About five years ago, a disturbing trend began appearing on YouTube. Teen girls, and in many cases, preteen girls, started posting videos that asked strangers on the Internet to answer one question: Am I pretty? It's a question that most women wonder about at some point in their lives, often in secret and while standing in front of the bathroom mirror. But a question we don't often ask ourselves is why do we care? And what are the perils that come when society values more how women look than what they think?
Candi Carter-Olson is a media scholar at Utah State University and was the one who first showed me the Am I Pretty? videos. And while they are no longer the Internet trend du jour, teen girls have developed new ways of testing for approval of their appearance.
“My nieces now even play this game on Facebook, it's hit me up for a rate, it's HMU for a rate,” Carter-Olson said. “And then on a scale of 1 -10 they rate you on how hot you are. So it's a game they play in some ways to reinforce their self-esteem, but in other ways it just tears them down. It's like social media chicken. Why would you put yourself through that?
Studies have found that women are generally more likely to worry about their appearance than men – but it's not because women are inherently more vain. The reality is society judges women more harshly based on their physical attributes: thin women are more likely to be hired for a job than fat women and women considered more attractive are more likely to be found innocent by a jury than women viewed as less desirable. Women have been under pressure to be attractive for a long time .
“Nineteenth century and before our beauty trends have been killing women – literally. Our dyes used to be made out of cyanide and we still wore them; It's because our society tells women that what's most valuable about you is how you look and this comes through in our skyrocketing plastic surgery rates. There's no particular reason to need a tummy tuck after you've had a baby. Man your tummy just bore life for 9 months and pushed it out. Your tummy is a warrior. But we tell women you have to look like this 18-year-old girl whose still skinny and gangly and hasn't had kids and experienced life yet.”
Carter-Olson recently asked students in her Gender and the Media course to list what it is that they hide from the rest of the world.
“One of my women raised her hand she said: I'm just so tired of trying to live up to expectations to be this perfect, beautiful person every day. And it just started this cascade across the room of people going yeah, I can't do it; I can't live up to it. And none of us can live up to it. But when we try to we end up with young girls going on YouTube and going am I pretty? Because that's the only way society will value me is if you think I am pretty. Or am I ugly? Because if I am ugly then I have no value. And that is heartbreaking.”
Carter-Olson hopes she is preparing her students to go out into the world equipped to challenge traditional gender stereotypes. To disrupt the narrative being sold to women by a beauty industry expected to clear $62 billion in revenue this year in the United States alone. Because adhering to gender stereotypes can be harmful for the boys and girls who don't fit squarely into the boxes created for them. And the socialization of gender roles often begins before children are even born.
Is it a boy or it a girl?
“That's the first question that parents ask,” said Sarah Coyne, an associate professor in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University.
She studies the media's effect on kids. Coyne was attending a conference on gender development when Peggy Orenstein, the author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter, posited that Disney princess culture could be damaging to the young girls embracing it. But she said there was no research to back up her theory. So Coyne decided to look at the data. She published a study in the journal Child Development that examined how children who engage with Disney princess media like toys and movies are affected by it. And it turns out, a lot.
Coyne's study tracked nearly 200 preschool-aged children for one year and found that the more likely young girls were to participate in Disney princess culture, the more likely they were to adhere to stereo-typically feminine practices.
“We asked everyone who is your favorite princess and why,” Coyne said. “I believe it was Rapunzel, Cinderella and Ariel were the top three answers, and I don't think any little girl said Pocahontas who is kind of a gender not stereotypical princess. And only one little girl said Mulan, and when we asked why it was because she saved China. I thought that was such a great response because all of the rest of the responses to Why do you like Rapunzel? Were because she was blonde or because she was pretty were the two big answers on that one.”
“We actually asked the girls, do you think it's important to pretty, why or why not? Some of the answers really did break my heart. If you're not pretty the boys won't like you. We are getting this at age four. I think that as parents we have a lot of work to do to combat some of the strong messages about appearance that we get from the media.
Coyne says that parents need to engage with their children about the images they are seeing on billboards and in movies, and know that it's important to call out things that are just not okay. Like when she took her young daughter to see the Disney Pixar film Brave and the two had a great conversation afterward about how strong and independent the main character Merida was, but when the toys came out, it just wasn't the same Merida from the movie.
“They've slimmed her down, they've feminized her, they've put make up on her, they take away her bow and arrow,” Coyne said. “As a parent you can just let that go and buy your kid the stuff, or you can point it out and have the conversation. And I always think that having the conversation is better than letting it slide.”
Coyne says it's okay if girls are girly girls who just love the princess culture. It's a magical part of childhood. But try to encourage greater balance by providing opportunities to try new things. And don't forget to compliment young girls on the things that are not related to their appearance.
“One of the most positive messages that I think parents can give their young girls is focusing on what their bodies can do, as opposed to what they look like. Things I say to my young daughter regularly are look at your mind, and what a powerful tool that is, as opposed to always saying that they are cute and pretty, which I think that they get more of – there's no problem with telling your daughter that they are beautiful – I think that they need to hear that as well, but proportionately, I'd love it if they could get more of the other messages. I think that's going to do them more good long-term.”
***This segment is part of an ongoing original Utah Public Radio series "Objectified: More Than A Body." Support for the program comes from the Utah Women's Giving Circle, a grassroots community with everyday philanthropists raising the questions and raising the funds to empower Utah women and girls. Information here. To learn more about the Objectified radio series, visit here.