The Hidden Cost Of Body-Shaming Women

10/11/2016 01:44 pm ET Updated Oct 11, 2016

I remember the way my stomach clenched the first time I was body-shamed on Facebook. It wasn’t the insult that left me feeling uneasy, but the fact that some anonymous man was watching my weight and using it to undermine my words.

I had written a memoir about my midlife journey to climate change activism and had overcome my discomfort with self-promotion in order to publicize what I felt was an important story. I was thrilled when Kumi Naidoo, then International Executive Director of Greenpeace, posted an endorsement on Facebook—thrilled until I noticed a comment that said, “No one wants to hear the story of a fat, menopausal woman.” Soon after, a tweet about the book got a similar “fat” dismissal, implying that I had performed a sexual favor in exchange for the tweet.

This is a book about the urgency of climate change—a topic that tends to bring out the trolls—but these particular insults were gendered, as if a woman’s perspective on a critical issue could simply be dismissed by impugning her sexuality or appearance. That’s why the incident troubles me. At 54, I don’t care what some troll thinks about my waistline, but I do care that women be part of solving the urgent issues of our time.

Take climate change. Although men, too, are hurt by rising sea levels and increasingly extreme weather, women often bear the brunt of climate catastrophes, scrambling to feed their families when crops shrivel from drought or struggling to keep their children safe when homes are destroyed by hurricane or flood. In Latin America and Africa, women are leading grassroots efforts to deal with such issues, yet around the world, women are still under-represented in the halls of power, where politicians deny and stall, putting future generations at risk. Strengthening the influence of those who see the need for swift and dramatic action would be better for everyone.

Unfortunately, a woman is more likely to get access to a microphone if she conforms to a certain physical ideal (an ideal that is racist as well as sexist, as Serena Williams' endorsement history shows). When I got arrested in a high profile climate protest at the White House in 2013 with Bill McKibben, Julian Bond, Robert Kennedy, Jr., and 44 others, the woman featured by the media was blond film star Daryl Hannah rather than Ellie Cohen, a climate scientist, or Allison Chin, the Sierra Club board chair, who had made history by approving the first civil disobedience in that organization’s long history. Predictably, some dismissed Hannah with Facebook comments like, “Glam activist. I'll take her seriously when she ditches the silicone.”

Seeing a woman picked for her appearance and then criticizing for it reminded me of my experience as a twenty-six-year-old graduate student at Yale, where my opinion was discounted, not because I was old and fat, but because I was young and female. In a field dominated by men, I was propositioned but never mentored. In response, I covered my youthful figure with a baggy, unflattering grey suit and one of those ‘80s bow-tie blouses for a program dinner. Like many women, I hoped if I got my look right, maybe I’d be taken seriously, since my high grades didn’t seem to be doing the trick.

Yale taught me to hide, not just my body, but also my ideas. In 1988, I remember arguing in a seminar that personal computers would create a gap between those who could afford them and those who couldn’t. A male professor mocked my concept—now known as the “digital divide.” I told a Yale friend that the limits of the earth would end capitalism before any labor movement, and he looked at me like I was crazy. Now, the question of whether incessant growth is inherently unsustainable is a matter of serious debate. Today, I find myself wondering why I wrote my first two books about spirituality and self-help rather than the more controversial economic and ecological issues that have always interested me. I suspect that at least part of the reason is that I was playing it safe.

Wanting to feel safe is understandable for anyone, but especially women. Just look at the torrent of sexual abuse stories that flooded social media when Kelly Oxford shared hers and invited other women to do the same. The lurking threat of violence is the context here and the deeper reason my stomach clenched when I first read the words “fat and menopausal” on Facebook. Even though I knew the commenter was probably far away and no real threat, they still reminded me of the obscene phone calls I got in college from a young man who claimed to be watching me and who twice threatened to rape me. Whether the abuse is physical or “just words,” male harassment of women is ultimately about asserting power and keeping women in their place, whether the women are trying to promote a book, get a degree, or get elected president.

We are at a moment when a growing number of women have decided to take their power back, to reject the shame, and speak up, even if it risks attracting a few trolls. We know that too many brilliant ideas have not gotten the audience they deserve because a woman thought she should lose ten pounds before pitching a TED Talk, and we know that everyone loses when this happens. The world needs the gifts that we need to share, and we’re not staying silent any longer.

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