More than once in this blog I have mentioned that I am a nerd, something in which I take great pride as an adult. Nerdy is the new cool now, but I can vividly remember a time in my life when that was not the case. As a junior high girl in a small Lutheran school, I spent my days constantly feeling like the proverbial round peg in a square hole. I wasn’t thin. I had glasses nearly the size of my head and braces with headgear for nighttime. I loved Star Trek, SeaQuest, Sherlock Holmes, writing fictional stories and reading books over listening to music, none of which were interests much shared by my peers.
I tried hard to fit in, to make myself something closer to what I thought was “cool”. In fact, I spent most of my adolescence striving for an ideal in my head that was going to get me the friends, the boyfriends, the acceptance that I so desperately wanted. It wasn’t until I was in college that I learned to stop trying so hard and just be myself. It took a few years, but I began to take joy in the way God created me. Over time I found myself with the friends and the acceptance I had worked so hard to find, not in spite of myself, but because I was myself. Yet even now, when I think back to those years, the feelings of unacceptance and ugliness are still sharp in my mind, unfaded with time.
I’ve been thinking about my Junior High obsession with being accepted a lot since I heard about a new trend in which young girls (and a few boys) from ages 11-14 post videos on YouTube asking people to give their honest opinion about their looks. These “Am I Ugly?” videos are getting millions of hits. In one example, a girl who is 12 or 13 says, “I just wanted to make a random video seeing if I was, like, ugly or not because of lot of people call me ugly and I think I am ugly and fat.” She then shows a slideshow of photographs of herself and concludes with the question, “So yeah, tell me what you think.”
These girls are not looking for honesty. They are looking for affirmation of their value. Those who work with teens are not surprised to find that researchers have found that after age nine, a girl’s body image plummets. Fifty-nine percent of girls from fifth through twelfth grade are dissatisfied with their physical appearance. The internet is just another venue for teens to struggle with these image issues. They look for affirmation from YouTube commenters and from pictures posted on Facebook. Along with its many positive benefits, the internet also gives girls with negative body images access to a constant string of “inspirational” digitally altered images, images that they can never actually live up to. It is not surprising that these teens are trying to gain acceptance and rid themselves of body image issues in this kind of forum.
The responses they have been getting are incredibly varied. Some comments show support for the teens and encourage them not to look to YouTube for value in their bodies. Other people have preyed on these students by posting horribly negative and hurtful things. I do not think that teens of their age are prepared to deal with the number of people who have chosen to degrade them even more. If what they are truly seeking is affirmation, and what they receive is angry, hateful blasting by internet trolls, then they are going to take these comments to heart. The damage caused may be permanent and can open them up to risky behavior, including making them vulnerable to predators.
I don’t think I can ever say enough that parents need to know what their teens are doing and posting on the internet. Teens below the age of 13 are legally unable to upload YouTube videos, and parents should help enforce that rule. They also need to take opportunities to talk with their kids about what they are posting and why. Debriefing what happens on the internet is key to helping students navigate these sites in a healthy and God pleasing way.
In an encouraging turn, many teens are making video responses to the “Am I Ugly?” videos to try to get their peers to reconsider posting these videos in the first place. This positive peer pressure may help teens think twice before they post their video. More than that, we need parents and youth workers to remind these young women and young men that they are made by a Creator who loves them unconditionally. God wants these young women to find their acceptance and their comfort in His love and His willingness to die on the cross for their sins. The more we can point our young people to finding their confidence in Christ, the more we will be able to counteract the messages the media, the internet and peers send to teens about who they are and what they should be.