“Am I Pretty?” Tween Girls and the Need for Feedback

Posted by Amy Henry on Thu, Mar 01, 2012 @ 02:55 PM

A tentative face of a twelve year old girl fills the screen as she leans forward to adjust the webcam. “Hi guys,” she says, as if she’s talking to an intimate group of friends. She’s about to ask what might seem like a quite personal question – but she’s asking it to an anonymous audience. She doesn’t know the many viewers who will find this clip on YouTube, but she wants their feedback.

The question: “Am I pretty?” She follows with an assurance, “You can tell me the truth – I can take it.”

Graph of Youth LooksBy now, many of you have seen this story, first featured on the Today Show. This trend – girls posting videos online and asking “am I pretty or am I ugly” might be something that’s familiar to only a few real girls – but it does seem somewhat symbolic of the way girls in a particularly vulnerable stage of development, and the way a cohort who is used to feedback on their every thought might be more likely to do than any generation before them.

Despite girl-power, girl achievement, and girls leading in many domains in which they live, tween girls are still very aware that looks matter. According to data from YouthBeat, while 15% of tweens say they wouldn’t change anything about themselves, 48% of all tweens – boys and girls – mention wanting to change some aspect of their appearance if they could. Only 4% wished to be smarter (and this skewed boy) and another 4% wanted to be rich.

It might be easy to attribute blame to popular culture, and the unattainable images about beauty that dominate their magazines and screens. But some of the women this age group admires most seem to be saying the right thing, albeit from fairly beautiful faces. Selena Gomez challenges, “Who says you’re not perfect?” Katy Perry encourages them to let their light shine…Taylor Swift identifies herself with the girl sitting on the sidelines – not the cheerleader – in her “You Belong With Me.” And Lady Gaga? She couldn’t challenge the notions of conventional beauty any more…

So who is giving girls reason to re-think their self-worth? It’s not news that girls this age feel like all eyes are on them. And it’s also more timeless truth than timely trend that their bodies begin to betray them in ways that make this stage full of awkwardness and angst. And groups of girls have turned to slambooks in which girls write their name at the top of a page, and pass it to their friends, who write what they really think of their best feature, the thing they hate about them, what they should change about themselves, etc. Like “The Book” in Mean Girls,  these tween sleepover mainstays were often filled with less than flattering feedback. It’s clear that this generation didn’t start, and likely will not end, the practice of girls putting each other down.

But what is different today is the public forum in which feedback is given. Posting a picture on Facebook might leave you open to an unsolicited comment from a friend. But even more menacing are sites like Formspring, whose seemingly innocent device of asking a question of the crowd so you can “get to know your friends” can go terribly wrong when someone names names in their questions. And the story described above shows that YouTube can be a space for finding fun clips, or a venue for victimization.

Clearly, some girls offered their peers support. Many girls know that “inner beauty” is supposed to matter more. But for these girls, the reality of crowdsourcing might be countering all the messages they’re getting from those they admire. When it comes to girls’ self-confidence, aspirational images might be much less damaging than the need for acceptance by their peers.  

Tags: girls, bullying, beauty, youth media, trends, tweens, makeup

Beauty Rules for Today’s Teens

Posted by Amy Henry on Mon, Sep 27, 2010 @ 09:42 AM

Refreshing themes from her 2001 best-seller, Bobbi Brown Teenage Beauty: Everything You Need to Look Pretty, Natural, Sexy and Awesome, Bobbi Brown recently released her newest beauty bible, Beauty Rules: Fabulous Looks, Beauty Essentials, and Life Lessons.Bobbi Brown

In an interview in the LA Times, Brown makes her main message to teens explicit:

“That you are and can be amazing. You have to realize it, then you have to know a few tips and tricks. Everything from being kind to eating healthy – to basically do the right thing. Be who you are.” Sounds easy.

On the Today Show, Brown interviewed a group of teen girls on what they love or don’t love about their looks. When one girl admitted she hated her nose, Brown made her turn to profile. “It looks like you bought that nose!” she reassured with a compliment that makes sense to today’s teens, who know the high price paid for botox, surgery and liposuction. And then came a more complex question from one of the teen panelists:

“So why do you need to wear make-up?” To which Brown responded with a canned, although simultaneously authentic response about 'making you the best you possible.'

This kind of question should come as no surprise. In her still-astute and relevant 1997 history of beauty, “The Body Project,” Joan Jacobs Brumberg notes that as early as pre-World War I, women were taught that “being a better person meant paying less attention to the self.” And while today’s teens have been raised in a post-girl power culture, they still struggle with the lived experience that looks matter. In fact, YouthBeat data from the first half of 2010 finds that only 21% of teens strongly agree that they are “happy with the way [they] look.” (Note, this is up slightly from 2009, when only 18% agreed).

So have we gone nowhere, baby? Well, today’s teens know to challenge these notions of feminine ideals. They resist, in subtle and not so subtle ways, conforming to the images of beauty that they see on screen and on the pages of their magazines. But more often than not, they’re still looking for a few good beauty tips.

Tags: bobbi brown, beauty, Youth, Teens, shopping, makeup, money