Appearance-based arguments are harmful

Challenge their beliefs rather than criticizing how they look

We’ve all had this experience, or at least seen it happen countless times: You’re on the internet or just having a conversation and you’re angry at someone. You see someone doing or saying something that you don’t agree with, perhaps something that counters your own existence and beliefs. It’s likely someone you don’t know on a personal level, but whose platform is elevated enough to reach thousands or millions of people. Your blood is boiling, it’s hard to form the words to express what you want, and one of the first things that comes to your mind is to attack their appearance. 

It’s certainly hard when someone says something that upsets you, or attacks or dehumanizes a facet of your identity. It’s natural to want to say the first terrible thing about them you can think of. It’s understandable to want to mock their appearance just for laughs and attention. But this is harmful in two main ways. First, you are contributing to the focus and importance of a certain physical “beauty” standard, and second, the harmful message you are spreading to the other people reading your words.

Let me highlight a few examples. 

Back in the fall, during the heat of the Supreme Court justice appointment, there was national controversy around the ethics of the timing as well as the qualifications and character of Amy Coney Barrett. There was far too much debate surrounding her physical appearance, and specifically her hair. What I saw, over and over, was a variety of comments mocking her frizzy hair and her clothes, and using “the lady who looks like a rat” to identify her. Maybe you feel that Coney Barrett doesn’t deserve respect, but this isn’t about her or what kind of respect she deserves. It’s about your audience. It’s about the young girl who sees that having smooth hair matters more than protecting women’s right to choose what happens to their body, more important than caring about marriage rights and anti-discrimintation protection for all people. The message coming across, regardless of intent is: it doesn’t matter if you’re hateful, as long as you’re pretty. So if you can’t say anything else about her, then either educate yourself on what you disagree with, or simply say nothing. 

Maybe you feel that Coney Barrett doesn’t deserve respect, but this isn’t about her or what kind of respect she deserves. It’s about your audience.”

I’ve seen people on social media insulting Candance Owens by saying she has bad eyebrows. And I understand that people may be upset with a whole mirage of her actions, from how she denied the pandemic and combated measures to keep people safe, to her harping on the criminality of George Floyd. And those things are extremely upsetting. But choosing to take that up with her physical features is really saying, or at least implying, that having nice eyebrows is more important than being kind and respectful and caring about other people. Again, the message is being sent that as long as someone has nice eyebrows, the hateful views they spout don’t really matter.

This often happens with high profile female figures very often, because of the way that women’s physical appearances are so publicly scrutinized. But there are other cases as well, such as a couple months ago, when a clip of a man in a wheelchair wheeling to the capital riots went viral. All of the hate comments were people mocking his disability, and making jokes about his need for a mobility aid. Shame this man for insurrection! Mock him for his hypocrisy about law and order, tear apart the fact that he supports a facist! As Tess Gattuso said on Twitter (in response to Anderson Cooper’s comment alikening Donald Trump to an obsese turtle), “why body shame a fascist when u can fascist-shame a fascist.” The message that you are putting out to your disabled mutuals is so harmful, in part because it is ableist and rude, but also in part because the fact that you overlooked the harm you’re doing showed how little attention you give to those issues. 

It has been said before, but not enough, because the sentiments still continue: The famous person you’re making fun of will not hear you. But you know who will? Your friends, your family, the people that listen to you. Having a certain type of body, or anything different is not shameful. But shaming someone for their physical traits when you mean to question their beliefs further contributes to the stigmatization. Many people who claim to be “body positive” and say that “everyone is beautiful” still go after the physical features of people they don’t like. It becomes: “All bodies are beautiful unless it’s a person whose ideals I don’t agree with. Then their body is ugly, and in a way that conforms to oppressive standards of beauty.”

With all of these examples, it is not about how much respect these people deserve. Maybe you don’t feel that they deserve an ounce of your consideration, but this response is not about respecting them. It’s about respecting other people and most importantly your mutuals — the friends and family who will see what you write.

It becomes: “All bodies are beautiful unless it’s a person whose ideals I don’t agree with. Then their body is ugly, and in a way that conforms to oppressive standards of beauty.””

These public figures will never hear what you say. Maybe somehow this politician, or commentator, or ordinary person reads or listens to what you said about them on the internet. Maybe (best case) they are stung by it. But you know who else is stung by it? Everyone else who saw it and has the same trait you deemed as the worst possible thing. And you’re still perpetrating stigma around beauty standards, or weight, or disability. 

Intent does matter. I know that many people have their heart in the right place and just feel angry. But think about how it translates. Intent matters, but impact matters more. So the next time you find yourself in this situation — you’re fuming, with the keyboard and the world wide web in front of you — pause a moment. Think of who will see what you write, and who won’t. Think about the message you may be inadvertently promoting. Research facts if you need to so you can argue on an intellectual basis. And then do what you will.