“Am I Pretty or Ugly” Videos a Symptom of Toxic Media Culture

In recent years, young girls have been posting videos of themselves to YouTube, asking one question: “Am I pretty or ugly?” Over 500,000 of these videos are online, and they’re heart-wrenching to watch.

In addition to being incredibly sad, these videos draw misogynistic trolls out of the woodwork. They slam the girls with vitriolic comments, made fearless by their anonymity.

I participated in a Huffington Post Live segment today to discuss the issue. The host and my fellow panelists raised important points, including:

  • the fact that new technologies (camera phones, tablets, etc) make these videos all too easy for kids to create;
  • that cyberbullying is linked to anonymity, which allows people to say terrible things online;
  • that it’s problematic to judge girls for making these posts—that shaming them shouldn’t be the focus of our conversations on the issue;
  • that adult supervision is critical–that parents need to be on top of their kids’ internet use;
  • and that parents need develop open relationships with their children–relationships that will encourage kids to feel comfortable telling their parents about problems online.

As for me, my major point was this: These videos must be considered in a broader social context, for that context is really detrimental to girls’ self-images and self-esteem.

Think about how girls are raised in our society. From a very early age, girls are bombarded with the message that their appearance really matters. While little boys are praised for their interests and abilities, little girls inevitably hear endless comments about their looks. “You’re so cute!” “Isn’t she pretty.” “I love your dress!” “What pretty hair you have.” “You look like a princess.” It’s often hard for adults to remember to talk with girls in other, healthier ways.

From what they see in the media and from their experiences in everyday life, girls take away one message: that how they look is the most important thing about them. That they are valued for their appearance above all else. As a result, countless little girls become hooked on receiving feedback on their appearances.

As girls grow older, they see that attractive girls and women are indeed treated as being more valuable than those who are unattractive. Girls’ sense of self-worth therefore becomes linked to what others think of their looks.  They seek reassurance that, despite the changes wrought by adolescence, they still have value—that they are still worthy of love.

It is in this context that girls as young as eight ask the internet, “Am I pretty or ugly?” It’s not happening in a vacuum. That’s why when adults snipe that the girls are ridiculous for making these videos, that they should just cut it out, we’re missing the point. In the end, these videos are like canaries in a coal mine: They are evidence that our culture is highly toxic to girls.

Rebecca Hains is a media studies professor at Salem State University. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

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