When I was in fourth grade, the boys made a list of the ten prettiest girls in the class. My best friend was number one. Though I was not on the list at all, I don’t remember being terribly upset. Being one of three non-white girls in the class, I hadn’t expected to make the list. My parents told me that I was beautiful every day, but even at the age of nine, I understood that there were different standards of beauty in different environments. At home I might be beautiful, but at school pretty and me didn’t even fit in the same sentence. In some ways not being pretty freed me. I was able to be the funny one, the fast runner, the flexible gymnast, the one who wrote stories.
In other ways, though, it made me feel less than the girls who had made the list. The fact that there even was such a list made me start thinking about “pretty”—the thing I was not. In fact, this list may have been one little brick out of many that built my road to an eating disorder.
Today these boys would be considered bullies, now that the definition has expanded to include all those who put down and victimize in ways to which they themselves are not susceptible. At the time, however, they were only making “personal observations.” I like to think that they didn’t mean to hurt anyone, that they were simply oblivious to their power.
In any case, the list popped into my mind while I was reading an article in last Sunday’s New York Times. It involved a girl with poor body image and a fragile sense of self, a YouTube video and some brutal comments from angry, mean-spirited people. The result wasn’t, but could well have been, tragic.
In the New York Times article, Tell Me What You See, Even if it Hurts Me, by Douglas Quenqua, a thirteen-year-old girl turned to YouTube to answer a burning question: Am I Ugly or Pretty? The responses she got ranged from positive to brutally honest, to downright cruel. Another girl posting a similar video received a comment recommending suicide.
Thankfully, the girl didn’t take that dire advice, but another child might have. We all know that cyber bullying has led more than a few targets to take their own lives. The internet allows anyone—of any description, any position, any age—to be a co-conspirator.
In my day (we’re talking the 1970’s and 1980’s), you knew who the mean kids were. They name-called, stuck signs on people’s backs, sent notes with nasty messages, played tricks, and made crank phone calls. They tripped people the cafeteria or stole their clothes during gym. They made exclusive lists. These were awful things at the time, but they seem quaint and cliché—the stuff of John Hughes’s films—compared with what today’s bullies can dish out with the click of a mouse.
Pre-internet, anything a mean kid (or adult) did could be traced back to the perpetrator with minimal effort. Victims might keep quiet for fear of retaliation, but they knew the faces and names of those who picked on them. Today’s bullies have the luxury of total anonymity. A clever username, a cute cartoon character or slick silhouette image masks anyone’s identity. The comments section serves as an arena to tear down the self concept of anyone who dares venture in. The “haters” are a group anyone can join with no ID card, and more importantly, no consequences.
What hasn’t changed—despite our efforts, as parents, educators, therapists and bloggers, despite Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth and Dr. Mary Pipher’s Reviving Ophelia—is the abundance of young girls with poor self images, who seek approval from the most questionable sources.
I looked and found, as Quenqua reports, that there is a proliferation of “Am I pretty?” videos on YouTube. Some of the girls look as young as nine, imploring viewers: “Be honest, I can take it.” While some comments are supportive—for example, “U R beautiful. It doesn’t matter what other people think”—other comments are pretty ruthless. One compares the subject to human excrement, another says, “Yes U R ugly, plz die.”
This directed at eight- to fifteen-year-old girls. You might ask, what did these kids expect? This kind of query, posed on the internet, is an open invitation to the most vile among us. Why would anyone post something like this? Because these girls are young, because they are afraid to ask people close to them—afraid to hear lies or truth from those whose faces they know—and because they think an objective opinion from strangers will reassure them, rather than feeding their fears of inadequacy.
I remember the self-doubt of being thirteen. By that time I’d moved beyond the list from fourth grade. For better or for worse, pretty no longer felt unattainable. But suddenly looks mattered more—for more reasons. I remember asking those questions. Do I look bad? Do I look fat? When you are a dancer, as I was, you stare in the mirror for hours each day, constantly checking for—and attempting to correct—flaws. What you see starts to play tricks on you. Whether you approve or disapprove of your image depends on your mood. How many times did I say to a friend—or have that friend say to me,
“I can’t tell what I look like any more. Am I hideous?”
Of course we knew we weren’t hideous but we needed constant reassurance. We were young and driven; our bodies were changing and so were our perceptions of ourselves and the world. We were also ashamed—not just of our bodies—but of this very need to hear that we were okay. That’s why “Am I pretty?” was the kind of question a self-worth-doubting young girl would pose only to a close, trusted friend. Maybe to her mother or sister.
Now, girls turn to the internet—the anonymous, opinionated majority—with their most intimate questions and confessions. The sharks are ready and waiting.
As a therapist and writer, I always seek to understand the motivation behind bad behavior. I do not believe that anyone is innately evil. Nevertheless, there are some people out there who are always in the market for a victim on whom to work out their own personal rage against the world. The internet empowers the inventive cruelty of these cowards. Again and again their victims are young, vulnerable girls.
It’s up to all of us—parents, teachers, therapists, all responsible adults—to stop the cycle of damage. That means teaching our children to love who they are—which sounds hokey, but it’s essential—not what they look like. I’d love to take each of these self-flagellating video-makers aside and ask her, “Who are you really? What matters to you besides how you look? What do you love to do? Do you play sports? Music? Write poems? Make your friends laugh?”
Those are the questions we need to encourage these girls to ponder. Not “Am I pretty?”
I’m not saying appearance doesn’t matter. I know there have been numerous studies suggesting that good-looking people have better lives—get treated better, make more money—than so-called unattractive people. But are those studies—which measure inborn physical gifts as opposed to aspects of ourselves that we can control—helpful to anyone? Instead of encouraging our daughters to present themselves nicely, let’s teach them to embrace who they are as individuals. Let’s take time to learn who they are for ourselves while we’re at it.
Here are some ideas to get your daughter’s mind off “pretty”:
- Don’t fuss over your daughter’s clothes or hair more than she does. (It took me years to learn this. I think I got there in time. I could fill a whole post with that lesson, but I am honoring my daughter’s request that I stop blogging about her.)
- Encourage activities that capitalize on something other than the physical: coding, robotics, music, writing.
- Encourage sports, which emphasize what the body can do more than how it looks doing it.
- If she dances, or acts, or does anything stage-related, compliment her on the achievement; don’t focus on her appearance. (With dance, you can say, “you danced beautifully,” which celebrates the images she creates with her body, but not her body itself. It’s a fine but important line).
- If your daughter asks you if she is pretty, tell her she is beautiful inside and out.
- Then ask why she is asking. It could open the door to an important conversation. Is someone bullying her—cyber or otherwise? Did someone make a hurtful list? Did someone criticize her in a deeply painful way? Open the floodgates. Have the discussion. It just might save her years of self doubt. It might save her life.