A tentative face of a twelve year old girl fills the screen as she leans forward to adjust the webcam. “Hi guys,” she says, as if she’s talking to an intimate group of friends. She’s about to ask what might seem like a quite personal question – but she’s asking it to an anonymous audience. She doesn’t know the many viewers who will find this clip on YouTube, but she wants their feedback.
The question: “Am I pretty?” She follows with an assurance, “You can tell me the truth – I can take it.”
By now, many of you have seen this story, first featured on the Today Show. This trend – girls posting videos online and asking “am I pretty or am I ugly” might be something that’s familiar to only a few real girls – but it does seem somewhat symbolic of the way girls in a particularly vulnerable stage of development, and the way a cohort who is used to feedback on their every thought might be more likely to do than any generation before them.
Despite girl-power, girl achievement, and girls leading in many domains in which they live, tween girls are still very aware that looks matter. According to data from YouthBeat, while 15% of tweens say they wouldn’t change anything about themselves, 48% of all tweens – boys and girls – mention wanting to change some aspect of their appearance if they could. Only 4% wished to be smarter (and this skewed boy) and another 4% wanted to be rich.
It might be easy to attribute blame to popular culture, and the unattainable images about beauty that dominate their magazines and screens. But some of the women this age group admires most seem to be saying the right thing, albeit from fairly beautiful faces. Selena Gomez challenges, “Who says you’re not perfect?” Katy Perry encourages them to let their light shine…Taylor Swift identifies herself with the girl sitting on the sidelines – not the cheerleader – in her “You Belong With Me.” And Lady Gaga? She couldn’t challenge the notions of conventional beauty any more…
So who is giving girls reason to re-think their self-worth? It’s not news that girls this age feel like all eyes are on them. And it’s also more timeless truth than timely trend that their bodies begin to betray them in ways that make this stage full of awkwardness and angst. And groups of girls have turned to slambooks in which girls write their name at the top of a page, and pass it to their friends, who write what they really think of their best feature, the thing they hate about them, what they should change about themselves, etc. Like “The Book” in Mean Girls, these tween sleepover mainstays were often filled with less than flattering feedback. It’s clear that this generation didn’t start, and likely will not end, the practice of girls putting each other down.
But what is different today is the public forum in which feedback is given. Posting a picture on Facebook might leave you open to an unsolicited comment from a friend. But even more menacing are sites like Formspring, whose seemingly innocent device of asking a question of the crowd so you can “get to know your friends” can go terribly wrong when someone names names in their questions. And the story described above shows that YouTube can be a space for finding fun clips, or a venue for victimization.
Clearly, some girls offered their peers support. Many girls know that “inner beauty” is supposed to matter more. But for these girls, the reality of crowdsourcing might be countering all the messages they’re getting from those they admire. When it comes to girls’ self-confidence, aspirational images might be much less damaging than the need for acceptance by their peers.