Teen girls ask YouTube users “Am I pretty?”

It was the summer after my parents’ separation and, perched there on the cusp of adolescence, I felt both optimistic and nervous.

At age 12, I was ready to start junior-high school—a step that, I knew, signaled my eventual entry into being a teenager and everything that I imagined it entailed.

Without any older brothers or sisters, my concept of the state of teen-hood was largely defined by Coke commercials and shows such as One Day at a Time. In particular, Valerie Bertinelli embodied a personal beauty ideal. With her waves of glossy chestnut hair, bright smile and tiny figure, the actress represented the pinnacle of fresh-faced teenage prettiness.

I had dark hair and a bright smile—maybe I could look just like her.

I took a teen magazine featuring Bertinelli on the cover and showed it to my great-grandmother, who was baby-sitting my brothers and I for the summer.

This is who I want to look like,” I said, showing her the cover.

My great-grandmother scrutinized the picture and then studied my face and figure, which, even after a summer of swimming and biking was, decidedly, not that tiny.

“You have pretty hair,” she said with a matter-of-fact snort. “But stop eating all that junk food—you’re too fat.”

Kind to be cruel, or just plain mean?

Maybe a little bit of both. Decades later, I still remember the sting. But, looking back, I’m thankful for small mercies: At least I didn’t feel the need—or have the technological means—to let an entire nation judge me.

That’s exactly what teenage and preteen girls are doing today.

It’s nothing short of a YouTube phenomenon—young girls taking to the Web to ask a simple, heartbreaking question: Am I pretty or ugly?

In one of the site’s most-watched clips, a young girl nervously faces the camera. She can’t be more than 11 or 12—the giant, floppy koala-bear hat perched on her head painfully underscores her age.

“I just wanted to make a random video, seeing if I was like, ugly or not,” she says. “Because a lot of people call me ugly, and I think I am ugly. I think I am ugly and fat.”

The girl, of course, is beautiful, but that’s hardly the point here. She is confused and filled with the kinds of adolescent emotions that can break a fragile ego. Her friends, she says, tell her she’s pretty, but it’s the nasty comments from others that have left an indelible impression.

Seeking solace in a community of YouTube watchers, she’s likely learned by now, isn’t a very good solution.

Reaction in the comments section range from kind and benign (“you’re pretty,” “believe in yourself”) to cold, callous and brutal. I won’t reprint those comments here—just use your imagination; they represent the worst of human impulses.

Frankly, I can’t let myself read more than a few of them; it’s too upsetting.

Of course, her question is nothing new. And where do you think she learned it? We can blame it on the media—unrealistic body expectations and beauty standards. We can blame it on the mediums—easy access, not just to technology but also to an audience of judge, juries and executioners.

We can also blame ourselves.

I know I do. I blame myself for contributing to this culture of self-doubt and self-loathing.

It’s a game we learn as children and refuse to give up as adults.

I feel fat. God, I look horrible today. My jeans are too tight, I can’t eat another bite, I’m such a pig.

It’s a game with no winners and, after watching those YouTube videos, one I know I need to stop playing. We all do.