Alexa Chung – presenter, model, designer and Vogue contributing editor – was forced to remove a completely innocuous (and rather sweet) photo of herself wearing a denim dress and posing next to her mother from Instagram because of the barrage of abuse that ensued. The simple reason? She looked too "skinny."
Critics of Chung's happily took to Instagram, calling her body/legs "alarming," "underweight," and "gross," and accusing her of being an unhealthy role model for her fans, prompting Alexa to respond: "Ok everyone thanks for the teen angst discussions. People are different sizes. I'm not actively trying to be thinspo for anyone. I am now making this acct private. Byeeeeeeee." For all of the critics, there were also girls posting how much they loved Chung's legs and were jealous of how slim they are.
The "thinspo" issue – which involves posting unhealthy images of slimness to motivate weight loss on pro-anorexia, or pro-ana sites - has been a real thorn in social media's side since it became apparent that photo sharing sites like Pinterest, Facebook, Tumblr and Instagram lend themselves well to thinspiration boards and pro-ana pics, and despite social media bans of pro-ana sites, images and messages promoting disordered eating and unhealthy and unrealistic versions of thinness continue to thrive. Let's be honest, we don't need a hardcore pro-ana supporters for that; just last week, Lady Gaga outraged many of her 23 million Twitter followers when she posted that "pop stars don't eat."
Considering that famous faces from Beyonce (who, you'll recall, has also been called "fat") to Kate Middleton have been lauded as "thinspo," it's no surprise that Alexa's skinny frame has caused both outrage and admiration from the online community, something the model has had to deal with in the past that even prompted her to leave Twitter for a time.
Alexa has previously said she doesn't want to be a role model for thinness, but considering her success is in an industry that values being slim over being healthy (well, actually, that's our whole society now, isn't it?) and that her accomplishments have only piled up while her frame has shrunk (she's always been naturally thin, but she is noticeably thinner than when she first came onto the scene back in 2007), it's ridiculous for her to pretend that her slimness isn't part of the "Alexa Chung celebrity package," that fans may want to emulate in some way.
That doesn't mean she has a right to be abused or called irresponsible for her figure, but as a celebrity in the spotlight (or a social media user in general), being judged or criticised after posting a picture or status update is par for the course. Engaging in social media is inviting people into your private life and users, especially celebrity ones, should be prepared for the inevitability that not everyone is going to be full of glowing praise.
Social media may provide a forum for lively debate and discussion - like the idealised public sphere that Habermas once envisioned - but it's also a platform for cruelty and cyber-bullying, and a mirror that reflects how distorted women's views about their bodies (and those of others), really are. Hilary Duff said last week that she's stepped up her post-baby weight loss regime after reading cruel jibes about her post-baby body on Twitter. Women complain that society is too thin-centric, that there's too much pressure to look a certain way and then attack another woman, a stranger no less, who has just given birth. It's insanity.
Considering most people find it difficult to approach a friend or loved one with concerns about their weight or health – and presumably, would do it in the kindest, gentlest way possible – posting an insult, a harassing comment or a sad-face emoticon to a complete stranger seems like a bizarre way to behave, doesn't it?
Social media has given us new avenues to voice our issues and concerns, but unfortunately, the bigger issue is that as women, our framework for judging ourselves and others is still deeply flawed and celebrity is tied up in this as both a source of inspiration for us regular joes and a community to tear down whenever we're in need of some schadenfreude.
Craving information, updates, banalities, news and pics from a celebrity only to then throw it back in their face with abuse and cause them to go private or go offline, isn't exactly the endgame of social media, is it?
Sandra Lee Bartky argued in her essay "Foucault, Femininity and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power," that women have become self-policing subjects, trapped like inmates of Foucault's Panoptican, committed to self-surveillance, self-critique and self-discipline. Now, with social media, we are turning that policing gaze about what the "right" female body (or face, or whatever) should look like on others, and we have no qualms about attacking "failure" when we see it.
Women, in life and online, shouldn't be looking for opportunities to tear one of their own down. It's a vicious cycle and one that only serves to encourage dangerous and damaging viewpoints, not to mention breed insecurity and body hatred. So let's leave Alexa Chung and her legs alone. And remember that online – as in life – if you don't have anything nice to say, it's best not to say anything at all.