Most of you have probably already seen Kim Hall's post FYI (if you're a teenage girl). Both the original and the many, many brilliant take-downs written in response have been circulating social media this week, so it's been pretty hard to avoid. If by some chance you've managed to miss out on all the fun, I highly encourage you to take a moment to go read Mrs. Hall's open letter to all girls everywhere. It sure is something.
A lot of really smart folks have written some incredible posts touching on Mrs. Hall's contribution to societal problems like slut-shaming, rape culture and body image issues. I don't have anything new or brilliant to say on those topics, but I do want to talk about an aspect of Mrs. Hall's message that hasn't really been touched on yet: the very real link between the ideas that she's putting forward and the recent rise in cyber-bullying, online slut-shaming and teenage suicide.
When I read Mrs. Hall's letter, the first people that I thought of were Amanda Todd, Retaeh Parsons, Audrie Pott, and Cherice Morales. In each of these cases, photographs of the girls that showed them either in various states of undress, or else showed them being sexually assaulted, or in some instances both at the same time, were circulated on social media. In each of these cases, the girls became social pariahs. In each of these cases, the girls committed suicide after enduring bullying and slut-shaming both online and offline.
I am not saying that Mrs. Hall is consciously suggesting that her children should shame or bully their classmates, especially those who have been sexually assaulted. If you asked her, I'm sure that she would tell you that those ideas are so far from what she intended to communicate as to be almost laughable. But still. Slut-shaming, ostracizing and bullying are the end-game of everything she is teaching her children.
When she writes:
"And now -- big bummer -- we have to block your posts. Because, the reason we have these (sometimes awkward) family conversations around the table is that we care about our sons, just as we know your parents care about you."
"And so, in our house, there are no second chances with pics like that, ladies. We have a zero tolerance policy. I know, so lame. But, if you want to stay friendly with our sons online, you'll have to keep your clothes on, and your posts decent. If you post a sexy selfie (we all know the kind), or an inappropriate YouTube video -- even once -- it's curtains."
What she is really telling her children is that girls who do not conform to her particular ideas of "modesty" are bad. She is telling them that the girls who post sexy selfies are worth less than the girls who cover up. She is telling them that the girls who pose with an "extra-arched back" and a "sultry pout" are not good enough to associate with her children. Worst of all, Mrs. Hall is telling her sons and daughter that it is fine -- in fact, actively encouraged in their household -- to shun and ostracize these girls.
By saying that these teenage girls do not respect themselves, Mrs. Hall is teaching her kids that they are undeserving of anyone's love or respect.
And that's a pretty fucking toxic message.
If you think that this is too much of a reach, think about it this way: when Mrs. Hall and her family sit around their dining room table and critique the selfies posted online by her sons' female friends and Mrs. Hall announces that yet another girl needs to be blocked because she's showing too much skin, what her children learn is that the way that those girls are behaving is shameful and they deserve to be shamed in a way that makes them face real-life consequences. And when a Hall boy goes to school and tells his friend that he's not allowed to hang out with so-and-so because her pictures are too slutty, and that friend tells a friend, and that friend tells a friend - well, it's not hard to imagine what those real-life consequences will be.
And, of course, in high school, as in the Hall household, there are very rarely second chances.
When Mrs. Hall advises her son's female friends to, "take down the closed-door bedroom selfies that makes it too easy for friends to see you in only one dimension," I can't help but wonder how many dimensions her sons and her sons' friends saw those girls in before they heard those comments. Probably they saw them in the same way that they saw all their other female friends: as girls who were funny, girls who were smart, girls who were good at sports or art or music. Probably the Hall boys saw them as brilliant, well-rounded individuals, each contributing in their own interesting way to their lives. Probably they saw them as people.
Well, now they likely only see them in, as Mrs. Hall says, one dimension. That dimension being, of course, their physical bodies. Mrs. Hall has successfully reduced these girls to little more than pretty, shiny, skin-baring objects. And it's pretty fucking easy to treat an object badly. It's pretty easy to treat it cruelly, sub-humanly, even, because objects don't have feelings. Objects don't have thoughts. Objects exist only for the pleasure of others.
Objects are not people.
And so I worry about those girls, the girls that have already been branded as impure and immodest. I worry about the other girls that her sons will meet and, armed with their mother's opinion, brand on their own. I worry for them because of the teasing and humiliation that they might have to endure; I worry about them because of the ways that the Hall boys and their friends might other, might even dehumanize these girls. I worry that when these girls tell adults about how they are being treated, they will be made to feel as if it is entirely their own fault, as if they were asking for it. I worry that they will start to think that, as Mrs. Hall said, there are no second chances. I worry that these girls will feel like their worlds are closing in on them, that one stray picture has ruined everything forever, that there is no way out of the mess that they believe they've created.
I worry for these girls' lives.
Follow Anne Theriault on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@anne_theriault