"She is such an attention-whore."
I've heard this statement more times than I can count, and I'm sure I've leveled the label at other women myself. We use it perhaps most often to describe celebrities who show up often in tabloids, and seem to want to be there -- Kim Kardashian, Britney Spears, Amanda Bynes, Courtney Stodden and Lindsay Lohan all come to mind. We ridicule these women but we are also obsessed with them, clicking every article published about their latest publicity antic, following their Twitter feeds and handing them the time in the spotlight they seem to be asking for.
Yet our ire for these "shameless" people, most of whom happen to be women, is not just reserved for celebrities, as Nova at Rookie Mag pointed out earlier this week. She wrote:
This term is applied to anyone (but so often women) who attracts more attention than we feel they deserve. It continues a long, misogynistic tradition of mean phrases invented to admonish ladies for being too visible, too shameless. And it's ironic, because every time we call someone an attention whore, we are paying attention to them!
The top two definitions of "attention whore" on Urban Dictionary are gender neutral, but numbers three, four and five, all of which have between 550 and 1200 "likes," identify these attention-seekers as women: "females on message boards and chats usually visited by guys (gaming, skating, heavy metal) who make a big deal of being female," "a girl on the internet who will do anything for attention -- often she will claim to have been raped, complain thats she's fat or no one likes her," and "a person, usually female, who tends to: dress excessively provocatively ... [and] keep eye contact with her female audience (her 'competition') to a bare minimum."
So what are we really saying when we call someone an attention whore -- especially a non-famous person? And why has the term been disproportionately applied to women (though certain men like Kanye West receive the label too)?
Nova contends that our envy of other women and our lack of understanding for people who are different from us is part of what drives us to assign someone the label. She admits that her conservative Christian upbringing drove her to ridicule women who didn't fit that mold. "Basically, I learned that shaming those who craved attention and acted on their impulses was a necessary part of upholding my self-esteem as a woman, and the wider the distinction between myself and them, the better," she admitted.
I agree that envy absolutely plays a role when women brand each other attention seekers. When we feel insecure or uncomfortable about something it's difficult to see someone else's pain and discomfort get attention while we keep our own struggles private -- as we've been taught is appropriate. As that envy bubbles, ridicule can be the knee-jerk reaction.
I also think that women are especially vulnerable to being called out for inviting attention precisely because we expect them not to draw attention to themselves. As Jezebel's Tracy Moore puts it, "We all grow up wanting attention and validation. But as girls, we are taught to not beg for it. To not attract unwanted attention. To not draw unnecessary (read: sexual) attention to ourselves."
In reality, men and women are equally able to be obnoxious or narcissistic, to brag and to need public affirmation. But when we call someone a "whore" of any kind, we are effectively trying to silence her -- and we tend to silence women more than we silence men.
Comedian and author Kelly Oxford recently spoke to Amanda de Cadanet about being called "shameless" as a young woman and the anxiety attacks that that label prompted for her. "I would say what's on my mind at all times and I remember hearing somebody go, 'Oh she's so shameless,'" Oxford shared. "And I thought, 'Oh well, I guess I am, but the way you said that wasn't nice.' That was a really really hard time in my life."
We never really know why someone is seeking what, in our minds, is "too much" public acknowledgment. As Nova points out at the end of her piece, the best thing to do when someone fishes for attention and irks us in the process is to simply look away. Just click out of that article or Facebook photo or Twitter feed and move on with your day.