Put yourself, mentally, in the fall of 2013. An exciting time. Barack Obama had fewer grey hairs. I started every day by snorting a combination of Peruvian Xanax and birth control before firing off a few kicky blogs about rape. The kids couldn’t stop doing a dance called “The Retweet.” None of us had a care in the world.
2013 brought with it a smattering of articles claiming that a woman posting a photo of herself to social media and eliciting “likes” from “friends” and “guys jerking off to her” wasn’t an exercise in validation-seeking. It was, in fact, empowerful, like how crying while watching a woman look in a mirror in a Dove commercial is empowerful.
I found this to be a load of wormy garbage, and I wrote as much in a piece that ran right before Thanksgiving that year, headlined “Selfies Aren’t Empowering, They’re A Cry For Help.” As Donald Trump might say: Many people didn’t like it.
At first, I felt chastened by the immediate blowback, and all of the earnest blogs and hashtags that were flung at me. I had neglected to note a few important exceptions to my general thesis: people going through transitions from one gender to the other, for example, can and do feel empowered by being acknowledged that they are beautiful as they realize their true selves. People who don’t fit into society’s expectations for beauty—the disabled, the mentally ill, and groups shunned by western beauty standards—also benefit from being seen and accepted. But 99 out of every 100 specks of vitriol flung at me were from women who don’t fit into any of those categories taking umbrage on behalf of an imaginary group of which they weren’t a member (Yay! The internet!). It was true; I had suggested that sometimes woke women do things that aren’t empowering, which, I guess, is an offensive thing to suggest.
Since then, I thought long and hard and deep about it. And you know what? I still think most selfies are bad. I was right. Here’s why.
According to a half-assed google search I just conducted, over 1,000 scholarly articles have mentioned both the idea of the selfie and narcissistic tendencies.
Narcissism, of course, is derived from the Greek legend of Narcissus, a vain but beautiful hunter who spent so much time scrolling through Instagram that he died.
Science has found that selfie-taking is often (not always; please calm down) correlated with narcissistic tendencies. Narcissism isn’t empowering. It’s detrimental and obnoxious self-obsession. Therefore, by the transitive property, I’m generally right. Boom.
Research published this year also found that people who take a lot of selfies tend to overestimate their own attractiveness. And taking more selfies over time only exacerbates that embarrassing-to-obnoxious quality. From the PsyPost writeup of that research:
The researchers conclude that habitual selfie-taking may increase people’s susceptibility to self-favoring bias, causing them to overestimate the attractiveness of their photos to a greater and greater extent over time. They suggest that this effect may occur because selfie-takers develop strategies for taking flattering photos of themselves that are not as effective as they believe, or perhaps because positive feedback in the form of likes on social media reinforces an inflated sense of self.
Furthermore, research published in Personality and Individual Differences in 2015 found that selfie-taking among men was linked to psychopathy.
Do I myself post selfies? Fuck the fuck yes. I love those sweet, sweet Likes. But just because I like something doesn’t mean it’s empowering.
Most activities that lead to self-improvement or self-empowerment aren’t fun. They’re work. They’re exercising at 6 in the morning, or staying in to finish The Power Broker, or spending 15 minutes perfecting a nude Snapchat for the dude you’re fucking, where you draw over your torso so it looks like a crying Muppet (the boobs are the eyes).
Besides, not everything a woman does must be empowering or expressly feminist. Most things a human being does are ideologically benign-to-mildly-problematic. Plenty of women have masturbated to the idea of sitting on the faces of the Nazis from Breaking Bad one by one. Others have stayed indoors all day on a beautiful Saturday to smoke pot and watch Frankenhooker. Right now, somewhere in America, an avowed feminist whose roommates aren’t home is reading Us Magazine while she takes a long, luxurious, doors-open shit. None of this is empowering. Who cares?
Wikipedia began taking notice of deaths by selfie in December 2013, the month after I posited that maybe selfies are bad and made people so, so upset. (I’m not taking credit for this; I’m simply pointing out an interesting confluence of events.) The number of idiots hurting or killing themselves in an attempt to take photographs of their own face in front of things in order to impress their social media friends has only accelerated in the intervening years.
In 2014, a Russian girl tried to climb to the middle of a railroad bridge, where she hoped to photograph her face in front of the tracks at night. She died. Later that year, a Mexican man put a gun to his head to take a selfie. The gun went off. He died. In 2015, two men pulled the pin from a live grenade in order to take a selfie with it. The grenade exploded. They died. A Singaporean tourist tried to photograph himself on a vista in Bali. He fell. He died. A man trying to take a selfie with a bull during Spain’s Running of the Bulls was gored by one of those running bulls. He died. After several failed attempts at taking a satisfactory selfie, a teen in Manila climbed a parapet wall and tried again. She died. Several people have accidentally shot themselves while taking selfies. And died. This woman tried to take a selfie with a bison in Yellowstone National Park. She was injured!
In the last three years, we’ve learned that posting self-taken photographs to the internet is often a sign of pathology that occasionally results in death. That’s hardly empowering.
I feel vindicated as fuck right now.