It's Hard out There for a Girl: Online Surveillance of the Female Body on Social Media

Wednesday, July 16, 2014: 9:00 AM
Room: Booth 43
Oral Presentation
Valerie STEEVES , Criminology, University of Ottawa, Ottawa, ON, Canada
Jane BAILEY , University of Ottawa, Ottawa, ON, Canada
In 2013, we interviewed 50 Canadian girls and young women between the ages of 15 and 22 about their experiences as girls on social media.  They described a complicated, often playful but often difficult relationship, with online surveillance that magnified the need for them to comply with mainstream expectations of beauty and the bodily performance of girlhood.  Although they relied on social media to keep in touch with friends and family, many of them experienced a high level of discipline from these groups when they stepped outside the narrow bounds of stereotypical performances of femininity, reducing their opportunities to experience a lived equality in online spaces.  Most of them also internalized and then acted out a narrow, stereoptypical performance of the female body online in order to protect themselves from criticism.  Girls who were unsuccessful in doing so suffered from harassment and self-criticism; girls who were successful articulated ongoing concerns about the precariousness of this success.  Rather than enjoying their social relationships with peers through increased online interaction and connection, many of them relied on a series of mutual agreements to mobilize online when the reputation of a member of the group was attacked.  Perhaps most disturbingly, the online surveillant gaze encouraged many of them to rely on external validation of their physical appearance to manifest a performance of “confidence”, both deepening the effect on mainstream stereotypes and discouraging them from developing an internal sense of validation and worth.  Our findings underline the need for policy and educational initiatives to support girls online and open up spaces for them to confront online stereotypes, push back against the gendered constraints they encounter online and participate equally in online society.