There’s a new video and Twitter hashtag trending on the internet titled “You Look Disgusting(1).” In it, former model and blogger Em Ford shows herself with and without makeup. Without the makeup her severe acne is visible. With the makeup, she has the face of a china doll; perfect and unblemished. She shows herself as she goes through the many steps and products involved in achieving her penultimate, flawless look. Ford made the video after posting photos of herself without makeup and receiving over 100,000 comments ranging from admiring to abusive. “I can’t even look at you,” and, “You’re disgusting,” were examples of the harsh commentary. Photos of her with makeup on prompted positive feedback like, “amazing,” “gorgeous,” and “beautiful,” although there were also criticisms of Ford with her makeup on; “You are so ugly. That’s why you wear makeup,” and, “This is misleading.” Evidently, Ford could not find a look that was uncontroversial.
The amount and intensity of the public response to photos of a young not-very famous woman and her decision to post photos of herself with and without make-up is interesting. It highlights a well-known fact; people write things on social media they would be unlikely to say directly to someone they know.
There are multiple reasons for this and one can look at the phenomena from a variety of perspectives. There have been many articles written about internet “bullying” and that term is not incorrect, although it may not be very helpful, dividing people as it does into bullies and victims. (People can bully others and be bullied themselves at different times.)
Family Systems Theory provides a particular framework for understanding such harsh rhetoric directed at strangers and/or posted anonymously.
1. Emotional symbiosis. Symbiosis is a word adopted from biology and used by family researcher Murray Bowen(2). Symbiosis refers to the state of two organisms living for each other to the benefit of one or both. A parent and infant may be said to have a symbiotic relationship. This relationship is ideally meant to evolve from an intense symbiosis to a less intense togetherness over time as the infant develops and grows away from the parent. However, the growing apart process is more challenging for some families than others. Some families put more pressure on members to conform and to remain at a level of symbiosis that was most comfortable for everyone involved (All family members participate in the symbiosis.)
What does symbiosis have to do with social media harassment? Plenty. When people grow up in families where there is strong pressure to conform, individual differences are discouraged. Clues about a “symbiotic” family may be revealed in statements like, “In our family we all vote Democratic,” or “In our family we value being together above everything else,” or “We don’t trust outsiders in our family.” Symbiotic forces can play out in less obvious ways as well. They can also show up in behavior outside the family.
The concept of symbiosis provides one window into the mind of someone who would be critical and disparaging of a person who presents herself in a way that is different and threatening to the way the viewer would present him/herself.
2. Emotional fusion. Fusion is also a term adopted by Bowen from biology. It refers to an emotional stuck-togetherness or sensitivity between family members. Families in general and individual members of families differ in their degrees of emotional sensitivity to one another. Examples of emotional fusion include:
- Dad comes home from work in a bad mood. He slams the front door and everyone inside tenses up. Before long, the kids start arguing amongst themselves. Dad yells at them for driving him crazy.
- A daughter is worried about a math test the next day. Her mother can’t sleep that night.
- A couple is arguing about finances. Their young son comes into the room complaining he has a stomach ache.
Not everyone is equally pulled by the emotional forces around them. Some people have an increased ability to “hold onto themselves” despite the emotional pressures. They may register the emotionality, but it doesn’t control them. These people have more ability to use their free will in responding to emotionally charged situations and they may have more flexibility and resiliency in life overall.
The amount of fusion in the family varies depending on the multi-generational history of the family as well the amount of anxiety present in the family at a given point in time. The higher the level of fusion, the greater the level of interpersonal sensitivity.
It is logical that a person who is sensitive enough to Ford’s photos to post an internet rant about them is also a person who comes from an environment with a higher degree of emotional fusion.
3. Transfer of Anxiety: There are two types of anxiety described in Family Systems Theory; acute and chronic. Acute anxiety refers to a person’s reaction to a real-life or perceived stressor with activation of the body’s fight/flight/freeze response. The reaction is typically intense and relatively short-lived, with the body returning to its baseline level of functioning as the stressor recedes.
Unlike acute anxiety, as its name implies, chronic anxiety exists over time. Additionally, chronic anxiety is more than one person’s reaction to an event; it is embedded in the relationship system of the person. Like acute anxiety, chronic anxiety also activates the body’s fight/flight/freeze response, but the relationship sensitivity that drives it may keep the person, or the family system, from returning to a relaxed state some, most, or all of the time.
It is thought that chronic anxiety, which is the same as the body’s inflammatory response, “turns on” and influences the course of most, if not all, disease processes of the mind and body(3). An individual may or may not be aware of the amount of chronic anxiety he carries. This level also rises and lowers over time depending on the acute stressors being faced by the family and “passed around” in the emotional fusion.
Whether or not one is consciously aware of the anxiety, it is uncomfortable, and humans use many mechanisms for trying to relieve it. The mechanism that is relevant here is the “transfer of anxiety,” from one person to another.
Some, maybe all, of the people who take the time and energy to write strongly worded, negative and insulting comments to a complete stranger are theoretically attempting to transfer their anxiety to that person. The act of writing may provide some short-lived relief, or a brief sense of accomplishment. “I got it off my chest,” “I set her straight,” “I didn’t let her get away with that crap,” might be some of the thoughts going along with such an action. But in reality what they’ve done is reacted to the anxiety within themselves by trying to dump it into someone else. In this case, Ford’s photos appear to have stimulated the anxiety of some viewers, prompting them to act out against her.
All of us are vulnerable to engaging in the transfer of anxiety and it is worth heightening one’s awareness to see how one participates in this very human, yet often quite destructive, behavior. (Plenty of clichés are employed to describe the phenomena; kick the dog, s**t rolls downhill, kiss up/kick down, etc.)
There are many ways to think about hostile expression on the internet. Sociology, gender studies, cultural models and others have their place. What Family Systems Theory offers is a science of human behavior that cuts across culture, time and gender. Family Systems Theory seeks to explain behavior like the hostile reactions to Em Ford’s photographs. It also attempts to predict behavior and to enable us to alter our reactions in more positive ways:
“Systems theory cannot remake that which nature created, but through learning how the organism operates, controlling anxiety, and learning to better adapt to the fortunes and misfortunes of life, it can give nature a better chance.” P.409 MB, FTCP
2. Bowen, M, 1978, Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, Oxford, UK, Jason Aronson