In the fall of sixth grade I learned to fear the court of public opinion. It was afternoon, and I had assumed my peripheral seat at the lunch table: far right near the yellowed windows. As usual, conversation gravitated towards the center of the table, so I was out of earshot. I was out of sight too—I thought—because my classmates weren’t especially interested in looking at me. As a crumpled piece of loose leaf meandered its way towards me, hushed giggles in its wake, I assumed my irrelevance and, if I’m honest, took relief in that.
Then it drew closer, I caught a glimpse of its contents, and my gut folded in half. I discerned a chart, with the names of the girls in my class listed vertically and the boys’ names scrawled across the top. Next to each girl’s name the boys, each with great deliberation, had inscribed a number between one and ten. Although unspoken, we understood what that number signified—and that the chart itself established a female hierarchy calibrated by conventional attractiveness. When my neighbor passed the paper to me, I scanned it for my name, swollen with apprehension and dumb hope. But only one boy had bothered to determine my score, and it was an impatiently jotted “2.”
Crying would never do in that context, and so I didn’t. I curled back into myself with the glum recognition that, if I had been feeling generous, I might have assigned myself a “3.”
By seventh grade I no longer relied on the verdict of my peers to critique my appearance. A year’s worth of insults had already seeped into my pores. When I stood in front of my bedroom mirror to take stock of my face, I rendered everything I saw through those schoolboys’ pernicious words.
One afternoon I peered into the glass, just as I did most days, with the near-barren hope of seeing something else. Maybe, I thought, if I was patient, the mirror would reveal an embodied “me” that I hadn’t thought possible. Maybe it would one day greet me with a flush, comely face that said, “Whatever others may say, they’re wrong. Listen to me instead. Let me show you who you are.”
Instead the view assaulted me with its redundancy. It was the same peaked face—one that wore its nose and braces clumsily. And the longer I looked, the more indulgent I became in self-pity. “You’re an ugly girl,” my reflection mocked, “and if you’re ugly now, just imagine how ugly you’ll become.”
Was I so bereft of control? No. I would claim dominion over my body; I would manipulate its sensations. And I would punish it, too, because it had failed me by refusing to be beautiful. I rustled around my desk for my pair of Crayola scissors and, sitting cross-legged on my bedroom floor, pressed the blade against my bare wrist.
Throughout teenhood, college, and my twenties, I succumbed to binges of self-mutilation, often in response to these protracted bouts of self-scrutiny. I bore ritualistic witness to my face, every time nurturing the same feeble hope that a trick of the eye had distorted my countenance. And every time I would terrorize myself with this perverted staring contest until frenzied misery sent me in search of a whetted edge.
I do not recall when I ended this game, only that I tapered off slowly—and that I every so often recognize the urge to re-engage it. Addictions, even when we have largely overcome them, fasten to us like estranged relatives; a faint, yet essential connection remains. In my darker moments I cast a glance over to the pot on my desk, where I keep a pair of purple-handled scissors, and tease the idea of pressing their blade against my skin. When I am saturated in anxiety and desperate for physical respite, cutting offers the most alluring relief valve while simultaneously propelling illusions of control.
But as time has worn on, my face and I, if not on amicable terms, have reached a wobbly sort of understanding. I even take selfies when the lighting and my eye makeup seem just right, a casual pleasure to remind me that a face—my face—is, aesthetically, more than the sum of its parts. And if I decide to live dangerously, I post especially choice selfies to my various social media platforms: a quiet attempt to believe in my beauty, and to ask others to acknowledge it too.
Just as I began to dismantle the certainty that I had, in fact, grown up to be “an ugly girl,” I set out to make a living by writing on the internet. I settled on this decision although I knew that women who voice their opinions publicly are all too often ridiculed for their appearance—the very fear I have harbored for nearly 20 years. I understood, as I continue to understand with distressing nuance, that too many men navigate the terror of women’s brilliance by reducing them to skin and bone. When a man’s argument, undressed of its trappings, is an effete protest against women articulating their views at all, his recourse becomes the condemnation of our bodies. Our words, they try to tell us, are meaningless against the overwhelming fact of our flesh.
I watched friends write courageously and without reservation, only to have their photographs plucked from Twitter and posted on Men’s Rights Activists sites for grotesque appraisal. Being subjected to the same dissection seemed to me untenable. Despite my best efforts, I remained all too vulnerable to male-determined beauty metrics. All the same, I refused to cede a platform out of fear. My byline began to appear more frequently, and I, in turn, resisted—at first tentatively, then more rigorously—my self-imposed expectations of female likability. Taking my aim at a few cheap shots—Donald Trump, Rush Limbaugh—I claimed my right to be a little mean.
And so began the name-calling. Smugly, I brushed off my shoulders as aspersions like “bitch,” “cunt,” and “moron” spilled into the comments sections of my blog posts. “Ha!” I thought to myself, “Sticks and stones, my friends, sticks and stones. I am an unstoppable rhetorical force!”
It might seem, from what I have so far told you, that I am composing a triumphant narrative, one that gallops proudly to an ending where I cast off the shackles of patriarchy and illuminate the globe with newly-kindled bodily acceptance. I wish that were the case. But the next story that I will tell you is equal parts mundane and raw — and it is critical you know that I do not emerge a victor.
Perhaps you recall the hullabaloo over Jeremy Renner’s refusal to aid female actors as they negotiate for equal pay. Unimpressed by Renner’s seeming apathy, I penned a quick post about this matter, and, in the process, referred to him as both “frog-faced” and sporting “a sixth grade boy’s haircut.” I admit to you that I felt more clever than the caliber of these insults warranted but, as I mentioned, I was rather enjoying the fresh sensation of meanness.
However, I quickly learned that denigrating the appearance of a male actor who has made a controversial decision regarding women’s rights breeds especially vigorous malice. And I grant you, Renner’s coiffure and his position on women’s salaries in Hollywood are utterly irrelevant to one another. Had I penned a longer, more somber meditation on the issue I would not have made mention of his physical attributes — and perhaps this comparison should function as a litmus test for me in the future. Still, what I dished out was kindergarten banter in contrast to the responses I received.
Because I had taken the liberty of mocking Jeremy Renner’s appearance, his male supporters were eager to pillory mine. One gentleman admonished me that I was “no prize pig myself,” while another noted that anal sex would be the only tenable way to fuck me—after all, my face would not be visible. Someone else posted an enlarged photograph of my face to facilitate further scrutiny (I’ll give that fellow this: the photo he chose was a selfie I took with my cat, and her beauty indeed diminishes all those in her presence). I won’t assault you with further examples of my punishment; they were all of a similar tenor. Besides, I suspect many of my women readers possess war stories of their own. You don’t require mine to know that women are abused on the internet every hour of every day.
This is not a story of triumph; I have told you this much. I read with certain horror—and ludicrous attention—every insult lobbed at me. I cried. I let fly a flurry of texts, to my husband, to friends, entreating them to verify my attractiveness. I later scorned myself for having done so; it prevents me from entertaining any delusions about the value I place on affirmation. Overwhelmed by my first skirmish with body-shaming trolls, I bleakly wondered if they, like the boys at my sixth-grade lunch table, understood an unassailable truth about my body — or, worse, that I could only ever be interpreted by the majority of the male population as “an ugly girl.” My anguish abated over the course of a weekend, and—here is a victory—I did not resort to cutting as I would have years ago. But the barb I could not pluck from my skin was that damned eagerness to appear gentle in the view of the male gaze.
You might say that this essay is itself an exercise in “feeding the trolls.” I have shown my cards here, acknowledged my pain in the face of men’s cruelty. So I have—because I think it is right that we do. I am so often embroiled in an inner-controversy over what I should conceal from the men who want to hurt me. I contemplate the nuances of my performance as an “ice cold bitch”: what I aspire to and never will be. I block and I mute, but every once in awhile I devise the ideal retort.
For I believe in intelligent and conscientious internet usage, and I remain aware that we must protect ourselves in whatever ways we deem critical. But as I sobbed over the slew of bile framing my photograph, I shivered, too, with shame that I could not beat back this distress, that my most base reaction proved wholly incongruous with the persona I sought to embody—the one I considered compulsory for a woman writing on the internet. I condemned my inability to “consider the source” and trek onward; the necessity for pause and processing frustrated me. But shame in the face of pain will not enable us to prevail either.
Because ultimately, making the internet safe for women entails making it safe for women’s pain. We cannot concern ourselves with what may or may not satisfy a man whose paramount aim is to silence us. We should not curate our words to mimic a vague conception of strength or suppress the anguish of an especially wretched attack because we fear fueling trolls’ laughter. They will laugh nonetheless. So can we.
Writing on the internet exhilarates; it cuts deep; it cleaves my eleven-year-old self to my heart. I cannot forget her when I still become her, when she begs to be recognized and heard. And so I still learn from her. I ask you to bear witness to her and to me, and I do not fear the trolls who may sniff out the pain they caused. Because I am still writing, and will never stop—in the meantime, they are welcome to flounder with information ultimately useless to them.
This is not a story of triumph. And yet, it is not a story of defeat. That is not a story I will write.
Rachel Vorona Cote is a contributor and columnist at Jezebel. She has also written for the LA Review of Books, Pacific Standard, the Rumpus, and a variety of other places. She lives in Washington, D.C.