"People say I’m ugly. So … tell me -- am I?"
A young girl stares earnestly, and perhaps a bit awkwardly, into the camera asking the world wide web of YouTube users to comment on her appearance. With 35,000 views and nearly 1,200 comments, her video is just one small piece in what seems to be a growing trend of teen and "tween" (between the ages of 11 and 13) girls taking to the Internet to broadcast concerns about their looks -- and asking strangers to weigh in on these insecurities.
First reported by Jezebel, these YouTube videos seem to be made predominantly by middle-school aged girls, though there are boys featured in some of them as well. A simple search turns up pages upon pages of similar clips, entitled things like "Am I Ugly?" "Am I Ugly Or Pretty?" "Am I Ugly, Be Honest" and "Am I Pretty Or Not?"
One video, posted in December of 2010 has gotten over 3.4 million views and 92,000 comments. "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 am ugly ... and fat." She goes on to show the audience a series of photos of herself and asks users to "tell me what you think." The comments on these clips range from astoundingly awful ("my vote: UGLIER THAN A DEMON" or "F*ck off whore wannabe") to supportive ("I think you look pretty and nice,") to concerned ("Sweetie, ur 2 young to be using the Internet, much less having these losers judge you.")
The sheer number of these videos, and how regularly their creators reference other ones, suggests that a virtual community has formed around the concept.
SFGate’s Amy Graff expressed concern that these young people are only harming themselves by asking anonymous strangers for look-based critiques:
A 12-year-old isn’t mature enough to deal with vicious remarks made by their mean-spirited peers and sick-minded Internet trolls ... Adolescence is dark and savage and when teenagers put themselves up on the Internet it only magnifies the experience.
HuffPost Teen reported recently on another disturbing online trend -- a community of "thinspiration blogs" on Tumblr. As reporter Carolyn Gregoire discovered, this "thinspo" collective is built around young women encouraging one another to lose extreme amounts of weight, in an insular (well, as insular as the Internet can be) environment. In contrast, these YouTube videos are built around the anticipated responses of "outsiders," and though the young people in them purport to want honesty, they’re likely also looking for affirmation.
This need for approval coincides with the girls passing an age when self-esteem tends to peak. After age nine, researchers find that body confidence plummets. According to the NYU Child Study Center, one study showed that 59 percent of girls in 5th through 12th grade were dissatisfied with their physical appearance.
Given how fragile kids are at this stage, not to mention privacy concerns and the potential longevity of Internet exposure, bloggers have responded to these videos by urging YouTube to shut them down. Jezebel’s Katie M. Baker asks "How do we get YouTube to make this illegal?" And while the video sharing site officially requires users to be at least 13 years old, getting in when you’re younger is simple. Graff calls for parents as well as YouTube to more closely monitor kids’ use of the site. Given that many parents already believe they should be making decisions about their child’s Facebook use, this solution doesn’t feel particularly far-fetched.
The (somewhat) good news is that a small but growing number of "response" videos to the "Am I Ugly?" trend have been posted, which means some kids are questioning the idea itself. But, in a world of carefully curated Facebook profiles that put personal lives (and looks) at center stage, and a constant bombardment of "aspirational" digitally altered images both online and offline, it’s perhaps unsurprising that young people are sharing their body image anxieties in such a forum. Deleting these videos from YouTube channels could act as a band-aid solution, but their existence is indicative of something much larger.
What do you think the role of parents is in situations like this? What can we do to encourage our children to feel confident about their looks?
Note: We'd love to hear from you on the issues in the comments below, but please remember that what you say can have a very profound impact on young people. Please keep it clean, and flag anything you see as abusive. Thanks.