Pretty Ugly Daily Mail Article, 2013
WHEN I first clicked on the video, with its juvenile text-speak title – ‘Pretty/Ugly Plz tell me!’ – I thought it must be a joke. But a couple of minutes into it I was aware of its intense, earnest honesty. Its author couldn’t have been more than 12 or 13: she sat in her pink, suburban bedroom; a sweet-faced little girl with long, glossy hair, and made a direct appeal to the camera – a plea that would then echo round the world via the internet – inviting an opinion from any stranger who cared to voice one, on her looks.
Even a cursory search revealed scores more such videos all asking the same sadly common-place, and yet hugely worrying question; all seeking approbation, attention, validation, help, or perhaps an amalgam of all four. I was shocked on many levels. Each little girl appeared obsessed, not with the qualities that define us as humans – with kindness, intelligence, humour or strength of character – but with the ephemeral and superficial. Am I pretty or ugly? was the issue that preoccupied them to the exclusion of everything else.
As I delved further I was struck by the age of the girls involved. Some, pictured alongside One-Direction posters and cuddly toys, looked no more than eight or nine; few were older than 13. ‘Am I Pretty? Cuz I'm pretty sure I'm ugly’ asked one teenager. Then I scrolled down to read the responses, which only confirmed my worst suspicions.
It was clear many of the comments were written by classic ‘cyber-bulllies’ or internet trolls. Most were along the lines of: ‘You’re ugly, worthless. Kill yourself,’ It was hard enough to read these as a 27 year old, but I wondered how fragile adolescent egos would respond to such grotesque comments?
More positive comments ran along the more hopeful philosophy of the ‘looks aren’t important if you’re beautiful inside’ category. But even these failed to inspire with any sense that academic success, hard work, tenacity or inherent talent might have a place in the great order of things.
The majority of replies, however, blandly accepted the premise that looking ‘pretty’ – and the adjective itself suggests a homogenized Barbie doll version ofphysical attractiveness – is the new orthodoxy. Looking anything less than an air-brushed, fake-tanned and cover-girl-ready version of perfection (as I was to find out) was to fall short of the ideal. Some even offered step-by-step advice on effecting the transformation from ugly to pretty.
‘Your(sic) not that bad...... but if you want to change, straighten your hair, do dip-dye blonde, work out, contacts, or fashionable nerd glasses, tight jeans, loose tops, foundation, mascara, BOOM your(sic) pretty, but adapt(sic) a new attitude as well, people prefer to hang out with generally happy people,’ ran one reply.
So it was that I stumbled on an alarming new internet phenomenon. Around half a million girls and young women are now taking part in the: Am I Pretty or Ugly? debate. It is proliferating on YouTube, throughout social media; even on Yahoo Answers and Reddit. It began, as so many trends do, in the US, but my own research shows that around a fifth of the teens and ‘tweenagers’ embroiled in this noxious discussion are from the UK. And the numbers are growing.
I am a 27-year-old performance artist and for the last two years have been researching how teenagers use the internet and social media; and more specifically how teenage girls use YouTube,Tumblr and Twitter to explore their own self-representation and body image. My research first began by looking at the insidious ‘thinspiration’ websites where teenage girls who are in thrall to eating disorders post tips on purging and starvation; on how to hide the evidence of their anorexia or bulimia; and on achieving a ‘bikini bridge’ (jutting hip bones) or a ‘thigh gap’. This advice is often accompanied by images of already-slim celebrities who have been photo-shopped to look emaciated; and disembodied body parts of teenage girls (ribs, hip-bones, wrists) posted by the users themselves.
It was on one of these deeply disturbing websites that I found a link to the clip of the little girl’s Pretty or Ugly? video. This in turn led me to hundreds of thousands of such appeals – some earnest, some distressed; other coyly knowing and worryingly sexual – from the shy and insecure to the preening and self-obsessed.
Some of the subjects, tearful and emotionally distressed, had filmed their videos in darkened rooms. It frightened me to think of the desperation – the craving for approval, friendship, kindness – that had driven them to such brutal and harmful self-exposure.
Other videos were made by a slightly different breed: girls with lip-glossed pouts and long, tanned limbs, seeking admiration or a glimpse of the ‘fame’ that many crave as if that were some form of self-validation.
In our image-obsessed culture, inspiring teen role models are far too few for my liking. Adolescent girls seem only to have a cast list of the vain, empty-headed and hyper-groomed – from the super rich Kardashians, to the cast of The Only Way is Essex and Made in Chelsea – to aspire to.
So they come to value how they look above who they are. I believe our culture of ‘selfies’, detagging, and constant self-editing on social media encourages a kind of self-obsession, and neurotic image-consciousness . This materializes on many different online platforms: from ‘selfies’ on Instagram and Facebook pages – which ‘friends’ may chose to like or dislike – to the insistent questioning: Am I pretty or ugly? that now even crops up on Yahoo Answers.
Looking back just 15 years to my own adolescence, I am aware how swift this descent into the world of teenage-super-self-obsession has been: my own teenage years seem naïve in comparison. I too suffered from the usual adolescent obsessions. As part of my research I read back through some of my own teenage diaries, one in particular detailed a summer when I vowed to, ‘skip and skip and skip’, ‘walk the dog three times a day’, and exist on a diet of ‘ryvita and chocolate milkshake’ in order to get slim. Reading back these childish writings was bitter-sweet for me as I recall that this was also the summer in which I began stealing my older sisters fashion magazines. I can only speculate at the correlation.
Talking to teenage girls for the project I became more and more aware at how much more wordly they seemed than myself as a teenager. My interest in make-up back then was restricted to a dab of lip gloss or experimentation with garish glittery nail varnish. And although the way I applied my sparkly lip-gloss could be a pre-occupation to me at times, it wasn’t as attached to my self-worth as perhaps my school-grades were, or my relationships with friends.
Ever present, of course, were the unattainable images of air-brushed perfection – celebrities, actresses, models – that peopled the media. But they did not encroach so insistently on our lives.
Since then, however, the change has been distinct and disturbing. Now adolescent girls and teenagers are incredibly savvy about their looks. They all seem to be experts in how best to apply fake tan and the perfect eyebrow shape. They’ve learnt about make up through a barrage of information and assiduous observation of self-help videos on the internet. And most alarming to me, whereas in my day it seemed to be the media spoon-feeding these images to us, it seems that today it is the girls themselves that are taking an active role in perpetuating their ideal of physical beauty.
They have become the peddlers of dangerous myths about body image. They blog about them, they regurgitate tweets, they post videos and photos of themselves on social media sites then pose the question, ‘How do I look?’ The pursuit of prettiness has become interactive and an end in itself.
Wondering with horror how we could have arrived at this point in society, I began the Pretty Ugly project. As part of the project I asked dozens of young women – chosen randomly on streets and shopping arcades around London – to describe themselves in a simple phrase beginning, not with the question ‘Am I?’ but with the self-assertive, ‘I am’.
Almost without exception, the instinct of these young women was to grasp for a physical description – I am chubby/ginger/skinny/too tall – but I urged them to look beyond the superficial, to the qualities that defined them, that they were proud of. ‘I am good at Maths’ offered one. ‘I am funny,’ said another. ‘I am a ballet dancer,’ said a third.
As part of this same project, posing as a 15-year-old – altering my voice; wearing a wig and with the help of some clever make-up – I posted three videos of myself on YouTube. I too, joined the legions of young girls indulging in the horrifying, almost masochistic, pursuit of seeking the approval or disapprobation of strangers. Was I pretty? Was I ugly? The responses terrified me.
There was a slew of vile insults from trolls, each of whom proffered their own version of the injunction to, ‘F…off, you worthless, disgusting piece of s…t.’ This awful barrage made me feel sick to my stomach. I cannot imagine the effect it would have on the eight-year-olds who are posting videos of themselves.
Then there was the darker side of the response; comments from predatory older men, one of whom asked me to send him a ‘sexy dance video’ because he couldn’t tell from my video whether I was pretty or not. In fact, surprisingly, the majority of negative responses I received came from older men.
It is these kind of findings that make me reflect on the huge sea-change since my teenage years, and make me anxious for the future. I do not yet have children, but if I did I would be profoundly worried for them.
Social media can provide voices for those that usually go unheard, create communities in otherwise hostile environments, and empower individuals, but it can also nurture a darker side to humanity. Teenagers are more free to comment on each other’s looks than they ever have been; bullying is more rampant; and it has been widely recognized that social media can intrude on our private sense of self to the point of enslavement. It becomes a drug to vulnerable and malleable young minds; the thrill of new ‘likes’, new friend requests; the terror of the unwanted comments or unsightly pictures. It exerts constant pressure on teens to maintain the image of their ideal selves on-line. It is as if this generation of teens is carrying round a mini-me, an avatar, that they are constantly editing and promoting to make themselves feel better.
Many teens spoke to me of a constant anxiety surround facebook picture tagging; the palapable and immediate need to check whether it was suitable enough for their facebook profile. If not, the photo is swiftly deleted and the less than perfect self is expunged.
With the Pretty Ugly project I hope to bring awareness to these new dangerous trends among teenagers, and to encourage discussion and debate on what we can do to help. I believe we must teach the new generation of young women the essential lesson that it is more valuable, enduring and empowering to develop their characters than to project an image of glossy perfection.