Like a lot of people, I have my criticisms of the internet. My criticisms are fairly standard, nothing that hasn’t been voiced a million different times by a million other people, but I also know that sometimes I tend to get so caught up in what sucks about the internet that I fail to recognize that the internet can actually be really awesome. You know, the whole Louis CK “Everything is amazing and no one is happy” bit.
I thought about how excellent the internet can be the other day while looking through the Real Girl Belly Project, and again while checking out the Normal Breast Gallery (h/t to Rebekah at Jaunty Dame). Recently I have also seen My Body Gallery and a photo gallery of vaginal/vulva areas (which I am not linking to because I’m not).
Most of us don’t put these body parts on display and we are pretty selective about who we let see them. As a result, the range of body parts we do see is usually pretty slim – our own, those of people who are really close to us, and people who get paid to bare their bodies and who consequently have bodies that fall within a specific standard. (Oh! I almost forgot the people who feel comfortable walking around fully nude in the gym locker room. We all know those people. You might be one of them! In which case I ask you, please stop bending over to pick at your toes, or at least wait until to do so you’ve wrapped a towel around your waist. Thanks.)
Considering that half of the seven billion people on this planet come equipped with this kind of plumbing, that’s a pretty narrow sliver of bodies to which we are exposed.
But now, thanks to things like inexpensive digital cameras and broadband internet and cell phones with more technology than every Apollo mission put together, it’s extremely easy for all kinds of people to post photos of their bodies online. And anonymity – that beast that gives rise to trolls and racist fuckheads – leads us to feel like we might be safe and okay to be so vulnerable. Anonymity lets us feel comfortable being naked in the most public of realms.
Sometimes this freedom to anonymous expose our bodies online can be not so good (oh, hello Chatroulette! What’s up, Anthony Weiner!), but sometimes it works out in a way that can be reassuring and, dare I say it, not at all alienating. Sometimes seeing unretouched, unedited, un-made-up, un-posed bodies in all of their glory can make us feel like maybe we aren’t quite as strange-looking or odd as we once thought.
It’s not just bodies that benefit from the demystification powers of the internet. I’ve seen a lot of people use the internet to shed some light on health procedures that are often conducted under extreme privacy. Last year, Angie Jackson live-tweeted and posted videos about her experience taking RU-486. (Full disclosure: I wrote about this for Bitch.) Her decision to do so caused a furor, both among professional reporters, for whom the overlay of technology and abortion made this story sexy beyond all belief, and also among internet commenters, many of whom thought her decision to go public with her abortion was an example of fame-whoring and attention-seeking run amok.
Lost in the conversation, I thought, was the fact that Jackson was doing exactly what feminists had been doing for decades, and that is speaking frankly about our bodies and our experiences as women in an attempt to demystify them. Think about consciousness-raising groups and pamphlets and zines, how these things gave women a way to talk about their bodies and their lives in ways that deviated from the socially acceptable script, the one that would prefer we as ladies don’t be messy and complicated and bloody.
Since then, though, I’ve seen more instances of women using Twitter to share personal experiences relating to their bodies, experiences that much of society would rather be kept quiet. Recently, a woman was raped in Tampa, and she posted about it on Twitter shortly after it happened, including information about the perpetrator and her experiences with the police and crisis teams. Last week, Boing Boing blogger Xeni Jardin tweeted about going for her first mammogram, and later discovering she had breast cancer. This is in addition to thousands of women who have used the internet to share explicit details about pregnancy, cancer treatment, birth control, sex, menstruation, trips to the ob/gyn, masturbation, and a myriad of other topics polite women are not supposed to talk about in public.
You can argue that these women would have all been better off keeping their private business off the internet, but I’m not sure I agree. It seems to me that a lot of the critics of this kind of self-exposure would be okay with the stories and photos if they were in a magazine or a book. Many said they were uncomfortable that Jackson, for instance, was sharing her experience via Twitter, which has a reputation as a vapid, transient medium not appropriate for such serious conversation. Yet the barriers to entry for getting published in a magazine or a book are so high as to be out of reach for the vast majority of people. Not everyone can get a feature article published in Ms., but pretty much anyone with access to a computer can set up a blog or send photos to an online magazine.
There are lots of reasons to be critical of the internet, but the fact that so many people feel like they can be open about things once considered off-limits for discussion is not one of them. Anything that can make us feel a little less alone and a little less isolated in this world is a good thing, even if that thing is a collection of digital photos or a series of tweets.