The teenage years are full of angst, that much we know. Usually the uncertainty manifests in roiling inner turmoil, but now, some girls are taking their self-doubt public, posting videos on YouTube asking strangers: “Am I pretty or ugly?”
In one such clip that’s gotten more than 4.5 million views, a girl wearing a koala hat explains her dilemma: “I just wanted to make a random video seeing if I was, like, ugly or not because a lot of people call me ugly and I think I’m ugly and fat, but all of my friends that are girls, they’re just, like, Oh you’re so beautiful … and I’m, like, Shut up because I’m not beautiful.”
More than 114,000 people have commented. “U have nothing to worry about,” wrote one. Another person suggested she put on some makeup; a third assessed her bluntly: “To be honest, not that pretty but not ugly.” Many comments were far harsher, making liberal use of four-letter words that degraded the girl for posting the video in the first place.
Another girl asked the same question in December: “People tell me this all the time, so I don’t know, is it true? People say I’m ugly. So tell me, am I?” And in May 2010, the identical query was posed by another girl, who seemed amused by the fact that she was asking the world to weigh in with feedback on her appearance. There seems to be a theme here: cute girls asking for reassurance that they’re cute. In truth, all the girls are adorable by any standard. So what’s going on here? Why the cries for attention?
Since when does it matter what other people think about how you look? Since, well, forever. It’s just that our burgeoning Internet culture now makes it easier than ever to rely on strangers for validation.
Dr. Susan Abbott, a child psychiatrist in New York City, says girls are all but inviting online advances from sexual predators. “It’s not a stretch to say a lot of these girls have a self-esteem issue,” says Abbott. “Instead of being involved in things in life that are fulfilling — their social lives, even their homework — they’re focusing on their looks and people’s perceptions of their looks.”
We shouldn’t necessarily be surprised by the videos, Emilie Zaslow, a media-studies professor at Pace University in New York City, told the Associated Press:
“The public posting of questions such as “Am I ugly?” which might previously have been personal makes sense within this shift in culture,” she says.
Add to that the unattainable pressures of the beauty industry, a dose of reality TV, where ordinary people can be famous, and superstars who are discovered via viral video on YouTube, she said.
“These videos could be read as a new form of self-mutilation in line with cutting and eating disorders,” Zaslow said.
The analogy is not so far off. In fact, one video purported to be by yet another young girl was discovered by Jezebel to be the creation of a 21-year-old art student bent on examining the social pressures faced by girls. Even though student Sophia Roessler wasn’t truly seeking strangers’ opinions about her looks, she couldn’t help but internalize their comments. “Of course I cared what people said, even though I didn’t think I would,” she told Jezebel.
“How are girls expected to learn and grow if they are constantly striving to look ‘perfect’ or judging what other girls look like?” asks Care2.com, which calls the clips “a disturbing new trend”:
… A teen’s desire for approval is nothing new. Teens often look to be accepted by their peers and have other people like them. Posting a video online asking people to comment on their attractiveness, however, opens these girls up to the scrutiny of thousands of people. The constant criticism and negative comments can have a very damaging impact on a young girl’s self-esteem.
… Imagine what else girls (and women) could accomplish if they didn’t worry so much about their looks or other people’s approval. The possibilities would be endless.