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Starting Out Young: The Dangers of Tumblr Sexism

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If you've been pretty much anywhere on the internet in the past year or so, you'll undoubtedly have come across the phenomenon that is the meme. From Overly Attached Girlfriend to First World Problems via Bad Luck Brian and Socially Awkward Penguin, there's myriad memes to suit every amusing social comment anyone could possibly wish to make. From time to time, new ones pop up with varying degrees of success.

One more controversial example sprang up in June 2012- an Instagram post from 'Sabrina' offered a pearl of wisdom to fellow females: 'Girls, did you know that, uhm, your boobs go inside your shirt?'

You can view it here.

Several responses appeared, mostly on Tumblr, along with a handful of Facebook pages devoted to curating this meme-based 'advice'.

What is now known as the 'Hey girls' meme calls girls out on their online behaviour. The most prevalent by far follow the message of the original, and instruct girls to cover up their breasts. Other popular slogans include 'crayons are not for your face' and 'keep your legs closed'. By their very nature they impose a certain standard of behaviour on young women, implying that even online, where one can supposedly find freedom of expression, they must censor themselves, altering the way they act so as to render their appearance socially acceptable.

While some responses tackle the issue at heart, many seem to ignore the motivation behind the meme (hating the meme itself, not the ideas it promotes) showing how easily, from such a young age, people can fall victim to internalised misogyny. It becomes the norm, and their perception of gender roles, relationships and sense of morality are founded in ideas they are unaware of having picked up.

It's easy to write these memes off as just another stupid internet fad, one of those which comes and goes and is replaced as quickly as yesterday's viral video. But there's more to it than that. The memes are symptomatic of the culture of slut-shaming rife amongst young people. Despite being a social group noted for progressive ideas about sex and relationships, antiquated attitudes are surprisingly common.

I grew up with words like 'slut' and 'whore' being thrown around by my peers, used in reference to both genders, but more typically slanted towards girls. Only a handful of boys gained reputations as 'man-sluts', and even then they tended to be held in high esteem and the badge was worn with pride. For girls, on the other hand, wearing certain clothes and make-up was enough to be branded slutty. It was always a shameful label, and any girl was free game for defamation.

Instead of being united against victimisation, young women themselves can be found pointing the finger. Many of the 'Hey girls' memes feature girls condescendingly offering advice to their peers. Rather than working together to stop women being unfairly labelled, they interchangably assume the role of 'slut' or 'shamer', perceiving sexual freedom for women as negative and perpetuating the twisted sexual double standard, where the labels of 'prude' or 'virgin' are seen as being just as shameful as being branded a 'slut' or 'whore'.

While the impact of these particular memes was comparatively small, nevertheless they continue to be shared freely on Tumblr and other social networking sites, available for young people to see and be influenced by. They highlight very fixed views of how women should behave, the seeds of which, if left unchallenged, spawn a very regressive attitude towards women.