Internet trolls can trace their lineage even further back than the internet itself. Long before the birth of anonymous email accounts and the Twitter mute button, people with big, important opinions used pen, paper, and the postal service to air their grievances about women in the public eye.
One of the first subjects of such ire was Lydia E. Pinkham, a popular 19th-century purveyor of tonics and supplements that claimed medical benefits. Recently Atlas Obscura published a marvelous piece on Pinkham’s labels and ads, all of which prominently featured her portrait. “Until [Pinkham] came along, the only woman whose image showed up regularly in public was Queen Victoria,” Cara Giaimo writes. But by the late 1800s, “Pinkham’s face became among the most recognizable in the world.”
When Pinkham’s sons took her locally well-loved Vegetable Compound national, they slapped a drawn portrait of Pinkham on the product’s labels and ad campaigns. The elixir was supposed to ease menstrual cramps; the boys thought Pinkham’s likeness would give the brew an air of familiarity, like a time-honored family remedy a doting grandmother might offer. Plenty of men were using their own faces to hawk their wares—W.B. Mason debuted his mustachioed seal around the same time—but Pinkham’s personal touch was thought to be untoward for a lady.
Giaimo reports that unwitting journalists used Pinkham’s portrait in place of photos of women in the news, including Susan B. Anthony and multiple first ladies. Pinkham and her image also got a torrent of hate mail from men who disapproved of her appearance. Proto-troll T.G. Scott wrote in 1880:
If it is necessary that you should parade your portrait in every country paper in the United States can’t you in mercy to the nation have a new one taken once in a while? Do your hair a little differently say—have a different turn to your head & look solemn. Anything to get rid of that cast iron smile! You ought to feel solemn any way that your face pervades the mind of the nation like a nightmare & that you have become a bug bear to innocent children. Also that portrait is destroying the circulation of the newspapers. I have stopped my county paper to get rid of it & I know of several flourishing papers that have been absolutely killed by it. I think my words express the heartfelt desire of a long suffering people & that I am sustained in this request by the strongest public sentiment ever brought to bear on any subject!
Scott’s 19th-century complaint echoes notes sent to today’s female journalists so faithfully, it’s almost delightful—or it would be, if it weren’t so sad. “For heaven sake, comb your hair—your picture instills not one iota of a knowledgeable person,” wrote one hater to Chicago Tribune columnist Heidi Stevens, who has received dozens of messages from readers—mostly women—with bones to pick about her hairstyle in her headshot. Another put a finer point on her criticism: “My neighbors and I give you permission to shoot your hairdresser.” Stevens’ Tribune colleague, Pulitzer winner Mary Schmich, says some readers have gone so far as to clip her column from the newspaper and draw new hairstyles onto her head, then mail the drawing to her office.
Like Scott, many of today’s critics of women’s portraits take the tone of someone doing a favor for the woman, or the world. In 2011, Poynter recounted the story of a journalist who turned her Facebook profile into a public page that accepts subscribers. The first response she got to an initial post was appearance advice: “Change your Profile Pic First! It Isnt as good as you thought!” Skepchick blogger Rebecca Watson decided not to attend a prominent annual gathering of skeptics in 2012 because she’d faced repeated harassment from attendees, some of whom told her she “should get a better headshot because [the current] one doesn’t convey how sexy I am in person.”
This gender-specific image policing plays out differently for women of color than it does for white women. Pinkham, at least, was a real woman whose presumably faithful facial rendering adorned her own products. The most visible black woman on consumer goods in Pinkham’s time was Aunt Jemima, a minstrel-like caricature of a slave woman that stirred antebellum nostalgia in the late 1890s. Today, while most women in the public eye face some degree of appearance-based criticism, the reaction to their reaction may vary, especially if the hate is racialized. When, in 2012, black meteorologist Rhonda Lee defended her short, natural hair against a Facebook commenter who thought “the black lady” on the Louisiana ABC affiliate should “wear a wig,” Lee got fired (supposedly for violating the station’s “social media policy”). That same year, white anchor Jennifer Livingston, who worked at a CBS affiliate in Wisconsin, got an email from a viewer who thought Livingston’s large body set a poor example for young girls. Her husband posted the email to Facebook, and the TV station let Livingston discuss the criticism on air.
The impulse to notify a widely visible woman of one’s dissatisfaction with her looks rests on the notion that women’s bodies are made for public consumption. When a man dares show his face in public, he opens himself up to criticism of his ideas, charisma, and industry acumen. When a woman does the same, her looks often become the most-criticized element of her performance. Andrea Bartz told Buzzfeed’s Erin La Rosa that her former weekly online CNN column regularly got more comments about her and her co-author’s headshots than about the content of their writing. “I’d do the short one but not the tall one,” someone wrote on their first piece. “She’d look better with longer hair,” countered another. It got so bad that “finally, our editor stopped running our headshots.”
We don’t know how Pinkham dealt with her haters, but she didn’t pull her face from her products—her brand prevailed through the generations, and a modified portrait still adorns the packaging of today’s version of her remedies. That cast-iron smile must have worked for someone.