We take a break from our regularly-scheduled invasive species posts to touch on another subject: the trials of being a women in STEM (or in general, for that matter).
Last summer, I crossed an item off of my bucket list. I presented my lionfish research on stage in National Geographic’s Grosvenor Auditorium — the very place where I was inspired to apply for my first research grant three years earlier. It was a huge personal and professional feat for me, and I was on cloud nine.
Fast forward eight months later, and my filmed talk was published on the National Geographic website, as well as its Youtube, Hulu, and iTunes pages. When I got the email confirming it was live, I excitedly rushed to the Youtube page to take a look. And there I was! On stage! Talking about lionfish! I quickly scrolled down to the comments to see if other people found the topic of invasive species management as thrilling as I did.
In about four seconds, my elation turned to disbelief. I genuinely felt like someone had given me a swift punch in the gut.
Looks like someone needs to eat a little less lionfish, porker.
I think it looks yummy! The fish, not the broad.
100% would do.
Ew, really? If she shed a couple pounds then maybe.
Rather than focusing on the topic of lionfish, most of the comments centered on my appearance. And it wasn’t nice.
I felt my face turn hot as angry tears welled in my eyes. I scrolled up and immediately started dissecting my hair, my arms, my dress, my walk, studiously accounting for every imperfection. I thought, “Oh well the camera adds ten pounds anyway” and “I’ve lost weight since then, if only they could see that!” and “If I don’t share the video, people I know probably won’t see it anyway”. I reported every mean comment I could find then texted a friend and called my parents, looking for support.
It took me about ten minutes for my flurried insecurity to turn to white, hot anger.
I wasn’t angry at the comments. As my wise friend pointed out, if people are going to complain how Kate Winslet looks in her Oscars dress, they will complain about anyone.
No, I was furious with myself. I let a group of hateful strangers completely undermine how I felt about my research, my accomplishments, and myself. I let comments make me feel like my physical appearance somehow detracted from my work, like somehow what I had to say was less important because I don’t look like a Victoria’s Secret model. I almost reconsidered sharing one of my proudest moments with my friends and family because some troll didn't like how I looked in a dress. And that is not OK.
By that evening, I almost felt thankful for the comments. They made me realize that if I am going to put myself out there, negative responses are inevitable. And yes, if it had been a man up there talking about lionfish, likely most of those comments wouldn't have been made. But that’s all the more reason why it’s important for young females, especially those in science, to continue to speak up despite the fear of negativity.
The experience has done nothing but renew my determination to keep sharing my story. It also made me more thankful than ever for my network of family, friends, and colleagues who are supportive of myself and other women seeking to make a difference in the world.
Because in the wise words of Taylor Swift, the haters are going to hate, hate, hate, hate, hate.