by Fall Ferguson, JD, MA
Selfies are a well-established part of our culture at this point. By 2013, the word “selfie” had made its way into the Oxford Dictionary, which defines a selfie as “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and shared via social media.” Celebrity selfies have overtaken the press release and the photo opportunity as the publicity tool of choice. There is even an infographic from izzigadgets.com entitled The Anatomy of a Great Selfie with “dos and don’ts.”
The Selfie as Narcissistic Apocalypse?
Many social critics bemoan the selfie as evidence of our collective narcissism. For example, Tina Issa in The Huffington Post described selfie-takers as self-absorbed:
“The selfie should be renamed “selfishie” because that is what it really is – a selfish person taking a photo of themselves. I hope that this selfie revolution slows down and people start focusing on something besides one upping their “friends” with ridiculous photos and realize what really counts in this world is not just yourself.”
I agree that many people – including a disturbing number of celebrities – take the selfie too far. And perhaps I am just revealing myself as a middle-aged prude (not my preferred self-image!), but the sheer number of hypersexual selfies that I found when I did some searches on Twitter as research for this post left me feeling very sad for the posters.
Self-Expression for the Masses?
Some commentators defend the selfie as simply the newest form of self-expression and communication in a digital age. In an article in Esquire, Stephen Marche wrote that
“the leap in the ease of taking and disseminating images from the year 2000 to the present is as great as the leap from drawing in caves to the year 2000. And yet we still think of photographs as if they require effort, as if they were conscious works of creation. That’s no longer true. Photographs have become like talking. The rarity of imagery once made it a separate part of life. Now it’s just life. It is just part of the day.”
Marche sees the selfie as a natural step in our social evolution.
Actor and notorious selfie-taker James Franco has defended selfies as “acts of communication,” noting that “the self-portrait is an easy target for charges of self-involvement, but, in a visual culture, the selfie quickly and easily shows, not tells, how you’re feeling, where you are, what you’re doing.” Franco dislikes it when potential social media contacts do not post selfies:
“I am actually turned off when I look at an account and don’t see any selfies, because I want to know whom I’m dealing with. In our age of social networking, the selfie is the new way to look someone right in the eye and say, ‘Hello, this is me.’”
It seems important that the “someone” with whom Franco wants to connect is a static image captured in pixels and posted to the multitudes. Any personal connection that Franco feels is by definition one-sided (on the viewer’s side only). Yet Franco doesn’t feel he can know whom he’s dealing with unless he can see what the person looks like. That a film star values appearance over other characteristics comes as no surprise; I suspect that many non-celebrities share Franco’s preference for visual representations as well. I can’t help wondering whether selfies both embody and perpetuate our cultural obsession with how we appear to others.
Developmental Psychology in a Digital Age?
The need to explore identity through how others see us is part of normal human development, according to experts such as Dr. Pamela Rutledge of the Media Psychology Research Center and Dr. Jana Mohr-Lone of the University of Washington’s Philosophy for Children Department. In the age of social media, selfies offer adolescents a means of not only expressing themselves but exploring reactions to their self-expressions.
One of my favorite selfie activists is Virgie Tovar, who frequently posts selfies and who started the hashtag campaign #losehatenotweight. While researching this post, I found an inspiring blog post by Tovar from October 2014 in which she describes an experience talking with San Francisco teenagers about the power of the selfie:
“They had SO MANY AMAZING things to say about parental paranoia, the delight that selfies and potrait making brought them, how they perceived the internet as an in fact less dangerous place than the non-digital world (despite everyone’s anxiety about internet pedos), the way that some of them used selfies and hashtags to create visibility and showcase identity in mostly white school environments, how the language used to describe selfies is deeply encoded with sexism, and pointed out that if cell phones with cameras had been around in the 80s the authors of most of these selfie-hater articles would have totally been taking selfies too. Too. True.”
A Darker Side of Selfies?
I am encouraged by Tovar’s description of her interaction with these teens. Nevertheless, I think there may be cause for concern about some aspects of selfie culture. Dr. Mohr-Lone suggests that problems arise when teens (and I would argue adults also) give too much importance to what others think of their selfies. It’s troubling when the poster’s self-esteem plummets because the comments are negative, or when the exchange is the individual’s only connection with others. Our “real hunger for authentic deep interaction” is deflected into a shallow exchange of photos and comments in which cyberbullies have free reign.
Just as the selfie offers the average person previously unknown vistas for self-expression, it seems to me to offer virtually unlimited scope for body shaming. In a Journal of Early Adolescence article entitled “NetTweens: The Internet and Body Image Concerns in Preteenage Girls,” Marika Tiggeman and Amy Slater (co-authors of numerous scholarly articles on body image) report on a study of the effects of Internet use in Australian girls aged 10-12. Overall, they found that “Internet exposure was associated with internalization of the thin ideal, body surveillance, dieting, and reduced body esteem.”
Tweens are not the only ones affected. According to a 2014 report commissioned by the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, one third of facial plastic surgeons surveyed had experienced “an increase in requests for plastic surgery as a result of patients being more self-aware of their looks because of social media.”
Research reported in Time Magazine shows that both teens and adults are often negatively influenced by what they see online, both in terms of body image as well as how peers “behave” in social media. Teens may be more likely to smoke or drink if they see other teens acting out in social media. Moreover, viewing other people having fun (e.g., others’ “party pictures”) can often make people feel unhappier themselves. Danny Bowman, a teenager diagnosed with body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) after being rejected as a model, engaging in obsessive selfie-taking, and finally attempting suicide, now campaigns to educate the public and health professionals about the disorder. (You can watch a short film he made about his experiences here.)
Are Selfies a Tool for Oppression or for Empowerment?
Selfies seem to have the potential both to oppress and to empower. I can’t help wondering about the ways in which many selfies tend to oppress by reinforcing beauty ideals rooted in looksism, sizeism, ableism, racism, and other oppressions. Moreover, using selfies to assuage our hunger for connection reinforces the idea that our appearance is the most important thing about us.
At the same time, I am intrigued by the expressive possibilities of the selfie. For most of my life, I feared and avoided cameras in the belief that I’m not thin enough, not pretty enough, not photogenic enough, etc. Selfies shift the power: I can take as many pictures of myself as I like and only post the ones I like. I can define and control the image I present to the world. Here’s something I love: when I get to create and choose the images, the ones I am drawn to are not the images where I look conventionally pretty but the ones that I think are interesting for other reasons – an expression, a shadow, a texture, etc.
The selfie can be a political weapon as well as a mode of self-expression, exemplified by the #notamartyr campaign in Lebanon or FIFA’s #SayNoToRacism campaign. Within the size acceptance and HAES communities, people are already using selfies to claim their right to exist, to reject the thin ideal, and to redefine beauty and appearance standards. There is a great potential here.
So, I close this post with a challenge: What does a #HAESselfie look like? I can’t wait to see what you all come up with.