Whether it's yoga racism or incest, women's shameful secrets are sold as entertainment. Credit: TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images

February 26, 2021   4 mins

If you Google Jen Polachek, she doesn’t seem to exist anymore, but for a few days in January 2014, she was the biggest thing on the internet. She had written a post for the now-defunct women’s interest website XO Jane, and everybody — everybody — hated it. XO Jane specialised in the personal. Its pitching guidelines told prospective writers: “It helps to always be brutally honest and radically transparent. Don’t fake anything.”

Polachek’s mistake was probably to take that advice seriously. In her piece — titled “It Happened To Me: There Are No Black People In My Yoga Classes And I’m Suddenly Feeling Uncomfortable With It” — Polachek confesses that the arrival of a “young, fairly heavy black woman” in her yoga class had made her feel awkward in her “skinny white girl body”. Why were black people so scarce in yoga, she wondered? How could the discipline she loved be made more inclusive?

It’s a very earnest article: at the conclusion, she describes how she went home and “promptly broke down crying” over this fleeting encounter with America’s racial politics, and it would take a heart of stone not to ever so slightly laugh at this person shaken to her moral quick by the presence of a black woman in her yoga class. But that’s because Polachek doesn’t do anything to protect herself from embarrassment. This is brutal honesty and radical transparency.

It’s also exactly the article she was asked to write. The editor who commissioned it (Rebecca Carroll, a black woman) did so after Polachek, a neighbour of hers in Brooklyn, had told her about the awkward yoga class: “the fact that Jen was willingly offering up this explicit admittance of her white privilege struck me as valuable in some way,” wrote Carroll.

It struck a lot of other people as valuable too, but not quite in the same way. Polachek was traffic gold. There were pieces on Gawker, pieces on Refinery29, a follow-up piece on XO Jane. Vice gave her a “racism rating” of 5. Polachek did not do so well out of it. XO Jane’s standard fee was $50. And, in response to the hatred, Polachek, who’d shared so much of herself, began to make herself disappear.

The byline on the piece changed to a pseudonym, then her photo vanished, and so did the rest of her internet presence. “I erase everything that I’ve ever been proud of so that it doesn’t exist alongside Internet contamination,” she explained in a post on her shaming, which is the only other byline of hers that seems to exist, besides a scattering of food journalism that suggest her stalled ambitions as a writer.

In 2016, though, I managed to track down her email through a long-neglected blogger profile. I was trying to write an article about writers — mostly women — who’d bared themselves on the internet, and what had happened to them afterwards. Miraculously, she replied. She wanted to know how I’d got her email. She never agreed to be interviewed.

Nor did any of the other women I approached for my article, which, consequently, I didn’t write in the end. There was, trivially, the woman who claimed she’d found a hairball in her vagina and wrote about that for XO Jane. There was, disturbingly, the woman who wrote about having a sexual relationship with her own father for Jezebel, under her real name. All of them had engaged in what Laura Bennett, in a 2015 Slate article, labeled “the first-person industrial complex”. The mass commodification of confession.

These women continued to fascinate me, though, because I recognised the bargain they’d made. I was a barely-established writer too, and the thrill of seeing something go viral — I knew that, and I knew the jealousy of seeing someone else win big in the roulette game of online attention. I knew there were things in my own life that I could, if I chose, reveal in exchange for a commission; I had written about one of them, at the encouragement of an editor I trusted, and I believed there were good reasons for sharing my story. It’s a piece I’m proud of.

But you can make arguments for every kind of revelation. Polachek said that she wanted to scrutinise her own part in maintaining racist structures, which is something that white people, and especially white women, are constantly enjoined to do. (At least one yoga studio imploded amid accusations of “white privilege” following last year’s BLM surge; if only they’d listened to Polachek, I guess.) Hairball woman said she wanted to challenge women’s shame about their bodies. Adult-incest woman said she wanted to help other people who’d been similarly abused by relatives.

And these are all causes that I would broadly say are good. There are taboos about female bodies and female lives that have historically forced us into hobbling secrecy, and there’s power in breaking that. When the stigma of being a victim of male violence stops women speaking about it, the perpetrators are protected. When miscarriage is treated as a private failure, women grieve in miserable seclusion. When our bodies are treated as unpleasant, unmentionable things, conditions like endometriosis are ignored by medicine and the women who suffer from them left in agony.

It doesn’t follow from this, though, that the greater the exposure, the greater the liberation. Telling women their bodies are shameful is one kind of misogyny, and treating female bodies as public is another: the red-stained sheet hung from the bedroom window to announce a shattered hymen, the suffragettes groped by policemen because an unruly woman can have no boundaries, the girl whose digitised humiliation is uploaded to Pornhub by a seething ex so he can experience unlimited revenge.

No wonder women can be defensive when they write about themselves. Take the recent scrap between writers Julia Llewellyn Smith and Elizabeth Day. In an interview with journalist Rosie Green (who has been extensively honest about her painful divorce), Llewellyn Smith included Day in a list of female writers who she said had made a “full-time career” of their “mishaps”. Day hit back, saying: “For the record, the reason I talk and write about miscarriage and fertility is to attack shame and stigma.” (Llewellyn Smith apologised and the article was changed online.)

Confession is supposed to be the ultimate truth, but sometimes so many things are true at once, it’s impossible to discern one clear line. Men would never be judged for telling such stories about themselves, but men are placed under no such pressure to share these things anyway. Honesty can be radical for women, but there is not much radical about requiring women to empty themselves out for public entertainment. Between the dictates of silence, and the demand for total access, where is the space for a woman to rebel?

Sarah Ditum is a columnist, critic and feature writer.