Any woman who dares raise her head above the parapet will be familiar with the following scenario: woman makes public statement about her rights and place in the world. Abuse inevitably follows, usually concerning her appearance. It’s the most common currency to attack women in the public sphere and why feminists are often described as unattractive or lacking in femininity.
The more women's profile is raised, the more acute the focus on their looks. But hearteningly, the response from women in the firing range of these crosshairs is increasingly to co-opt the attention and proudly reclaim it for themselves.
Social media brings with it many perks, among them a platform where women can talk about beauty on their own terms and start developing forms of self-expression. The aim has been to fight the constraints that traditionally have shamed them or objectified them, in some cases leading to an impact on their physical and mental health. Among some of the most inspiring beauty bloggers, for example, are Evita Patcey Delmundo, a Miss Universe Malaysia contestant who proudly posted pictures of her many moles, YouTuber Michaela Davert, who suffers from brittle bone disease and is behind the online show FunSizedStyle and Abu Dhabi's own alopecia sufferer Yasmin Taylor.
But as women's power and self-determination have grown online, so has the volume of misogynistic abuse – and the looks-based bullying has increased exponentially in a phenomenon called beauty cyberbullying.
New research from the non-profit Cybersmile Foundation suggests that girls are nearly twice as likely to have been subjected to cyberbullying compared to boys while one in four secondary school students suffer from repeated incidents. The volume of abuse is so great that, according to the foundation, 115 million images were deleted last year. It is the ultimate form of self-effacement, when abuse gets so embedded in women's psyches that they start to remove themselves from the public sphere.
However, the desire to tackle beauty cyberbullying is gaining momentum. In September this year, celebrities got behind Diesel's "hate couture" campaign, which enables customers to personalise hoodies and tee shirts with the worst comment made about them online, with the mantra "the more hate you wear, the less you care". Earlier this month, pop group Little Mix's song Strip discussed toxic social media. The promo for the song featured a much-discussed image of their naked bodies covered with the hateful comments they receive online.
Most recently, a campaign from make-up manufacturer Rimmel, starring Rita Ora, Cara Delevigne and Kuwaiti lifestyle blogger Ascia Al Faraj, tackled cyberbullying with the hashtag #IWillNotBeDeleted.
All of this tells us that the abuse must stop. And while it’s great that women are standing firm, there is a paradox we need to grapple with. Beauty is still being used as the yardstick – so does it make a difference who is using it as a measuring tool if looks are still the ultimate criteria of success?
As a lot of these campaigns rightly suggest, we need to take responsibility, as followers and consumers of social media, for the comments we make and to call out beauty cyberbullying. But we also need a more strategic intervention to change the conversation. Ultimately, that means we need to break out of the cycle of talking about women in terms of beauty and move the conversation onto their other achievements. In image-driven social media, that can be hard to do, particularly as so many platforms focus on visuals.
But it is feasible. Sahar Sohail in Pakistan has the Instagram handle “the Pakistani Martha Stewart” and uses her art to explore double standards in society and explore social issues through satire.
In Sharjah, Bodour Al Qasimi effortlessly showcases how a working mother can run a business and influence politics through snapshots of her events and meetings.
A study by Vuelio on bloggers in the UK showed a vast difference between what men and women blog about. While men have a mixed repertoire of subjects, women tended to focus on lifestyle, fashion and beauty.
This is where audience participation is hugely important. As followers, we need to choose wisely. We need to realise that by one click, follow or like, a seemingly insignificant choice has been made to demonstrate what is important to us and what agenda we would like to see set.
For years, bullies have been telling women their value is based on how they look. It is time to tell the bullies what values we hold dear instead.
Shelina Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World