The Repulsive Vanity of the Male Self-Portrait

"You're doing a piece about dick pics, right?"

After announcing on Facebook and Twitter that I'd be writing a column on men and selfshot images, I got some version of that question from five different people. It might be a little late to write about Brett Favre or Anthony Weiner, they seemed to think, but perhaps, they thought, I had a new take on why so many dudes love to send photos of their penises to the eager and the horrified alike.

The assumption makes sense — we're used to the idea that many men are hungry to show off their erections. What we talk about less often is the "man selfie" — photos that emphasize the face rather than the body, of the sort that are safe to put on a Facebook profile or an online dating site. Having a few of those photos is indispensable, especially on an OK Cupid or a Match-type site. But what if a guy has more than a few? Is there an "evident vanity threshold" past which even the handsomest man gets steadily less hot?

I put that question to Emily McCombs, Executive Editor at XoJane. Emily recently wrote an ode to selfies, noting the role they play in her own fight to maintain high self-esteem. iPhone self-portraits, she notes, are just the updated version of the widespread impulse to catch a glimpse of oneself in every reflective surface. Having grow up suffering from socially-conditioned body dysmorphia, Emily writes that for her, mirrors and selfies "tell a truer truth than the voices inside my head." Commenters celebrated; "LindseyWoho" receiving 34 upvotes for telling Emily "love your selfies, love other people's selfies, love my own selfies. Babes all around!"

The selfie-celebration, however, isn't for everyone. "I am ashamed as a feminist to admit that while I champion vanity in women, I find it kind of off-putting in men," Emily told me in an email. "I'd rather a man be thinking about how pretty I am than worrying about how pretty he is. I don't dislike vain men as people, but I wouldn't want to date one." When I put a query out on social media, I got much the same reply: male vanity, at least the kind made evident by too many smart phone self-portraits, is a major turn-off.

Part of that double standard has to do with how we gender insecurity. We expect and encourage women's self-doubt, encouraging girls to learn to bond with one another by sharing anxieties and exchanging reassuring, reciprocal affirmations. In a world of rigid gender binaries, vanity becomes an exclusively feminine trait. A woman who cares intensely about her appearance somehow becomes more of a woman for doing so — a man who is inordinately pre-occupied with his looks becomes less of a man.

Many men get around that problem of feminized vanity by offering hyper-masculine selfies. The dick pic is an obvious example — an erection is by definition the antithesis of the feminine. More PG-rated but still masculine selfies are the ubiquitous muscle shots. A six-pack, ripped pecs , and a scowl on a young man's dating profile may come across as anxious overkill, but it's a way of presenting what he hopes will be an alluring image — without risking the accusation of feminine self-absorption. The more the selfie focuses only on his face rather than the most male parts of his body, the greater the risk of coming across as vain.

Yet no matter what he shows of himself, every male self-portrait risks displaying the vanity and insecurity that Emily McCombs and so many others find so "off-putting." Most men figure out that the most attractive photos a guy can have on his Facebook or dating profiles are those taken by others. (This is the standard advice given by the "experts" who offer to makeover someone's online image.) The key is to ensure that someone else captures you looking good, preferably in action — playing a sport, laughing with friends, giving a speech. Handsomeness should be incidental, even effortless, and not intentional, affected, posed, and feminine. (As a counterpoint to McCombs, I was mocked very publicly by a men's rights activist for having one too many self-portraits on my Facebook.)

What's so off-putting about male vanity isn't just that it's perceived as feminine. It's also that it warns of potential infidelity and long-term neediness. "The more selfies a guy has, the more obvious it is he craves validation," my friend Lindsay said. "The more validation he needs, the less likely it is that any one woman will be able to give it to him." Dealing lovingly and compassionately with a partner's body image issues is a very real emotional labor. For women who often already do the bulk of psychological relationship maintenance anyway, the idea of constantly soothing a vain man's anxiety about his looks can be more than a little exhausting.

All the research suggests that rates of body dysmorphia are rising among young men. For a host of reasons, Millenial guys report more anxiety about their appearance than do older men. It would be wrong to claim a false equivalence — incidences of eating disorders remain much higher among young women. At the same time, however, women enjoy (if that's the word) the very small freedom to publicly acknowledge both vanity and anxiety. (Just last week, XoJane launched a spin-off beauty site, unashamedly if ironically called XoVain.) This doesn't mean that women who take many selfies always get the praise and reassurance that Emily McCombs got in the comments beneath her piece. But it does mean that for better or worse, men who post more than a small handful of selfies risk alienating the very audience they're trying to attract.


Jezebel columnist Hugo Schwyzer teaches history and gender studies at Pasadena City College and is a nationally-known speaker on sex, masculinity, body image and beauty culture. He also blogs at his eponymous site. Follow him on Twitter: @hugoschwyzer.