Instagram’s favorite art perv, Maidenfed, details her history of “feeding the trolls,” and how this oh-so-tempting-yet-oh-so-fruitless online conflict has affected both her self-confidence and her sanity. Main image by Gabriel Eid.
I never internalized the directive “Don’t feed the troll.”
Far before my art alter-ego Maidenfed was conceived, when I was just a regular, everyday lass — and presented to the Internet as such — I found myself in constant keyboard-to-keyboard combat with men. Whether they stepped to me in a manner I considered inappropriate, aggressive, or simply clueless, I quickly developed a taste for melee on the battlefields of dating sites, hookup apps, and social media platforms. I was out for boy blood.
At the beginning, risk seemed minimal. I was naive regarding the possible repercussions of engaging and enraging the males who happened along my radar. It seemed a worthy, fertile environment to sharpen my wit and flex my creative funny bone.
Several years ago, I created a blog as a repository for my substantial backlog of screenshots and conversations, with offerings ranging from the grotesque to the hilarious. A few of the posts went vaguely viral (thanks for not crediting me for that *locking eyes with you as I inhale your vaginal aroma* one, Buzzfeed), and I was encouraged to continue my ball-busting escapades.
Maidenfed by Stacy Leigh
Maybe two years in to this totally worthy intellectual and comedic pursuit, I started focusing more on “art” and the Maidenfed shit. Along the way, I somewhat inadvertently — but not entirely thoughtlessly— merged the two. My volatile reactivity in the face of trolling, which arguably existed in the same thematic world, carried over with ease. Suddenly, I was being called “empowered” and a “queen” by my female peers for talking back to these dudes. And having long felt a sense of inadequacy in relating to women (not unrelated to my reliance on male validation), this female praise felt pretty good. Of course, it was interspersed with reassurances that “not all men” are like these crude examples, but overall the feedback was that I was doing something like God’s work.
At the very outset, the stream of messages I received would be almost entirely sexual in content and/or relating to my flesh suit. A truly remarkable example of this was a thread several pages long on the now-defunct incel hangout PUAHate. Dedicated to an in-depth, thoroughly scientific investigation as to just why my face is so ugly (conclusion: Jew schnoz and ridiculously long “midface”), this red-pill message board became my first concrete evidence that I — at best — have a polarizing physical appearance, and — at worst —am a textbook butterface.
I’ve been very lucky to have had comparatively few body insecurities throughout my life; but in their absence, it seems that all of my physical anxieties migrated to my face. I think I was always somewhat aware that I’m not generically, apple-pie attractive, but I didn’t realize the capacity that my particular configuration of facial features — high forehead, big eyes, long nose, and an overbite with lips that don’t naturally close all arranged on a rather small, narrow canvas — had to repel. It has been balanced by compliments of its “uniqueness” and “exoticism,” but these kind words exist simultaneously with a barrage of “horseface” critiques.
Needless to say, confirmation that I am — gasp! — not a prototype of feminine beauty hit hard at first. But once I was made hyper-aware of my face’s apparent power, I was so relentlessly critical of and cruel to myself that anything anyone else said about it paled in comparison. And the fact that the majority of insults about my physical appearance would magically appear right after I romantically or sexually rejected someone, I learned to not think much of them.
By Muted Fawn
But as Maidenfed evolved and my sobriety continued, my online output began to morph considerably in content and theme. Suddenly, my gifs, collages, videos, writing, and [what we’ll loosely call] raps were — and remain — all under attack from multiple vantage points. And these taunts are more upsetting, because they were no longer primarily eviscerating how I look, something I have very little control over. Unsurprisingly, there’s often a line thrown in about how “it’s always the ugly ones who have to try to make up for it by being ~edgy~” but that’s nestled within a wall of text about how much what I do and make sucks.
There’s a full body sensation that accompanies reading one of these comments. It’s a pulsing, sweating combination of rage and anxiety. It entirely fills me up, but it’s an energy that seems incapable of being transferred to anything besides retaliation. I know that attention is their entire goal, yet I am still frequently unable to resist. And having an extensive resume of being ignored and ghosted in a plethora of ways by dudes, I am intimately familiar with the reality that no response or resolution at all is the most unbearable one. However, engaging and “making a point” still lures me in more than I’d like.
I’d say that the most fascinating and unexpected result of over half a decade of this shit has been that I now immediately enter an adrenaline-fueled semi-fugue state when I come in to contact with this type of behavior. And because of that, I am often unable to differentiate between what is inappropriate/an affront, and what is actually a largely innocuous (if perhaps misguided) attempt at a conversation opener. Or to put it more simply: I assume the worst intent, almost all the time.
A few recent instances have elucidated just how pervasive this mindset is. Some days, I’ll get a handful of almost catatonia-inducing, utterly generic DMs from various dudes, often ones that came across me on Tinder or a similar app. I will often — whether it’s wise or not — reply to these with a screenshot of my sex work rates, which includes a video chat option. Although I understand that that’s likely not what they are interested in pursuing, I nevertheless find myself fuming when they respond derisively or dismissively. This is especially the case when their reply is — in my view, at least — condemning of or chuckling at the entire concept of paying someone you’re romantically or sexually interested in for their time.
One case study branded it “quite absurd” that I’d deign to “charge people to meet” with me. I promptly dug in to him for ostensibly mocking and disrespecting my (and many other women’s) source of income. I felt like a simple statement of his lack of interest in such a pursuit would have been far less demeaning than dubbing the entire concept preposterous; just because I’m not interested in something, that doesn’t make that thing worthless or mean that it has no business existing. But when I posted the screenshots of this exchange — as I often do, since I am endlessly on the hunt for that external validation — it was brought to my attention that I may have overreacted, and I had to mull over that possibility. Since at this point I’m all but automatically predisposed to respond mirroring the disdain and judgment I feel I’m receiving, it’s difficult to reflect in a dialectical and balanced way on the possible sources of the bluster.
In the interest of fairness, thoroughness, journalistic integrity, blah blah, I spoke to several other women on this subject. And by that I mean one: my mom. Her concern — which has previously been expressed in the arenas of substance abuse and sex work — could be summed up in that universal parental cliche: “I’m just thinking about your safety.”
When I grilled her with precision and acuity (aka casually asked over dinner) on the pros and cons of asserting and establishing myself as a not-to-be-fucked-with Woman On The Web, her primary focus was on the biggest pro of ignoring: that I would “live another day.” I’m not entirely sure how far her knowledge of horror stories re: doxxing and cyber-stalking goes, but even a middle-aged elementary school teacher can see the potential pitfalls of provoking a strange man online.
I feel that I am just now reaching a place of beginning to fully understand the entirety of how this engagement and enragement has affected and continues to affect me, my sanity, and my sobriety. An overwhelming disappointment and fury surges within me when I’m brought in to contact with a dude who chooses to spend his time — however minuscule that amount may be — trying to knock me down. I don’t enjoy speaking in massive generalities about genders or life or the world, but in this instance, it is inescapable that these encounters are inextricably entangled with larger issues.
And as much as I may enjoy having the last word, I’d rather have my sanity.
Maidenfed (Jackie) is a New York-dwelling 25-year-old spinster who collages because she can’t paint and writes because she can’t rap. She is in a perpetual battle against relying on social media for external validation. Read her blog here.