Am I Ugly?: Female Beauty, Digital Media, and the True Me
by Dara Persis Murray — Rutgers University
April 30, 2012 – 00:00
"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.