Time Magazine tells me there is a new and disturbing trend du jour: Teen girls posting YouTube videos in order to let the Interwebs decide the 2012 version of that age-old burning question: Hot or not?
A quick survey of YouTube does indeed pull up dozens of videos like this, including the one above where a girl in an awesome koala hat explains that she’s going to show us lots of pictures of herself because “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.”
She’s gotten more than 4.5 million views and 114,000 comments. They are not all kind. The “Am I ugly or pretty?” question turns out to be surprisingly open to debate.
Obviously, parents, child psychologists, and rational, feeling people are in a lather. One shrink goes so far as to suggest that “These videos could be read as a new form of self-mutilation in line with cutting and eating disorders.”
So, okay. Let’s discuss.
I am mad about these videos — but not because I think we have a new epidemic of self-mutilating girls on our hands. While there may be some overlap (i.e. some girls with eating disorders may also decide to post “am I pretty?” videos and vice versa), this is not an A equals B scenario. Because almost every teenage girl, for as long as we’ve had teenage girls, has asked “am I pretty or ugly?”
How could they not? We teach girls from infancy that being pretty is absolutely critical to their value as people — yet also incredibly difficult to achieve and maintain. With pretty as that kind of brass ring dangling right above their heads all the time, of course they want to know if they’ve got it or not.
There are only two things that are actually different about this current round of “am I pretty?” questioning:
A) These questions are getting recorded and posted for all of the world to see.
When I was 12, I asked my mother if I was pretty. She told me it depended on what I was wearing and how I did my hair and my step-dad, who was sorting through mail across the room, laughed. That was disappointing enough — obviously, I wanted to hear that I was ravishing, no matter what! — but at least the audience for my adolescent musings was limited to a (generally highly supportive) party of two.
I am not usually one to get all crotchety about these kids today and their lack of personal boundaries — I think the internet offers teenagers far more opportunities to broaden their horizons than it does danger and privacy violations. But there’s no question that living so much of life online means documenting your growing pains in a public and permanent way.
This is why it’s an extremely good thing that Tumblr has decided to start policing its blogs in order to prohibit “thinspo” content that glorifies being ultra-thin and having eating disorders (as well as blogs that promote other forms of self-mutilation and suicide). Teenagers can learn about themselves and the whole wide world on the world wide web — but the companies (hi, YouTube) who host them need to take protective measures to keep those experiences safe.
B) Girls have every reason to think pretty is all that matters.
Okay, so this has sort of always been true. But in the past couple of weeks, it has become some kind of super truth. Ask Rush Limbaugh, who clearly wishes Sandra Fluke had just been seen and not heard. Ask Rick Santorum, who views his wife as an inanimate object (“the rock upon which I stand,” but I’m sure he meant a rock with a classically beautiful shape). Ask Jonathan Franzen who blames novelist Edith Wharton’s failed marriage and husband’s mental illness on her success and lack of pretty. Ask the overly entitled Columbia students who refer to their female Barnard peers as “feminazis” and “cum dumpsters.”
When Peggy Orenstein and I discussed the Body Beautiful App last September, we had the same knee-jerk reaction: Why give girls yet another tool for obsessing about their looks? Even if the goal is body love, not body hate, why does it always, always, always come back to the body and beauty when we try to empower girls? As Peggy said then: “Wouldn’t it be better to get girls off the focus on body ENTIRELY? To realize that they are MORE than their bodies? MORE than how they look? To invest them with OTHER sources of self-esteem?”
The problem is how on earth do we do any of that on a micro girl-to-girl level when out in the wider world, the big picture message continues to be “are you pretty or ugly? Because that’s all anyone really wants to know.”
Here’s one idea: We need girls to make some new videos, asking some new questions. For starters, there’s the title question from Time editor Jessica Winter’s great op-ed: Are women people?
Just like “am I pretty?” this might at first sound like a question nobody should need to ask. But if there’s one thing I hope all of the girls posting these videos have learned, it’s that there are no stupid questions.
There are, however, some very stupid answers. And that’s the part we need to be working on.