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Inner beauty: UMass students’ video project aims to debunk media stereotypes

  • Cassidy Kotyla, left, and Andrea Peicott, both juniors at UMass Amherst, discuss a short video they made exploring the effect of telling fellow students they are beautiful Dec. 20, 2016 in the Integrative Learning Center at UMass Amherst. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Andrea Peicott and Cassidy Kotyla, both juniors at UMass Amherst, pose for a portrait Dec. 20, 2016 inside the Integrative Learning Center at UMass Amherst. The women created a short video exploring the effect of telling fellow students they are beautiful. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Cassidy Kotyla, left, and Andrea Peicott, both juniors at UMass Amherst, discuss a short video they made exploring the effect of telling fellow students they are beautiful Dec. 20, 2016 in the Integrative Learning Center at UMass Amherst. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Andrea Peicott and Cassidy Kotyla, both juniors at UMass Amherst, created a short video exploring the effect of telling fellow students they are beautiful. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Screenshots from “You Are Beautiful,” a film by UMass juniors Cassidy Kotyla and Andrea Peicott that challenges stereotypes of beauty

  • Screenshot from “You Are Beautiful”

  • Screenshot from “You Are Beautiful”

  • Screenshot from “You Are Beautiful”


Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 28, 2016

By STEVE PFARRER

‘Beauty is more than skin deep.”

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

And as Confucius put it, “Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.”

There are any number of ways to say that beauty has a broad definition. And for two University of Massachusetts Amherst students studying communications, a video camera and some impromptu interviews have been the means for making that point.

For a year-end assignment, juniors Cassidy Kotyla and Andrea Peicott have created a short video called “You Are Beautiful: A Social Experiment” that they say has become a surprise online hit after they posted it on Youtube. Offering brief portraits of UMass students they approached, the video, they say, is designed to celebrate people’s “inner beauty” as well as the diverse campus community.

More specifically, Kotyla says, their video is also a response to what they see as a narrow definition of beauty that’s shaped by the media and society in general — one that’s fixated on physical perfection for women in particular and designed to play on people’s insecurities, leading them to buy products that will supposedly improve their appearance and make them happier.

That issue had been part of their coursework in media criticism this semester, Kotyla noted. She and Peicott say that other people have also put together “You Are Beautiful” projects; Kotyla was particularly inspired by one, produced by a high school student, that she watched on Youtube.

“You see so much product placement in the media, in advertising,” said Kotyla, who’s also studying journalism and film at UMass. “The message is always ‘If you wear this makeup or this type of clothing, your life will be better.’ It really affects people’s self-esteem.”

“We wanted to do something that was uplifting, that was proactive,” Peicott added, “especially after this really dark, depressing election season.”

The two friends and sorority sisters say they also wanted to push themselves “outside their comfort zone” by approaching students they didn’t know or might not normally interact with.

In early December, they positioned themselves with Kotyla’s video camera for a few days in the Interactive Learning Center, one of the newest buildings on campus, and worked up the nerve to interview strangers. Their strategy was to ask students to pose for a picture for an art project — and to tell them they’d approached them in the first place because they found them beautiful.

Varied reactions

That’s the jumping-off point for a short (a little under three minutes) but entertaining video, one that’s most revealing in the students’ faces. From bright smiles, laughter and words of thanks, to a few sheepish looks, to one guy who simply raises a single eyebrow when the camera lands on him, the reactions to being called “beautiful” make for some appealing moments.

The students, who are not otherwise identified, are white, black, Asian, Indian, male and female, with all manner of looks. Kotyla and Peicott say they approached about 100 students in total, with perhaps 60 of them agreeing to pose. From that number, 24 are featured in the video, which has a simple piano score for a backdrop.

“Wow, thanks!” says one man with a slightly awkward smile as Kotyla and Peicott urge him to “just stand there and be you.” Another woman smiles and says, “Oh,” then places the flat of her hand under her chin and rolls her eyes in a mock-theatrical way.

Kotyla, who edited the video, says it was difficult to whittle down the students for the video “because their were just so many great reactions from people.” Some of the men she and Peicott talked to “were in disbelief at first about what we were doing,” she added, but those students said they appreciated it nonetheless.

Yet neither Kotyla nor Peicott were prepared for what happened after they posted “You Are Beautiful” on Youtube and a few other online sites, including one for UMass students and another for the University of Connecticut (Kotyla is from the Hartford area and knows people who attend UConn). By the week before Christmas, Peicott said, the video was nearing 5,000 hits and had been viewed in 30 countries.

“We had no idea it was going to blow up like this,” Peicott said. “This seems like something that’s bigger than just a final project.”

Both say they’ve also gotten emails and Facebook messages from people thanking them for the video.

Kotyla, who’s also a blogger and photographer, thinks the video might resonate because it speaks to the self-doubt many students feel about their physical attractiveness. She hopes the message about trusting one’s inner beauty can help women in particular; she says she went through an “emotionally abusive” relationship at one point that tested her sense of self-worth.

Indeed, as text at the video’s conclusion says, “Everybody deserves to feel that they are beautiful.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

To watch “You Are Beautiful,” visit www.youtube.com/watch?v=PjLrEJJY7y8.