It is a quest for 15 minutes of fame that can turn into a few humiliating moments of shame.
Still, a growing number of people are putting themselves out there - smiling or serious, sometimes scantily clad - asking strangers on the Internet and even celebrity judges on TV to rate their bodies and looks.
They post their photos on any number of Web sites, where Internet surfers can rate them on a scale of 1 to 10. And now a new TV show - ABC's "Are You Hot?" - is bringing the concept to prime time and taking the rating game to a new level.
"People used to identify the American dream with a white picket fence, half-acre lot and a better life," says Matthew Felling, a spokesman for the Center for Media and Public Affairs, a Washington-based media watchdog. "Nowadays, we see that better life possessed by the people in front of the camera."
Some people who've posted photos say the trend shouldn't be taken too seriously. That includes Desiree Koh, who posted photos of two male co-workers on a site called HotorNot.com, one of the first of many rating sites. "It was a form of affectionate ridicule," says Koh, a 25-year-old Chicagoan.
At least one of the co-workers, 28-year-old Heath Shackleford, was a little embarrassed at first but now thinks it's funny - "especially since the other guy got as low a rating as I did."
Many others post their own photos for all the World (Wide Web) to see.
"People do care what people think of them. Most say 'I don't care.' But they do, inside. So this kind of gives them an idea," says a 29-year-old from south Florida named Dom, who'd only provide his first name. He said he doesn't want his friends to know he posted his photo on HowHotAmI.com and received a 5.0 rating out of 10.
"But I don't think I'm ugly, you know?" he says. "It's all in fun."
Or is it?
Some experts believe the trend only further encourages negative body image and eating disorders that young people, in particular, already struggle with.
"We keep telling our kids, 'You're more than your bodies.' But that's not the message they're seeing on television and in magazines," says Jane Fleming, executive director of the Renfrew Center Foundation, a national nonprofit that addresses the issue of eating disorders.
In one survey, for example, Brigham Young University researchers found that 80 percent of young women who read health and fitness magazines at least once a month forced themselves to vomit after meals to lose weight. That compares with 9 percent of the young women overall who said they did so.
Earlier this year, some viewers began referring to a somewhat pudgy male suitor on the reality show "The Bachelorette" as "Fat Bob." Now, with its parade of women and some men in bathing suits, "Are You Hot?" has put the focus entirely on body image.
Felling, from the Center for Media, says the new show also caters to readers of popular "laddie" magazines such as Maxim, which regularly feature little-clothed models on its covers.
"It's as if the only focus group that matters is fraternity brothers," Felling says.
Rosie Amodio, features editor at Maxim, says that when she first saw promos for "Are You Hot?" she thought it looked "like one of our photo shoots."
She says that because of reader requests, the magazine is using more photos of "real women" - providing a few moments of fame that she says have an "intoxicating" effect on those who are selected. She recalls one non-model who called after her photo was in the magazine, boasting that all her ex-boyfriends had seen the shots.
Amodio thinks that including women who aren't models sends a positive message: "I think it says, 'You can be yourself.' It says, 'You don't have to be this bottle-blond, fake-boob kind of girl."'
Greg Gutfeld, editor-in-chief of Stuff, another laddies magazine, is unapologetic about the rating trend. It's just human nature, he says.
"Incredibly deep people can be superficial," he says. "You can enjoy classical music and wrestling with your dog on the lawn."
Even some who counsel people with poor body images say the rating fad should be kept in perspective.
Logan Levkoff, a New York University doctoral student who has a master's degree in human sexuality, says too many of the young women and men she works with think their bodies are "gross or dirty or ugly."
But, she says, such self-concepts often stem from deep-seated issues, including family dynamics. Rating TV shows and Web sites, she says, are "simply for entertainment."
By Martha Irvine
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