Homemade YouTube videos in general are not for the faint of heart. But a specific strain of postings by preteen girls is especially distressing to watch. They belong to a genre called “Am I Pretty or Ugly”—YouTube features almost 500,000 of them—and follow a wrenching, informal script.
“Hey guys,” says the young girl in heavy eye makeup. She fidgets and tosses her hair. “I have an important question for you guys, ’cause I hear a lot, from, like, my friends and boys, that I’m really pretty. Or they say I’m really ugly. And I just want to know the truth.”
“I just wanted to ask the world,” explains another one, picking up the thread. “Am I pretty?” Her face lights up for a moment as she shrugs shyly. “Or ugly?” She pouts and looks down.
“I’m going to show you pictures of myself from random times,” says a tween with a topknot and iridescent eye shadow. “You can feel free to, like, leave some comments in the comment section below.”
“The answer is NOT ‘attention whore’,” insists a fourth DIY videographer.
“Please say nice things,” implores a fifth. “Even if you say I’m ugly, just be like, ‘you’re ugly.’ Don’t be like, ‘EW UGLY’ or something like that.” She grins, raises two fingers in a peace sign. “Thank you SO MUCH, bye.”
The trend of young girls—usually 9 to 14—putting their looks on e-trial dates to at least 2011; in early 2012 a flurry of blog posts gave it wider exposure. Back then, experts weighed in, describing the practice as a “self-destructive coping mechanism” or “a new form of self-mutilation.” Some thought that the videos represented an Internet-era spin on middle school social anxiety, or expressed an appearance-related masochism that was particularly female. Ghastly comments were sighed over, from the creepy and lascivious (“those are some good tits message me”) to the cruel (“pathetic…go fuck yourself”) to the racist (“All black girls look the same”). In typical/weird YouTube style, those troll-y notes coexist with compliments (“you are really pretty”), concern (“You don’t need their opinion! It doesn’t matter what is on the outside!”), real talk (“whatever ur fine”) and beauty tips (“maybe you should grow bangs”).
Now, POU videos are back in the news. Wired reports on British performance artist Louise Orwin’s Pretty Ugly project, a three-part experiment involving Orwin’s own (fake) POU clips, a live performance in London, and a call for feminist dialogue and debate around “our relationship with the internet and social media.”
“Why do it?” Orwin wonders on her web site. “Are these little girls so brave? Or is there something going on underneath?”
I’m not sure, but after spending a few hours in the POU rabbit hole, I was struck by the copycat/viral component to the posts. At first, the girls just seem bored and looking for something to shoot a YouTube flick about. “A lot of people have made these videos,” they’ll start, “so I was inspired to do my own.” Then, as the camera continues to roll, self-consciousness creeps in. One girl says, with studied nonchalance, “I’ve watched a lot of videos like this, and I’d say most of them are pretty, but I want to know about me.”
This desire—to know about me, via strangers on the Internet—is familiar. We all manage our Facebook profiles and count the likes on our Instagram feeds at least in part because we crave the feedback. You get the sense that the YouTube kids, if they can’t be reassured, at least want to be evaluated. The old adage, “there’s no such thing as bad publicity,” has morphed to apply to not just celebs but all of us: In the age of Real Housewives and Kim Kardashian, the line between positive and negative attention is blurred. Awash in social media, tweens are crowd-sourcing their search for identity, seeking confirmation simply that they’re there. One girl titled her video, “Am I ugly pretty beautiful or NOTHING?” Anything has to be better than nothing, right?
A few of the videos are painfully, nakedly sad. They are, probably, what the experts meant when they brought up “self-mutilation.” One young woman asks in a soft voice, “I have a question. People tell me this all the time, so, I dunno. Is it true? People say I’m ugly. So tell me, am I?”
But there are also the cute, popular girls mugging for their laptops. One has smeared her eyelids with shadow and pulled her hair into a side ponytail. She smiles coyly, feigns insecurity: “All the girls in my class are like, you’re prettier than me! You’re the prettiest girl in the class and win homecoming queen every year, which I do, but I’m not bragging because I don’t even want to! They’re all like, you’re the prettiest and I’m like, no I’m not!” Maybe she craves validation; maybe she is secretly consumed by doubt. Either way, she looks like she’s having an awesome time.
The POU videos can be aggressively sexual—one girl scores a selfie slideshow with Khia’s uncensored “My Neck, My Back”—or hostile: “Fuck you for not commenting,” blurts another. (Then she considers for a moment and adds quickly: “Unless you don’t have an account, in which case I totally understand.”) But by far the most common type of post is casual, low-key. It is full of hollow bravura: I don’t care, say whatever you want. “I mean you can tell me the complete truth,” promises one tween. “I get called ugly and pretty a lot. My parents call me pretty and boys call me ugly but I don’t care because they’re boys.” Or: “I’m not going to change it or anything if I am [ugly]…I don’t really care about people’s opinions…I just wanted to know.”
The many, many variations on the “I don’t care” theme raise an obvious, tragic question. Then why are you asking?
I reached out to some of the YouTube girls and heard back from one a few hours later. She was 14 years old at the time she posted the video, and is 16 now. “I give you and Slate magazine permission to talk about my fabulous video and my fabulous self,” she wrote. A little later, on the phone, she gushed that posting her POU video was “one of the best decisions of my life.” “I’m more known at school now,” she added, explaining that her clip had garnered almost 20,000 views.
When I asked her about the mean comments, she brushed them aside. “I know I’m gorgeous,” she said. “Like, so pretty. So what other people think doesn’t matter to me.”
But she didn’t project that kind of confidence in her video. Wearing a sweatshirt and not much makeup, her younger self looks away from the camera and mumbles a little. She confides that some boys called her ugly. She wants to know what YouTube thinks. On the phone, pressed about why she went through the trouble of posing the POU question if the answer didn’t matter, she said she hoped “to see what people would say,” as if the point of the project were judging Internet trolls, rather than being judged. Yet when I asked her whether any of the comments stuck with her, she turned thoughtful. “Someone said I had cute hair but a fat nose. It was really funny. I know I have a fat nose. I’m going to get plastic surgery when I’m older because I’ll be rich and successful.”
I asked if being pretty was really important in life. She said: “Yes. It can get you a lot of places.” I asked about personality. She said: “Personality is important too.” I asked which was more important. Dutifully, she recited, “Personality is what really matters.”
Were her parents onboard with the POU video? “Oh yeah. I showed them the comments and we just laughed. If I’m ugly it’s their fault because they created me. But I know I’m not because my mom is a MILF and my dad is a DILF.”
Talking to this girl didn’t help me get any closer to pinpointing what’s wrong, or right, with the POU videos. It’s sad that young girls are so preoccupied by their physical appearance. It’s sad that they solicit the opinions of anonymous strangers. But what if they really are able to laugh at the vileness of the commenters? Is that preparing them for life as adults? Might they one day achieve the devil-may-care outlook they’re affecting? What if creatively engaging with their insecurities becomes a way of banishing them? I hate the POU videos, but maybe they’re no more self-destructive than self-destructive things tweens have always done. We all need validation, we just ask in different ways.