Would you dare to ask a crowd of 35,000 people for their brutally honest opinion on your looks?

Every day a hundred or so self-conscious men and women choose to do just that - submitting their photos to a special section of reddit.com. There, at the mercy of total strangers, they line up to pose the simple but achingly personal question: ‘Am I ugly?’

I’ve analyzed a thousand Am I Ugly? submissions to find out what they can reveal about male and female insecurity. Are we as unattractive as we sometimes feel, or is it all in our heads?

I’m glancing through the criteria a person must meet to be diagnosed with Body Dysmorphic Disorder. You might have heard of the condition or even seen awareness-raising campaigns about it. Usually a perfectly reasonable-looking young man or woman is pictured standing in front of a mirror, but reflected back at them will be Jabba the Hut or Gollum or some unflattering beast. The campaign is supposed to convey just how disconnected BDD sufferers’ ideal selves are from their actual selves.

  • ‘Compulsive mirror checking, glancing in reflective doors, windows and other reflective surfaces.’
  • Yep, I do that.

  • Alternatively, inability to look at one’s own reflection or photographs of oneself.
  • I can look at photos of myself, but frankly, I prefer not to.

    I skim some of the other common signs. With the exception of self-injurious behavior and excessive enema use, at some point or other in my life I feel like I have exhibited most of them.

    So, do I suffer from BDD?

    Nope. Only an estimated 1-2% of the U.S. population is so preoccupied with some perceived flaw in their appearance that they would be clinically diagnosed with having Body Dysmorphic Disorder. It’s serious stuff too: according to two studies, 17-24% of people with BDD will attempt suicide.

    So what do I have then? Well, it would probably fall under what psychologists call ‘normative discontent’. In other words, sure, I’m sometimes a bit self-conscious about how I look, but no more so than most other people.

    But that doesn’t say anything about why so many of us feel so self-conscious so often or -- more importantly -- whether our fears are based in fact, or figments of our imagination. Most people might not see Gollum staring back at them when they look in the mirror, but they might see a crooked nose, or blotchy skin, or a gigantic forehead. And not everyone can be above average in looks, right? I mean, it’s statistically impossible. How can you find out the truth then? Seeing a shrink is both expensive and your friends and family may placate you by telling you what you want to hear.

    Here’s an idea: how about asking strangers on the internet?

    If you haven’t heard of reddit.com, let me give you a brief overview: it’s a site where users submit content (mostly pictures, videos and text) to various ‘subreddits’, or content categories.

    Submissions are then upvoted or downvoted by other users and what remains is, give or take, a democratic representation of the most interesting stuff on the internet at any given time.

    It’s the subreddits in particular we’re interested in though. There are over 5,400 active sub-sections of reddit, each one with its own designated purpose: /r/videos is for videos, /r/aww for cute photos of animals, /r/wtf for shocking or strange stuff, and so on. Every subreddit is created, moderated and populated by the site’s users.

    The ‘Am I Ugly?’ subreddit has been around for more than three years and almost 35,000 redditors are subscribed to it, which means that every time they visit reddit.com, mixed in with content from the other sections they follow, they will see the 100 or so new submissions that are made to /r/amiugly every single day by self-conscious men and women from around the world. And if you’re brave, or stupid, or egotistical enough, you can be one of these people. The rules are simple: just submit your age (16+ only), your gender, and some clear photos of yourself (non-nude). You can’t post more than once a month and the subreddit shouldn’t be used as a ‘hug box’. If it’s pure sympathy you crave, they recommend you visit /r/mmfb (make me feel better).

    At first glance this whole situation might seem absurd; a modern incarnation of the early internet’s HotOrNot.com, where young people gather to show off or have their egos stroked. But on closer inspection, it’s not the case. /r/amiugly is a place that appears to be filled with stories of genuine anxiety and insecurity.

    The ‘F/M’ and number in the thread title denote the submitter’s age and gender. And this is where I became interested. Here is a place tens of thousands of people have stumbled upon or sought out to answer a simple question that, in real life, most of us would be much too chicken to ask: do I look as bad as I so often fear? And then thousands more people, strangers to the submitters with nothing to lose or gain, chime in with feedback. Maybe this unusual corner of the internet has something interesting to reveal about the ‘normative discontent’ I and billions of others around the globe feel on a daily basis. Perhaps the guts of the people who ask and the gall of those who respond can teach us a lesson about how we should or shouldn’t think when we sneak a look at our reflection in a window, or stare into the mirror each morning before leaving the house...

    In a world without the internet, gathering together a thousand people with body image issues, recording their vital stats and taking their photos would be an arduous task. But thanks to /r/amiugly and the seemingly endless stream of curious men and women who flock there, it only took me a couple of days to get all the data I needed.

    Here are a thousand people who, for one reason or another, decided to do what I described in the opening sentence of this article: ask 35,000 strangers if they are ugly.

    I’m sure you instantly noticed it. Hundreds more of the 1,000 people are male than female.

    In fact, 4 out of 5 of the people who submit their photos to /r/amiugly are men. This is a difference that can’t be skimmed over. After all, isn’t it young women who are supposed to be the most insecure, either because of the media, or peer pressure, or the high standards of men? Well, before we extrapolate this result to the rest of society, we need to examine the demographics of reddit users.

    Some social bookmarking and networking sites have user bases that are roughly 50% male and 50% female. For example, Foursquare, LinkedIn and Instagram users are half male and half female, give or take a few percentage points. Redditors, though, are anything but. Estimates vary, but 59-84% of redditors are male, which puts the ‘79% of /a/amiugly posts are made by men’ fact in a somewhat different light: The proportion of men to women on /r/amiugly roughly matches that of redditors in general.

    This could still be considered surprising, I think. Sure, most redditors are male, but who would have thought so many would feel inclined to put their feelings on the line by asking mostly other men if they are ugly? It’s common knowledge on reddit that the site is, to put it crudely, a bit of a sausage party, yet guys are lining up in their thousands to have their fears confirmed or contradicted.

    How about the average age of a redditor? This is where things become even more interesting. Google Ad Planner puts the average redditor’s age between 25 and 34. Similarly, a reddit poll came up with 24.7. And other, probably less reliable sources like BuzzFeed put the figure at 35. Whatever the exact average is, it turns out it’s a lot higher than the average age of a person who submits themselves to /r/amiugly. The average age of a person who posts to /r/amiugly is 19 if they’re male and 18 if they’re female. The plot thickens. Here’s the breakdown.

    So the average reddit user is about 25 years old, but the average redditor who submits their photo to ask if they’re ugly is 18 or 19. Only 3.5% of people on /r/amiugly are 25. Quite the difference.

    Also, it seems that I may have dismissed too quickly the stereotype of young women being especially prone to insecurity. As the graph above shows, the girls on /r/amiugly tend to be younger than the guys, especially at the lower end of the range: 20% of the females are 16, but for the males it’s only 14%.

    As well as ages, genders and photos, another source of information that can be used to get a glimpse into what the men and women were feeling when they made their submissions is the thread content and title. For instance:

    So, this young woman feels there’s something wrong with her face. Maybe it’s the hair, maybe it’s the forehead, but she doesn’t know. She’s never felt pretty and needs advice. This is a fairly typical comment for those who post their photos to /r/amiugly. Other common concerns are from people claiming never to have been able to find a girlfriend or boyfriend, that their looks are contributing to their depression, or who have been recently dumped or cheated on by their significant other. Here is what the woman above actually looks like:

    I know. Hideous isn’t she? The trail of broken mirrors she leaves in her wake mu--no, hang on a second. She isn’t ugly, she’s isn’t even unattractive. She is, in my subjective opinion, very pretty indeed. So what the hell is going on? If /r/amiugly is a place for people who feel unattractive to find out the truth, is this 21-year-old an anomaly or the norm? Because if she’s the latter, then this subreddit is at risk of once again seeming like a place people visit to have their egos stroked, not their insecurities improved. Or maybe that’s missing the point...

    I’ll get to the bottom of this question shortly. First, here is a word cloud made from a thousand comments like the one above - the things people say when they make their self-conscious submissions. The biggest words are the ones used most often.

    Once a man or woman has submitted themselves to /r/amiugly, they sit and wait for some portion of the 35,000 people who follow the subreddit to find their post and--if they feel so inclined--reply to it. This is another interesting aspect of the analysis, because not every submission to /r/amiugly is created equal. The person’s gender, age and--not least--the way they look will vary from post to post and these differences presumably result in different types of replies from other people. So, let’s start with the most obvious question: on a site heaving with guys, who gets more replies, the men or the women?

    The women, of course. Guys receive, on average, 14 replies each. Women get 54. Per day (based on the median average) that equates to 3.4 times more attention for females than males. So, /r/amiugly is a section of a male dominated site, in which mostly guys submit their photos for assessment, but where women who post get three times the amount of feedback. I suppose that figures. Another way to illuminate this same fact is to check how many of the 100 most replied to submissions were made by women. The answer is 66. The 100 least replied to threads? Well, 99 out of 100 of those were made by guys.

    So what kind of replies do people get? Do they constitute constructive criticism, or are they just brutal?

    Let’s take the woman above as an example--the pretty one.

    She received 84 replies (55% more than the average woman) and almost every single one was positive.

    Only a couple of people had anything negative to say.

    And, it being the internet, there were naturally a few remarks like:

    If you pay a visit to /r/amiugly, you might feel similar to the writer of that last comment; so many of the people on there are so far from ugly that you can’t help but wonder if they are fishing for compliments, or are bored, or anything other than feeling genuinely unsure of how good looking they are.

    Anyway, now I knew that women tend to get a lot more replies than men, and that there is huge variation in how good or bad looking the men and women tend to be, I decided I’d check to see what the top ten most and least replied to men and women of my 1,000 looked like. I thought this might be a neat way of seeing at a glance if there’s any particular trend to which men and women get blanked or bombarded after making their submissions.

    I intentionally removed the descriptors indicating which rows feature the top ten most and least replied to men and women because I thought it might be more interesting if you took a guess. Glance again across rows A, B, C and D and, using whatever criteria you like, take a guess at which female and male rows received the most replies and which got the fewest.

    Done? Well, I can reveal that the men and women who received the most replies are shown in rows B and C. Did you get it right? And, if so, can you think of why? I don’t want to add to anyone’s insecurities, but it seems--at least to me--that your looks might make a difference to how many replies you get, especially if you’re female. But I’m sure you’ll agree, none of the people above are ugly. The worst you could say, unless you’re a professional troll or someone looking to inflate your own ego by trampling on someone else’s, is that some of them are about average. But /r/amiaverage doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. How about /r/amisexy? That would be a nice variation on the theme. A place where people pose the question not in the negative, but the positive. I wonder how the men and women who used the sexy version would differ from the ugly one. Would they be better looking because they were asking the question more confidently? Would their average age be the same? How about the male to female ratio of submissions? If only /r/amisexy existed.

    Well, actually, it does...

    /r/amisexy is like the more confident younger sibling of /r/amiugly. It’s only been around for two years, compared to /r/amiugly’s three, and it has ten thousand fewer subscribers too. It actually seems to have emerged in direct response to /r/amiugly’s existence--its introduction implies as much.

    So, what kind of people submit themselves to /r/amisexy? Presumably they don’t share quite the same level of selfconsciousness as the people who opt for the subreddit’s more negatively-phrased counterpart.

    Let’s see if it’s possible to tell the difference right away between the two user bases. I’ve used a random number generator to select twenty-two people from each subreddit. Carefully examine each wheel of people below.

    Which group do you think asked reddit if they were sexy and which asked if they were ugly?

    Ready for the answer?

    The people shown in the wheel on the right asked if they were sexy. In my opinion, at least based on this small selection and a longer scroll through each subreddit, there does seem to be a difference in what each group looks like. That’s not the only difference either.

    The average age of a man on /r/amiugly is 19 and for a woman it’s 18. On /r/amisexy, based on 1,000 submissions, the average for a man and woman is 20. What’s more, the gender ratio is different as well.

    The gender breakdown on /r/amiugly is 79% male to 21% female. On /r/amisexy, however, it’s 62% male and 38% female. Also, there are fewer teenagers on the latter subreddit: only 10% of submissions are made by people under the age of 18, compared to 30% on /r/amiugly. It seems then that people who choose to ask the question ‘Am I sexy?’ tend to be older on average than those who ask ‘Am I ugly?’ and it’s more likely they will be female too.

    So what’s the takeaway from all this? I’ve looked through thousands of photos of people who have asked the world if they’re ugly or sexy and, generally speaking, the experience was a lot less like visiting a freakshow than it was simply walking down a busy city street. Some people looked attractive, others less so. Some had features that are probably less than ‘perfect’, others were shining beacons of symmetry and clear skin. It seems then that the thing that unites all of these people isn’t a specific degree of deviation from a physical ideal, it’s something much simpler and less obvious to the casual onlooker: the mere worry that they don't comform to that ideal. And from what I can tell, the severity of people’s worries don’t seem to scale with their looks at all. Some of the people freaking out the most on /r/amiugly were really quite attractive, whereas some of the less good looking men and women seemed altogether more level-headed and confident in themselves.

    And for anyone wondering if they’d benefit from submitting their own photos, I’d say this: scroll through /r/amiugly. Soak up the photos and comments. Be a witness to other people’s body image issues for a short while. If you’re anything like me, when you do this you’ll realise how unoriginal your own insecurities are and--maybe, if you’re lucky--how silly worrying about them actually is*.

    *I may have drifted into quoting Baz Luhrman’s ‘Sunscreen’. Although it wouldn’t be a bad thing. Dance.