The Pretty Ugly project: Why do young girls turn to YouTube and ask people to judge their looks?

The girls are throwing themselves into the jaws of the trolling community


It's 2012. I'm posing as three teenage girls - Becky, Baby and Amanda - and I'm posting videos of myself on YouTube asking its viewers to tell me whether I'm pretty or ugly. The 15-year-old inside me is screaming/confused/cringed-out.

Why am I doing this? Last year as part of my research into the ways teenage girls use social media, I stumbled across a YouTube trend where girls are doing exactly this: posting videos of themselves (sometimes dressed, sometimes in a bikini), asking viewers to tell them whether they are pretty or ugly. There are thousands of these videos, and the average age of the girls is 8-13 years old. Often accompanied by a pulsing pop soundtrack and a dim view into a messy teenage bedroom, these girls pout and pose their way through the videos. I was struck by how earnest they were: 'Guys, I just really need to know... So comment down below, or message me ok? Oh and subscribe! Peace.'

Now, in 2013, and here's some of what I learnt from my YouTube experiment: I'm ugly, I should lose the glasses, I should f**k off and die, I shouldn't post these videos, I should 'send nudes'. I've estimated that 70 per cent of feedback was negative. Surprised? I didn't think so. The results of my experiment are not much different to any of the other girls posting these videos. So why post them?

As a teenager, I remember wanting answers to similar questions, but there was no way I would have walked up to a stranger and asked them to rate my looks. In some way it strikes me as quite a brave deed - surely the girls know they are throwing themselves like little posey-little-lambs into the jaws of the trolling community? Perhaps their desire for real, impartial answers overrides this? Or maybe they have noticed similar videos online and they just fancy hopping on the bandwagon - hoping that one day they might reach the dizzying heights of 'YouTube-Superstar'?

I'm curious how my generation differed to this current generation of teenagers. My first fleeting awareness of the internet was: perverts, superfluous Hotmail accounts, MSN messenger. Dangerous and surplus all at once. Skip forward a few years and I remember the arrival of Facebook. I remember the novelty and joy of that platform transforming over my university years into paranoia and anxiety - a feeling of detagdetagdetag, of why-the-f**k-is-everyone-having-so-much-more-fun-than-me-loserishness. [If I sound like a teenager, that's intentional].

What are the repercussions of growing up with social media; with its constant reblogging and retweeting; its selfies; its emphasis on self-editing? What is the effect on how we perceive ourselves and each other? And when did it become so OK to be brazen about the fact that you are appearance-obsessed? These questions make up the basis of my new theatre show in which I present the results of my YouTube experiment and my research from working with teenage girls, I roller-skate back into my own teenage mind – and, of course, challenge the audience to rate whether I’m pretty or ugly, too.

What stays with me from my research is the following: I found the majority of commenters on my videos were male. Most female commenters left positive comments whereas the majority of male comments left more than a little to be desired. I also received many private messages from men... need I say more?

I wonder just how much the internet is doing for the feminist cause. In the last year we've seen how its power can unite feminists worldwide; has helped those communities grow and be heard. But on the other hand the results of this internet project speak of a darker, and frankly misogynist, undercurrent. People often celebrate the web’s culture of anonymity: it encourages free speech and gives people a chance to show their true colours. But is this an insight into what people really feel, or are there grounds to wonder whether anonymity just encourages cyber-bullying?

And as for the girls, why? I asked many, and still don't have much of an understanding. But it might have something to do with living in a society which prizes the appearance of women much more highly than it does their actions, their voices.

I understand that not all teenagers act in this way. The Pretty Ugly project aims to raise awareness of this trend, sense what it’s like to be part of it – and shed some light on wider ways in which we’re treating and viewing girls and young women, and how damaging that can be to young minds. I hope that by working with teenage girls I can help them to care a little less about their appearance, and help their voices be heard.

'Pretty Ugly' is a theatre show and a campaign. Find out more here: Pretty Ugly' runs 23 Oct to 9 Nov, Camden People's Theatre, London

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin

£13676.46 - £16411.61 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment Cons...

Ashdown Group: Marketing or Business Graduate Opportunity - Norwich - £22,000

£18000 - £22000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Business and Marketing Gr...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Are you great at building rela...

Ashdown Group: Database Analyst - Birmingham - £22,000 plus benefits

£20000 - £22000 per annum + excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Application Sup...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Labour leader Ed Miliband unveils Labour's pledges carved into a stone plinth in Hastings  

Election 2015: Smash two-party system! Smash the voting system!

Armando Iannucci
Tactical voting is a necessary evil of the current first-past-the-post system, where voters vote against what they do not want rather than in favour of what they do  

Election 2015: Voting tactically has become more fraught in the new political order

Michael Ashcroft
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power