This project has been a long time coming. It takes 3 forms:
1) Pretty Ugly is a series of web-based experiments in performance on YouTube.
2) Pretty Ugly is a live performance that activates the research: it debuted in London in October 2013 Camden People’s Theatre, and will continue to tour through nationally through Autumn 2014 and Spring 2015.
3) Pretty Ugly is a research project that aims to arouse critical debate and new insights into our relationship with the internet and social media through performance, activism and workshops with teenage girls.
Early in 2012 I began some research into the new trends on social media sites like YouTube, tumblr, twitter etc, for teenage girls to vent about their body issues. Around that time there was a lot of focus and negative press surrounding the ‘thinspiration’ communities- teenage girls posting dieting, purging and starvation techniques on micro-blogging sites, as well as the obsessive posting of images of beautiful women, teens and even young girls. It seemed to me at the time that what had always been an issue in the media (airbrushed celebrities, anorexic runway models) had suddenly taken a sinister turn. Whereas previously advertisments, magazines, film and television had been spoon-feeding images of unattainable ‘perfection’ to young girls, it now appeared that it was the girls themselves that were perpetuating these dangerous myths about body image with the constant reblogging, retweeting, regurgitating. After years of burning our bras, refusing to pluck, shave and wax, and throwing ourselves under the King’s horses, how had this happened? Lurking in these communities I felt angry, upset, worried, and guilty. And then I came across a new YouTube trend for young girls posting videos of themselves asking other YouTubers to ‘comment below’ and rate their appearance. What startled me about theses videos was that the average age of authors had dropped around 3-4 years from the other online communities I had previously been involved with. I would say the average age of authors of videos of this kind is 9-13.
I tried to imagine posting such a video myself. I too have spent years obsessing over my face, my weight, my ‘image’- but this means that the idea of appealing to such an audience of faceless stalkers on YouTube to rate my appearance is truly horrifying- almost masochistic. If you have a look at the comments posted below the videos you will see that many of these girls have been subjected to cyber-bullying, or ‘trolling‘. So why do it? Are these little girls so brave? Or is there something else going on underneath? Peering through fingers clasped over my eyes I wanted to know.
And thus the project began. I decided people needed to know about this trend- I knew it was popular amongst the age group, and that it had had some press in America, but in stark contrast to the sheer volume of videos of this kind posted online, there seemed a relative paucity of critical debate and engagement with the subject.
Having worked in the arena of feminism, working almost exclusively with ideas of ‘femininity’ and masochism, I have been inspired and motivated by these videos as an artist, but I also feel the need to highlight this area as a campaigner. I worry what this means for the development of young minds, but also what this might mean for the future of feminism. Looking good has always been important to people, but when did it become so acceptable to be so open about it?
Pretty Ugly first began like this: I wanted to put myself in these young girls’ shoes to experience it myself, and to present the trend in a new light. As I became a regular stalker and lurker of the trend and the communities on YouTube that were posting and commenting on the original videos, it struck me that I needed to interact with the girls, the communities, with this generation. And- I wanted to know what it was like. With this in mind I developed a series of online personalities and began posting my own Pretty/Ugly videos. These videos were live for 12 months before I took them down. I wondered how my own performances as an artist would sit next to those of the young YouTubers. The results of posting these videos have been both predictable and shocking: I have been ‘trolled’, cyber bullied, and I have been sent many inappropriate messages from older men (among other things). But on the flipside, I also experienced a great deal of warmth and support from those who took the time to leave a positive comment, or send a private message telling me to be strong. Perhaps one of the most disturbing elements of my research was crunching the numbers regarding my online abusers: a huge majority of them were male, and adults… My show ‘Pretty Ugly’ explains all this and more; it aims to bring audiences into the world I loved in when these videos were live, it charts my journey, it asks audiences to recreate some episodes of that year, and also asks them to grapple with the ethical and moral issues concerned with this experiment.
Going out onto the street and talking to real live teenage girls about their experiences with social media has been one of the most enlightening and rewarding experiences of the project so far. One girl spoke about her struggle to leave the house on ‘ugly’ days. This struck a chord with me. I think I have probably experienced that feeling about once a week for the last 15 years or so. It was in those moments that I felt so close to the girls, and yet hearing about the pressures they felt from social media, and talking to them about their various accounts on twitter, facebook, youtube, tumblr, even yahoo!answers, made me realise just how different my teenage years had been to theirs. Is my generation the last to have experienced early teenage years without the internet? I remember the internet being a vague and very ‘extra’ thing when I first became aware of it (around 11), it was for superfluous hotmail accounts and perverts. Now I hear the second biggest group of internet users are tweenagers.
What I do know is that most of the teenage girls I spoke to, even those who admitted to participating in these videos, also found this trend perturbing. What I found extremely interesting was that there seemed to be a sense of guilt surrounding the importance placed upon looks by these girls. In many of the interviews I found the girls answering that they knew they shouldnt see looking good as an important part of their lives, but that it was almost necessary: ‘to get higher socially’, ‘to talk to boys’, ‘to feel good’. Alarmingly, despite this niggling awareness, I found that many of the girls didn’t identify with the concept of feminism either.
As part of an exercise/experiment, I gave every girl I spoke to a pen and a piece of paper with a statment to fill in: ‘I am…’. Eventually these statements will be uploaded to this website and to YouTube. I will be taking to social media to invite girls to submit their own ‘I am…’ videos to this site, and to YouTube- please help spread the word about this. This is part of an idea of mine that I am hoping will eventually sit alongside the Pretty Ugly project- I wanted there to be some material out there on the internet that celebrated rather than defamed teenage girls. The idea was to bring awareness to and eventually USURP the trend of teenage girls asking viewers to rate their looks on YouTube. I wanted to create a new meme- a set of positive, and affirmative videos created by the creative minds of teenage girls at a point in their life where I believe it is important to celebrate diversity, creativity and the joys of not-yet-adulthood.
Please have a look around the rest of the site for more detailed information on the different parts of the project.