“Am I Pretty or Ugly?”
That’s the disturbing question preteen girls–mainly between 9 and 14 years old—are asking anonymous viewers on YouTube.
Nearly 500,000 videos (often referred to as "POUs") have been posted under that genre since 2011, and that figure is only climbing.
In one video—seen below— a young girl with heavy eye makeup slowly explains that she has been bullied and called ugly in school. She says her friends rushed to tell her otherwise and how “jealous” they were of her.
“Don’t be jealous! What’s there to be jealous of?” the young girl says to the camera. “I’m making this video because I want to know if I’m pretty or not.” The clip continues with a series of photos the girl has taken of herself in a variety of poses and outfits, including a shot of her face as she lies in bed.
The video was posted over a year ago and has garnered over 520,000 to date. But what’s telling is that people continue to seek them out and comment on them every day. Unsurprisingly, the most recent answers range from parent-like advice such as “Sweety get off YouTube and be a kid” to the downright cruel “Get a f**king life.”
And now the trend is taking a life of its own outside of the internet.
British live performance artist Louise Orwin, 26, has created a play now out in London, Pretty Ugly, which is based off her own research into the trend and experiences posting POU videos.
“I feel like people need to know about these trends so we can talk to these girls and ask them why they think their appearance is the most important thing and maybe to help them understand that shouldn’t be the case,” she told Fusion. “I felt we live in a society which is obsessed with this idea of the importance of how we look being so highly rated above any other attributes we might have – our ideas, our voices.”
Pretending to pose as a 15-year-old girl, Orwin created three different online personalities – including a Britney Spears wannabe — and posted similar videos of her own in order to explore the relationship young girls have with the internet.
Orwin says the process of taking on these characters became both a personal and emotional journey for her.
“I remember there was one morning that I woke up and I just had hundreds and hundreds of YouTube notification e-mails. I just read all of this language which was so direct and so abusive. It was hard to split that off – my professional and personal life. I felt it in my stomach,” she said. “It was just the idea that these girls weren’t necessarily approaching posting these videos in the same way as I was, as an experiment…the idea that they would get these comments, girls much younger than me, much more vulnerable, that really upset me.”
After analyzing the comments she received during the experiment, Orwin found that 70 percent of the feedback came from men. The lot of these came from individuals over the age of 18 who also sent her private message soliciting additional videos.
It’s enough to make anyone cringe but are we really that surprised this is actually a thing? After all, most of the girls uploading these clips to YouTube were either born or grew up during the advent of Myspace, Facebook, and other social media platforms.
“Our generation was so different…we went through the same issues that today’s teenage generation are going through but they were very private to us” Orwin said when asked about her own childhood. “We would write in our diaries and we would tell a handful of our closest friends. But today’s generation are broadcasting all these very private issues in a very public way.”
Orwin’s answer got me thinking– do these girls know any better?
Are these girls not simply emulating the social media obsessed adults they currently see on the web? Some may even be their parents. After all, people of all age groups now overshare the minutiae of their personal lives.
Is this really any different than a 25-year-old woman posting a risqué selfie on Facebook and waiting for her friends to “Like” it and comment on her body? What about the thousands of attention-seeking adults in videos that go viral?
Those women may not be shyly looking into a camera and flat out asking the question “Am I Pretty or Ugly?”, but that’s because their actions already provoke the question.
We live in a world that is constantly seeking approval and affirmation from others. These girls are unfortunately just following in our footsteps. What’s so distressing is how young these girls are starting and the ensuing long term effects.
Each generation experiences its own version of what some experts call “self mutilation.” In the era of the Internet this behavior has become more public, yet not any less painful.
But Orwin says her work has brought up a productive discussion from women of all ages about self esteem issues, and has especially received positive feedback from young girls who have opened up to her about the pressures they face on social media.
“I’m not an expert in any way. I’m an artist making a work about my experiences,” said Orwin. “But if we can start talking about my experiences and enable other people to talk about their experiences, then maybe we can debate and discuss and find a solution.”