Facebook and the world of social media is once more at the center of a “stranger shaming” controversy, this time over a group called “Women Who Eat On Tubes” (WWOET) which is dedicated to posting photos of female passengers eating on the London underground trains – a practice which has been labelled by many as a form of gross, gendered bullying. The basic premise of this inane group is to encourage their followers to take photos of women on public transport while they are in the middle of eating a meal. A post on the page further requires a documentation of the time the photo was taken, the location or destination of the tube as well as the food the lady was enjoying before her privacy was so outrageously invaded. The photos uploaded to the “Women Who Eat on Tubes” page are in no way disguised and are generally close-ups of the women’s faces, making identifying them just that bit easier for anyone who might choose to do so for whatever questionable or unquestionable purposes.
The group now has over 20,000 members and the creator, a male (quell surprise!) artist named Tony Burke, maintains that the page is merely “observational” and not in any way a form of gendered bullying. Both Burke and the many fans of the page have managed to convince themselves that promoting these photos is a means of celebrating their unsuspecting victims. Although it does beg the question, if it was designed to celebrate women and their attitude towards food then why are the photos taken in secret and the permission of the women in question not asked for, if the purpose behind them is to put them on a social pedestal for the ranks of Facebook to applaud? Equally,the sex specific nature of the group is merely a “coincidence” in his eyes – which clearly need some hard core tests administered on them. Do men not eat food on the tubes as well? Are they not equally worth “celebrating”? Or is it just that there is no underlying sexual connotation to exploit when a man opens his mouth to swallow something? While the group may deny any wrong-doing or malicious intent, it is hard not to feel that the real purpose behind the group is a misogynistic attempt to both fetishize women eating and simultaneously demonize them for doing so.
Yet even taking the gender aspect out of the equation, the issue of privacy has once more implicated Facebook in some rather uncomfortable questions on the subject. The fact that it is not illegal for people to take photos of strangers on the tube without a persons permission makes it very difficult to oppose or object to this sort of practice. A female journalist who found her image on the “Women Who Eat on Tubes” Facebook page and attempted to force them to remove it was met not only with outright refusal but with offensive slurs on her appearance, her profession and the nature of her sexuality. She claimed to feel victimized and hurt by both having her picture taken and used without permission as well as the subsequent experience of trying to persuade them how unhappy she was with the situation. Burke may continue to deny that the practice is “bullying” but since when has the bully ever been the one to decide whether their actions constitute unacceptable behavior? If the people he is supposedly celebrating end up feeling used, hurt and distinctly uncomfortable then it is unlikely to be a mass lapse in humor on their part and more likely a serious misjudgement and invasion of privacy on his part. The fact is that a Facebook group using involuntary images of “Women Who Eat on Tubes” is undoubtedly gendered, and it has become another gross means of bullying and degrading women online.
The police have stated that anyone concerned over this issue or uncomfortable with a stranger taking their picture should contact them, although they have not said what they could actually do to help. It also seems slightly redundant given that the whole point of the photos is that they are taken when the woman is unaware. However, even women who find out that their face, often contorted mid-mouthful, has been plastered onto the social media pages of a group concocted by some seriously bored and asinine men whose sexual highlight of the day is mocking a woman as she slides the tip of a baguette into her mouth, have basically no means of retaliation or retribution to fall back on. This is partly due to the fact that the privacy laws in the UK were all made in the time before social media, broadband access and camera phones became so prevalent. There have been calls in the wake of this scandal for changes in the law to try and dissuade people from using photos of people without their permission. Short of banning camera phones or introducing penalties for being caught uploading non-permitted photos onto social media (which would obviously be almost impossible to police), there is little that can realistically be done if certain groups of people will continue to exhibit such disgustingly bad manners and lack of moral judgement.
The Transport of London’s Director of Enforcement and On Street Operations states that they encourage people to be respectful and use common sense when taking photos of strangers on the tube. However both respect and common sense are clearly in short supply when it comes to society’s obsession with the female body, image and eating habits. As men now hide behind camera phones so they can snicker in private at the shocking spectacle of a woman actually ingesting food, surely it must be acknowledged that this is a depressing insight into how many men view women? Despite Burke’s counter claims, there is nothing artistic about making women feel as if eating is something they cannot do in public for fear of their image being passed around the internet for all and sundry to critique.
Also, regardless of whatever strange “artistic” notion drew him to set up the group, the offensive comments that he unsuccessfully tries to police on the page surely illustrate that this has been completely hijacked by those merely desperate to condemn women by any means? These immature, sexually regressive excuses for adults really need to grow up and find a better use for their time instead of contributing towards a gross attempt at gendered bullying through a Facebook group documenting women who have the audacity to eat their meals on the tube. If the journey is so oppressively dull as to warrant this sort of sordid attempt at entertainment, maybe the next time an errant camera phone flashes at a woman while she eats, it would be much more humorous for the woman to grab the phone out of his hand, grind it into the floor with her heel and then fling the remainder of her lunch in his stupid face. Or would that be rude and morally questionable?
Commentary by Rhona Scullion