Dear Diary: Emily Lindin's 'Unslut' exposes slut-shaming

Emily Lindin’s middle school diary is not so much an emotional rollercoaster as a runaway train speeding through a nightmarish Boschian hellscape, frequently interrupted by sparkling yet anxiety-inducing preteen fantasies and ‘90s pop-inspired poems. Published in the book “UnSlut: A Diary and Memoir” alongside commentary from the adult author, the diary spans her life between the sixth and eighth grades.

“We would be standing on a rock ledge, behind a waterfall, and we would be dancing,” she wrote in 1999 about a fantasy she had involving her crush. “His hair would be matted to his forehead because it would be wet. Music by Enya would be playing. Oh, maybe I would be in a white dress. No, no! Then Jacob would be able to see through it and it would make him horny and that would just completely ruin my fantasy. So it is light pink.”

Young Lindin physically developed earlier than the rest of her class, and her peers treated her breasts as objects of fascination to an absurd degree, even for the ridiculous American adult boob-centric world. She was constantly groped and hit on by boys as they emulated what they’d seen in porn or in the bizarre corners of their own imaginations. By the time she was 11, her first experiments in sexual activity quickly earned her the title of “the school slut,” a label that her male peers interpreted as granting them the automatic right to her body, only further amplifying her reputation. By the time she was 13, she had practiced self-harm and contemplated suicide.

The “UnSlut” book and eponymous online project and documentary aim to “undo” the concept of the “slut” by making a girl or woman’s sexual activity irrelevant to how she is defined by the rest of the world. In bookstores, “UnSlut” can be found in the young adult section, where it belongs—not because the book isn’t a worthwhile read for adults (it is) but because preteens and teens need to be educated on the reality of social, emotional, and sexual trauma while they’re in the thick of it. In the back of the book, Lindin provides several resources and hotlines on self-harm, sexual health, bullying, suicide, and feminism.

“The UnSlut Project” website, which began on Tumblr in 2013, is a platform through which Lindin and her readers share their experiences and journal entries about sexual bullying and slut-shaming. Lindin defines slut-shaming as “the implication that a girl or woman should feel inferior or guilty because of her sexual behavior, whether real or perceived.” It’s a form of bullying that plagues the sexually inexperienced as much as the sexually active, and most if not all women encounter it in their youth or adulthood either as the victim, the perpetrator, or both.

Media—particularly teen dramas—likes to sensationalize “cat fights” and overlook the emotional damage done to young women by their male peers (not just their boyfriends and crushes). Bullying that targets young women is often thought of as exclusively girl on girl—girls calling girls “sluts,” girls calling girls “fat,” girls competing with other girls for boys’ attention. For many young women, that’s a lot of it. But sexual bullying, in particular, is often committed by boys in the form of sexual harassment and assault that leads to victim-blaming and slut-shaming—on top of the gossiping and name-calling that they’re participating in along with the girls. In her diary, Emily’s female peers helped to perpetuate her reputation and shatter her sense of self-worth (one, her former best friend, went so far as to harass her using the AOL screen name “DieEmilyLindin”) but the origins of the rumors and sexual altercations were always at the hands of the boys.

For an adolescent girl, popularity can be as much of a plague as being a social outcast, despite the immense value placed on popularity. Lindin’s entire diary is a frantic account of rising and falling from social ranks, though she was unaware of the toll her efforts to climb the social ladder took on her self-esteem. The constant weight of this on a kid’s mind seems exhausting, and yet they somehow have the energy to meddle in each other’s lives (for example, Emily’s peers had this creepy thing going where they would orchestrate each other’s hookup sessions, so they could either watch or run off to tell everyone, or both).

“I am at the perfect age: twelve to fourteen,” she wrote in the seventh grade. “It’s the age for Spin the Bottle, trying to be older, showing off, and being anything but myself. I feel awful for people who are not ‘popular’ because they cannot enjoy it.”

The ways young Lindin interpreted and reacted to her intense social world seem either exaggerated, underplayed, or otherwise completely detached from reality. In her annotations, the adult Lindin (who is now in her late 20s and uses a pseudonym, in addition to changing the names of the “characters” in her diary) acknowledges the discrepancies in her journaling. For the adolescent and socially anxious, a diary, like social media, can be a way to present the identity or life that they wish to be reality—even if they’re just creating it for their own private comfort. “I wanted my life to be a string of exciting adventures, and writing about it that way was almost like making it so,” she notes in her commentary when her younger self described a party where she was slut-shamed as “a bit of a disaster but also a blast!” The details young Lindin chose to include, exclude, blow up, or play down are indicative of how she viewed herself, and how she believed she should be treated.

Young Lindin is not particularly likable: She used “gay” derogatorily, frequently wrote about her desire to “manipulate” boys, and participated in the slut-shaming and bullying of other girls, despite her own experiences. Like most preteens, many of her likable qualities, such as empathy and reason, had not fully developed. But none of this make the horrors she suffered at the hands of her peers—and, almost worse, her act of writing those experiences off as insignificant or her own fault—in any way easy to swallow.

When she encountered sexual contact from boys—willingly or not—everyone quickly became aware and used the information to bolster her reputation as a slut. When she rejected boys’ advances, she was called a tease. Both of these titles she accepted as the results of her own actions, even if that action was not really an action but rather being victimized—like when one boy forced his hands up her shirt and she blamed herself for “cheating” on her boyfriend. Without the maturity and awareness to deal with the emotional devastation, Lindin began to believe her reputation, however pernicious and inaccurate, was all she had, and she clung to it.

If we had attended the same middle school at the same time, I would’ve been in the corner at the school dance quietly mocking Lindin for grinding on her boyfriend—partially out of offense that my idea of how girls should act had been challenged, and partially out of envy. Luckily, I was not popular so I didn’t have much of an audience—though those jokes, even if only heard by one other person, would have been toxic to both Lindin and myself.

Reading Lindin’s diary encouraged me to revisit my old journals for the first time. The earliest diary I could find was from when I was 13 and beginning to become concerned with my image. “I’m tired of just being another person at school, I want to be seen and respected. I DEMAND FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION!” I wrote, complaining that my mom wouldn’t let me get blue highlights in my hair.

I was mildly bullied in middle and high school, sometimes in the form of false sexual rumors, but thanks in part to my general disinterest in socializing (I wanted to be seen, apparently, but didn’t want to be bothered), I did not suffer anything nearly as extreme as did Lindin, or worse, the many sexually bullied girls like Rehtaeh Parsons, Amanda Todd, and Felicia Garcia who went through with suicide.

Still, sexual bullying was a significant but unnecessary part of youth: I remember in freshman year of high school crowding around a peer’s flip phone to view a topless selfie of a “popular” girl I’d gone to middle and high school with—someone who, like Lindin, had physically developed early and quickly earned the “slut” label. I’m a few years younger than Lindin, so more of my adolescent years were spent on cellphones and social media—now the common scapegoat for bullying and the circulation of unrealistic ideals that damage teen girls’ self-esteem. Some websites certainly highlighted gossip and verbal bullying (the briefly popular, now-rebranded anonymous question-and-answer site “Formspring” was a particularly disastrous). But judging from Lindin’s mostly offline experience and other accounts, the problems that became only more public with social media have existed for generations. Only, now, our parents can see it. As journalist Amanda Hess writes in the forward to “UnSlut,” “it’s easier to confiscate a girl’s iPhone than to cleanse a society of sexism.”

Copyright © 2017, Baltimore City Paper, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Privacy Policy
68°