The Good, The Bad, and The Selfie

Reuters/L’Osservatore Roman

By Allison Epstein

Ah, the selfie. The autobiography of the photographic world. The 2013 Word of the Year for the Oxford English Dictionary (or OED). And the subject of many a heated debate. It’s difficult to escape its influence, either in your Facebook news feed or in the mainstream media.

The OED estimates that the usage of the word selfie has increased over the past year by a whopping 17,000%. And that’s not even counting the number of self-portraits that are taking over Instagram, so many that smartphone manufacturers have included the “reverse-camera” feature on nearly all new models, to prevent the guessing game of having to turn your phone around and hope your face is still in the screen. However we feel about the selfie, there’s no denying its popularity.

So the question comes, then: how do we feel about selfies?

How Do I Love Me? Let Me Count The Ways.

One overwhelming belief about the act of snapping selfies is that it demonstrates an unhealthy narcissistic tendency. Why would you constantly put out pictures of yourself for others to look at unless you believed that others were deeply invested in how you styled your hair that morning? Opponents of the selfie frequently turn to celebrities like Kim Kardashian, which Buzzfeed termed, “The Most Self-Involved Person On Instagram Who Posts The Most Gratuitously Annoying Selfies And Also Causes Riots.”

The rise of the selfie, along with “over-sharing” on social media, has been hailed as evidence of Americans’ unhealthy fascination with themselves. According to Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell, authors of The Narcissism Epidemic,

Recognizing the narcissism epidemic is the first step to stopping it. The analogy to the obesity epidemic is useful here. Definite steps are being taken to combat obesity: soda machines are being removed from schools, exercise programs suggested, and nutrition education plans implemented. Not so with narcissism. In many cases, the suggested cure for narcissistic behavior is “feeling good about yourself.” After all, the thinking goes, fourteen-year-old Megan wouldn’t post revealing pictures of herself on MySpace if she had higher self-esteem. So parents redouble their efforts, telling Megan she’s special, beautiful, and great. This is like suggesting that an obese person would feel much better if she just ate more doughnuts. Megan wants everyone to see just how beautiful and special she is, and it’s not because she thinks she is ugly — it’s because she thinks she’s hot and, perhaps more importantly, because she lives in a narcissistic society where she might garner praise, status, and “friends” by displaying blatant sexuality.

I quote this passage at length because it brings several of the largest critiques of the “selfie” together: hypersexuality, low self-esteem, and attention-seeking behaviors. (And, of course, there’s that lovely fat-shaming aside thrown in, which I always so enjoy in my psychological analyses. But that’s another story.)

The sexuality of the selfie has been discussed at length, particularly regarding young girls posting scantily clad or “immodest” pictures on social media. Mom-slash-blogger Kim Hall attracted attention this September for her open letter to her sons’ female friends, reviling them for their sexy Instagram and Facebook photos, which, as she said, made them look unintelligent and desperate:

That post doesn’t reflect who you are at all! We think you are lovely and interesting, and usually very smart. But, we had to cringe and wonder what you were trying to do? Who are you trying to reach? What are you trying to say?

What are selfie-posting girls trying to say? Is it, as Ms. Hall implies, that they aren’t intelligent or interesting, and so rely on their bodies to attract attention? Is it that girls suffer from low self-esteem and want to attract positive feedback by any means necessary, even if it means self-objectification? Is it a willingness to be judged as an object or a fear of their own “imperfections” that leads girls to Photoshop their own Facebook snapshots in a request for “likes” and affirmation? Or, as some blogs such as “Selfies At Inappropriate Places” seem to imply, is it the end of young people’s ability to control themselves, reasoning that every moment of their lives (including Grandma’s funeral or a visit to Chernobyl) deserves to be shared with the public?

Phew. Looking at the selfie this way, it seems like the world is doomed. What were we worried about the government shutdown or global warming for? The real cause of the apocalypse: the selfie.

To Thine Own Selfie Be True

Now, in case my tone wasn’t entirely clear, here’s a good time for me to check my bias: I post the occasional self-portrait to my Facebook feed, and here on the Adios Barbie staff, I’m not alone.

When I post a selfie on social media, I’m not overly concerned about what my hair is doing, or how much I would love it if every one of my Facebook friends were to post a comment extolling how wonderful I look. For me, it’s the same idea as a visual status update: this is where I am, this is what I’m doing, this is how I feel about it. I took this picture after staring at the same page of my final-project-in-progress for approximately eight hours. I could have told a friend how tired I was, and at the same time how determined to work on this project, and how much I appreciated having that cup of tea at my elbow, but for me, a picture was worth a thousand words.





From Sharon Haywood, Co-Editor: “I took this selfie when I was on a much-needed vacation this past August in San Andres Isla, Colombia. I had just finished snorkeling, and I wanted to capture how I felt (as opposed to how I looked), which was happy, grateful and stress-free. Every time I look at it now, I can’t help but smile at the joy that moment brought.”








And from Pia Guerrero, Co-Founder and Co-Editor, who proves that sometimes a selfie is the best way of showing that you’ve spent time recently with your best friend’s adorable new baby.




Are these pictures a sign that we’re passionately in love with ourselves, or that we’ve become so convinced that our worth is only in how we look that we’re constantly putting ourselves through attention-seeking photo shoots? Not exactly.

A friend of mine, when I asked for opinions on the Selfie Phenomenon of 2013, put it this way (and I quote at length because I think it is wonderful):

Taking selfies is wonderful and anyone who criticizes you for taking them should think hard about why they find it objectionable. While you do have to put some thought into when/where/how often you post them on social media sites (because not everyone is interested in looking at your face all the time) it drives me crazy when I see self-love getting chalked up as self-obsession. I am a firm believer in the selfie. You should never be embarrassed and you don’t need a special reason to take them—maybe you feel great that day and want to document it, maybe you feel bad and it becomes your pick-me-up. It’s all about positivity and acceptance.

Is there an inherent element of slut-shaming in the negative perception of girls who post selfies? Maybe not always. In both cases, though, there is a model of “appropriate” behavior that is held up as the standard, fueled by an understanding of “modest,” “feminine” behavior. Ladies do not dress provocatively. Ladies do not desire attention from others, particularly for their bodies. Ladies keep to themselves, quietly and demurely, and do not think of themselves as physical beings. Girls are to be seen through the male gaze, not through their own lenses. In other words, women and girls who take pride in their physical appearance and are unafraid to share it with others defy the ideal of the demure, non-physical woman. It’s the difference between Girl With A Pearl Earring allowing Vermeer to decide how she should be seen and taking the picture herself.

VERSUS    Image credit Kim Dong-Kyu

Image credit: Kim Dong-Kyu

Low Selfie-steem: What’s Your Excuse?

That said, however, there is a kind of selfie that I consider problematic: the kind of selfie that’s not really about the self at all. We can think of these images in their most blatant forms as fitspiration, such as the recent firestorm surrounding fitness mom Maria Kang and her trim-and-toned post-baby body with the provocative caption: “What’s Your Excuse?” How is this different, you might ask, than any woman posting pictures of herself to the Internet? Aren’t they both looking for approval, for comments like “daaaaaang gurl, you look hot! #sexy!”

The message behind the picture makes the difference. Where a bathroom-mirror selfie says “This is what I look like today before I leave the house, and I think it’s fabulous,” a high-resolution, professionally-lit photo like this says, “This is what I look like, and if you don’t look the way that I do, it’s because you’re not working hard enough, so get off the computer and go to the gym.” The self isn’t at issue here: it’s a social and physical norm that’s being set up, pressuring the viewers to feel poorly about themselves in comparison.

If the selfie is about falling in love with yourself and taking control of your presentation online, the perfectly crafted, unrealistically professional selfie is its polar opposite: creating unrealistic ideals and letting someone else dictate our self-image. It creates the norm that airbrushing ourselves and shifting the lighting, the resolution, our posture to get the absolute perfect shot is not only an option, but absolutely necessary. It’s even helping an industry of apps like FaceTune, Perfect365, and ModiFace that help women airbrush their own selfies to get that unrealistic, magazine-“perfect” look. Women are already pressured enough to look a certain way, whether from the movie industry, fashion magazines, diet corporations, or our own friends and family. The last thing we need is to gang up on ourselves. Isn’t the point of a selfie that it’s a picture of you, un-altered and honest? Can’t the selfie be a practice of self-acceptance, where we learn that those less-than-perfect snapshots are totally okay?

What do you think? Is snapping a selfie with your iPhone a way of engaging in self-love, a troubling attention-grabbing form of narcissism, or a way of cutting down other women? Can we use our cameras for good or for evil?

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One thought on “The Good, The Bad, and The Selfie

  1. Excellent article! And pretty timely, given how much flack President Obama is currently receiving for daring to take a selfie at the memorial for Nelson Mandela. As an interesting side note about Kim Hall: while she was busy telling young women to cover up, she felt no moral compunction whatsoever with her son’s modesty. People swooped to her Facebook and found she had several photos of her sons with less clothing than the young women she was criticizing.

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