The 'Women Who Eat On Tubes' Facebook Group Is Still Going Strong - And It's Symptomatic Of A Much Wider Problem
By Sophie Wilkinson Posted on 7 Sep 2018
This week, Rebecca Riley was on the tube when she noticed a man filming her. She asked him to stop, and he obliged, before resuming. Rebecca, who’d been eating a bag of crisps, because, you know, hunger, was alarmed: “The experience made me feel very vulnerable. This man was blatantly filming me and didn’t stop even though I asked him. It felt horrible to have no control in the situation.”
It was only when she told a friend what happened that she found out about the 35,000-member-strong Facebook group, Women Who Eat On Tubes [WWEOT]. Here, members upload photos of women eating on London’s Underground, and others post their comments, on everything from the the way the women eat and look, to whether they’d be good at blowjobs. There is a strict stipulation that no photo uploaded can be of a consenting woman.
I know all this because in 2014, when only 12,000 people were members of WWEOT, a photo of me eating a pasta salad appeared on it. I wrote about the shame I felt being an integral part of a joke that I wasn’t allowed to be in on and called for the site to be removed. Though I’ve poked at other hornets’ nests in my time - from far-right Islamophobes to men who dox sex workers’ locations, from all-male members’ clubs to people who illegally name rape victims online - this story riled people like no other.
After politely asking the guy who posted my photo to remove it, he re-posted it. Facebook kindly removed both images, but soon, another member drew a cartoon version of the photo, and another called on every other member to follow me about so that I could be photographed whenever I ate. My Twitter @ column was aglow with potatoey men and their allies telling me things so revolting I had to surrender my Twitter account to a friend so he could block all those calling me a cunt, a dyke, and worse. All this rage, for what? Trying to stop other women feeling the same shame I did. God knows, women have enough issues with disordered eating as it is.
Even certain so-called friends had a pop at me for promoting the story. I agree it lost a sense of proportion after some students organised an eat-in on the tube and Debrett’s updated their etiquette handbook to insist eating on the tube is simply not the done thing. And it achieved little: though it appeared Facebook had shut down WWEOT, all Facebook did was made the group private, making it harder for unwilling participants to have their faces - and foods - removed.
So I moved on. Now, Level Up, a feminist campaigning group (Rebecca is one of its members), has launched a new campaign and petition calling for WWEOT to be shut down entirely, and for Facebook to review its harassment rules so that similar pages get shut down.
A lot has changed on the World Wide Web in the past four and a half years. Online harassment is being taken so seriously that many websites no longer have a comments section and social media sites are having to acknowledge that their use, and abuse, is powerful enough to perhaps swing elections and give terrible people a false legitimacy. IRL, the upcoming governmental review of hate crime laws, launched with a mind to ensure misogyny is as criminalised as, say, racism, or homophobia (which also affect women, but in ways that aren’t always acknowledged by laws designed around male experiences), has a shot at changing things, for the better. This will be to the benefit of the woman being cat-called right through to the woman at risk of being killed as a result of domestic violence - which happens right now twice a week. Is Facebook going to catch up to 2018 and have a rethink about what a page like WWEOT really means?
Because if this conversation is going to get anything done apart from see Rebecca field interview requests from provincial radio stations and complaints from oversensitive sorts saying she can’t take a joke (I should know I’ve been there), it needs to address two things. One, I spoke to in my initial article: we all need to realise the easy power we’ve been given by cameraphones and social media accounts and take according responsibility. Part of that means we need to stop using the collective shaming of one individual as a bonding exercise, an activity that happens offline, too; it’s not as if people were all innocent and lovely before that dastardly internet corrupted us.
The second thing, though, I retreated from in the original article. I didn’t mention ‘sexism,’ because I wanted to hold a mirror up to the situation and let readers judge it for themselves. However, as the story unfurled, that mirror turned out to be a magnifying glass, and people joined WWEOT in their thousands. And so I’ve got to spell it out: taking photos of me eating without my consent is not the worst thing that has ever happened to me, by a long stretch. But, boy, was it symptomatic of so much more that women go through daily.
We’ve heard the “cheer up love”s, and re-routed our walks home to avoid the catcalls, we’ve stood in the extra long toilet queues, watching men slip in and out of their loos in a flash. We’ve read the stories of men becoming so upset about women doing their make-up on the tube they’ve complained to the BBC. We’ve seen new mothers stay indoors for fear their breasts, in a natural state of nursing, will arouse or repulse onlookers who weren’t exactly eating pasties the day they arrived on this earth.
We’ve felt the cold breeze of air conditioning that is designed for male bodies, but not female. We’ve been shoved and jostled and chipped at and jeered at in public, in so many difference little ways, that the overall message is: you’re not welcome here. This place, this everywhere, this world, isn’t for you; but you can tag along if you play nice and don’t upset our fun.
Because even in brilliant, modern westernised UK, women are still seen as ornaments to decorate a man’s world: playthings, objects of ridicule, or both. One stark reminder of this is having our on-the-go eating habits policed by a bunch of people who still use Facebook for stuff other than asking favours and looking up mates’ birthdays. If you think that sounds too deep, and nothing to do with a few people - men and women, because self-loathing is rife - having a lighthearted peruse of women who dare to eat in public, answer this: do men have to put up with this, on top of all the rest of it, simply by virtue of being men?
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