Sexist or not, taking pictures of women eating on the tube is simply bullying

Please mind the gap and leave fellow passengers to enjoy their lunch. ben.snider, CC BY

People rushing for a bus. Pedestrians sending texts on a busy street. Drivers who pick their noses at traffic lights. Men glancing at Agent Provocateur window displays. Shoppers pretending not to notice the Big Issue seller. Middle-aged person holding a newspaper at arm’s length. Couples where the woman is taller than the man. Guys with one sideburn shorter than the other. You, walking into Tesco.

Who are we to judge? We do, though. Humans are very skilled in categorising and evaluating each other and we like to compare and gossip. We can take the most mundane, formulate a social judgement and share it. Something like eating on the tube, for example.

And now, better still: we can record whatever concerns us on our camera phone, put it on a website so that we can perv and sneer. Then we can invite the rest of the world to perv and sneer with us.

This is, without question, a form of interpersonal aggression. The photographer or the person who uploads the photo has a means of power over others and derives pleasure from demeaning them.

Creating and supplying a Facebook depository for snapshots of women who eat on tubes is a 21st-century example of the traditional cruelty of the bully married with the instant availability and enormous reach of the internet.

This particular site has attracted controversy, in part, because of gender politics. We all eat: so why just include photos of women who eat? As Nell Frizzell pointed out in a very good piece in The Guardian, there is clearly an element of voyeurism in this collection. Perhaps there is an added nuance that amateur photos sneaked on mobiles are not going to present the victims at their “best”: on balance, in appearance-obsessed cultures, women are probably (even) more disconcerted than men to find themselves photographed without forewarning.

But bullying is not the exclusive preserve of sexists. Anyone who wants to have a little fun at the expense of say, people rushing for buses, pedestrian texters, disgusting drivers, presbyopic readers – or you and your shopping habits – can get in on the act.

The photographer may persuade himself that his actions are somehow rectifying a wrong. For example, a person behaved unpleasantly, or simply failed to meet the photographer’s values, and she “deserves” the punishment of public humiliation. This is moving from bullying to vigilantism.

The problem with bullying, and even more with vigilantism, is that it hits innocent targets.

Before we poke around, judge and display seemingly trivial details from other people’s private lives, we might bear in mind that some 10% of the general population suffer depression, a serious and debilitating mental illness which renders them especially vulnerable to adverse events, such as being humiliated on a website.

Many young women have concerns about diet and some develop eating disorders. Some of these will at times eat on the tube and some will scour the web for evidence of why they should not eat. Public scorn of ordinary-sized women, eating, provides an example that will hit home.

Some of the people sitting opposite you or a photographer on the tube have recently lost a loved one, or their job, or can’t afford their bedroom tax. Some are exhausted, some are dealing with abuse in their families, some have problems with drink or drugs. Others are coping with chronic illness or other personal problems that you and I can barely guess at.

Choose your target and set up a website. Just an art form …?