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A little while back, the moderators on reddit subcommunity r/amiugly posted a message to all users, which elaborated on one central idea: “If you do not find someone attractive, say so.”
That there’s a place on the Internet where people can solicit brutally honest feedback on their physical appearance suggests we’ve reached a new low in our shallow society. But a closer look at the activity on r/amiugly and similar communities suggests there’s something liberating, even empowering, about learning other people’s opinions of our looks. The posts on r/amiugly also illuminate the ways in which current positive body image campaigns can set up unrealistic expectations for universal body acceptance. Not everyone is in love with his/her body—and maybe that’s okay.
What’s the Deal?
Reddit is a social news and entertainment site and the subcommunities r/amiugly and r/amisexy formed about three years ago. The premise is simple: Users, identified only by their reddit username, age, and gender, submit at least one photo of themselves along with an optional blurb about why they’re soliciting opinions. Then other people post comments with feedback on the user’s attractiveness.
The idea is hardly new—think of the website (now app) HotorNot.com, which launched in 2000 and lets users rate each other’s attractiveness, and the “Pretty or Ugly” Youtube videos, in which teen girls ask the Internet for frank feedback on their appearance. But, in the last few weeks, bloggers have rededicated their attention to r/amiugly and r/amisexy, many of them citing a recent report from PsychGuides.com, which revealed that (perhaps surprisingly) most of the people asking for feedback are men. These findings suggest that, contrary to cultural stereotypes, appearance-based insecurities are pretty universal.
The general reactions to sites like these range from horror to pity. We feel sorry for all those men and women who a) feel they’re unattractive, or completely unnoticed, and b) base their sense of self worth on other people’s opinions of their physicality. Nowadays, the media places a (justifiable) focus on self-esteem and improving body image (see articles on how certain celebrities are expanding our definition of beauty or why young girls need role models who love their bodies). In a way, focusing on our physical appearance has become somewhat taboo. Anyone with a healthy self-image knows that true beauty comes from within, from how generous and hardworking we are, and not (gasp!) from our facial structure—right?
But it’s also possible these sites provide us with a healthy dose of reality. It would be naïve to pretend that our physical bodies don’t exist, or that we don’t wonder what other people think about them. Asking for feedback on the way we look is a vaguely rebellious gesture, resisting the growing influence of the self-esteem movement. If anything, I’d argue that the redditors who have submitted their photos for analysis are brave—not solely because they can tolerate negative criticism, but because they’re willing to reveal that they actually think and care about how they appear to the outside world.
Why It Matters
When I read through dozens of posts on r/amiugly and r/amisexy, I started to realize what had prompted the moderators to post their message about honesty. The overwhelming majority of comments on these posts are positive, some of them offering constructive advice (“your figure is attractive. I think light makeup would even things out”) and others just supportive. (To a user who asked redditors to be “brutally” honest about her face, user Shadow_24 responded: “I’m going to be honest: you’re not ugly, you’re beautiful. … I would ask you out.”) While there’s no reason to believe the commenters were sugarcoating their real feelings, perhaps the moderators had expected people to be more negative.
Many of us suffer from the same tendency to be blind to what other people can see—whether that’s how kind we are, how smart we are, or even how good we look.
The moral of this story isn’t that, if you ask people for their honest opinion about your appearance, they’ll tell you you’re beautiful. It’s that many of us suffer from the same tendency to be blind to what other people can see—whether that’s how kind we are, how smart we are, or, yes, even how good we look.
Positive body image campaigns that encourage people (mostly women) to love their bodies can certainly help individuals struggling with their self-esteem. Yet these initiatives often suggest there’s something wrong with not loving your body, and the general message is that we shouldn’t care what other people think about the way we look. Sites such as r/amiugly and r/amisexy remind us that there are thousands of people who do still care about others’ opinions of them. Instead of condemning these people for being superficial or fretting about their self-esteem issues, perhaps we would do better to acknowledge that these hang-ups are perfectly normal, even reasonable, and that people aren’t worth any less just because they sometimes question their own appeal.
I considered posting a photo to r/amiugly for research purposes and then chickened out at the last minute. I wasn’t so concerned about whether people would call me hideous; I was more afraid of making it known that I wanted that kind of feedback. I work in a job that requires me to use my intellectual skills on a daily basis, and asking a group of strangers to rate my attractiveness felt like something silly I shouldn’t be bothering with. But maybe it’s not so silly—maybe it’s just human.
Photo by Marissa Angell.