A rather disturbing trend in social media and internet web content has surfaced in the last several years where certain people out in public are being secretly photographed and “shamed” by their images being posted online for public ridicule. This is an insidious type of cyberbullying where the victims have little to no recourse.
Inconsiderate passengers invading others’ spaces on planes have recently been the subject of bad publicity
In the last few years there has been quite a lot of negative publicity about some rather inappropriate behavior by a few individuals on airline flights who have removed their shoes and invaded the space of other passengers with their bare feet.
Some passengers on airplanes have been secretly photographed engaging in this behavior – putting their bare feet where they shouldn’t be. These surreptitiously obtained photos have then been posted online for the purpose of publicly “shaming” the people in the images.
The photos first began appearing on various forms of social media a few years ago, then began to be picked up by some TV talk shows to ridicule and laugh at the people in the pictures.
This phenomenon has also recently spread to popular news media (USA Today, CNN, etc.), and there has been a spate of internet blog articles recently complaining about some passengers’ behavior and, for the most part, supporting the secretly recorded public shaming method as being legitimate.
Publicly shaming complete strangers on the internet is mindless hate-mongering and bullying
What is this sick obsession some people seem to have nowadays with invading the privacy of and publicly shaming complete strangers on the internet?
And just because they may look different, dress differently, or make different choices than you might make while in public – but, who have absolutely done you no harm whatsoever? This is mindless hate-mongering and bullying that serves no useful purpose whatsoever, not really much different from the hate-mongering that used to be perfectly acceptable related to people of different races, sexual orientation, or certain religions.
But even airline passengers minding their own business have been the subject of online shaming
Sure, some passengers have engaged in rather obnoxious behavior, but unfortunately much of this negative publicity has gone way beyond that and has focused only on someone simply being barefoot while minding his or her own business and not bothering anyone whatsoever.
I want to put all this into a reasonable perspective.
There is a huge difference between a well-behaved passenger trying to be comfortable by slipping off his or her shoes and being barefoot during an often long and otherwise uncomfortable flight and a passenger who is invading the space of others with his or her feet. Even a respectful passenger who chooses to travel barefoot for the entire length of a trip should never be of anyone else’s concern simply due to his or her choice to not wear footwear on the plane.
But even when certain behaviors are inappropriate, I was always under the impression that public shaming as a way to deal with such issues went out with 17th century Puritans, who used stocks, scarlet letters, and the like as a way to humiliate the offenders and send a warning message to others.
Modern-day internet shaming is the modern-day scarlet letter
The Scarlet Letter, a book by Nathaniel Hawthorne written in 1850, is considered a classic today. It is the story of Hester Prynne, who, after having given birth to a child not fathered by her husband, is sentenced to the shame of being required to wear a large scarlet letter “A” – signifying adultery – on her dress for the rest of her life. The story was based on exactly how life was in the mid-17th century and how punishment would have been meted out in such a situation.
Some airline passengers nowadays are in effect being treated the same way. Their scarlet letter amounts to their images being flaunted all over the internet and being ridiculed and shamed over and over online as well as on popular TV talk shows. This, in many ways, is even worse than how Hester Prynne was treated.
The Scarlet Letter character did in fact break the law. She knew her accusers and could defend herself directly to her accusers if she wanted to.
Airline passengers being photographed and shamed have broken no laws or airline rules
Airline passengers who are barefoot on a plane are breaking no laws, no FAA regulations, and are not breaking specific rules of the aircraft as long as the aircraft personnel, in their discretion, do not choose to enforce any rules that may be in existence in their Contracts of Carriage. I covered some of the aspects of this in my blog article a few months ago “Traveling barefoot on airlines is usually not a problem.”
And what is so incredibly insidious and unethical about this, is that in the majority of cases, the people being shamed and publicly ridiculed do not even know their picture was secretly taken and posted online without their permission until they may happen to notice it later or someone tells them about it.
Online shaming serves no useful purpose, other than feeding the fragile egos of the cyberbullies themselves
So does this ever serve any legitimate useful purpose?
I have flown on many flights in the last several years, and I have never witnessed any of the sights or behavior that has been depicted in the online shaming sites or articles. I have seen some passengers barefoot on a few flights, usually having just slipped off their shoes, sandals, or flip-flops to be comfortable. They weren’t bothering anyone or causing any problems at all. I’ve always been barefoot myself on all the flights I’ve been on, and without problems or causing any problem.
Except for the few cases recently where videos of some questionable behavior on a plane have fully gone viral, I’m not sure the vast majority of the general public is even aware of the hate sites and podophobic bloggers out there who accept and promote these secretly taken images of people on planes. They may look like they have a lot of followers, but in the whole scheme of things, they may be no more than a blip on the landscape. I hope that’s the case, anyway.
But let’s face it, there’s hate going on everywhere against various groups of people or ways of life. But the vast majority of reasonable people take such things with a grain of salt, as long as it doesn’t directly affect them, if they even notice it.
It’s only due to my noticing this recent phenomenon of online hate and shaming sites, as well as the negative online articles and talk show topics, that prompted me write this article. As a barefooter myself, I can certainly imagine what it would feel like to be a victim of these online bigots.
It all started with the People of Walmart shaming site
This idea of invading the privacy of others while out in public by secretly photographing them and posting the pictures online to be ridiculed and laughed at began about ten years ago (2009) by a site called People of Walmart. People were encouraged to look for customers in Walmart stores around the country whose dress or appearance was out of the ordinary, odd-looking, or otherwise considered in some way undesirable by users of the site, and to surreptitiously photograph them for posting to the site.
Another hate site, Passenger Shaming, was created
A similar site on Instagram, called Passenger Shaming, was started in 2013 by a former airlines flight attendant, Shawn Kathleen Howard, who goes by the name Shawn Kathleen. This site encourages people to secretly photograph or video airline passengers doing things that could be considered inappropriate or highly unusual and to post those images online for “shaming” purposes.
The site became the impetus behind similar sites popping up, as well as the proliferation of negative internet articles and TV talk show topics which followed. Howard (Shawn Kathleen) was fired from the airlines shortly after starting the site, and she has stated she believes it was because her employer discovered she was behind it.
The podophobic mentality of Howard is pretty obvious. In a 2014 interview with the Chicago Tribune, she was asked, “What are some of the bad behaviors you’ve seen that are on display on Passenger Shaming?”
Her reply, “A lot of bare feet. That’s my thing I can’t stand. I don’t get it. I don’t get how it’s possible that someone would take off their shoes and socks — shoes are OK; we want you to be comfy — but I don’t understand how a person thinks bare feet are OK. They’re not OK, period.”
It’s also interesting that Passenger Shaming recently registered as an official business, according to public records on file. It would appear that Howard now intends to profit financially off the secretly obtained shaming photos, as well as minimize her liability and chances of being personally sued by those whose images are being used without their permission.
Passenger Shaming has displayed some pretty obnoxious behavior on planes
A review of most of the pictures that have been posted on the Passenger Shaming site reveals a variety of obnoxious and annoying behaviors of passengers, everything from being shirtless, to changing a baby’s diaper on the seatback tray, to putting dirty diapers in seatback pockets, to clipping or picking at toenails, to putting feet up on the backs of the seat in front of you or the bulkhead, to displaying obscene shirts or hats, to drying underwear with the overhead air vent, to letting emotional support animals run around free, to having sex, oral and otherwise.
Many of the images do involve feet – usually bare feet – being placed where they don’t belong, often invading the spaces of others.
Someone using his bare feet to operate an airline video screen became a major news story
Recently, someone videoed a young man on a plane who was using his bare feet to operate the video screen on the bulkhead in front of him. This quickly spread all over the internet with such lurid headlines as,
“Gross! Passenger Uses Bare Feet To Adjust Plane’s TV …”
“Horrifying video shows a man operating a plane TV with his foot”
This incident got almost as much publicity and reaction as would have happened had the whole plane crashed with everyone aboard killed. I counted almost 100 different hits on Google citing “shocking” headlines about the feet-on-video screen incident. This had to be the worst tragedy in recorded aviation history – at least in the eyes of some people.
It is truly astonishing how perspectives in the minds of some have become so distorted regarding what really matters in this world and what doesn’t. The bizarre online reaction to this secretly recorded video was completely irrational and unwarranted. A young man touching an airlines video screen with his bare feet might be an unusual sight, but is not something that could ever cause harm, or even an inconvenience, to any other person on that flight, or harm to the screen itself or plane. And certainly no cause for all the alarm that’s been depicted.
Secretly photographing or videoing passengers in order to publicly shame them is not only unethical, it is morally repugnant
Is it ethical to secretly take photos of these behaviors for public display and ridicule? Not in my opinion. If clear rules are being violated during airline travel, then it’s the responsibility of airline personnel to enforce those rules.
Some recent online articles have decried the current fascination with online shaming of airline passengers
There was a 2016 article in USA Today called “Passenger shaming: Fair or foul” which brought into question the propriety of this practice.
From the article, Marjorie Yasueda, a retired travel agent from San Francisco, is quoted as saying,
I don’t believe that blame or shame are productive ways of dealing with any problem. If there is a problem, I prefer dealing with it one-on-one and as privately as possible.
A few others have also noticed this disturbing recent trend of anonymous internet shaming. In a 2018 article in The Telegraph (U.K.), “Online shaming: The dangerous rise of the internet pitchfork mob,” Dr. Guy Aitchison, an Irish Research Council Fellow at University College Dublin, explains,
In today’s era of smartphones and social media, it takes just a few seconds to upload an accusatory photo or video for the world to see, but the ramifications for individuals can last a lifetime.
Dr. Aitchison also believes that social media companies “encourage” online shaming, explaining “more outrage means more clicks and more revenue through advertising.”
The article “Passenger Shaming: A Jerk Move?,” published in the blog Flyertalk last year, also questioned the wisdom and appropriateness of online shaming of certain airline passengers.
From the article,
Don’t get me wrong – I can take a joke. And if I see someone humiliating themselves, I will probably laugh and tell others about it. I just don’t think it’s right to photograph or video them and share it with others. Especially if it invades their privacy and makes them easily identifiable.
Comments under the article also shared some enlightened points of view. For example, this one from “raytseng,”
The guise that posting is to shame the other person is thin at best. The poster doesn’t want the target to know they posted, they want the hiddenness/anonymity.
Ultimately the people are posting for THEMSELVES more than the issue, and to get likes or views or attention to the perceived slight.
It’s quickly a slippery slope when that guise of making improvements is dropped and it purely becomes a wicked thing poking fun at ugly people or other basic bullying.
In a more recent article (2019) in the blog One Mile at a Time, “When Does Passenger Shaming Cross The Line?” the writer remarks about some images he’s seen online,
[A]t times it leaves me scratching my head, and I can’t help but wonder if some of this stuff really crosses the line, and especially displays the unprofessionalism of some US airline flight attendants.
Another 2019 article, “Passenger shaming hasn’t worked. So maybe it’s time to try airline shaming,” that appeared in USA Today and later in the blog Christopher Elliott entitled “Forget passenger shaming. Let’s try airline shaming,” also questions the propriety as well as usefulness of online passenger shaming,
There’s no evidence that passenger shaming has made air travel better or more civil. Experts say there are far more effective ways to handle troublesome passengers than holding them up to ridicule….
There’s no evidence that any kind of shaming – whether it’s in real-time or later, online – is having any effect on passenger behavior.
Legal consequences could also be a possible result of online shaming
There also could be legal ramifications related to people being secretly photographed and put up on sites for the purpose of ridicule. One law firm has addressed that aspect in the article, “Passenger Shaming: Sweet Revenge or Litigious Trap?“
In 2017, a former Playboy Playmate was convicted and sentenced for violating California’s invasion of privacy law (Penal Code § 647j) after she secretly photographed a naked woman in a gym locker room and posted the picture on social media for the purpose of ridiculing and humiliating her.
This case is similar in many aspects to the bare feet on planes shaming postings, but there are a couple of differences. For this law to apply, there had to have been a reasonable expectation of privacy for the person photographed. That would have been the case in a gym locker room, but probably not on a commercial airline flight. Also the photographer of the woman was clearly identifiable, unlike those who cowardly and secretly snap pictures of unsuspecting airline passengers.
Bare feet are not a problem on an airline; it’s what people sometimes do with their bare feet that may be a problem
Again, the problem is that much of this behavior that is being objected to is being done with bare feet. But it’s not the bare feet themselves that are the problem, it’s what some people are doing with their bare feet that is the problem.
And with the general feeling among some people that bare feet are dirty, unhealthy, and probably smelly, the fact that people are putting their bare feet in places they don’t belong just increases the negative bias toward bare feet in general.
The many internet articles and discussion forums relating to such behavior have taken it an alarming step further than what is generally shown on the Passenger Shaming site. Many writers are not only condemning bad behavior, they are condemning simply being barefoot on a plane, even when the bare feet are doing no harm whatsoever to any other person on the plane.
Here are some typical headlines for some internet articles in the last couple of years:
“The unbreakable rules for going shoeless on a plane”
“Why You Should Never Take Your Shoes Off On an Airplane”
“Here Are All The Horrifying Reasons You Should Never Go Barefoot On A Plane”
“Bare feet, kimchi and a peacock on a plane? Really? Air travelers need to do better.”
“Whine Wednesdays: Passengers Walking Barefoot Through The Plane – Including Washrooms!”
“No one — and I mean no one — wants to see your bare feet on a plane. Ever.”
“Flight secrets: Cabin crew warn never walk barefoot on plane”
“Passenger Shaming website documents human animal behaviors in the air”
“Traveler Details ‘Nightmare’ Airplane Encounter With Passenger’s Bare Feet”
“Woman Is Utterly Disgusted By Other Passenger’s Bare Feet Propped Right Next To Her”
“‘Stinky feet behind me’: 4-year-old boy hilariously scolds passenger whose bare foot was on his armrest”
“Revolting passenger uses bare feet to browse airplane movies”
While some of the articles listed above are obviously talking about bare feet being inappropriately placed where they don’t belong, most have one consistent message – never be barefoot on a plane – with no exceptions for someone consistently keeping his or her feet on the floor while sitting or walking around, and never bothering any other person.
Fortunately, not all readers of these bare feet on planes condemnation articles agree with the authors
Some of the articles I reviewed included reader comments underneath. I particularly like and agree with these comments under the article “How Do You Feel About Bare Feet on a Plane?”
Eric Caves wrote:
Oh, my God, they’re just feet! Get over it, people. As long as the person is keeping his/her feet to themselves, then how is it anybody’s business whether or not a passenger has taken his/her shoes off?
It’s just feet. What’s the big deal? You should try to further rationalize your fear or at least figure out why you’re so repulsed with feet that your willing to use this platform reaching thousands to complain about such a silly little thing.
Statements made and conclusions reached in these internet articles are nothing more than biased personal opinion, not facts
The basic message in all these and similar online articles is twofold:
1. All airplane surfaces are dirty and germy.
2. Nobody wants to see bare feet on a plane.
But what qualifies these writers to make such statements? Are they medical doctors, microbiologists, or other scientists who have knowledge and expertise in the area of germs or dangerous pathogens? Are they psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, or other experts who study and have unique knowledge of human behavior, social norms, and attitudes?
The writers of these articles are none of those. They, for the most part, are current or former airline employees or frequent flyers. What they are expressing are their own personal opinions, biases, prejudices, and usually a gross misunderstanding of facts.
Here are some examples of statements made in the ‘never go barefoot on planes’ articles
Below are several reasons quoted verbatim from about a dozen online articles, warning us of the “horrible consequences” of being barefoot on a plane. My response is below each one.
1. “They also claimed that the floors of plane bathrooms are usually not wet with water but urine, and that the pockets on the back of seats are rarely if ever cleaned.”
That may be true, but stepping in urine is not harmful at all. Most urine is in fact sterile, but even if it isn’t, there’s no way it could somehow “absorb” into and through the skin of a bare foot. And if there’s concern with tracking part of it back into the floors of the aisles, having shoes on would make no difference whatsoever.
2. “We see people walking from their seats into the bathrooms all the time barefoot and we cringe because those floors are full of germs.”
There are germs everywhere – not only on surfaces on planes, but everywhere in the world. Life couldn’t exist without germs and other microbes. Merely stepping on a floor that has germs on it does no harm at all. Someone cringing in such cases would be due only to personal squeamishness, not due to a valid reason to be concerned with anyone’s health or safety.
3. “They’re a big spreader of germs when people head to the toilet with bare feet.”
No more so that going to the toilet with shoes on. There’s nothing about bare feet that somehow “spread” more germs than shoes would.
4. “Do not walk around barefoot. Pee and poop happens, all over. People get nosebleeds, or their wounds open. Obviously, when we land, it is thoroughly cleaned, but in-flight resources are limited.”
Statements such as this seem to assume that anything you may step on will somehow absorb into your skin and cause infections or other problems. That just doesn’t happen. That’s what your skin is for, to protect your body from potential outside harmful invasions.
5. “It’s unsanitary to put uncovered soles on airplane surfaces.”
The definition of unsanitary is “unclean enough to endanger health.” It’s unclear whether the quote is referring to uncovered soles as endangering health or airplane surfaces as endangering health. In any case, either of those coming into contact with the other is not going to endanger anyone’s health.
If something is unsanitary (unclean enough to endanger health), merely touching it with bare skin is not going to do any harm. Ingesting something from an unsanitary source is much more likely to make someone sick. I don’t think anyone is going to walk around barefoot on a plane and then put their feet into their mouth. That’s where it could be problematic.
6. “Smelly feet are top offenders. If you have ever been stuck next to a passenger who made himself a little more comfortable by removing his grungy sneakers and airing out his sockless, sweaty extremities, you will likely agree with my take on this issue: It is not OK to go barefoot on a plane.”
I don’t disagree with the first sentence here. People who have worn closed shoes for hours before boarding a plane probably should never remove their shoes on the plane, because there is a good chance their feet indeed will have a bad odor.
Feet never enclosed in shoes do not smell. The feet of people who are wearing flip-flops or similar sandals when boarding are hardly likely to smell either. And of course, if someone boards barefoot and remains barefoot, there’s no problem at all with smelly feet.
But the blanket statement “not OK to go barefoot…” is simply unwarranted.
7. “The sight of strangers’ naked feet bothers a lot of people.”
This statement is so inaccurate, prejudiced, and misinformed that I’m not even sure where to start to debunk it. Someone being concerned about the “sight” of another’s bare feet just seems almost pathological, in my opinion, bordering on podophobia (irrational fear or loathing of human feet) or possibly even BDDBP (body dysmorphic disorder by proxy).
Putting this into practical perspective, not only do many adults commonly wear flip-flops and similar open sandals when traveling, where practically the whole bare foot is visible, people who are barefoot commonly participate in a number of other activities, such as modern dance, martial arts, gymnastics, yoga, swimming, etc., and I’m not aware of anyone ever complaining about “strangers naked feet” in those activities.
It makes no sense for someone to be “bothered” by the sight of bare feet on a plane any more than by bare feet any other place. There is no difference whatsoever. I also don’t believe the statement is true as referring to “a lot of people.”
8. “Attendants also cited the quick turnover time of flights and how things like tray tables and some carpeting might not be thoroughly disinfected before the next group of passengers arrive on the aircraft.”
Seatback tray tables and carpeting do not have to be “thoroughly disinfected” to be safe for passengers to safely make contact with. As mentioned above, germs are everywhere, and people do not have to live in a continuous sterile environment to remain healthy. In fact, it would be unhealthy to live in such an environment.
Bacteria and other microbes are a necessary part of life on earth, and the current obsession among some people to destroy all forms of bacteria from their environment does much more harm than good in the long run.
9. “Never walk barefoot into the bathroom or the galley area because sometimes we drop glasses and there could be sharp glass there, too.”
I’ve flown many flights over my lifetime, and especially in the last seventeen years, and I’ve never seen a glass container ever used anywhere on a plane. If there were some special flights somewhere that actually used glassware to serve passengers, I don’t think the majority of the flying public would be on those planes.
Broken glass in a bathroom or galley is just not a practical concern for anyone. Besides, someone barefoot is always careful about where they are walking and what they are about to step on.
10. “And, most importantly, bare feet are banned in aircraft cabins.”
This is a blanket false statement. Most contracts of carriage state that airline personnel “may” refuse boarding or transport of a barefoot passenger, not that they “will” or “shall.” It’s up to the discretion of airline employees in any given situation. I wrote more about that in my article “Traveling barefoot on airlines is usually not a problem.”
11. “[F]ootwear is essential during an airplane emergency, even though it is not part of the flight safety information. During an emergency, all sorts of debris and unpleasant ground surfaces will block your way toward the exit, as well as outside the aircraft. If your feet aren’t properly covered, you’ll have a hard time making your way to safety. Imagine destroying your bare feet as your run down the aisle covered with broken glass, fires, and metal shards.”
The mention that a shoe requirement “is not part of the flight safety information” is interesting. Obviously, if that were an important issue, the FAA and other experts in the field of emergency evacuation procedures would surely have included it. The only mention of shoes at all in any evacuation procedure is usually to remove them – high-heeled shoes, that is – such as is included in “Travelers/Flying Safe/Safety Information” from the FAA.
I think if I’m lucky enough to survive a crash, not having shoes will be the least of my problems. The statement suggests you should always choose your attire for flying on the premise that your plane will probably crash. And on the further premise that you somehow survive, but the wreckage is so bad you need to walk over shrapnel or burning debris to exit the plane. How often does that happen?
Perhaps you should also wear a full fireproof suit, helmet, gas mask, Kevlar body armor, and a parachute? You know… just in case.
The fact is that traveling by air is statistically safer than any other mode of mass transportation. The likelihood of being in a plane crash is so extremely slim, it’s almost pointless to quantify. According to The Economist, the probability of a passenger plane going down is around one in 5.4 million. Other reports place the odds closer to one in 11 million.
Being barefoot in an airplane lavatory harms no one at all
As you can see from the quotes listed above, a favorite complaint of some of these busybody article writers is about someone going into an airplane lavatory barefoot. Not only is that none of anyone else’s business, the fact is that being barefoot in a plane lavatory or any other public restroom does no harm whatsoever to either the barefooter or anyone else.
You can read more facts and information about this in my article, “Being barefoot in a public restroom is not a risk to health.”
Here’s some advice to air travelers who don’t like bare feet on a plane
If you see someone barefoot on a plane, and those bare feet are not propped up invading your own personal space, how is that in any way harming you?
If you don’t feel being barefoot on a plane is right or appropriate, then by all means you should always wear shoes and keep them on. You have no right to dictate to other passengers what they should or should not be wearing, just because it doesn’t happen to conform to your personal tastes or standards of attire.
When you are out in public – and being on a commercial airline flight is “in public” – you are always likely to see other people dressed or doing things that you would not do yourself. Just be civilized and mind your own business.
Not only is it unethical to secretly photograph or video others on a plane and post the images for the purpose of shaming and ridicule, there’s no real practical benefit to anyone by doing that – other than perhaps your own sick enjoyment in secretly humiliating and bullying others who cannot defend themselves.
So, if you see another passenger on a plane who happens to be barefoot, the prudent and respectful thing is to mind your own business. If that person doesn’t have his or her feet physically in your own personal space, then that person is doing no harm to you. If that person chooses to walk up and down the aisle barefoot or goes into the lavatory barefoot, that person again is doing no harm to you, so just look away if it bothers you in some way. In that way, you’ll be happier flying and so will the other person.