SELF Magazine's Tutu-Shaming Blunder Has Me Wondering: Will Snarking On Strangers Ever Become Unacceptable In Mainstream Media?

Is the moral here REALLY that if you're going to make fun of someone's outfit, you should first confirm that they're not in the middle of cancer treatment and wearing a tutu to raise funds for charity?

Apr 2, 2014 at 5:00pm | Leave a comment

The story goes like this: SELF Magazine asked marathoner Monika Allen for permission to use a photo of her running in the LA marathon for an upcoming issue. Allen was thrilled, especially since the photo featured her wearing one of the tutus made by her company, Glam Runner.

Last week, Allen was subsequently shocked to find that her photo had landed on the magazine's "BS Meter" page, classified as "lame," with the unkind caption: "A racing tutu epidemic has struck NYC's Central Park, and it's all because people think these froufrou skirts make you run faster. Now, if you told us they made people run away from you faster, maybe we would believe it."

A little mean, right? But not unusual for the medium -- jokey snarky comments are going to happen on any feature that claims to rank items by how much bullshit they contain. But it turned out there's more to the story. 

Monika Allen's company doesn't make these tutus to turn a profit; she and business partner Taramae Baize donate the profits to Girls on the Run, an organization that uses physical activity to build confidence and life skills in young girls. Glam Runner has generated $5,600 dollars (and over 2,000 tutus!) for this purpose over the past three years.

And if that weren't enough, the picture in question was taken in the middle of Allen's year of chemotherapy for brain cancer.

So all told, this item was making fun of a woman with cancer, who managed to run a marathon in the midst of treatment for it, and who donates her time and energy to charitable work on behalf of young girls.

I'm not here to bash SELF magazine; I can only imagine how awful everyone there must have felt when these details came to light. SELF has since apologized in a follow-up interview with Allen -- who says she felt "bullied" by the magazine -- and as a result of the ensuing uproar, SELF's entire "BS Meter" page will be discontinued after the May issue, which is certainly one way to make sure this won't happen again.

SELF's editor in chief also told USA TODAY, ”I am personally mortified.. I had no idea that Monika had been through cancer. It was an error. It was a stupid mistake. We shouldn’t have run the item.” This is a fine, human reaction. Certainly, making fun of cancer survivors -- even accidentally -- is a terrible idea. I think it goes without saying that SELF would never have run this image with that caption had they known Allen's situation.

But I still want to know whether it would have been acceptable to mock Allen and her running outfit if she were cancer free. 

The backlash to this situation has kept a particular focus on Allen's personal circumstances, but I'd argue that without her backstory, this item would only have caused a minor ruffling of feathers amongst runners who like wearing tutus -- or any sort of fun, silly apparel. And it's hardly just SELF that is guilty of snarking on a woman's fashion choices for cheap laughs.

Even as a teenager, I was bothered by the "fashion don'ts" other magazines ran, putting black bars over the eyes of the people they mocked, usually real people caught in candid street shots, people with no idea they were being photographed at the time. I always wondered how it would feel, to be flipping through a magazine and suddenly spot your own flesh bubbling over the top of some ill-fitting jeans. I knew that these people had stories of their own, and it seemed wrong, somehow, to reduce them to a cautionary tale. It just seemed so... negative.

While candid fashion don'ts are still a thing, the far more common modern equivalent is the headless fatty -- you've seen her on basically any news coverage of obesity, whether it's a moving image or a still photograph. It boggles me that it is someone's actual job to go out and take surreptitious images of the wobbling torsos of unsuspecting fat people, heads cut off in a cursory nod to privacy. I half suspect I'm going to see my own midsection waddle by on the evening news someday.

Headless fatties are a particular problem because the headlessness contributes to a culture in which fat bodies -- and fat people -- are routinely devalued and dehumanized. They're not multifaceted individuals with lives and talents and interests and families and friends, but mounds of rampaging flesh, and like the black-barred fashion failures, a form of cautionary tale: Employ constant vigilance, or this will happen to you! You don't want people laughing behind your back, do you? 

Of course, this approach suggests that publicly mocking strangers for their fashion choices, or just the size or shape of their bodies, is somehow socially acceptable -- you want to live your life extra carefully, to ensure it doesn't happen to you, to always be on the side making the snarky comments, and not in receipt of them. It's a mode of self-policing that keeps women in particular focused not on following their own unique bliss, but on trying to avoid negative attention.

Possibly I am in the minority, but I don't think this is OK. I know that snark is common, but just because something is common doesn't make it something that should be exalted in the pages of a magazine or on television. We're all occasionally guilty of bitchy comments and inappropriate humor in private conversation, but whether or not that's wrong, it's a very different thing to codify that behavior as normal and acceptable in mainstream media. 

Even as individuals, it is easy enough to get mired in this kind of negative thinking about ourselves, but when we're also steeped in a culture that makes negativity a public pastime, snark can become toxic, to us and to the people around us. I'm glad SELF is discontinuing its "BS Meter" page, as I think that's a good contribution in trying to combat the negativity of a lot of women's media, an attitude that so many women readily internalize as self-loathing without even realizing they're doing it.

But it's probably not enough. More of us need to make an effort to avoid and counteract the urge to tear strangers down for making choices -- related to appearance, or anything else -- that we don't appreciate or understand. We can stop policing each other, and ourselves. We can try, daily, to give up the snark. We can live and let live.