Recently a woman admitted to changing her photo on LinkedIn to a less flattering pictures all in a bid to avoid being messaged by randos creeping under the guise of “networking.” It seems there is no place on earth where a woman can toss up a photo of herself and not be rated by the real-life Hot-or-Not squad of well-meaning mouthbreathers, even in spaces ostensibly designed to be professional.
The U.K.’s Independent reports on the story of 27-year-old Charlotte Proudman, a family law barrister who tweeted the message she received on LinkedIn from a London lawyer she’d merely clicked to connect with. Hardeep Matharu reports that the message Proudman received read:
“I appreciate that this is probably horrendously politically incorrect but that is a stunning picture,” he wrote.
To which Ms Proudman responded: “I am on LinkedIn for businesses purposes not to be approached about my physical appearance or to be objectified by sexist men.
“The eroticisation of women’s physical appearance is a way of exercising power over women. It silences women’s professional attributes as their physical appearance becomes the subject.
“Unacceptable and misogynistic behaviour. Think twice before sending another woman (half your age) such a sexist message.”
Proudman’s story prompted tales from other women who’d been semantically sauntered over to by lots of dudes who, it’s fair to say, don’t understand how things work. A recent law graduate, Mandeer Kataria, tweeted in response that she’d gone so far as to change her photo to a less attractive one:
Ms Kataria, who is doing a Masters in International Law, told Sky News: “I was just getting loads of random men who were trying to connect - we weren’t even in the same business line. They were not interested in my professional credentials.
“I took my picture down and replaced it with one that I considered was less attractive - and the messages stopped.
“But after hearing about Charlotte’s case, I feel I shouldn’t have had to do that.”
SkyNews also reported that another women said she’d received messages on the site from a man in her industry asking if she’d had children or not, as it might have “changed her figure.”
Cue the backlash, where Daily Mail columnist Sarah Vine called Proudman’s supporters “feminazis” and insisted that most women would be flattered by that old dude’s compliment and think “what a nice man.” Ha! Well, I do think most women would probably ignore it, yes, after years or decades of being worn down. Sure, others might like it, in the right context, but it seems clear that LinkedIn is the wrong one.
Rather than wonder by this man couldn’t think exactly as he liked about Proudman’s picture and still choose to correspond professionally with her—or at least wonder why, if the man knew it was “politically incorrect” and said so himself, why he chose to proceed anyway—Vine spewed:
What exactly did he say? What could this repulsive specimen of the patriarchy possibly have done to her?What vile and perverted acts did he suggest to earn such a passionate rebuke?
Er, he said he liked her picture. Specifically, he wrote: ‘I appreciate that this is probably horrendously politically incorrect but that is a stunning picture!!!! You definitely win the prize for the best LinkedIn picture I have ever seen.’
That’s it. That is the extent of his indecent proposal. Of his ‘eroticisation’ of her physical appearance. A simple, straightforward compliment: you look nice in your picture.
If that is what counts as ‘objectification’ and ‘misogyny’ these days, then the human race is in deep trouble. Not only does it beggar belief that Ms Proudman could have inferred any slight from such an innocuous missive, it also makes me fear for the next generation of women.
After all, heaven help the poor man who actually tries to ask her out on a date, let alone try to get her into his bed. He’d have better luck propositioning a porcupine.
Right. Being told you’re a looker in a work setting is exactly the same as being asked out!
The thing is, it does count as an indecent proposal in this setting. I’m not being so naïve as to say that I don’t grasp that work romance is a thing, that attraction is an ever-present factor, that we all don’t notice other people’s looks no matter how stodgy the setting. But most of us tend not to comment on them and tend to attempt to behave otherwise in PROFESSIONAL SETTINGS.
Vine’s bullshit critique is a classic argument against any woman who doesn’t take a compliment or who refuses to participate in the battle of the sexes as outlined by every sassy 1940s screwball comedy ever made, or by anyone who is nostalgic for a day when “men were men and women were women” and you answered a come-on with a scathing retort, all while arching an eyebrow and dressed to the nines. (But secretly, you loved it as you sparred your way to the altar.)
For the record, I love those movies and every last drop of the sass-mouth in their female heroines, precisely because they are women working within a shit system. They wielded caustic words magnificently at a time when they have little recourse but wordplay in the face of a daily office ass-grabbing. These movies are decades before sexual harassment laws. What Vine is ignoring, along with critics of Proudman or any other women who choose to expose this sort of low-simmering lechery, is that things actually are different now—and that if men are free to say this type of thing (and, at least on social media, they are) they should be ready for the contextual consequences, too.
In other words, men who choose to hit on women in professional settings must accept the risk in doing so. They can’t predict the reaction of the woman who they choose to flatter about her appearance, as harmless or nice or self-deprecating or seemingly self-aware as their words may be. The woman may be elated—or she may be offended, may be confused, may feel that this makes it impossible to be taken seriously, that her skills are secondary to her ability to make a dude swoon over a good picture. Most importantly, the inverse applies too! A woman using a professional networking tool to scour for dates may also risk exposure, reprimand, rejection, scolding, embarrassment, you name it. (Though, arguably, a man in that scenario might not feel anywhere near as threatened.)
You can’t demand that women simply take all compliments in all settings—or any compliments in any settings, really—with good humor, though I’ve no doubt most of us do so anyway, 95 percent of the time, so that we are not hideously exhausted day in, day out. The few times we do draw the line—when it feels like a sleazily egregious sexualization of our bodies, no matter how much we play by rules we didn’t make, no matter how much we assume the burden of never being too attractive in the wrong scenario just so men don’t have to get boners—well, you’d think most people, and especially other women, would realize it was probably the single compliment that broke the camel’s back. (Even this argument is problematic—I do not mean to suggest women should only speak out when they’ve reached the end of their rope, but rather, I can only assume that’s what most of us do to save energy.)
I’ve written about downplaying your appearance before to avoid unwanted sexual attention, a strategy I have used and continue to use at will depending on how I feel when going out into the world. I am not happy that I feel I must do it, but it usually works well enough. But this is when I’m going out to bars, shows, into the world, away from the illusion of safety of a regulated work environment designed to sideline such concerns for the purpose of getting work done, of at least pretending there is a place driven by merit alone.
Proudman has since written that she’s been harassed and lost work because she spoke out. The depressing takeaway here is that part and parcel of existing while female continues to mean being subjected to unwanted sexual attention and, furthermore, criticism for voicing it. Avoiding the attention may not work; complaining about the attention may work even less. Women have again concluded that some kind of hiding of our bodies is the best we can do to succeed. And yet no matter what we do, there is still absolutely no place that does not see us.
Image via Miramax