Sophie Wilkinson | News Editor | Friday, 2 May 2014

Stranger Shaming: How Being A Woman Eating On a Tube Got Me 12,000 Online Haters

The Debrief: Women Eating On The Tube is the latest example of Facebook groups designed to stranger shame. But what does it feel like to find out you’re their latest victim? Humiliating, says Sophie Wilkinson…

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One afternoon, slightly hungover, I went to see my grandparents in the outer suburbs of London to wish them a happy 60th wedding anniversary. In a rush (my toilet had decided to leak, the plumber was late, etc), I grabbed a salad from M&S to eat on the way.

As I was eating it, a man boarded the train, sat down, clocked me, then moved to sit opposite me – and took out his phone. Something about it made me think he’d taken a picture of me. I’ve known about the Facebook group, Women Who Eat On Tubes, for a while, but I'd never given it much attention. However, the group, which sees members upload photos they’ve taken of women eating while on public transport – crucially, without their permission – has somehow amassed more than 12,000 devotees. Still, though the group sounds so trivial, I felt a surge of shame.I knew I'd end up on the page within days.

I tried to tell myself I was being paranoid; that he’d simply been drafting an email (we were underground, with no signal) or playing Candy Crush. But each day afterwards, I scrolled through the Facebook page. After a couple of days I gave up looking, because I didn't have time to scroll through all the entries.

Then a friend emailed to say she’d seen me on the site. At first, I replied ‘OMG LOL’ because I felt some accomplishment in knowing that I wasn’t unjustifiably paranoid; that man had taken a photo of me eating on a tube. But then I saw the comments. ‘I would like the name of her finishing school. Fail,’ went one. ‘Entering or exiting her gaping orifice??’ another. And: ‘Bloody hell… no one is going to take it off you.’

It felt like a way to humiliate me and the other women featured for doing something as base as eating on public transport

Though the group information states it ‘doesn’t intimidate or bully’, I felt victimised. And hurt. Was it really not the original poster’s intention to humiliate me by accompanying the photo with the caption ‘Good to be contributing more than rubbish chat!’? Is the site really not intending to show up women as undignified and sloppy for doing something so basic as eating on the tube?

It’s not ideal, but eating on public transport, though hardly a mainstay in anyone’s etiquette book, is more a symptom of being too busy to even eat a stationary meal than an indicator of women’s innate savagery.

Me and the other Women Who Eat On Tubes aren’t alone in being unwittingly photographed by strangers looking to take the piss out of them later. There’s People On The Bus, Men Taking Up Too Much Space On The Train, and not forgetting Sleepy Commuters. Now stealth cameras are ubiquitous, we’ve got a whole new genre of social media – stranger-shaming.

University of Strathclyde Professor of Psychology Kevin Durkin says that this new phenomenon is because the growth of social media – where we can be, or not be, whoever we like – can fray our morals. ‘Large urban societies with vast impersonal forms of sharing information and images obviously contribute contexts in which these kinds of bullying behaviours are easy to enact,’ he tells The Debrief. ‘In an environment such as the tube or the web, we are deindividuated – nobody knows who we are – and we feel less accountable for our actions.’

The result, he says, is both Twitter trolling and taking pictures of strangers without their permission with a mind to post them online. ‘It is a form of bullying. The photographer/uploader has a means of power over others and derives pleasure from demeaning them,’ says Kevin. ‘The photographer may persuade himself that his actions are somehow rectifying a wrong. For example, a person behaved unpleasantly and so he or she “deserves” the punishment of public humiliation. But as the victim’s discomfort is not observed directly, the photographer has even less reason to think about the negative consequences of her actions than does a playground bully.’

‘As the victim’s discomfort is not observed directly, the photographer has even less reason to think about the negative consequences of her actions than does a playground bully’

What were the consequences of what might have seemed like a throwaway photo for the man? Well, as I watched the ‘likes’ on the picture grow to exceed 200 and the comments continue, I began to feel really paranoid. I’m not exactly fond of necking a mayonnaise-sloshed pasta salad on a bumpy Metropolitan line, but I know I’m never going to eat on the tube again. I don’t even want to wear that outfit again – or read the book that the poster commented I was then ‘tucking into’ – because I’m nervous that people from the Facebook group might recognise me. Every time a man I don’t know – because so many of the commenters are men – so much as glances at me on the tube I wonder if he’s in on the joke.

Before each meal, I now wonder how I’m going to look when I eat it. And yeah, maybe I should think about the way I eat, and maybe I shouldn’t be so sloppy, and maybe I should have better manners, but who gave this Facebook group of collected strangers the right to police my behaviour because of one thing I’ve done when I’m on a near-deserted train carriage?

I decided that I needed to do something about it.  Something positive. But instead of going to Facebook like a grumpy toddler who hasn’t the wherewithal to patch up their own problems, I thought I’d contact the photographer directly. After some preliminary Googling I found out his name, a board he sits on, and his contact details. So I emailed him to say I was unhappy with what he had posted and to request he kindly remove it. I also asked why he’d uploaded a photo of me to Facebook without my permission.

Before each meal, I now wonder how I’m going to look when I eat it

His reply? ‘Apologies if the posting annoyed you, it wasn’t personal as I’ve no idea who you are. I’ll take it down soon,’ he wrote. ‘As for why I joined, a friend of mine created it a few years ago as a comment on how trivial everything is, but how seriously people take those trivialities. It became an amusing past time, often because the comments that arose had nothing to do with the woman featured, or her food. That last aspect is still what the early members aim for, but it has been lost slightly as membership has rocketed in the last few weeks.’

Instead of removing the photo, though, he posted about our interaction on the Facebook group, including the original picture again. The abuse went up a notch. I was cussed for being ginger, for being a journalist, for being what they think is an ‘amateur’ journalist. I was called a ‘witch’ and then came more sexual comments. 

Unsatisfied, I spoke to Facebook. They declined to comment about Stranger Shaming for this piece, but an employee sent me a link to report the photo for violation of my privacy rights. The problem was that taking photos of strangers on the tube isn’t illegal, unless they can be classed as ‘lewd’ or ‘obscene’. Even though some of the comments underneath were both lewd and obscene, the photo wasn’t, so couldn’t be removed by moderators. So while the British Transport Police (BTP) have been operating Project Guardian – a campaign dedicated to fighting sexual harassment on rail networks – there’s very little they can do about stranger-shaming.

I also contacted Transport For London (TFL) to see how they felt about people using the tube to take pictures of – and subsequently harass – strangers. ‘Taking photos on the tube isn’t illegal, but we ask anyone doing so to ensure that they use common sense and respect for other passengers,’ said TFL’s Director of Enforcement and On-Street Operations, Steve Burton. ‘If someone doesn’t want their photo taken it is obviously inappropriate to do so. If any customer has concerns about such behaviour, believing there may be a sinister motive, they are advised to speak to our staff or the BTP.’

Taking photos of strangers on the tube isn’t illegal, unless they can be classed as ‘lewd’ or ‘obscene’

Facebook eventually removed the offending photo of me, but only because it had been posted twice (well done, that guy!) – which meant moderators believed me when I attested, via email, that his actions were basically harassment.

The group, upon the page admin’s suggestion, have since created a picture of me with the eyes pixelated (presumably so it can’t be identified as me) and though Facebook immediately removed it, I still feel unsettled. One person commented: ‘If [name of Facebook group creator redacted] commanded it, I bet nearly 10,000 people would follow her everywhere she went and photograph her every meal/tube journey/meal on a tube journey…’

The thing is, I’m just as prolific on social media as these people are, and if they really wanted to, these people could find out so much about me. As one of them put it, ‘We know where she works, we know what she eats and we know what her Twitter handle is.’ It might be tongue-in-cheek, but when people have then tracked me down on Twitter to berate me, it freaks me out.

There are a plethora of unofficial codes of conduct that people are encouraged to adhere to on the tube – no running down the up escalators, don’t put your feet on the seat, stand up for pregnant women/old people. None of these are enshrined in law, they just come as part of not being a dick – so I’d sort of like  to see, ‘Ask your subject before you photograph them’ up there, too. 

I wouldn’t want to say I’ve learned anything from this experience, but it’s definitely made me question my own behaviour on social networks – I’ve taken photos of strangers without their permission before, sometimes to send to friends, sometimes to put on my own personal social media accounts. I haven’t seen it as a problem as I don't think many people are ever going to see what I upload. However, I’m going to stop doing it – I’m going to start taking a bit more responsibility over what I share with a potential audience of thousands.

But equally, I won’t engage with the people who seem to think it’s OK to shame people for going about their daily business in a public space. Other than to say it’s not. And to urge everyone – and I mean everyone, because since I started writing this piece they’ve set up a Men Eating On Tubes group, too – to take a look at the site and report photos of themselves or their friends featured there to Facebook. Because, sadly, self-policing seems the only way to stop the distinctly 21st-century problem of stranger-shaming.

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Follow Sophie on Twitter @sophwilkinson

Picture: Rory DCS

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