By Sara Knutson
Although it’s been a trend for years, I was introduced just this week to the continuing string of “Am I Pretty?” videos being posted by teens and preteens on YouTube. Now I can’t look away.
In a typical video, a totally normal-looking 13- or 15-year-old peers into her webcam and confesses that while people at school regularly shun her supposed ugliness, her friends assure her that she’s pretty. Her voice quivers as she asks her anonymous viewers to tell her the truth: pretty or ugly? Be honest, she requests, but not mean.
A long and painful trail of comments sits beneath each video, comprising three categories: “ugly,” often accompanied by unsolicited cruelty; “pretty,” usually with a you’re beautiful because of who you are inside kind of earnestness; and “fine, but you’d be prettier if you…” followed by various beauty tips.
Not a single comment is helpful.
The first category is venom aimed at the vulnerable; the second will be dismissed as insincere bullshit; the third is thinly-disguised, damagingly specific criticism.
The problem, I’ve concluded, is that no helpful comment is possible. There is nothing an anonymous poster can say that will truly respond to the girls’ insecurities and fears.
My own experience tells me so. Every time I have thrown the “pretty or ugly” question at myself, my real concern was not only physical beauty in itself, but whether I could be a desirable partner, whether a potential romantic interest would find me attractive both inside and out.
That was a question that only a potential romantic interest could answer. No one else’s compliments could satisfy. What trusted people in my life could offer, though, were their own stories of dealing with the same questions, stories that I found enormously helpful.
Commenters on the internet, however, cannot offer either response. They aren’t potential romantic interests. They aren’t trusted family or friends. They are strangers.
The trusted adults in each of these girls’ lives are the ones who can bring real comfort, who can hear out their fears and share their own stories of wrestling with issues of beauty, desirability, and value—especially in the context of faith.
I don’t know Hallie or Fay or any of the other “Am I Pretty?” video creators. But I am a cousin and mentor to other young women (and men), and I do have the ability to be that trusted adult for them. I can choose whether to hear their vulnerability and entrust them with a bit of my own story. As a Christian, in fact, I am called to do so. We all are.
So let’s live up to that call. Let’s not allow the young people in our lives to believe that only internet strangers will accompany them in their questioning. Let’s make sure that we’re already doing so.