In defense of the "ugly phase"

Teens on TikTok look entirely too perfect — and it's unsettling.

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Once in a while, when I’m scrolling through my phone, the algorithm will drag me into the dark corners of Teen TikTok where 15-year-olds perform the latest viral dance trends. Each time, I find myself incredulous about these kids’ age — their style is on point and their makeup impeccable, indicators of taste that I didn’t develop until adulthood. Some of them look like they could easily be in their early 20s, but their profile bios reveal that they’re barely out of pre-teenhood. I’ll be the first to begrudgingly admit that they look cool as hell. A little too cool, if you ask me.

When I think back to how I looked and dressed at that point in my life, I can confidently say that I was a mess. Even when I did try to pull a look, I had no idea how to do it. My only reference was the other kids in school and Disney Channel (about that: Can we please talk about whoever was styling those early 2000s shows?). Whenever my family and I would go to the mall, I would just stack up shirts from the Nordstrom discount rack. My hair was perpetually disheveled, I had bright neon orange braces (my favorite color) and I committed fashion faux pas that will give me second-hand embarrassment if I even try to think about them now as a 24-year-old.

Today, teens on TikTok have access to videos that discuss the nuances of wearing nude tones and how to sharpen your face shape with contour. All that content makes me secretly thankful for how blissfully ignorant I was as a teenager. Without 24/7 access to social media, I had less people to compare myself to and no sense of just how awkward I looked in those button-up shirts from my local Ross.

As much as I envy the cool, cute kids of TikTok, in retrospect, I don’t regret my “ugly phase.” I can clearly see its value. For many of us, it was a time when we were forced to develop a personality outside of our appearance. I was an effeminate kid who was never going to be the dreamy-eyed, Zac-Efron-esque white boy that was the prototype of what a hot person should look like and I had no choice but to accept that. White girls would tell me I was weird-looking and sometimes even tell me that they thought I was “sorta ugly.” These are the same people who thought Ugg boots were high fashion, but I kept my mouth shut.

Even though this hurt — I was frustrated, of course, and wished that I was considered more desirable — I had no choice but to trust the process and hope that I was not going to always look the same. But knowing that conventional attractiveness was not accessible to a person of color like me, especially living in suburban Texas, gave me the opportunity to develop other qualities that would take me far in life, like learning how to be social when no one came up to talk to me or becoming funny so that people would want to be my friend.

I’m aware of this flawed, racist, homophobic system that still perpetuates — but that’d be a whole other story to write. To this day, I can sort of identify the adults who were popular and considered hot in high school based on their personalities and the jokes they tell. That’s all I’ll say on that.

But back to these PYTs on TikTok: Are these Gen-Z kids going to be okay, once they have to take off the makeup and filters? What’s going to happen to the ones who are skipping the ugly phase altogether? A part of me can’t help but feel like the death of the ugly phase is also a death of an important rite of passage that helped many of us build character and become less looks-obsessed. Another part of me is happy for them. Teens today have enough to deal with.

Photo: Ian Kumamoto

The main reason that I’m an advocate for the ugly phase is that it is a completely natural process. In fact, there’s science behind why we have one. It’s called puberty, people, and the reason we become weird-looking is because we’re hit by a cocktail of hormones that our bodies don’t know what to do with yet. A part of the brain called the hypothalamus produces buckwild hormones that literally alter our skin and the shape of our bodies. It’s a bumpy segue into a permanent change that we all have to go through.

The hot TikTok teens make me feel like teenagers aren’t even allowed to be ugly anymore, even in the midst of puberty. Looking and feeling weird is our right. And when every private moment becomes an opportunity for a selfie, avoiding any type of ugly begins to feel really high stakes. Filters make it even easier to erase any perceived flaws and encourage obsessions with artificial enhancements. And (surprise surprise) some genders are disproportionately affected by the pressure to always look hot.

“There has always been societal pressure, particularly for young women, to look a certain way, but I believe that social media has amplified this pressure,” Jacqueline Nesi, assistant professor of psychiatry at Brown University, tells me. “On social media, they also need to contend with quantifiable indicators of peer approval — likes, comments, views, shares — and it is not lost on them that attractive images and videos get higher levels of that approval.”

An unfortunate truth is, that although teens on social media might look better than we ever will, they’re not necessarily feeling better.

In other words, what was once confined to in-person bullies determining who in the school was hot and who wasn’t has turned into a democratized process. When I was in school, I could choose, to an extent, to withdraw from popularity games. But with social media, even if no one explicitly says you look like trash, those three likes on your selfie can sure feel like a consensus on your desirability.

An unfortunate truth is, that although teens on social media might look better than we ever will, they’re not necessarily feeling better. Depression among teens was on the rise even before the pandemic, according to the Pew Research Center, and many young people report having feelings of anxiety everyday. There’s little doubt that social media and a culture of constant connectedness is pushing teens past the edge, just as it has with the rest of us. I’d argue that the main difference, though, is that teens do not always have the tools to cope with it in a healthy way.

Look, I’m sure some teens are benefitting from looking good and avoiding getting bullied altogether. Soura Sengupta, a New York-based child and adolescent psychiatrist points out that trans teens, for example, can benefit from having more access to a world beyond their immediate surroundings. The Internet means that access to makeup tutorials and seeing trans influencers, for example, could be life saving for a young trans person who doesn’t feel affirmed in their day-to-day lives.

Still, I find it problematic that social media bolsters this idea that physical appearance is our only valuable quality. “I think the real challenge here is to help teens develop a well-rounded self-esteem that certainly can incorporate a healthy physical self-image. But it should also focus on their interests, their academic talents, their friends, their responsibilities, their dreams,” Sengupta told me. “I think social media can at times be a useful tool to highlight this richness in young peoples' lives, but all too often can end up becoming a platform that encourages shallow and potentially toxic relationships with others and oneself.”

I’ll admit that looking cute after hours of preparation for a TikTok or a night out can feel like a drug — the payoff is immediate and the exhilaration wears off quickly. Social media has conditioned us to feel like every moment of our lives is high-stakes, especially when it comes to the way we look. Being off guard for one second during a group picture, for example, could mean an unsightly photo of you that will live on the Internet for the rest of time. And who can take that kind of risk?

Sometimes, I’ll catch myself being bored at home and thinking about taking a selfie to post on my Instagram story. That moment will turn into 20 minutes of looking for the best lighting in my apartment, rubbing lotion on my face and changing my outfit. What was playful and low-stakes turns into an entire production and all of a sudden, I’ll be beating myself up about how wide my nose looks up-close. In moments like that, I will start making it a point to remind myself that I was once ugly and didn’t mind being so. Before Instagram and TikTok, there was more we strived to be besides hot.