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November 7, 2013

Asking the Internet 'Am I ugly?'

LOS ANGELES — Last month, the Internet collectively frowned over a depressing new genre of viral video: Teen-age girls taking to YouTube to ask anonymous strangers, "Am I Pretty or Ugly?" The good/bad news is that this plugged-in permutation of adolescent insecurity isn't just a girl thing.

Boys air their body issues elsewhere online - like on the Reddit forum "Am I Ugly?," where users submit their ages, photos and feelings about their looks, then invite strangers to answer the central question. This week, a 16-year old boy posted a bathroom selfie and said, "be honest even if it's not nice." Five other users weighed in. "Not ugly, but not particularly hot either," one wrote. "A good personality will always be the deciding factor, but more so than usual with you." Wrote another, "Looking tired or unhealthy isn't very attractive. Try working on your habits, or see if there's some face lotion that works well to make your skin a little bit more radiant." Said a third, "You need longer hair."

The short-haired boy with the sparkling personality isn't self-flagellating alone. The mental health resource site PsychGuides.com recently analyzed 1,000 postings on the subreddit and found that 79 percent of posters asking for feedback on their appearance are men. Their average age is 19. On a similar subreddit, "Am I Sexy?," men file 62 percent of submissions. And the responses to their posts are gendered, too.

In the 14 hours since one girl posted a suite of images of herself dating back to 2009 under the title "I know I've changed since then but i'm still insecure," she's received 45 replies. Some are pointed at allaying her insecurities: "Be more confident, you're cute." Others are pointed in another direction: "You lost the weight but kept the boobs. That's a good result." She's received come-ons from insecure guys ("If I knew you, I'd be spending the weekend moping after you reject my approach") and perhaps overly secure ones ("Would deffo smash"). Other posters urge her to rate herself against other women: "You should relax, you've made it into the hot girl club." The consensus is "not ugly," but the subtext is less encouraging - a crew of strangers calling out her parts, guiding her to assess her body based on how men see it, and establishing an expectation to compete with other women to keep boys looking.

Meanwhile, the general feedback on one 16-year-old boy's plea for help today ("somedays I feel like I look OK but other days I feel so very ugly") is "you look fine and a little stoned" and "you look hella baked." The takeaway is that if you're a boy, strangers on the Internet don't care all that much if you look ugly or not, even when you ask. (This is probably why women who post on "Am I Ugly?" receive an average of 54 replies, while men receive an average of 14. Of the 100 threads with the least user replies analyzed by PsychGuides, 99 were started by men.) That ostensibly frees boys from the constant physical surveillance that teen girls encounter online and off. But it doesn't address the problem these boys are really trying to articulate when they load up their selfies and ask others to take a look - they feel ugly, an issue that many of them say stems from the fact that few people seem to look at them at all. Public self-esteem campaigns, targeted largely at girls, don't seem to notice boys much, either.

Scrolling through "Am I Ugly?," PsychGuides says, sends the message that body image insecurity is a universal concern. But it expresses itself differently among girls and boys - and it's time we stop overlooking that.

 

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