The age of the social sonogram - where does the oversharing end?

The only way to cure the "too much information" epidemic is... too much information.

We all have different ways of breaking special news. Some of us get straight on the phone to our mums; some of us go for civilised dinners with other halves and best friends; some of us crack out the city’s best cornershop cava. However you want to share the news of that promotion, pregnancy or personal pride, you can be sure that the big bad world now offers a million and one ways to do it - and by the big bad world, we mean the internet.

There’s no denying that the internet is more real than reality these days: Facebook has more photos of you than your parents’ baby albums; hundreds of people on Twitter who you can socialise with daily will only ever exist for you in cyberspace; and the power of Skype has meant that many a long distance relationship has been brought closer by high-definition wanking. Problem is, what if the nature of your social network changes? Nothing illustrated this more than when reports started coming in that Facebook was showing private messages sent between friends from 2007 and 2008, prompting an (online) uproar about privacy. In fact, the issue was just that we’d all forgotten how candid we used to be when Facebook was merely a fledgling chick rather than a huge, gold-plated turkey. Back when you only had 15 friends, "got laid last night, lol" seemed totes fine to post on your best mate’s wall. But now your friend list is pushing 500, your relationship status links back to your boyfriend, and you’re applying for that ultra prestigious civil service job, that one night of WKD-fuelled passion (yep, you drank that back then) doesn’t feel like something you want recorded anymore. Reality bites.

We’ve found out about more than our fair share of weddings and baby-makings through social media, in increasingly crass ways (3D sonogram as a profile pic, anyone?) We were even fortunate to come across a T-shirt in a shop window the other day, surely a strong contender for "creepiest piece of attire in the world" (alongside lederhosen) which showed a blurry sonogram reproduction with the caption "Daddy’s little girl". We hadn’t realised that it was possible to act pervy about a foetus, but there you go.

So in this age of social sonograms and pregnancy apps, we come to the inevitable question: how much have we fucked up the kids this time? Jezebel concurred with the New York Times this week that we should take fewer pictures of our children, after journalist and psychologist David Zweig noticed that his 3-year-old daughter requested nonstop photos and was becoming constantly aware of her looks. By school age, we may as well resign ourselves to the fact that she’ll be pinning her own first paintings on a Pinterest board. Which would all be totally cool, if we weren’t using most of our imagery in the media nowadays for evil.

"Celebrity mag" culture has led us all to comment on K-Middy’s breasts, Lady Gaga’s arse in fishnets and Kylie’s sweat patches with startling regularity. And while men undoubtedly suffer from this scrutiny too, women are usually in the front line for a spraying of spite-filled glossy pink bullets. Constant awareness, a la Zweig’s 3-year-old, is necessary to survive in a world where an iPhone might be whipped out and used against you at any moment. Meanwhile, you must guard your online persona fiercely: as your finger hovers over a more truthful "like" on the page ("Lily likes Canesten" - the lifesaver of your Saturday thrush!), you turn regretfully towards something that will set you up for a bit more online kudos and social media approval ("Lily likes Neutral Milk Hotel.")

And yet, the rigidly guarded social media persona is giving way to a new kind of internet twattery: what the kids call TMI, or Too Much Information. It has to be a dystopian mash-up of celebrity culture and reality TV that’s done it - there is now an assumption that people give a toss about the insignificant minutiae of your everyday life: what you had for breakfast, and, by extension, the contents of your womb. In other words, Facebook has become like Heat magazine, the trash rag in which nothing is sacred, except now it’s comprised entirely of your mates, former colleagues, and people you once shared a fag with outside Revolution in Manchester, all telling you about their hangover poo.

What’s terrifying is that the TMI is getting worse. The vogue for scanned sonograms has by now given way to iPhone photos of pregnancy tests showing a positive result, and it’s only a matter of time before it becomes commonplace to upload a birthing video or live tweet your girlfriend’s labour: "Stacey is 4cm dilated and just shat herself #epidural?"

We stand on the brink of this terrifying potential and there is only one solution. We have to beat these internet bellends at their own game. Whether it’s uploading a picture of your diaphragm alongside a winky emoticon ("getting lucky tonight!"), or posting the status update "not pregnant AGAIN! Woo!" alongside a smartphone photo of your Tampax Ultra, we need it to be (genital) warts and all oversharing. Just opened your clap clinic results? Get that chlamydia reaction video on YouTube, pronto. Recently had a colonoscopy? Excellent, whack it up there. Only once your online friends are confronted by the realities of your parasitic bowel will they take a step back and realise the implications of their behaviour. Before you know it you’ll be Mayor of the BPAS clinic on FourSquare, your repeat custom having ousted ring-wing fundamentalist nutjobs Fortydaysforlife, and your vagina will have its own Twitter account ("Just saw some tortellini shaped like Naomi Wolf and don’t think I’ll ever write again").

Meanwhile, your dullard acquaintances will resist papping their brunch and consign their baby photos to where they belong: offline, meaning the children of the future can be raised happy and free from constant monitoring. It’s high time their idiot parents learned their lessons - and only you, dear reader, can be the one to teach them.

Photograph: Geoff Livingston on Flickr

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.