THE BLOG
12/13/2013 03:49 pm ET | Updated Feb 12, 2014

'Am I Ugly?' A Massive Online Community Reveals Surprising Truths About Body Insecurity

People are social animals: it's in our nature to crave approval from those around us, and it's only normal to want to be accepted -- and, more than that, admired. In this image-obsessed society, it makes sense that we'd want to get an idea of what others see when they look at us. Are we pretty, or are we ugly?

That's the question behind "Am I Ugly?", a 35,000-strong community on Reddit.com. Here, anyone aged 16 and over can post a photo of themselves to ask for feedback, and the answers they receive from the community's thousands of readers can be brutally honest. It's not a question that people ask just for fun -- the countless submissions mention serious life troubles such as breakups, infidelity, depression, and low self-esteem. Those who frequent Am I Ugly are quite often genuinely distressed about their looks, and concerned about how this could be impacting their social lives.

From a sample of 1,000 random posts on Am I Ugly, PsychGuides.com conducted an analysis of who's posting photos, who's judging them, and whether any of them are even all that ugly. One of their most surprising findings was that most of the community is male -- 4 out of 5 users. That hardly fulfills the common stereotype that girls are the ones obsessed with their looks. While this could be partially explained by Reddit's userbase, 59-84 percent of which is estimated to be male, it's still remarkable that a community dedicated solely to judging each other's looks would attract so many men.

Even more notably, the community tends to be very young. While the average age of all Reddit users has been cited as ranging anywhere from 24 to 35, the average age of Am I Ugly users is 19 for men, and 18 for women. A massive 62 percent of posts were by women aged 18 or under -- and 41 percent by men in the same age range. In contrast, merely 8 percent of these posts were by women 25 or older, and only 14 percent by men that age. Overall, the oldest posters PsychGuides.com found were a 38-year-old man, and a 35-year-old woman. The youngest? Am I Ugly's minimum age: 16-year-old boys and girls.

In one post, a 21-year-old woman asks bluntly: "What's wrong with my face?" She explains that she's "never felt very pretty", and laments her "big" forehead and how bangs make her face "look fat." The woman, a brunette with smooth skin, bright eyes and a well-proportioned face, is hardly unattractive. And nearly all of the comments agree, reassuring her that she's "very attractive," and "nothing is wrong with her face." (Others go even further, mentioning her sexual appeal or accusing her of "fishing for compliments.") It's clear that, despite her own insecurities, nearly everyone is able to recognize the obvious: that she looks just fine.

So, are these good-looking users really just fishing for compliments, or do they genuinely have a distorted perception of how they look? Post after post follows this same pattern, as users relay their anxieties about their looks and focus in on the features that concern them the most -- the top four being their hair, weight, nose, and eyes. This is remarkably in line with the features that sufferers of body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) most often worry about: their nose, skin, eyes, and hair. BDD is set apart by its severity, causing so much distress in sufferers that it greatly impairs their daily lives. While it's likely not so bad for the denizens of Am I Ugly, the resemblance is striking.

We can see the patterns in those who ask the community to judge their looks. But what about those doing the judging -- what are these people like? Perhaps not surprisingly in a community comprised mostly of men, women receive 54 replies on average, compared to only 14 for men. That means people are replying to women's posts more than three times as often. The trend is even clearer when looking at the most and least popular posts within PsychGuides.com's 1,000-post sample. Of the 100 which received the most replies, 66 were from women -- but of the 100 least-replied, 99 were from men. Even as men are the clear majority of the community, women still receive a majority of the judgment and scrutiny. It seems that almost everyone has an opinion on how women look, and they're more than ready to share it.

Attractiveness also seems to play a role in determining how many replies a post receives. Looking at the top 10 most-replied, and bottom 10 least-replied posts from men and women, those receiving the most responses certainly seem to have above-average looks. Yet even those with the least responses are hardly eyesores -- they, too, seem to have at least an average appearance, even if they're not exactly supermodels.

These users have asked thousands of people to tell them if they're ugly. What's the ultimate answer? It appears that, for even the least popular posters, their fear and self-doubt are hardly warranted. Looking at these normal, everyday people, it's hard to see them as being as flawed or unlovable as they often believe they are. Am I Ugly may have proven that the old adage is true: we really can be our own worst critics.

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