Long before Snapchat sexting scandals and hacked celebrity smartphones, I got a live preview of online harassment while sharing naked photos of myself on one weird little corner of the World Wide Web.
In the basement bedroom of my parents’ house, I closed the door and wished there was a lock. I set the camera on my childhood dresser, and fiddled with the self-timer. I took off my clothes, trying to think of what on earth I would say if someone came to the door. I sat awkwardly on my bed, unsure how to pose, and waited for the flash to go off.
At eighteen, I’d never seen a photo of my own breasts before. Was that what I looked like? Was that who I was?
I picked four of the images and put them up on the LiveJournal group I’d recently found and fallen in love with.
This is my first post,” I typed, “I’m nervous. I’m still getting used to this camera.”
This was all the way back before we all heard the term “social media” every single day; in 2005, LiveJournal was paving the way. LiveJournal was (and still is) a blogging website with a delightfully simple premise: Here, you can keep a journal, it can be online, you can share it with your friends. It also allowed for “friends only” blog posts, so you could talk about things with your LJ friends without inviting the wider Internet to share, and it allowed for community journals, in which several, or even hundreds, of individual users could share.
The community journal for which I did my first-ever nude photo shoot (which I’m not naming here for reasons that will become clear by the end of this story) was a space where women, trans and non-binary people — those with identities not exclusively male or female — could share nude photos of themselves with other women, trans and non-binary people, in at least partial privacy and safety. There were rules: The photos didn’t have to show genitals, but had to register as “nudes” or “partial nudes.” No photos of sex acts were allowed. No dudes allowed. No photos of penises. Comments followed the “if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all” rule. No downloading and saving the images, or sharing them with people outside of the group. And especially no putting them anywhere else online.
Beyond those basic guidelines, there was a lot of freedom. The images shared could be sexy, or silly, or artsy. They could be amateur or professional. There was no specified purpose for the images, and so people (mostly women) shared images with all sorts of purposes.
“I took these after my daughter was born to try to get comfortable with my body again,” one group member shared, along with her photos.
“I took these sexy boudoir photos for my boyfriend while he was overseas,” said another.
“I took these because I was bored this afternoon.”
“I took these for my modeling portfolio, but thought I would share here.”
The group included people of many ages, sexual orientations, and belief systems. There were housewives and goth chicks, sex workers and students, all baring their bodies on the Internet for each other, and for the joy that came from hearing “great shots!” and “good for you!” and “you’re beautiful!”
I wanted in.
I’d had a love/hate relationship with my body for years. I actually, deep down, thought that I was quite pretty and my body was just fine. But I didn’t believe that anyone else would ever think that. And I’d gotten the message that teen girls hate their bodies so loud and clear that I felt guilty for not hating mine more. So while I outwardly became more body positive (I told my friends they were beautiful and should ignore impossibly high beauty standards) I became inwardly more self-loathing. I would go home, strip off all my clothes, and stand in front of the full-length bathroom mirror, carefully inspecting myself for parts to despise.
The discovery of this place where I could just be naked and share myself with others felt like someone was finally throwing me a life raft.
I’m part of that generation that, though my parents didn’t purchase a home computer until I was in the eighth grade, largely came of age online. I met my first boyfriend in my freshman English class, but we got to know each other via AOL Instant Messenger. We chatted late into the night about politics and religion until he admitted that he was interested in me, and I admitted that I was interested in him too.
I met my second boyfriend on LiveJournal. So it felt perfectly natural for me to look for community, and for connections, on the wide expanse of the Internet.
After my first photo shoot, it only took hours for these strangers, my new friends, to tell me how wonderful I was. They said I was brave for sharing. They said I was pretty. They said I would get the hang of the camera eventually. They said they were glad to have me there. I was completed delighted. I was hooked, and started spending more time on the page.
I saw my first C-section scar there.
I finally got over my fear that my vulva wasn’t “normal” there.
I saw women with unshaven armpits and legs there.
I saw trans women trying to overcome their dysphoria there.
The fascination for me was more than just seeing different types of bodies, although it was obviously that. It was seeing different ways of being human, the wide variety and richness of the human experience. It was realizing that the ideas of “normalcy” that I had been sold weren’t really normal at all.
* * *
May was a regular poster, even more regular than I was. I loved seeing her photo sets. She was artsy and weird, and she had a much better camera than I did. More than the images she shared, though, I loved that she always had something to say about them. She would casually share about her day, or a feeling she had, or a dream she had just remembered where she could fly. And due to the nature of LiveJournal, after eating up her posts in the community, I could click over to her own blog to find out who she was with her clothes on.
She shared pictures of her travels around the country, stories about time spent with good friends, rants about how much she hated community college. One night I stayed up late, devouring everything she had written recently, and then I stumbled upon an opportunity.
Well I’ve lost two penpals again, and I’m afraid I’m in need of more. If you’d like to exchange letters or trinkets, please leave your address here and I’ll send you something, and then you can send me something, and it will be lovely.
In the comments section, I left my address. The next day, she responded.
Oh wow! This is so weird, we live in the same city, I think we’re practically neighbors! We don’t have to be penpals at all, we can just be friends!
A week later I drove to her apartment, trying to remember all of those Dateline specials about how to make sure your children are safe if they’re meeting strangers on the Internet. She made me dinner and we talked about our lives. She planned to move out west, to the mountains; later that year, I planned to go to art school. We were both sure we had found our destinies, and in each other we’d found a friendship neither of us had ever expected. Popular culture at the time told us that our online connections were just that — online, electronic, not flesh and blood and real. Yet, as we sat on the wood floor of her studio apartment, eating vanilla ice cream out of the carton, we knew that connections were connections, regardless of where they were found.
I moved away for art school, I was homeless for a short spell, and then eventually fell in with some punks who were all ten years older than me. At art school I saw nude models nearly every day; a lot of the women had body hair, and it was never a big deal. I would call my friends back in the Midwest, who were all going to four-year colleges for English degrees. While they went to college parties with cheap beer and liquor, I went to art openings and learned how to drink red wine. We didn’t really understand each other anymore, and our phone conversations were awkward at best, heavy silence driving a wedge between us that I could almost physically feel. Eventually I stopped calling them — what was there to say?
But my friends on the Internet were always up to talk about composition, or whether or not the oil paint that I no longer bothered to wash off my body was slowly killing me. I put my camera on the edge of a shelf above my mattress on the floor, so I could photograph myself in the fetal position on my paint-stained sheets.
I visited May in the mountains. We drank tea and talked about relationships and love and art and growing up and how sometimes we felt so aimless and other times we felt so sure of ourselves. We made love in her big bed, and I let myself feel vulnerable with a partner in a way that I never had before. In the morning, we went to a cafe where there was a waiter she had a crush on.
When I left art school to move back home, I moved in with my boyfriend. He was kind and generous at first, happy to have me there, but things changed. It was so gradual that at first I didn’t notice it, but before long I wasn’t seeing any of my friends anymore, because my boyfriend didn’t approve of them. I went from talking to my mother twice a week to just once a month. One day I woke up and realized that he was controlling my entire life. Well, almost all of it.
I still had LiveJournal.
And because he was a man, he wasn’t even allowed in my safe, strange community of nudity and compliments. I had two lives: the life where I was just his girlfriend, just a passive voice, forever in the background of his life, and this other reality, this one which felt a thousand times more real, where I was a brave and beautiful queer woman who loved herself. In that reality we were all kind to each other, and I participated in interesting discussions, and I grew and changed.
* * *
After an hour, what would be my very last photo spread for the group had over a hundred comments: Years had passed, and rather than a series of tasteful and artistic images, this post was raw and aggressively unattractive. My shirt was off, my pants were open and undone, and I was staring coldly into the camera. It was a challenge.
“OH MY GOD IT’S THE UGLIEST FUCKING WHALE I’VE EVER SEEN.”
“I hope someone finds you and kills you, you stupid fat dyke.”
“Hi, I came over from 4chan. Don’t listen to these assholes, I think you are really pretty! I’d like to offer you some advice, though. Don’t exploit yourself this way anymore. No one will ever respect you if you don’t respect yourself.”
I scanned a few more, and then closed the tab. Many of the comments were by “anonymous.” They were going to make me hurt. They were going to make me kill myself. They were going to destroy all of us.
That’s what they thought. But I didn’t feel hurt, or destroyed. Mostly I felt powerful, I had done the scary thing, and yet I survived. None of these people knew my real name, none of them could find me.
That night, when my boyfriend came home from work, he had a weird little smirk playing around his face. “Katie said she saw you on 4chan,” he said. “What the hell did you do?”
4chan is a message-board-style website, which was originally intended for the discussion of anime and manga, but quickly branched out. Even if you’ve never heard of 4chan, if you use the Internet, you’ve been affected by it. Memes like “lolcats” and “rickrolling” got their start there. Its anonymous nature has allowed for a great deal of freedom and creativity, but it has also allowed for a great deal of abuse.
* * *
The rules had been simple, and the group’s moderators did their best to enforce them with kindness and speed. In order to join the group you had to confirm that you were over eighteen, not a cis man, and you had to have an active LiveJournal. Getting approved to join the group could sometimes take a few days, as they double and triple checked to make sure the new potential member was a real person. Safety was on everyone’s minds, and of course you had to promise that you would never, ever, copy someone else’s photos and put them elsewhere on the Internet.
But after a few years, there were thousands of members, and someone broke the rules.
Many people believed that it must have been a man, a mole who infiltrated our sacred space for nefarious purposes. Many of the women in the group had never heard of 4chan and didn’t understand what was happening, or why. Questions and rage and tears abounded.
“I don’t understand, if they think we are so ugly, why are they taking our nudes at all?”
Someone who is still unknown joined the group, stole photos, and then posted them on one of the 4chan sub-forums. They stole photos that they thought were particularly ugly, particularly funny, and particularly awful. And they posted them along with the subjects’ personal LiveJournals, and any other contact information they could find.
An anonymous harassment campaign had begun.
Women who had never heard of 4chan, many of whom had only posted photos once, after years of being terrified to do so, started getting threatening messages. People were afraid. People were angry. There was a witch hunt, and hundreds of group members were kicked out because there was something potentially suspicious in their profiles. The group closed down, and then re-opened again. The moderators were in a panic. The 4chan trolls were gleeful. This was exactly what they wanted. They wanted to take away our space to feel good and comfortable.
What right did we have, after all, as fat women and weirdoes and trans people and queers, to feel good about our bodies? Anonymous had spoken.
I did the only thing that made sense to me. I grabbed my camera, and in an effort to show my online sisters that we didn’t have to be afraid, I took some of the least flattering photos of my life. They were angry photos. I grabbed my belly fat and starred aggressively into the camera. For good measure, in addition to posting them in the locked group, I also posted them publicly on my own page.
The comments and death threats rolled in. I mostly did not read them.
I felt exposed and also empowered.
For one glorious day, I was a hero. People told me I was brave and strong. People told me I was helping. I was doing what I could to protect something I believed in, even if it was something as seemingly meaningless as nude photos on the Internet. It was powerful. It was a magical day.
The trolls won, of course. In the end one of the girls’ personal addresses was published. She wasn’t sure how they found it, but she was terrified. Her life was destroyed, or at least it seemed. She was stalked mercilessly by several men. She couldn’t get any help from law enforcement. She sank into a deep depression, and then she went offline. I don’t know what happened to her after that. The group shut down for good.
* * *
These days the Internet is a far different place than it used to be. Facebook wants its users to use their real, legal, names. Employers are likely to Google you before seriously considering you for a position. I cannot imagine fearlessly posting naked photos of myself these days, not because I’m afraid exactly, but because it now seems inevitable that they would find their way back to me. Sometimes I wonder if the ones that are already out there will.
Everyone has to grow up somewhere, somehow, and I grew up, like so many others, online. My body is not all that I am, but it is a part of who I am, and sharing it with others helped me to come to terms with that reality. It banished my sense of shame, and allowed me to feel confident in my physical existence itself. My body is good because it is mine, and because it exists, and it doesn’t need anything more than that. That sense of confidence and strength has served me well. It has allowed me to feel confident in other areas of my life. It’s impossible to say for sure — maybe I would have found some other way to get comfortable in my own skin — but ultimately I think that having the space to share and learn in that way changed who I was forever.
I’ve been able to be confident enough to leave an abusive lover, to change careers, to move to a new city, and to have a child.
But, as I look down at my own aging body, at my own c-section scar and my stretch marks, I sometimes wish there was still a place I could go where everyone would remind me that it’s all ok.