03/08/2012 06:28 am ET Updated May 07, 2012

The Answer Is Pretty Ugly

"Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?" That question's been around for centuries, even before the Brothers Grimm placed Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in their 1812 collection of fairy tales. The story has variations but most contain a magical mirror, a beautiful young girl and a vain queen seeking an answer to that question daily.

It's been two centuries since the Brothers Grimm and, amazingly, that question and that magical mirror from Snow White are still around. Today, the magical mirror is called the internet. Instead of being clothed in a rhyme, the question being asked by today's preteen girls, and some boys, is blunt and to the point: "Am I pretty?" and its shadowed underside, "Am I ugly?"

As a professional counselor and certified eating disorder specialist, this latest internet phenomenon of preteens posting "Am I pretty?" or "Am I ugly?" videos to YouTube is profoundly distressing. I'm not so distressed about the questions, because those are normal for that age. Preteens need and want validation of their place in peer-dom, in the complex hierarchy that is the scaffolding of adolescence. To be included, to be accepted as a part of the group, is paramount. What really distresses me is the venue. When did the go-to group in seventh grade switch from Mrs. Hamilton's third period English class to vast masses on the internet? At least the kids in English know you, many of them growing up right alongside you. In Mrs. Hamilton's class, you may have a few mean girls who call you names and deride you openly, but you know where they live and what they looked like in sixth grade. With Mrs. Hamilton's class you have a natural connection, and hopefully at least a couple of friends who will support you and tell you the truth, which has nothing to do with what they see in a mirror. The internet is a much less friendly place, especially for preteens, with the only connection for some who post being a recreational desire to do harm.

The internet is huge and anonymous and anything but a level playing field where kids are concerned, but kids don't view it that way. The internet may not be their backyard, but it's their neighborhood; it's where they play and interact with one another. The internet is their special world, often hidden and secreted from their parents. In their naivety, kids believe the internet is a place they can be open and honest, and others will too. That's like Snow White believing the huntsman was there to guide her into the forest instead of sent to cut out her heart.

On second thought, I'm not just distressed about the venue. I'm also distressed about why this question, all its variations, is still being asked. After almost 30 years of working with girls struggling with self-esteem issues, distorted body image and eating disorders, I'm distressed that young girls are still out there tying sense of self to the way others perceive them physically. Why haven't we made more progress in the past two centuries?

I believe the answer lies in one of the pages I viewed on this story. Along the right side of the story was picture after picture of celebrities, with teaser headlines touting the latest star couples, who's working out at the gym, who had the best body in a bikini and, in true "Am I Ugly" fashion, who had the worst. Picture after picture after picture, story after story after story all claiming a current-day answer to "Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?"

Preteens continue to ask this question today because we do. Adults set the stage for value and worth. When adults place value and worth in appearance and youth and physical attractiveness, the young and innocent are adversely affected. Snow Whites still exist today because vain Queens do.

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