Women's Bodies as Public Domain: What Jezebel and Is This Modest Have in Common


Last Tuesday, my twitter friend Emily Maynard asked me if I’d seen a site – “Is This Modest?” This is a fairly typical thing for me, and usually I look at a site, get angry for a few minutes at the ridiculous thing, maybe write a few tweets, and move on. This routine has helped me deal with a lot of jerks-on-the-internet things in recent years, and is a good way to keep from burning out. This site, however, was different. When I ventured onto the site - titled "Is This Modest?" - I discovered a wealth of senior photos of teenagers, coupled with short critiques of their modesty, saying things like:

I have no idea what she's wearing under the blanket, but the heels aren't high.  The top is a bit concerning.  First, it's rather tight.  Second, the fact that the outer layer is so opened up means that it looks like we're getting a peak at her underthings-and they aren't very high.

I believe this is a piece that's trying to show a contrast between childhood and adulthood-I get that.  I also think that you don't have to show yourself like this to convey womanhood.

Scrolling down revealed that the poster is a 36-year-old married man.

I had to do something.

I tweeted about it late Tuesday and spoke to a few friends, including Rachel Held Evans, who noticed that it was likely the photos were in violation of US copyright law. We spoke to copyright experts, and I emailed one of the photographers, who told me, in no uncertain terms, that he had not given permission for the site to use his photos. Maynard, my friend who had sent me the site, tweeted at one of the other photographers, and this photographer also hadn’t given her permission.

We began to build a two pronged campaign: a negative reaction via Twitter and other social media, letting this guy know that what he was doing was exploitative and creepy. And we contacted photographers, letting them know that this site was violating their copyright and the privacy of the subjects of the photos.

The copyright law case was a conduit toward a more idealistic endeavor: letting the people who run this site know that women are not public property. Women are not open for comment merely by existing, despite that being the heart and life of every modesty code – that women are open season because they are objects upon which cis-hetero-men cast their lusts and aspersions. This is the mindset against which I fight every single day, and the mindset which was on wide open display on the Is This Modest website.

If women are not seen as merely property by this modesty movement, why then, did a 36-year-old man feel it was okay to comment on them?

That’s what makes it creepy: it is objectification, plain and simple – an analysis that breaks a woman into parts and examines them in relation to an arbitrary standard.

But here, too, is where this narrative takes a frustrating turn.

After I tweeted about it through the morning on Wednesday, feminist writer and co-founder of Feministing, Jessica Valenti, picked it up that afternoon and tweeted it to her followers, crediting me in the process. By Thursday morning, Gawker Media offshoot, Jezebel, had posted an article on it.

One would think I’d be cheering that large feminist websites were picking up on this thing my friends and I brought to light. Unfortunately, Jezebel’s article bungled the campaign we were working on and short-circuited any legal action the girls could have taken – not to mention continued the exploitation of these young women.

It is this last that most concerns me.

You see, Jezebel’s article reproduced a couple of the very same photos that were problematic in the first place. Though they pointed out the creepy nature of the site and drew attention to that part of it, they also continued and engaged in the creepy exploitation by reproducing these photos. Now some poor unsuspecting girl has her senior photo blasted across Gawker Media’s networks, open for public comment by any of Gawker’s readers, not all of which (or even, not many of which) are going to realize the creepiness of the situation.

In doing an article on the Is This Modest? Site, Jezebel brought the site down permanently – the site, their twitter, and their FB page no longer exist. But in reproducing the very photos that led the site to be creepy in the first place, Jezebel is re-engaging the exploitation – this time for many more clicks and advertising dollars because it’s “salacious” and “provocative.”

If you can’t do feminist writing without exploiting women, you’re doing it wrong.

Of course, this sort of exploitative “journalism” is par for the course for Jezebel – last year, they posted screenshots from a video in which a woman was being raped, and didn’t blur out her face or get her permission to post the video. So I don’t hold out much hope that Jezebel will take any heed of the fact that they just violated the privacy of yet another woman.

Caring for the people who are being hurt needs to be a larger part of modern feminism. We cannot say that we care for the marginalized and the weak, and then exploit their images and their life stories for page clicks and advertising.*

If we willingly engage in the exploitation and public comment of women ourselves, we are no better than the “creepers” we criticize.

In the end, I’m glad the site has been taken down, but I wish it had happened in a different way. I don’t believe that the ends justify the means and I think we make ourselves hypocrites when we exploit the marginalized in the name of justice. We can all do better than that.


*This is the main reason my site has a tip-jar instead of advertising. I want you to make the decision yourself about whether or not to give me money, not be forced to make money for me by giving me clicks.