It’s hard to believe how swiftly things have crumbled for Chrissy Teigen over the past month. The highly followed social-media personality has been called out for toxic online behavior that has led even outlets like Vox to use language such as “Chrissy Teigen’s fall from grace” in headlines. It is a sad state of affairs, and one that points to a social problem larger than Teigen herself.
Model, TV host, wife of musician John Legend, and mother, Teigen has for many been a source of irreverent humor on social media, a style icon, and a voice on such women’s issues as body image, postpartum depression, and miscarriage. At least those are the positive contributions from Teigen that got the most attention before things took a turn this year.
There’s no shortage of toxic content online, and the way many outlets have covered this story is telling. In the course of recounting Teigen’s history of trolling and harmful messages, many outlets are partaking in elements of toxic online behavior itself—suggesting there are at times groups of people whom it is okay to target with hateful language, and that Teigen has just been burned by the shifting times.
“If Teigen’s jokes sometimes came at the expense of other people—well, who cared as long as those jokes were aimed at widely despised figures of contempt?” Vox notes. “The targets of Teigen’s Twitter bullying were all people who the pop culture of the 2000s treated as acceptable targets.” Later, the outlet explains, “The attributes on display in the tweets that have led to Teigen’s downfall appear to be some of the same attributes that made Teigen so widely beloved for so long: her lack of filter, her love of roasting people widely agreed at the time to be terrible.”
While we’re having a cultural moment of calling out toxic online behavior like that of Teigen’s (more on that in a bit), I hope that we can call out toxic and dehumanizing language across the board, rather than continuing to justify and partake in it.
The expansion of online toxic behavior
Teigen’s social-media behavior that’s gotten recent attention is dark and downright disturbing. But that behavior—the epitome of toxic online communication—is important to understand so victims of cyberbullying know how to respond and understand why it’s happening.
About 91 percent of Americans call online harassment a problem, and 55 percent of them say it is a “major problem,” according to a Pew Research Study.
Another Pew study states that 4 out of 10 Americans have experienced online harassment, and growing shares face more severe online abuse such as sexual harassment or stalking. Almost two-thirds of U.S. teens have experienced cyberbullying and harassment. Almost half of teens say they feel “overwhelmed” by social media drama. And whistleblowers in Netflix’s documentary The Social Dilemma reveal how social media has led to a tripling of self-harm among preteens and 150 percent rise in suicide rates.
Even Teigen herself was negatively influenced by social media, causing her to step back from Twitter in March for what ended up being just a three-week hiatus. “It no longer serves me positively,” she wrote in a farewell post. “[Women are] just nitpicked and torn apart and it's just brutal,” Teigen said. “And I think at the scale that some of us receive it at is just too much for any person to take. And so yeah … when the good outweighs the bad again, I will be there.”
On this point, Teigen is not wrong. The same Pew study cited above says women are 13 percentage points more likely than men to call online harassment a major problem.
What Chrissy Teigen did
It wasn’t until after Teigen’s step back from social media that claims of cyberbullying started coming to the surface. Lest cyberbullying sound like a euphemism, direct-message records have revealed Teigen has told people on social media to kill themselves.
Reality TV personality Courtney Stodden, 26, spoke publicly about troubling online interactions with the model after Teigen announced her Twitter hiatus to pursue her “well-being.” Stodden told The Daily Beast shortly after in May that, at age 16, Stodden received a number of hateful tweets from Teigen, including one saying to take a “dirt nap” (slang for to die and be buried). Teigen, 27 at the time, also privately direct-messaged Stodden and said, “I can’t wait for you to die.” Now a decade later, Stodden denounced Teigen’s abusive behavior in a video TMZ captioned thus: “Chrissy Teigen leaving Twitter because of nonstop negativity is pretty rich to one person who claims the model mom bullied the hell outta her for years ... and never apologized for it.”
“I experienced so much harassment and bullying from her when I was just 16-years-old, just 17-years-old, just 18-years old, at a time when I needed help … [when] I was being abused,” Stodden said in the video. Stodden is referring to being married at age 16 to a 50-year-old man and becoming the butt of cruel jokes, including from Teigen.
“I just couldn’t believe how hypocritical it was,” Stodden said of Teigen’s Twitter exit in the name of positivity. “She sent me so many different tweets, private DMs [direct messages], up until a couple years ago. It really affected me . . . it’s so damaging when you have someone like Chrissy Teigen bullying children . . . I’m not going after her to bully her, and I don’t think it’s okay that people are bullying Chrissy, but I also don’t think it’s okay to cry wolf either.”
Teigen replied she contacted Stodden privately to apologize, but Stodden claimed she never heard from her. Teigen later issued a second apology, admitting she hadn’t contacted anyone yet but is “in the process of reaching out to everybody privately.” Whether that has happened yet is not clear.
Another person who has received alleged bullying from Teigen is food writer Alison Roman. It all started when the chef made a comment online about the speed at which Teigen has had success writing a cookbook: “What Chrissy Teigen has done is so crazy to me,” Roman said. “She had a successful cookbook. And then it was like: Boom, line at Target. Boom, now she has an Instagram page that has over a million followers where it’s just, like, people running a content farm for her.” Apparently, this comment struck a nerve with Teigen, who Roman alleges later targeted her and attempted to hurt her career.
Allegedly, Teigen sought revenge by tapping journalist Yashar Ali to find a 2008 Halloween photo of Roman that he coined a “Chola” (slang for a Latina gangster) and accused her of cultural appropriation. Roman called the photo “incredibly embarrassing,” adding “I was 23 & living in SF, this was my “SF inspired Amy Winehouse” costume for Halloween- it reads as culturally insensitive, and I was an idiot child who knew nothing about the world/how this would be perceived and I’m sorry.”
Among the other accusers of Teigen is Michael Costello, a Project Runway fashion designer who said he suffered from suicidal thoughts for years after Teigen targeted him and said he deserved to die. Teigen zeroed in on a comment, which Instagram since identified was fabricated, where it appeared Costello used the n-word. Teigen called Costello a racist and said that she would make sure his career suffered. “Chrissy Teigen has gone out of her way to close doors to my career by making calls, sending texts, telling colleagues and companies that if I were attached to a project that she would not work with them,” Costello announced on Instagram in June. “I have receipts of emails and confirmations from these individuals and companies.”
“The fact that Chrissy Teigen and her crisis team are working so hard, so strategically to come out against the DMs she sent me, and to downplay the comments she publicly posted on my Instagram, only proves that she is the same bully she always has been, despite her fake apology to the public,” he added.
How did we get here?
Many are wondering how such a positively viewed cultural icon such as Teigen could insult people so viciously. Was she bullied as a child? Is insecurity, jealousy, or unhappiness behind all this? All I know is her cruelty toward Stodden, Roman, and much-teased people like Lindsay Lohan reminds me of a combination of Mean Girls and The Exorcist. They say “the devil makes work for idle hands,” and it would seem Teigen and the world of cyberbullies have a lot of idle time behind screens.
Teigen’s alleged behaviors represent the epitome of toxic online communication—or to be more accurate, abusive communication in general. If Stodden had committed suicide at Teigen’s urging, she could have been convicted of involuntary manslaughter and likely a number of other crimes. The lopsided adult-child power dynamic and Teigen’s large social media presence make her behavior all the more problematic.
That Teigen’s relationship with social media is unstable is clear, and she’s not alone in these habits. Just look (or don’t) at comments on Twitter or political websites. Teigen just happens to be more famous than many others who have become accustomed to saying hateful things from the security of the other side of a screen; but with that fame comes a larger hit to those she targets.
Teigen recognizes her social media addiction. Three weeks after her brief hiatus from Twitter, she returned. “Turns out, it feels terrible to silence yourself,” she tweeted.
About 44 percent of teens say they often or sometimes unfriend or unfollow others on social media—78 percent of this group says it’s because these people create too much drama, and 52 percent say it’s from other people bullying them. About two-thirds of teens say parents are doing an excellent or good job at addressing cyberbullying—not elected officials, teachers, and social media companies.
Advocates in The Social Dilemma highly recommended deleting social media accounts. While that may not be practical for some in today’s world of online communication, it’s worth consideration, or at least mindfulness in terms of how we use these means of communication. Self-awareness is the first step toward progress. But this self-awareness is still too rare for too many, as evidenced by ruthless jabs across social-media feeds and mainstream media coverage.
Let’s stop excusing inexcusable behavior and acting like we can’t do better. And let’s stop acting like the 2010s, when most of Teigen’s hurtful activity was taking place, are so far removed from understanding the heart of this problem.
In 2014, Monica Lewinsky highlighted the issue in her much-talked-about Vanity Fair piece for anyone with eyes to read. Not everyone is blind to the concept that humans deserve humane treatment even if we disagree with them, or even if they’re acting like a total mess. This doesn’t mean we don’t call out wrong behavior or hold people accountable for it—that’s actually an important part of treating people humanely as opposed to treating them as animals or robots who couldn't possibly do better. But this outlook doesn’t involve putting down a person to the point of treating them as a non-person.
Deep down I think we know that our culture has a problem with objectifying and dehumanizing other people, delineating groups of who is worthy of respect versus who isn’t, and it’s based on wherever we see ourselves compared to others. That Teigen could fall into this trap is a public reminder of how tempting and prevalent the problem is. And, while she picks herself back up, one hopes the rest of us will take a hint to reconsider what kind of content we surround ourselves with, and what kind of communication we partake in.