They say there are two certainties in life: death and taxes. I think at this point we can probably add “4chan and Reddit being dicks to women” to the list too. The latest in their endless deluge of boring attacks on us is the obnoxiously named ‘Project Harpoon’ (also Operation Harpoon and ThInnerBeauty), a self-professed ‘collaborative art project’ (or worse, “pro-health campaign“) which is actually just undisguised hatred for women’s bodies.
What is it, then? Well, the name gives it away somewhat, with ‘harpoon’ referring to the apparently whale-like bodies of the women they target. The ‘artistic’ element (‘artistic’ firmly placed inside the most sarcastic air quotes ever) comes in when images of professional plus size models like Tess Holliday as well as regular selfies are photoshopped to make the women thinner, taller and more palatable to even the keenest misogynist eye. The Photoshops are almost comically bad (if you’re going to make such a big effort to demean women, you may as well do a YouTube tutorial on how to use Liquify, bros), but they all conform to the same rules – waist made tiny, legs and arms slimmed down to nothing, face chiselled and chin reduced. Breasts, weirdly enough, remain the same size or even get bigger and rounder.
Accompanied by captions such as “Elephant legs to human legs” and “She could be a cute redhead but she’s just a fat ginger,” the Subreddit and Facebook page are full of terms like ‘landwhale’ (in fact, the sticky post at the top of the Subreddit is called “Quick photoshop tutorial on how to make landwhales look human,” suggesting they think their subjects aren’t even people). It’s predictable anti-woman fare – hateful, nasty language from dissatisfied, bored and angry men.
The photos are peppered with misogynistic and racist comments and, while some are genuinely hurtful, there’s also this deeply pathetic sense of desperation that isn’t anything to do with beauty or sex appeal at all. These men are horrified by women’s bodies not only because they don’t adhere to patriarchal standards but because they can’t be controlled.
There’s a sexual element, sure, but at heart it’s about far more than whether or not these men want to fuck their Photoshopped subjects or not. Women, and women of colour especially, aren’t meant to exist unapologetically, to enjoy their bodies without shame. There’s meant to be some element of embarrassment, a silencing, the expectation that they should wear clothes that mask, rather than show off, their bodies. Project Harpoon is a futile attempt to stop this, to further instill in women the already prevalent idea that their bodies are only valid and worthwhile if there’s an element of male approval involved.
And although there’s been widespread condemnation of Project Harpoon, there’s no denying the fact that the mainstream media tacitly endorses their actions. Advertising is still massively oversaturated with images of thin white women, with models like Tess Holliday being the noted exception rather than being in any way commonplace. And, although brands couch their Photoshopped images in gentler, softer, friendlier language than the harsh missives of openly misogynistic Reddit users, they basically have the same underlying message: there is only one acceptable way women can look.
It definitely wasn’t their intention, but in a weird way Project Harpoon’s attempt to shame and hurt women has actually shone another spotlight on the way we think about women’s bodies more generally. The pictures aren’t meant to be a statement, but they are – they’re doing exactly the same things as the mainstream media. They’re trying to minimise women, make them smaller in confidence as well as size.
It’s not my place to suggest how women should respond to Project Harpoon, or whether they should respond at all. I do think we need to carry on being critical of every source that makes women loathe themselves, though, whether that comes from a bunch of pathetic men online or the media itself.
Main image: Reddit