My interview with Louise Orwin (Pretty Ugly project)

PrettyUgly Show - Louise OrwinThis morning I had a lovely Skype chat with Louise Orwin, the brilliant artist of the PrettyUgly project.

F: Louise, can you tell me a bit more about the research you were doing before starting the PrettyUgly project?

L: My initial research started to explore how teenage girls express their femininity through thinness and masochism; it’s something that really intrigues me. I came across a site called Thinspiration in Tumbrl and this whole community built around thinness. There are literally thousands of pictures of skinny celebrities mixed with pictures of ordinary girls showing pride in their thin bodies and even pictures of just body parts reaching extreme thinness. I remembered myself at 7 years old wanting to go on a diet: I didn’t have such a large community to turn to for tips and suggestions. Now there are thousands of this type of websites and sharing platforms on the subject. I think social media today open up a new world where girls can really grow in their obsession and preoccupation with beauty and their body: you can find posts for example where they help each other with tips on how to best insert your fingers in the throat to puke, I mean it’s insane! How wonder how my life would have been affected if at the tender age of 7 I was able to access this type of material and find this kind of support for my thinness desire. So, yes, this is a thing which really interests me: understanding this whole phenomenon, seeing how teenagers behave online and how their way to use social media is contributing to the obsession, but also I want to raise awareness of the problem through the Pretty Ugly performance.

F: The thing that most shocked me regarding the PoU videos in You Tube is the fact that so many of these girls are incredibly young (under 8).

L: Yes, it was shocking for me as well, and it was hard to believe at first. In the Thinspiration’s type of sites the average age is older, let’s say 16 years old, so you are kind of expecting that type of behaviour from teenagers, but in the PoU videos the average age is way younger, so many 6-7-8 years old and even younger sometimes, it’s crazy…

F: It makes you wonder what they will be thinking when they get older, if they are already so obsessed at this tender age, how they will manage when reaching adolescence?

L: The other thing I noticed is that these girls grow in such celebrity-obsessed environment which make them craving for popularity, so maybe they think any type of attention is better that nothing. Social media for them is there to get some kind of attention. It seems evident that they want their video to be seen by as many viewers as possible, even while risking so many hateful and horrible comments, they don’t seem to care as long as they get some kind of attention.

F: Yes, and I agree with what you said about You Tube’s responsibility in one of your interviews: if the minimum age of You Tube users is something to be taken seriously, then they should not allow videos of such young girls or at least they should protect them in some way by disabling hateful comments from being posted. I wonder how the system works: they are very quick in removing stuff due to copyright infringement but they seem completely indifferent towards other type of complaint. Although, of course, demonising the carrier doesn’t address the cause, we need to take girls and parents’ responsibility into account. This is actually what your project want to tackle, right? Can you tell me about your main learnings from your work with the girls so far?

L: I have still so many questions which are still unanswered but one of the main things I see is that teenagers girls tend to value themselves overwhelmingly on the basis of their appearance: for example in one of the exercises, I ‘ve asked a group of young teenagers to describe themselves in words not relating to their appearance and I could see that they were really struggling to find words/adjectives which were not appearance-related.  Another main thing I‘ve realised is that girls have a different way to relate to themselves, depending if it’s in their real life or online. For example the same girls who post these videos in You Tube would probably not ask the same question to people if they were face-to-face. The Internet seems to bring this careless attitude; they look for confirmation without understanding the dangers. I have done a set of street interviews where I would stop teenage girls in the street and ask them to define themselves though words, writing a few word on a piece of paper. In the first half of the paper they would have to describe themselves in their real life, while on the other half they would find words who define them as they appear online, for example in their social network, Facebook and the like. Shockingly, there appears to be a real split between what they thought of themselves in real life and how the portray their identity online. The online profile was all about portraying a popular, out-going, good-looking girl, while their own view of themselves offline would be full of insecurities: it was really a revealing insight.

F: Absolutely. The internet and social media seem somehow to have exacerbated the issue. A completely new area for research is opening up regarding the construction of on-line identities and how these identities can be conflicting or influence off-line identities. Can you tell me a bit more about the workshops you are currently doing with teenagers?

L: I’ve organised them through the local borough-Council, they put me in touch with some local secondary schools and I had the chance to talk directly with groups of teenage girls regarding mainly body image and how the constant bombardment of media portrayals of beauty can make one obsessive about her own appearance. I found that talking about the issue was really liberating for these girls and they had the chance to put things into context, for example understanding how the many images they see around are manipulated through Photoshop and how the whole celebrity culture doesn’t have much to do with real life. For now I only visited some schools as one-off workshop, we get together for 3 to 5 hours and we have this collective time to discuss and reflect on these issues, but the idea would be to keep in touch with these girls and try to arrange some follow-up. It’s difficult though because they have busy lives and even if I’ve tried to get them engaged in a forum, there is very little chance they will actually go on it. Of course, this is expected: there are so many distractions at this age, so many other social platforms where they can share their experience…

F: What about the process of funding your project?

L: It was fairly easy: I‘ve applied to the Art Council as they run this scheme for art projects which was perfect for the idea of my show and I ‘ve managed to raise £10K through them.

F: What are you planning as a future development after this project?

L: Well, for now I want to continue to bring the show in many other places nationally and hopefully even internationally. The show is quite visual so it would be understood even by foreign people. Hopefully we can raise awareness of these issues through this.

F: Thanks Louise, good work! I am sure your show will continue to raise awareness and hopefully be an inspiration for other type of initiatives as well. 😉

More useful articles about the PrettyUgly project:

You can visit the PrettyUgly project here:

500,000 girls in You Tube asking: “Am I pretty or ugly?”


Today I became painfully aware of a disturbing phenomenon in You Tube: 500,000 videos of young girls asking the same question over and over: “Am I pretty or ugly?”.

At the beginning I thought they were just a few isolated cases and that it would be interesting to include them in a separate playlist for our You Tube channel, but then my playlist started to grow and grow until the number of URL links associated with this search started to become overwhelming.

So I decided to investigate further: how many of these videos are actually there? 100, 200, 1000, 10,000? Apparently much more than that: 500,000 (and still growing by the day).

These videos are not pranks or acting: they are made genuinely by young girls who are simply insicure about their look, seeking strangers’ approval, whatever that might be.

The scary thing is of course that:

  • the phenomenon touches mostly only girls (so far I found just a few exceptions)
  • many of these girls are incredibly young
  • their videos are not monitored or removed from You Tube despite their young age
  • these videos provide an irresistibile tentation for the millions of trollers and cyberbullies out there, just waiting to unleash their hateful comments.

Indeed if you scroll down through the long list of comments for each one of these videos you will invariably find many spiteful ones and I wonder how much damage has to be done before some action is finaly taken.

British performance artist Louise Orwin is trying to raise awareness of this growing phenomenon by starting her own “Pretty Ugly project”, a three-part experiment involving her own (fake) “I am Pretty of Ugly” (POU) clips, a live performance in London, and a call for feminist dialogue and debate.

I am including below the link for other three videos discussing this alarming trend:

You can also have a look at the relevant MSG’s playlist if you want to watch a selection of these POU’s clips in one place – but I warn you: it does make for a pretty depressing watch… 🙁

The Grooming of the Youngest

grooming of the youngest

Yesterday I ‘ve stumbled upon the new advert from Dove and posted it on our Facebook page.

Here it is:

I dream of the day where all the adverts will remind people of their beauty. Not the type of beauty needing photoshops and breast implants, nor even the one needing a couple of hours of careful preparation in front of the mirror, but our natural beauty radiating from within.

I dream of the day where all adverts will be a glorious celebration of love and self-acceptance  instead of feeding self-loathing, insecurities and obsessions!

Then I spent a couple of hours compiling various playlists for our You Tube channel and after watching video after video with little girls doing make-up tutorials I started to feel a slight depressive feeling in the realisation that YES, this is the system in which we live and many young girls are enthused by make-up and beauty: they are trained from such a young age through family, friends, playing practices and the media and the millions of images,surrounding them…everything starts with what it seems like harmless fun: little girls imitating their mothers, their sisters, their favourite TV character.

Wondering if that depressive feeling was only my one, if my concern was shared by anyone else, I found myself reading the many comments left on every little girl’s tutorial video (most of these girls are between 4-6 years of age and some of these tutorials have millions of views, yes, millions!!). I’ve realised that most viewers find the material “cute” and “funny”: training our youngest to be concerned about their look is for many parents and sisters just a matter of learning how to fit in a beauty-obsessed society I guess…?

I agree that it could be just a fun way for little girls to imitate adult life. I am sure many of us can remember doing the same thing: messing up with our mum’s make-up was in fact pure joy and delight!

So, far from turning my concern into an indiscriminate moral panic, I reckon that playing with make-up can still be seen as a harmless fun, as long as these girls have alternatives and their life doesn’t start to revolve around a mirror.

While watching these girls recording video after video, building their own channel of beauty tutorials by the age of 7, I only wonder more about their life: how healthy and diverse is their embodiment of femininity? Do they know there are lots of other options out there? Do they know they could spend the same amount of time learning to play a sport or an instrument,creating their own music and art, playing with a pet, fundraising for a local charity, learning to dance… becoming confident, empowered, loving beings, capable of improving the life of thousands around them? IF THEY DO, then certainly their make-up tutorials are just another way to express their creativity, they won’t become self-obsessed, insecure and narcistic individuals.

I invite you to have a look at the playlist for yourself and let me know your comments: is this “grooming of the youngest” just harmless fun?



The mistery of crowd funding

screenshot indiegogo_2nov

Today it’s the first week anniversary of MSG crowd funding campaign and I want to take the opportunity to reflect on how the campaign is going.

To put things into perspective perhaps I should start by noting that on the very first day of the campaign I did not just sit down looking at the screen and praying for some miracles to happen.
I went to a Conference organised by Feminist in London with my 10 years old son and my partner, which turned out to be an incredibly inspiring event: on the day, we managed to distribute around 250 cards and explained our venture to many sympathetic activists who expressed vivid interest in our cause.

On the online front, despite a huge amount of tweeting and re-tweetting regarding the initiative and many organisations’ emailing me personally their support, the donors are very slow to materialise and – call me a dreamer- I struggle to understand why!

Not to take anything away from the 43 committed donors actually turning up, I was expecting to see at least double in terms of donations and I am wondering what make people interested and supportive of the cause (at least through their re-tweeting and emailing activity) waiting a day further to actually reach their pocket and press the “contribute now” on the page.

With my surprise, I have been congratulated on the results as the outcome so far seems to be perfectly in line with the nature of crowd funding campaigns, or so I’ve been told by an expert in the field: “Be patient, it takes time to build up public interest and as soon as you’ll have a few sponsors in, then you’ll see things actually start to move much more quickly”.

With a massive number of people actively following the campaign on Indiegogo, I am gathering that there is a lot of “lets’ way and see” going on at the moment!

Of course, in my dreams the campaign would have reached £1000 by the end of the first week: I dreamed that all the fervent activists, concerned parents and passionate educators I personally engaged with would eagerly log into the campaign page and make their contribution.
Judging from the current trend and the limited resources I can invest in it, I need to re-focus and think of more creative ways to convince MSG’s supporters of the urgency and necessity of their donations: something to really awaken their sense of power to act on things! (On this regard, I welcome your advice and suggestions: please don’t ask me to take my bra off in sign of protest to attract potential donors…yes I have been suggested to do that too!)

I need the people and organisations which so brilliantly supported me with their words, emails and re-tweets actually reaching their wallet if I want to regain my confidence in the power of collective action.

Call me a dreamer again, but I remain convinced that nothing will change unless we truly act collectively on this urgent issue.

In any case – success or failure of this campaign – you can be sure that I won’t shut up!