You may have heard about the disturbing teen Internet phenomenon called: "Am I Pretty Or Ugly?" As I type this, the tag on YouTube pulls up almost 500,000 results. It is a growing collection of personal videos made mostly by teens, asking viewers to weigh in on their appearances. I'll describe one here because I refuse to embed and drive more negative attention to the very young girls who are creating these public videos.
A young girl who looks around 12 or 13 is sitting in her living room with heavy eyeliner and a checkered blouse. She looks into the camera and says:
I'm making this video because I want to know if I'm pretty or not. My friends tell me that I'm pretty. It doesn't seem like I'm pretty though. Because people at school, they're like, 'You're not pretty at all, blah, blah, blah' and this and that ... It's pathetic because you walk around school and people think you're crazy or something because you think you're pretty.
The full video is more than four minutes long. It ends with her showing a series of photos of herself and asking viewers to leave a comment telling her if she is ugly or pretty.
Clutch Magazine wrote last week of the trend: "It's sad that young girls are out there seeking validation from a bunch of strangers." And the New York Post similarly claimed it was "systemic of a young culture obsessed with the superficial."
What's even more awful about this "new" online community -- it seems to make its headline rounds every few months or so -- is the way these mainstream media outlets talk about it. The young girls are shamed, and their intentions are dismissed as extreme self-obsession.
At HuffPost Teen, we recently published a brilliant essay by writer Meghan Harper called "Why I F***ing Love Teenage Girls," which you should read immediately if you have not. In it, Harper recounts her own experience as a preteen.
At 12, most girls understand real sadness. Twelve, though it seems so young to us now, felt really old at the time. By this point, you've already been told how to be, and realized that you're not measuring up. By 12, your skin is already shit, and your body is too flabby or your breasts haven't come in yet. Worst of all, when you're a girl, by 12 you've probably already been in a situation that made you feel threatened sexually.
According to researchers, age 9 is when girls begin to lose body confidence, and 20 to 40 percent of girls begin dieting at age 10. And according to another study, one in four teenage girls who have been in relationships reveal they have been pressured to perform oral sex or engage in intercourse. One in four.
Add in the "Who Wore It Better?" messaging these kids are bombarded by in their entertainment (and please take a moment to remember that their once beloved Facebook began as a "hot or not?" website called Facemash), and it's no surprise girls develop this troubling template for how they're supposed to judge themselves and each other.
We cannot blame teen girls for the ferociously sexist social environment they have no choice but to live in. Maybe what the girls in these YouTube videos are saying isn't: I don't feel pretty. Maybe it's actually: I feel completely powerless when it comes to my sexuality.
Another way to look at it is this: Teen and tween girls are using these online platforms as a way to have control over or participate in a conversation about their appearance that they feel is already happening around them. Scratch that -- a conversation they know is already happening around them.
In fact, the "Am I Pretty?" videos are a terrifying illustration of an abusive cycle at its worst. Think about it: We're essentially forcing girls to participate in their own self-abuse and then blaming them for it. And look at the comments on the "Am I Pretty?" videos -- they are a torrential stream of anonymous, unfathomably vicious bullying, often coming from adult voices.
So, when you want to talk about how to help these complicated, heartbreaking communities of young women, please stop relying on our tired, sexist caricature of the "attention-seeking" teen girl.
By doing this, you are confirming their biggest fear -- that it's not just the kids in the hallways at school who are judging them, it's everyone.