Pretty Ugly Huffington Post Blog, 2013
What Happened When I Became A Teenager in 2013
I try to think back to when I first became aware of the internet. What springs to mind? Year 6: perverts, superfluous hotmail accounts, msn messenger. It seemed dangerous and extra to me all at the same time. I know that not everyone felt the same as me- I speak to people my age who were coding on myspace when they were teens, but I wasn't one of them. Skip forward a few years and I remember FaceBook coming into my life in my first year of uni. I can also remember vividly how the novelty and joy of that platform transformed over the course of my time at uni into paranoia and anxiety- a sweatypalm kind of feeling, a feeling of detagdetagdetag, of why-the-fuck-is-everyone-having-so-much-more-fun-than-me-loserishness. If I sound like a teenager, that's intentional.
And now- 2013. Here I am again, trying my hand at the social media thing. But this time, I'm not me. I'm three teenage girls- Becky, Baby and Amanda- and I'm posting videos of myself on YouTube asking its faceless viewers to tell me whether I'm pretty or ugly. The real 15 year old inside me is screaming, not to mention confused, and utterly cringed-out.
Here are some of the responses I've received on YouTube to date: I got told I'm ugly; I got told I'm beautiful. I got told that it's hard to tell without seeing my body; I got told I could be a swimsuit model. I got told to fuck off and die. I got told I should post more videos; I got told I shouldn't be posting these videos. I got told to lose the glasses and learn how to use make up. I got told I should send nudes. I got told to seek christ. Surprised? I didn't think so. Unless you've been hiding under a rock for the last ten years- you probably know that sometimes the internet isn't a very nice place. So why post these videos? That's what I wanted to know too.
Last year as part of my research into the ways in which teenage girls were using social media, I stumbled across a trend on YouTube where girls were doing exactly this: posting videos of themselves (sometimes dressed, sometimes in a bikini), asking viewers to tell them whether they are pretty or ugly. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of these videos and the average age of thegirls is 8-13 years old. Often accompanied by an pulsing pop soundtrack, a dim view into a messy teenage bedroom, a family dog barking in the background [as if to signify to the viewer that these YouTubers inhabit a real and very domestic world], these girls pout and pose their way through the videos. But what struck me was how earnest they were: 'Guys, I just really need to know ok... So comment down below, or message me ok? Oh and subscribe! Peace.'
I wanted to know why these girls were doing this. I remember wanting answers to similar questions, but there was no way that at 12 I would have walked up to someone on the street and asked them straight out whether they thought I was good looking or not. [CRINGE] In a way it strikes me as quite a brave thing to do- surely they know they are throwing themselves like little lambs to the slaughter in the jaws of the trolling community? Or perhaps their desire for real, impartial answers overrides this. Or maybe they have noticed that there are lots of these videos going around and they just fancy hopping on the trend-bandwagon hoping that one day they might reach the dizzying heights of 'YouTube-Superstar'? I wanted to know what it might feel like to put yourself out there in this way, and so I created my three teenage alter-egos, posted up my videos... and well, you already know the results. What you might not know is that I estimated that 70% of the comments posted on the videos were negative. And, by doing a little digging, and whole lot of guestimating [c'mon its hard to tell much about anyone online] I've estimated that 60% of commenters were male and 40% female. And further to that- most female commenters left positive comments whereas the majority of male comments left more than a little to be desired. I was also sent a lot of private messages from men- and I'm sure you can guess the jist of those messages.
So, internet, I ask you: what are YOU doing for the feminist cause? I suspect, not a lot. Crunching the numbers I became a little worried: Is it anonymity that is leading people to behave in this way? Or is it giving us a platform to reveal our true feelings? And girls- WHY? I asked a lot of them, and no one could give me a straight answer. Although... I have my suspicions.
These suspicions and the project's research make up the basis of my new show Pretty Ugly, which is headlining Camden People's Theatre's autumn programme 'Calm Down, Dear: A Festival of Feminism'. The show will present a year's worth of research: it will follow the relationships I've had online as these characters, my findings, and most importantly, I will be asking you: 'Am I pretty or ugly?' Let's all have a little think for a moment about how it might feel to ask a stranger that question face to face...
'Pretty Ugly' is a theatre show and a campaign. Find out more here: www.prettyorugly.wordpress.com
'Pretty Ugly' runs 23rd Oct to 9th Nov, Camden People's Theatre, London