With a new hairstyle — a perm that didn’t go as expected — a young Jen Proctor walked into her junior high school. As she cautiously strolled down the hall, a boy, the guy she had a crush on, laughed hysterically in her face.

“I was already self-conscious and his laughter made me feel horrible,” said the associate professor of journalism and screen studies. “It was a nightmare. I wanted to be invisible.”

That day happened years ago, but the memory remains strong. It’s a personal reminder — seeing how self-esteem can be tied to appearance perception — of female adolescence.

When an adult Proctor saw YouTube videos uploaded by teens and tweens asking their viewers to evaluate them on appearance — dozens asking the question, “Am I pretty or ugly?” — and asking viewers to rate them in the comments, she recognized the force behind it. And she wanted to give voice to the often-experienced coming-of-age social pressure.

So Proctor created “Am I Pretty?”, a visually minimalistic film appropriating audio from approximately 20 of those YouTube videos.

Photo of Jen Proctor in her office
Jen Proctor, associate professor of journalism and screen studies at UM-Dearborn, created a short film titled “Am I Pretty,” which explores how self-esteem can be tied to appearance perception in female adolescents. (Photo by Lou Blouin, UM-Dearborn)

“The platforms, the places to look for approval, are different from when I was that age, but it’s still about craving acceptance. I recognized that immediately,” said Proctor, who first watched the YouTube videos after they were the focus of a 2012 NPR story.

“Things I wanted to leave in the past — being teased because of appearance, hearing inappropriate comments about my young body or feeling uncomfortable when I knew I was being looked at — were dredged back up. It serves as a reminder, not that you ever really forget it, of how hurtful and confusing those years can be,” she said.

Proctor said a common thread the speakers in the videos shared is the confidence they had as children. But as adolescents, the girls questioned themselves and used appearance to measure their worth.

“We need to empower each other and serve as an example to young women — I say women because when I’ve screened the films in my classes, the women relate and the guys have said they didn’t experience anything like this — and show them that they can make it through,” she said.

“And for people who weren’t aware of the effect a reaction can have, I hope viewing “Am I Pretty?” will help them re-evaluate how they respond to images of young women.”

Proctor said she didn’t create a film when first watching the videos in 2012 because she needed to find a cinematic way to best represent the importance of what the girls were saying. But a little more than a year ago, Proctor figured it out: Remove the gaze so an audience cannot make visual judgments.

“It’s part of our nature to visually suss each other out. We try not to, but we do it all the time. So I removed the images of the young women; visually the viewer sees texture and color,” said Proctor, who was inspired after attending an absence of cinema panel at a Society For Cinema and Media Studies national conference.

“The purpose is to call attention to the act of spectatorship invoked in these videos and what results when the visual basis for judgment is withheld — an acousmatic reduction through the denial of the promised image. What’s left for the audience are the girls’ words and the viewers’ reactions to the words.”

She said the short film isn’t just an experience-acknowledgement piece. It also points to the same forces — the crossing of boundaries and harmful statements leading to lower self-esteem — seen in abuse.

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“These young women talk about comments people have made toward their appearance and call those people bullies. But as adults, we no longer call it bullying; we call it harassment,” Proctor said.

“These young women are experiencing the foundation of harassment in their lives and we all know of the abuse that can be built on it. I hope this film serves as an important conversation starter.”

“Am I Pretty?” will be shown Wednesday at UM-Dearborn during the event “Negotiating Boundaries in the #MeToo Era.” The screening will take place in Fairlane Center South during the event’s lunch hour. A discussion will follow.

The short experimental film also played at the Ann Arbor Film Festival and the Athens (Ohio) International Film and Video Festival.


What memorable moment in the workplace stands out?

To promote our program of Journalism and Screen Studies, my colleagues and I replaced all of the characters in a poster of “Guardians of the Galaxy” with our own heads. It was a beautiful emblem of the camaraderie, joy and humor we share, which is part of what I most value about the people I work with. We still have it hanging in our hallway.

What can’t you live without?

These days, my bicycle.

Name your favorite spot on campus.

At UM-Dearborn, I love the paths along the Rouge River near our Environmental Interpretive Center.

What inspires you?

My students. Having the opportunity to watch them grow and learn and make mistakes and experience triumphs and figure out who they are as filmmakers and creators — there’s nothing like it.

What are you currently reading?

Cathy N. Davidson’s “The New Education.” And young adult fiction. Always YA fiction.

Who had the greatest influence on your career path?

Probably a radio host in Austin, Texas, named John Aielli, who got me started in radio production and nurtured me in a field I never dreamed I’d find myself in. It was partly because of him that I truly fell in love with possibilities of sound as creative expression. He was also the reason I decided to finally pursue my passion for film in graduate school, which propelled me onto my academic path.