Last month, 13-year-old Izabel Laxamana put on a sports bra and some leggings, took a picture, and sent it to a boy at school. Soon, administrators at Tacoma, Washington’s Giaudrone Middle School, where Izzy was poised to finish her seventh-grade year, heard about the picture. Izzy’s parents were called. As Tacoma police would later report to the News Tribune, the Laxamanas expressed concern that their daughter had been sending selfies of any kind. They had warned her against using social media. If she disobeyed, they had told her, they’d cut off her hair.
Back at home, Izzy’s father, Jeff, made good on the threat. On May 27, he cut her hair to her shoulders, leaving just one long strand untouched. Then, he started filming. His camera panned from Izzy’s downcast face to the heap of glossy black strands at her feet. “The consequences of getting messed up. Man, you lost all that beautiful hair,” her father said. “Was it worth it?”
“No,” Izzy replied softly.
The next morning at school, staff members helped weave Izzy’s hair into a French braid in an attempt to hide the damage. But a new humiliating social media artifact—her father’s video—was now being passed from phone to phone. School administrators heard about that, too. This time, they called child protective services. School counselors were dispatched to aid Izzy. The next day, just before school let out, Izzy wrote eight notes on her iPod to family and friends, passed the device to a friend, headed to a bridge over the highway that separated the school from the mall, and jumped. She died in the hospital the next day.
The story would sound medieval if the details weren’t so modern. A young girl is caught flirting. Her father hacks off her hair. The community watches. Consumed by shame, she takes her own life. In Roberta Milliken’s history of hair, Ambiguous Locks, she writes about the third-century Christian martyr Christina of Bolsena, whose father chopped her hair off when she denounced his pagan religion. By the Middle Ages, the ritual had been codified into law, and “when a woman misbehaved sexually, her basic sexual attribute was taken away from her” in “often very public spectacles”: In the early 13th century, for instance, Germans punished women who became pregnant out of wedlock with the “hide and hair” regimen: State-sanctioned torturers stripped the woman’s shirt off, whipped her naked back with sticks, and cut her hair.
Now, 800 years later, similar displays of ritualistic public shaming are back with a vengeance. The factors that lead a girl to suicide are too complex to untangle, but her parents’ behavior is too remarkable to ignore. Over the past several years, countless other grown adults have pulled similar stunts, albeit with less tragic consequences. There was the mother who forced her 11-year-old daughter to stand at a busy intersection and hold a sign reading, “I was disrespecting my parents by twerking at my school dance.” And the one who caught her 13-year-old daughter posing as a 19-year-old online and forced her to face a camera and admit she still watches the Disney Channel. When one father discovered that his daughters had posted a twerking video to Facebook, he put up his own video of himself whipping them with a cable cord as they curled their bodies in on themselves and screamed. Another father forced his son to twirl for the camera in his favorite skinny jeans, announced that “it look like you stole a midget’s pants,” posted the video on YouTube, set the shaming to music, and snagged a guest appearance on Dr. Phil.
What’s going on? It wasn’t too long ago that criminologists speculated that public shaming risked becoming extinct in the modern age. Michel Foucault’s Discipline & Punish charted the “disappearance of torture as a public spectacle” by the early 19th century, as the English pillory was dismantled, the American chain gangs were disbanded, French public executions were closed to spectators, and offenders were removed from the public square and installed behind prison walls. A similar privatization of discipline occurred: By the early 20th century, schools had retired the rod and the dunce cap for a trip to the guidance counselor’s office. Shaming became a largely family affair: In the home, parents still held tight control of their children, and they exacted punishments behind closed doors.
Now, parents are modeling their most humiliating techniques out in the open. To understand why this kind of ritualistic public shaming is back, consider why it left in the first place: In 1996, University of Chicago law professor Dan M. Kahan noted that public shaming had declined with “the loosening of the tight communal bonds that characterized colonial life.” In premodern “shame cultures,” villagers would see the same people in school, church, work, on the street, and in the home. Everyone knew everything about everyone. Back then, “Communal attachments were so central to individual identity that loss of face could be literally self-destructive.” But modernization has fragmented our lives and reputations into far-flung social and professional circles and turned our neighbors into strangers. As “American communities grew and became more impersonal,” Kahan wrote, “the disgrace of corporal punishment receded.” The sight of some random father disciplining his daughter in public for God-knows-what is more likely to bring shame upon him than upon the kid.
But Facebook has made the world small again. Online, your shame can move instantly from your father’s cellphone to every important person from every stage and aspect of your life. And if you try to move on, your offense can be dialed up on Google and replayed for future acquaintances to see. In a prescient 1993 essay in the British Journal of Criminology, the Australian criminologist John Braithwaite reasoned that modern shame could be even more traumatizing than the medieval form because it represents a sudden and jarring collapse of the walls we’ve constructed around the separate parts of our lives. In cases where news of the offense does travel widely—like, say, if it’s posted online—“the worst side of the offender’s business or professional self is exposed to people to whom he normally presents his churchgoing self, his golf-playing self, his fatherly self,” he writes. Or to translate that into a 13-year-old’s experience: The Internet has enabled the schoolyard bully to crash a family dinner, the parental tyrant to stalk his child through the school halls, and the school administrator to punish a girl for the things she does when she leaves the campus. No wonder one Wisconsin judge, who offers offenders the opportunity to stand on the street corner wearing humiliating signs (like “I stole from the dead”) in exchange for shorter jail sentences, has found that most people who cycle through his courtroom would rather get locked up than be shamed. A bout of petty thievery or a victimless DUI might not bear a mention in the newspaper, but wearing a sandwich board confessing to the crime can now make national news, dragging down a person’s online reputation forever.
Worse yet, social media has found a way to integrate total strangers in the shaming process. Digital villagers are no longer relegated to the sidelines; online, everybody gets a gavel. Kahan writes that “degradation ceremonies” used to be “imposed by an agent invested with the moral authority of the community.” But now the dynamics of social media have incentivized individuals to care even more about how many people like them, whether they know them or not. Often, the verdict as to whether a person actually deserves to be publicly shamed occurs after the act of shaming has already been completed. The father cuts the hair and films the aftermath, and then strangers click over to the online video and vote it up or down. (The video of Izzy has now been assessed more than 4 million times.) And unlike in the intimate village, where Braithwaite writes that villagers possessed an understanding of “the complex totality of their neighbours,” making them “less susceptible to the stereotypical outcasting of deviants,” the only thing that some Internet gawkers know about you now is this one jerky thing you did. Many videos in the parental shaming genre revoke the misbehaving child’s Internet privileges, the modern equivalent of locking the maiden in a tower. When the kid gets booted offline, all that remains of her online reputation is the artifact of her shame: The video of the dad unloading his .45 caliber handgun into his daughter’s laptop, or the footage of the father who found sexual material on his daughter’s phone and smashed it to pieces with a baseball bat.
Foucault argued that one reason public shaming fell out of favor was because, as citizens turned against violent and biased modes of punishment, shaming an offender in public required exposing his state-sanctioned persecutor to public ridicule, too. Online parental shaming has now taken a similar turn. The fathers who dispensed justice with a cable cord and a handgun both got visits from the cops. Commenters have called for Izzy’s father to be denounced, imprisoned, even killed. “He is effectively a murderer,” one Swedish commenter wrote. “Now it is his turn to be shamed.”
But one irony of shaming’s modern return is that, as the power to shame extends across the globe, those closest to the victims, offenders, and torturers lose their own power to influence the community norms. Izabel’s actual friends are not lashing out at her dad or creating awareness campaigns about online bullying. Their friend is gone. What else matters? They have been busy lighting candles at her favorite schoolyard tree and threading flowers at the overpass’s chain-link fence and tweeting about how they’re too tired to go on a field trip but also how summer is coming soon and how maxi skirts never seem to fit right. Some have edited their Twitter and Instagram bios to memorialize their “Princess Izzy” alongside an umbrella emoji meant to represent the Pacific Northwest. They have waved away the strangers, including me, who have descended on their social media accounts, trawling for a peek at the dead girl’s life. When Izzy’s story made it all the way to Seventeen, a friend tweeted an embarrassed face emoji; another responded with a scared face one. “Y'all don't know what happened,” one friend tweeted out to the faceless mob. “The only one who knows exactly why is herself.”