Act Your Age, Don’t Ask My Shoe Size

Posted on November 30, 2012

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When I read the news for STV in Glasgow in the 1990s, like the other women who were on-screen, I would receive letters. Fan mail I suppose, although I cringe at the term. There was no Twitter to heap praise or abuse on people in nanoseconds. You weren’t compelled to post thrilling updates on Facebook. And email hadn’t reached the lower echelons of our humble regional newsroom. Just letters. Long ones, with spidery writing on the envelopes, sometimes in green or red ink. Most of them were from men. Many came from West Lothian (don’t ask me why). And quite a few came from those detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure. They were pretty harmless. “Can you send me a signed photo please?” or “You stumbled over a word in the 8.25 bulletin but I still love you etc.”

But some wanted that little bit more. It became a standing joke in the newsroom. One senior reporter, would stride into the office most mornings, puff out his waist-coated chest and shout from one end of the room:

“So, young Aasmah, has anyone asked you to send them one of your shoes today?”

We’d all fall about laughing. The truth was that someone inevitably would have asked for something, and I would turn the colour of my 1990s standard-issue scarlet newsreader jacket. Of course shoes were never despatched. Neither were locks of hair nor used lipsticks. We laughed about it – no-one had been harmed and we soon forgot about it. It was the 1990s. And as we all now know, the bar was a lot lower then.

After that, I moved away from TV into radio production and didn’t have to deal with any kind of attention for almost a decade. But in the intervening years, lots of things changed. Some people were charged with assault for sitting behind women on buses and cutting off strands of their hair. There were cases of others stealing women’s clothes from washing-lines. Sexual fetishism crossed a private line and some women felt vulnerable and unsafe. The landscape changed and something that was once viewed as laughable and pathetic, in some cases became menacing and criminal.

I had forgotten about the strange correspondence at STV until earlier this year. Hidden away behind a radio microphone for 11 years, I had ventured back into TV. An email dropped into my inbox. It was from a man who said he was studying sports science and wanted to know what size my feet were. Being 18 years older, and a cynic, I suspected that he was up to no good and deleted the email. Months later, another female presenter told me she’d had “some weird email asking her about her shoe size”. She had deleted it too. She wasn’t the only one.

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Just this week, I was asked on Twitter whether my ears were pierced and how many times. If you click on the tweeter’s profile, you see he has directed the same question to numerous women, all of them TV and radio presenters. It’s the only thing he tweets about. He constantly deletes his tweets so there are never more than 8 or 9 in his entire feed. So not the innocent nosiness of a fan. What’s disappointing though is that a few women have replied; and as a result he’s been encouraged and asked for more – ie photos of said lobes replete with ear-rings. Somehow I doubt the women were as accommodating with that request.

I asked around my female colleagues. One told me that the correspondence on her appearance is daily. If she wears black tights on TV, she’ll get emails saying: “Please can you wear a lower denier (ie more sheer) next time”. If she’s not wearing tights, they’ll email to ask why not and suggest styles. Sometimes they’ll even send photos of what they think she should wear.

Yes, there are much worse things happening in the world. Yes, there’s a computer screen between these weird people and the subjects they obsess about. But when individuals spend their days blanket-tweeting or emailing large groups of women about their feet or hair or ears, something’s wrong. Not least because it makes many of us feel uneasy. And it may happen to men too. None of the men I know who work in broadcasting have ever mentioned it – but maybe they’re too embarrassed?

With HD sets and battles for ratings, TV has inevitably become more appearance-centred. Add in the immediacy of Twitter, Facebook and email, and you have a powerful cocktail. Someone can tweet me seconds after I come off set on ITV and say ‘Loved your dress’ and that’s a genuine compliment. No problem. But the earlobe/feet/tights brigade are not genuine or well-meaning – they make me feel uncomfortable. I wonder if we’re still expected to laugh it off. I wouldn’t. If it’s a one-off, block or delete. If it’s constant, report it. Don’t let the TV sexual fetishists of 2012 become the gropers of the 1980s and 1990s.

And ladies who broadcast: if you’re comfortable with constant cut-and-pasted queries about your earlobes and your feet, fine. But don’t feel you have to answer questions about your body to strangers. After all, if a random person came up to you in the street and asked you about your tights, would you tell them?

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Posted in: Culture, News