adjunct medication that could produce 2nd degree sunburns in less than 15 minutes) so I tend to cover up in public situations. Humorous story; I used to run a delivery route in the early morning that required I pickup mail from a US Post Office. Since the sun wasn’t up and I didn’t have to interact with any customers – I had keys to their businesses – I would roll out in my workout togs – shorts, tank top, low socks – exposing an expanse of white flesh. One of the postal guys was a black man from Chicago. The first time I showed up (during early summer) and he was on the door, his first exclamation was, “Man YOU ARE WHITE!” “I know that, Tony.” “No, I mean, you are the whitest white man I’ve ever seen!” It was very funny, to me. I told him that I’d been instructed by the FAA to cover up during daylight as I was causing visibility issues for approaching aircraft pilots. It got to be a bit of a catch phrase between us. That said, and while I would extend an exemption to costume situations – the quintessential “Come as you Aren’t” situation – I think there should be social standards of dress appropriate to the situation. Not legally enforced, but some kind of moral suasion that indicates that certain levels of exposure are not appropriate. I try to dress so that I don’t offend the sensibilities of others given the circumstances. I don’t think that this is secondhandedness; I think that it is an adjunct of being polite. A friend of mine was working in the trades and was on his way to a job-site, stopping in to a convenience store to get gas and lunch for the day. He walked in with his son and there were 3 teenage girls with mid-riff shirts and tight jeans, 2 of them sporting “muffin tops.” (Where the jeans are tight enough that the belly pooches over the belt-line. My friend gave the half head shake that denotes incredulity as he walked by and one of the girls, in a loud voice, said, “What?!” A direct sort of person, he said, “So you had to ask? There are certain levels of dress that are appropriate in public. This – gesturing to their attire – is not.” She said, “Who are you to tell me what to wear?” He untucked his workshirt, pulled it up and exposed, as he put it, ‘my fat, white, hairy belly.’ “Like what you see?” She said, “oooh, Gross!” He said, “Right back atcha!” One of the girls asked his son, who was standing by, grinning. “Do you have anything to say?” He pulled up his shirt, exposing 6 pack abs, by the way, and said, “Hey, I’m with him on this one.”

    Manners for Kids: The Problem of Double Standards
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