Am I Ugly?: Female Beauty, Digital Media, and the True Me

Curator's Note

"Am I Ugly?" is a personal, self-conscious question often asked among friends and family. It is also at the center of a YouTube phenomenon wherein girls as young as age eleven pose the query to unknown, presumably unbiased viewers. In response, the viewers assess the girls as ugly/pretty and their body parts as aesthetically pleasing or socially unacceptable.

In soliciting replies to "Am I Ugly?," these vloggers appear to have made the decision that they want to be judged on their appearance. At first glance, this choice and these subjects are anchored in postfeminist culture, emphasizing the external over the internal, taking responsibility for future work on the self through others’ feedback, and standing in opposition to feminist voices that decry such assessment. Moreover, the videos can be seen as a vehicle for insta-celebrity since the vloggers have an audience (many videos have received a few thousand hits, some even millions), thanks in part to media attention.

Why, then, do the vloggers frequently note that they want "the truth" about their appearance? The accompanying clips demonstrate the vloggers’ sense of frankness in inquiring "Am I Ugly?," suggesting that if they are the ones doing the asking, they are in control of others’ opinions of their beauty. However, the anxious tone of many of the vlogs, as well as the duration (ranging from 5 seconds to a few minutes), indicates that while they ask viewers to "be honest," the creation of their texts reinforces the pain attached to their question.

The "Am I Ugly" phenomenon can be read as a sign of the times, yet it also raises concern about whether girls and young women can handle “the truth” that they are inviting. By intertwining the realization of their true selves with the audience’s judgment of appearance, the users’ comments can potentially translate into vloggers’ loss of self-esteem and cyberbullying. On the other hand, this phenomenon suggests that female vloggers may be looking for ways to move beyond the beauty dilemma.

While their communication suggests that feminist concerns about female conflict with beauty is not passé, it does indicate that the identity negotiation of girls and women with such matters has resulted in them asking inherently disempowering questions and participating in problematic self-assessments and user interactions. Although the "Am I Ugly?" vlogs may be an attempt towards problem solving institutional beauty messages, they are not the way to get there.

Comments

Zara Dinnen's picture

Framing ugly

Dara— thanks for this post, really interesting. 

I guess in addition to the points you make it is interesting seeing these videos at such low res and thinking about how the medium actually obscures the images of the girls. The judgement they invite is predicated on a really particular kind of seeing/presentation. By demanding to be judged through the medium of vlogging (and discounting the opinions of those family and friends around them) they seem to be asking not whether they are ugly per se but whether they are ugly on screen. 

Not sure if this fits back into your point about "insta-celebrity"— perhaps their question (in its presentation in a vlog) will always refer us back to that medium, framing their image and their self-description within the affordances of YouTube. 

Don’t mean for this point to do away the personal; as you say, the intimacy of their asking the question is acutely present. 

 

 

Eric LeMay's picture

Sorting Out Honesty

Thanks for this interesting post, Dara.  You’re certainly right that these clips make for a fascinating and disturbing phenomenon.

Like Zara, I’m struck by the role that the medium plays in this “identity negotiation.”  Not only do these girls ask for a public assessment of their beauty through a (new) media culture that’s often decried as the very source of adolescents’ anxieties about their looks, but they also receive a huge response from that culture in the form of user comments.  The "mirror, mirror" of media speaks back.

The sheer amount of this commentary, ranging from clichés to abuse, is staggering, and in the case of TheChippywolf’s post, she seems fully aware of the sorts of responses she’ll get.  “I want you to know if you think I’m pretty, fat, ugly, retarded.”  She also seems aware of the often arbitrary nature of these responses: “I don’t care if you like or dislike the video.  You can do whatever you want.”  

Her attitude leads me to think that the “honest” answer which these vloggers are hoping to receive is anything but simple, straightforward honesty.  One comment might be direct, but 534 comments require an impressive amount of parsing, interpretation, and collating to distill them down to some sort of answer.  But maybe I’ve got that wrong.  Maybe the continuous flow of answers, attention, and debate among the commentators is part of the draw?

Lyndsey Beutin's picture

pretty or ugly? ugly or pretty?

Thank you for this post, Dara. I was struck by the anxiety of the girl in the second video. She seems to be using the video to work out what exactly she wants to get from her inquiry. It almost seemed like she wanted strangers to reinforce her certainty that she was ugly. Despite beginning with "pretty" by saying "a lot of people think I am pretty, a lot of people think I am ugly," she doubts the truth of her friends opinions that she is pretty. She first asks "Am I pretty, fat, or ugly?," again privileging the pretty, but then continues to repeat the question in different adjective order, until finally she leads the viewer to the response she wants to hear. Her final question is "Am I fat, ugly, ……or pretty?"

Alternatively, does the process itself - including the repetition of the idea that people think she’s ugly - erode her self-esteem to the point that she reorders the adjectives to emphasis the ugly?

Thanks, Zara

Zara, You raise some great points - expanding on your insight, perhaps the difficulty in actually seeing the vloggers underscores their anxiety at being seen, even though they are asking to be. That is, these vlogs capture the producer’s sense of the pleasure and pain in being seen at all, "truthfully" or not. While these girls/women may rise to prominence because of their ostensible demand to be seen, the ambiguity in their message may be part of the fascination with the phenomenon, contributing to audience interest and the vloggers’ insta-celebrity. ~ Dara

Thanks, Eric

Eric, You’re definitely right about the complexities of the responses, and I lean towards thinking that the vloggers would prefer not to have to do the distilling of responses themselves. It would be easy enough for them to avoid that process by modifying their question to something like, "Am I Ugly? Write yes or no in the user comments" (though I doubt that this would be a less problematic way to engage with this issue). Since they don’t rephrase the question along those lines – despite giving the impression that they are looking to make their beauty, and perhaps more broadly the ideology of dominant female beauty, something that is objective (and they use digital media as a way to do so) – I wonder whether such a simplification of beauty is something that they (or we as a culture) really want. ~ Dara

Thanks, Lyndsey

Lyndsey, Thanks for your comments. The vlogger’s communication surely speaks to her desire to control the outcome of the question, yet her experience of power (or lack of it?) in this process may reinforce low self-esteem — or, perhaps, since the feedback aligns with her belief system, it may "empower" her by giving her "the truth" that she knew already. Whether I consider this self-fulfilling prophecy to underscore agency, though, is a topic for another post! ~ Dara

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