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Exposed: Kim Kardashian Didn't Break the Internet - It Was Already Broken

22/04/2016 12:26

The internet was already broken for women before Kim Kardashian came along, but although online abuse is a modern problem, its origins are deeply rooted in human evolution.

We hear a lot about the dangers of 'fat-shaming' - criticising and shaming people about their weight. The attention given to this issue has resulted in some progress. When women post revealing photographs of what many consider imperfect but more realistic bodies online, they are often now hailed as brave and empowering, rather than derogated.

This is a positive change, and is possibly due to better awareness of the potential harm associated with unrealistic body ideals. Despite this, there is still a strong emphasis on the 'thin ideal' and many women pursue thinness, sometimes to an extreme extent.

The reason for this is rooted in human evolutionary history. Our male ancestors who were most successful in reproducing were those that mated with women who displayed indicators of fertility, health, and good genes.

Female body shape and beauty provide cues to these things. A slim waist and wide hips for example are linked to aspects of health and fertility. This is why men typically find these features attractive - and why women often strive to acquire them.

The most attractive women might then be considered fortunate. However, they can be targets of a different form of shaming. When very attractive women wear revealing clothes or post selfies online, they are often subject to very harsh criticism.

The criticism is often not so much shaming of their appearance itself, but directed at their willingness to display their body. One common criticism is that valuing oneself in terms of appearance is shallow.
Intelligence and personality are typically seen as having greater worth, yet they too have a strong genetic component, and therefore the idea that they are somehow better indicators of achievement or personal worth, compared to physical attractiveness, does not fully stand up.

But a more provocative criticism of women who post revealing shots is that they are promiscuous. Such claims often lead to insults about sexual reputation.

This form of shaming of female celebrities who wear revealing clothes or display sexuality is regularly in the news.

Take the reports that US R&B singer Kehlani was nearly driven to suicide, following a Twitter backlash over online rumours she had cheated on her boyfriend.

Kim Kardashian was also faced with a body-shaming storm after posting her infamous nude selfie. The reaction to this was explosive. Debate raged about whether such displays are empowering or degrading to women.

Other celebrities that have been subjected to vicious attacks include singer Miley Cyrus and model and actress Emily Ratajkowski - both singled out and heavily criticised for wearing very little and displaying sexuality.

Whilst some dismiss this as celebrity culture, the reaction to these events shows just how emotive the display of female attractiveness and sexuality is, and criticism and shaming are not just targeted at celebrities.

It is not a new phenomenon. There have always been verbal attacks on young women over the way they dress and act in public. Women have likely been subject to these kinds of attacks throughout human evolutionary history. Sometimes women are more critical than men when it comes to shaming women for displaying their bodies.

The attacks probably have their roots in the way our female ancestors demonstrated their quality as a mate, by displaying physical attractiveness. This is why women who are very physically attractive may be more likely to be subjected to this form of body-shaming from other women.

Nasty though it is, it still remains a means of trying to damage their perceived mate quality, reducing their success in competition for mates, and increasing the success of their rivals.

When it happens online, this kind of 'body-shaming' is a form of indirect aggression. When women compete for long-term partners, casting aspersions on the sexual reputation of rivals is a powerful weapon - claiming their display of attractiveness indicates promiscuity.

Men value signs of fidelity in long-term partners because this gives them confidence that any children are their own biological offspring. Women can always be sure their offspring are their own, but men don't have this certainty.

The power of this form of aggression has been demonstrated in studies, which have interviewed adolescent girls about the factors which lead to physical fighting.

One study found that fights amongst inner-city girls are often triggered by threats to sexual reputation. Another study found that the last remark made before a physical fight broke out between girls was often 'slut' or 'slag'.

When asked in another study about the reasons for this, one girl remarked: 'If someone slags you off - calls you a tart or something you've got to be able to do something about it'.

This demonstrates that challenges to sexual reputation are deemed serious enough to justify physical aggression, with all of the risks that entails for women.

These studies suggest that this behaviour is not only an issue for celebrities. Activist and model Amber Rose has been a prominent voice in calling out the double standards that this kind of behaviour also highlights.

She has revealed that she has been called a 'slut' for her sexual activity, but that the men in her life who have made similar choices did not receive similarly harsh treatment.

Whilst this double standard has its roots in our evolutionary history - as women compete for the best mates by attacking the sexual reputation of other women - such behaviour does carry some dangers in terms of psychological harm to victims.

It appears to be more vicious in the world of social media that we all now inhabit. People perhaps post comments online that they would not make face-to-face. Online comments can be anonymous, allowing people to say very harmful things with little fear of repercussions. And sometimes online comments are seen as somehow less real because they are not face-to-face. This is a misconception and they can be just as harmful.

We should be aware of the effects these kinds of attacks can have on the victims. Understanding the ultimate reasons we engage in these behaviours - and for the sexual double standard - is a necessary step towards change.

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