In a pioneering prosecution against "body-shaming," the Los Angeles city attorney's office on Friday filed criminal charges against a former Playboy playmate, alleging she secretly photographed a 70-year-old woman in the nude while she was in the shower area of a Los Angeles fitness center.
Prosecutors often use invasion of privacy charges against peeping Toms and people who conceal cameras to take sexually suggestive photos of women. But legal experts said this marks a rare time authorities have brought charges against someone over photos making fun of someone's weight. It comes amid growing awareness and outrage about "body-shaming" — particularly common on social media.
Prosecutors charged Dani Mathers, 29, with one misdemeanor count of invasion of privacy. Mathers is accused of posting an image of the woman on her Snapchat social media account in early July with a mocking caption about the woman's appearance, sparking a widespread public outcry.
Mathers later apologized for taking a photo of the woman in a locker room shower at an LA Fitness exercise center and posting it online.
"That was absolutely wrong and not what I meant to do," she said. "I know that body-shaming is wrong. That is not the type of person I am."
She said the photo was meant to be sent as a private message, but was posted publicly.
Mathers' attorney, Thomas Mesereau, said his client did nothing illegal.
"I am disappointed that Dani Mathers was charged with any violation," he said. "She never tried to invade anyone's privacy and never tried to violate any laws."
"Body-shaming is humiliating, with often painful, long-term consequences," he said. "It mocks and stigmatizes its victims, tearing down self-respect and perpetuating the harmful idea that our unique physical appearances should be compared to air-brushed notions of 'perfect.' What really matters is our character and humanity. While body-shaming, in itself, is not a crime, there are circumstances in which invading one's privacy to accomplish it can be. And we shouldn't tolerate that."
Los Angeles police began an investigation in July after receiving a report of "illegal distribution" of the image. LA Fitness officials reported the posting to police as well, officials said.
Mathers shared the photo of the naked woman on July 13 with the caption: "If I can't unsee this then you can't either."
Leonard Levine, a veteran Los Angeles defense attorney who has defended cases involving gym photos, said all those cases involved alleged voyeurs. This case is different because the motive for sharing the photo appears to be solely mocking the woman.
"I am not aware of any case where it was done other than where prosecutors alleged it a prurient interest," he said.
Former prosecutor Dmitry Gorin agreed the circumstances here are unique.
"Most have some lascivious intent. In this case, the aspect of the shaming is a very unusual motive that I have not seen prosecuted before," he said.
Lawyers for Mathers could say the alleged victim did not have an expectation of privacy, said Loius Shapiro, a Los Angeles defense attorney.
"Mathers can argue, though, that a person has no expectation of privacy in the locker room when they are undressed and that the prosecution is simply trying to stick a square peg in a round hole because they don't have the evidence for the charge they really want to prove…," he said.
Digital technology has made it easier to secretly capture others in their most private moments.
Last year, a prominent Washington, D.C., rabbi was sentenced to six years in prison after he pleaded guilty to secretly recording 52 women as they prepared for a religious bathing ritual.
In California, a U.S. Border Patrol supervisor admitted in federal court that he secretly recorded seven female co-workers in the bathroom of the Chula Vista office. Some states have increased the penalties for taking secret images, making it a felony. In New York, offenders can receive up to four years in prison for a first offense.
Dr. Robyn Silverman, a body image expert, said body-shaming is kind of an act of bullying.
"While the body-shaming aspect of this case is inexcusable, the main issue here is not that Ms. Mathers denigrated another woman online with rude or unflattering remarks," she said. "Rather, Ms. Mathers, with both forethought and intent to humiliate and compare, photographed a naked woman, without her knowledge or consent, and then distributed it online for everyone to see and evaluate."
3:30 p.m. This story was updated with body shaming expert.
1:29 p.m.: This story was updated with responses from Mathers' attorney and legal experts.