A few weeks ago, I wrote about girls who ask YouTube commenters, of all people, to tell them if they're ugly. One young woman in the post — who, as a result, was featured on the Today show, Good Morning America, and other news outlets that picked up our story, emailed me last week to tell me that she was not actually a tween but a 21-year-old student at Kansas City Art Institute working on a thesis project concerning tween culture and the societal pressures facing girls transitioning into womanhood. After I got over feeling Punk'd, I wanted to know more about her project.
"My work focuses on the often awkward transition from young girl to womanhood and how confusing it can be to figure out if you're sexy, and what sexy is supposed to be," Sophia Roessler told me. Inspired by the work of "Tumblr celebrity" Molly Soda (who once made a miniseries about "12 year old bffs"), extensive YouTube research, and her own memories, Roessler filmed a bunch of videos emulating the way tweens act online: in addition to asking commenters if she's pretty, you can watch Roessler read diary entries about hanging out with her friends and dance around in her room using wigs and Photobooth effects to alter her appearance.
"I wanted to explore pure teenage sentimentality," she said. "People dismiss teen girls and their emotions as stupid, but is it really that dumb to be sentimental?" It's true; while the "Am I Ugly?" videos made my heart break a little, I can think of countless times I've made fun of my friends' little sisters' emo spoken word poetry or simpering VYou accounts, rather than considering their work as a legitimate form of expression — and that's coming from someone who regularly staged her own productions of RENT in her living room back in the day. I told Roessler it was often hard for me to feel like YouTube teens are really "being themselves," maybe because their movements seem so orchestrated after I've watched video after video of the same eyerolls and giggles — and also because, well, it's YouTube, the number one website for 15-seconds-of-fame-seekers. Roessler said that's exactly why she tried to make her videos as cringe-inducing as possible, to encourage viewers to reconsider the discomfort they feel when confronted with "genuinity."
Of course, it's not just the videos that make us cringe — it's the comments. I asked Roessler if she was honestly immune to cyber-bullying, even as a 21-year-old. "Of course I cared what people said, even though I didn't think I would," she said, adding that it worked both ways — nice comments made her worry that the piece would turn into a vanity project and that she'd feel conceited, but mean comments, even about her hair, which she purposefully messed up to seem younger, made her feel shittier than she expected.
Here's one photo from her installation. (a larger, more formal project is taking place this May - check it out if you're in Kansas City!) Some of her videos played on loop in a bedroom she filled with paint-pen drawings, stickers, snapshots and other "nostalgic ephemera" — including leaves to represent the changing of seasons — meant to "create this dreamy space that is more about the fluidity of memory."