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:

12 thoughts on “My interview with Louise Orwin (Pretty Ugly project)

  1. Thinness Desire… my God who ever said being thin was sexy, I just find this insane too… I think people have seen celebrities going to extreme diet for their movie characters and then there’s media making so much noise about it, praising and giving wrong tips to the public on how to lose weight like these celebrities… forgetting the celebs are probably working with a team of nutritionist, sport coaches and plastic surgeons to attain that look!
    To parents though I would say…I know we’ re doing our best to keep our children safe but how can you let your child go that far? Why let this happen in the first place? I just don’t get it! Good diet, Self love, Unconditional love need to be DRUMMED into this kids at an early age! that will sort this problem, no child should be going out there trying to be someone they are not or impress others by compromizing their own health, it’s not on, period! And it’s not teachers job, it’s not government job but our job to tackle this as parents.

    • Real beauty comes from having healthy body and mind. It’s really insane for young children to think about achieving thin body because that is not the real standard of beauty. Instead of becoming focused on how they can grow physically attractive, children should be thought on the importance of foster their intelligence and ensure that they eat enough and healthy foods. Parents are indeed responsible in guiding their kids in perceiving the real meaning of beauty. But even parents need guidance and in absence of good parenting of course education is another factor which can counteract a destructive culture! Hopefully projects like these will spread more and more 😉

    • My SO and I actually prefer “chubby” bodies. I am not sure why, but it’s more like my range of what I generally consider attractive is broader (apologies for the pun). I like “average” or even slim girls (not skinny though!) right up to quite chubby girls. It’s a lot better to cuddle for a start! I often think that if I was a gym-junkie from a younger age I might feel differently and I would likely hate the person I would have become. Seeing that it starts so young I am grateful for projects like this that seek to educate.

  2. As a parent whose kid do post videos on youtube, I keep a very close watch on their accounts. I only allow them to post under my account though I know that as they get a bit older and they spread their wings, they’ll be posting their own videos and have to deal with the comments that follow.
    All a girl (or boy) can do is be confident in their own appearance and not require the judgement that others place on them.

  3. It’s so sad that young girls are being pummeled with the message that worth is based on their appearance. I didn’t grow up with the internet (or rather, I didn’t have much access, and it wasn’t the same environment), so I missed out on the pinterest and youtube culture — and I’m SO glad I did. Girls get enough pressure about their appearance from peers and family; they don’t need social media to add to it.

    @michelle — Good for you monitoring your kids! We need more parents like that.

    • Jen, I did not have internet in my home until I reached my freshman year of high school. Even then my mother moderated the websites I visited to educationally appropriate content only. I remember convincing her to allow me to open a MySpace account when I turned 16. I learned very quickly that if you posted sexy or suggestive pictures of yourself you would gain more “friends”. Luckily, I did not allow that to happen and had the self confidence and forward thinking to realize how wrong that decision would have been long term.

      I do think there is something to say for children who are raised with limited TV and internet use. My self worth as valued by my achievements and dictated by me and not what society was trying to tell me was appropriate and acceptable. I already felt awkward at 13-16 years old as my body changed, I did not need the added pressures of others telling me I needed a bigger chest to be attractive or this makeup covers zits the best.

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  5. Great interview and follow-up comments! Like a lot of women, I’ve struggled with weight issues all my life. It’s only now as an adult that I’ve been able to accept my body as beautiful no matter how much I weigh. However, as an adolescent, there were many instances of bullying in school, sometimes not just from the other kids, but from teachers too! Today, I think it would be even harder to be a young girl. Not only have the “beauty” standards gone up, but kids are bombarded by more media than ever before. So, I think it’s marvelous that we are fighting fire with fire here. We can change this perception through education.

  6. Fantastic interview! Insightful and thought-provoking. If anything, it is a reminder to everyone that young girls are absorbing what we say and what we do JUST AS MUCH as the media content they are being inundated with through television and print ads. I am not exempt from having adult conversations about beauty and body image in the presence of a minor and afterwards felt that I should have reserved those comments until after they left the room. Sadly, I heard my friends’ sister repeating my comments to her 14 year old friend and immediately had to intervene and explain myself!

  7. I’m glad I’ve come across this article! Having read the Dayly Mail feature on Louise I was aware of her campaign but I’m utterly disappointed by how little interest Youtube seems to have on this matter. Here you have videos with makeup tutorials made by girls that have barely learned to write and you approve of them?! These accounts should be banned and parents needs to have better control on their daughters. It’s ok when a girl puts a little make-up when she’s at home just because she thinks it’s fun but not because she feel s more beautiful and attractive this way; this is how you nurture low self esteem and the constant need of having someone else’s approval.

    I’m very curious what you think of “The Magic Gap” by Guy Aroch for the NOWNESS website, Francesca? Lately all magazines and websites features how-to guides, workouts and diets that will help you get the must-have thigh gap; do I need a gap between my legs so that I can feel better about myself or be more fashionable? If this way of thinking affects lots of girls why make it mainstream so that all girls judge themselves in regards to the distance between their thighs?

  8. I can’t support the PoU project…I feel it in my gut. I see a lot of videos of these kids asking the question “Am I pretty or ugly” but I see nothing being done with this information other than comparing who is asking, how they are asking and where it is being asked from? It is artistic performance, ok. What is the purpose of this project? To arouse critical debate and new insights into our relationship with the internet and social media through performance, activism and workshops with teenage girls? I don’t get it yet…..all it has done is get me upset, but maybe that’s all the point, arousing critical debate!

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