More girls going online to ask, ‘Am I pretty?’

Posted Thursday, Aug. 07, 2014  comments  Print Reprints
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Sammie, a shy 13-year-old girl from New Jersey, stepped out of the shower and pulled on a plain gray T-shirt. She left her hair wet and decided not to apply makeup. Careful not to wake her family, she looked into the camera and spoke in a near-whisper.

“People at my school and camp say I’m the most ugliest person they’ve ever seen,” she said, “and I could be the ugliest person that could ever be living.

“Be honest and tell me if I am ugly or not,” she continued. “I can take it, but please don’t say really mean stuff.”

She titled the video, “Am I Ugly or Pretty” and — like thousands of other young girls who have made similar videos — uploaded it to YouTube. Several months, 72,000 views and more than 2,000 comments later, she was no less insecure about her appearance, she said in a telephone interview in December. But she had learned a lot about the cruelty of people.

“I don’t like to look at that video anymore,” she said. “It makes me upset. There are people telling me to kill myself, and it’s kind of heartbreaking to know there are people like that out there.”

All she wanted, she said, was some clarity. “I had a lot of people telling me that I’m pretty and then had a lot of other people telling me different,” she said. “So I figured, you know what? I’ll just find out what other people have to say.”

As long as there have been 13-year-old girls, parents and friends have had to field the question, “Do you think I’m pretty?” But as a generation raised on YouTube and iPhones enters middle school, these questions are increasingly being posed to, well, anyone on the Internet.

Today, one could spend hours clicking through short clips of insecure young girls, and the occasional boy, imploring the Internet to judge their appearance.

Unlike the walled-off environments of Facebook or Instagram, or the one-on-one intimacy of messaging services like Snapchat, YouTube — stodgy as it may seem to someone who has never known a world without it — is where these girls find opinions from what they believe to be the larger world.

“Be honest,” they often say. “I can take it.”

Not surprisingly, results can be devastating, particularly to fragile young egos.

“Yes, you are really ugly. Now go cry to someone that actually cares,” wrote one male commenter on a girl’s video. “Ugly at first I thought you were a boy,” a woman wrote to a girl who appeared no older than 12.

Still, the videos keep coming. A YouTube search for “Am I Pretty?” turns up more than 23,000 results. Some of the videos date to 2009, although most have apparently been made in the past year or two. And more are being uploaded (and taken down) every day. Lately, the phenomenon has spawned satires, spoofs, digital vigilantism and at least one piece of performance art.

The videos follow a template: Talk into the camera, show your face, maybe share some pictures, explain your conundrum (“My friends tell me I’m pretty; it doesn’t seem like I’m pretty, though,” says one), then ask viewers to share their honest opinions in the comments. Some plead with viewers not to be mean.

“If I’m ugly, comment, ‘You’re ugly,’ but in a nice way, please. If you’re mean, I’m going to be mad, and I’m going to be sad, like this,” says a girl named Brianna while demonstrating a frowny face. (“I think you’re pretty but a bit weird,” came one response.)

Although “Hot or Not” sites have been around nearly as long as the Internet itself, seeing the format appropriated by pleading preteen girls has moved something deeper in a number of observers. To some, the videos are the shameful outcome of America’s creeping narcissism crisis. “It’s systemic of a young culture obsessed with the superficial,” said an opinion piece in the New York Post.

Others are inclined to see the girls as victims. Such videos are “a new form of self-mutilation in line with cutting and eating disorders,” said one psychiatrist talking to The Associated Press. In 2012, the blog Jezebel asked, “How do we get YouTube to make this illegal?”

“We’re essentially forcing girls to participate in their own self-abuse and then blaming them for it,” the Huffington Post wrote.

That nearly all the people in these videos seem to fall from 13 to 15 years old is not a coincidence, psychologists say. As teenagers enter middle school, they start to leave behind the cocoon of family and childhood friends and reassess themselves by society’s standards.

It’s what psychologist Erik Erikson called the Identity Versus Confusion phase, when children struggle to understand how their emerging selves might fit into the larger picture. YouTube provides a modern resource for teenagers grappling with a timeless problem.

“It’s very developmentally normal to want validation and start thinking about image and about how do I define myself at that age,” said Yalda T. Uhls, a psychiatrist and researcher with the Children’s Digital Media Center in Los Angeles. “Normally they would ask their friends, but now they have this tool.”

As any parent of a preteen already knows, there is a huge difference between knowing how to upload a video to YouTube and understanding the consequences of doing so. “Just because they know how to press the right buttons or turn off their geolocation doesn’t mean they understand social learning or how the opposite sex thinks,” Uhls said.

“They don’t understand when they put themselves out there that they are opening themselves up to this wide community,” she said. “It’s not the safe family environment they’re used to.”

If some girls are making these videos as a pre-emptive strike against bullying, a way to say hurtful things about themselves before others can, they are at least finding protectors. Like so many big sisters, a handful of video bloggers have responded with their own clips, explaining to girls why they should stop seeking validation from strangers — or shaming the commenters who insult them.

Others have found the humor in the videos, mockingly posing the “Am I pretty?” question to Siri, a smartphone assistant. (“You can’t handle the truth,” she responds.) Louise Orwin, a London performance artist, has written and staged a performance, Pretty Ugly, based on her own experiences making “Am I pretty?” videos under assumed characters.

“What I found was that it wasn’t the ‘you should die’ comments that affected me,” Orwin, 27, said in a telephone interview, “but ones like ‘Your eyes are too close together.’ It was really hard to take, so I can’t imagine if I had been 10 years younger and receiving those messages.”

For Sammie, the experience was affecting. “It left me pretty depressed,” she said.

Still, until recently, she had remained defiant about taking down the video, equating its removal with admitting she is ugly. This spring (coincidentally or not) the video disappeared just weeks after her father, who did not return calls for comment, learned it existed.

Before the video was taken down, Sammie said that she was thinking about making a sequel, this time with makeup. “So people can see how I look during the day,” she said, “and a little bit older than how I was.”

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