Much virtual ink has been spilled over the past few days over the Oxford Dictionary's choice of "selfie" for 2013 word of the year. But I've noticed among the chorus of opinions on the social media self portrait an annoying trend: the selfie evangelist. Selfies are just dandy, they say, because they're a way for people (mostly young women) to express themselves and to show pride in who they are. To insult the selfie is to insult WOMEN IN GENERAL, and that's, like, against the rules of feminism. Besides, selfies are here to stay! Get used to it!
Stop this. Selfies aren't empowering; they're a high tech reflection of the fucked up way society teaches women that their most important quality is their physical attractiveness.
Over at Slate, Rachel Simmons makes a valiant effort to reframe the selfie as a positive self-esteem-builder for girls. She writes,
The selfie is a tiny pulse of girl pride—a shout-out to the self. Earlier this week, the first four women to complete Marine infantry combat training posted a jubilant selfie. (Nancy Pelosi tweeted it as "selfie of the year.") If you write off the endless stream of posts as image-conscious narcissism, you'll miss the chance to watch girls practice promoting themselves—a skill that boys are otherwise given more permission to develop, and which serves them later on when they negotiate for raises and promotions.
I absolutely don't disagree that the three Marines who passed infantry combat training kick ass, and that photo they took was inspiring (fact: if you do not compliment the women who passed the Marine infantry test, you put yourself at risk for quick — but very painful — death). And if selfies were typically jubilant post-achievement photos snapped by women proud of what they'd accomplished, then Simmons' assertion that selfies are "tiny pulse(s) of girl pride" would be apt. But the typical selfie is not taken by women who have just completed Iron Man Triathlons or finally finished reading Infinite Jest (caption: Me N DFW 4 eva! XOXO #blessed #reading #smart #rip); selfies don't typically contain job offer letters, successful grant applications, their face in front of a gorgeously rendered still life the woman drew by hand. They're literally just pictures of a woman's face not talking (grey-area exception: selfies where a person's face is not the point of the picture. Some women I follow on Instagram, for example, post pictures of themselves wearing cool sunglasses or lipstick or hats, which I feel is not technically a selfie because the point of a pure selfie is "HERE'S MY FACE" and not "here's a cool hat/lipstick shade/pair of sunglasses").
Further, self-taken digital portraits are typically posted on social media, ostensibly with the intent of getting people to respond to them — that's what social media is. In that respect, selfies aren't expressions of pride, but rather calls for affirmation. In real life, walking up to a stranger, tilting your head downward at a 45-degree angle, duckfacing, pushing your tits together, and screaming "DO YOU THINK I'M PRETTY!" would be summon the authorities. On the internet, it's just how people operate.
That this kind of casual self-promotion comes so easily to girls points to a yawning—and promising—generational divide. Maybe we adult women, of the Lean In generation, have something to learn here.
Retaking a photo 12 times until your chin looks right is in no way analogous to asking your boss for a raise. Nor is it the sort of self-promotion that results in anything but a young woman reinforcing the socially-engrained notion that the most valuable thing she has to offer the world is her looks. If culture were encouraging women to be smart, the word of the year would be "diplomie" and the definition would be "a photo of an academic achievement posted to social media." "Here's my face!" is not an accomplishment. Feeling pretty is nice, but goddamn — "beauty" far from the most important thing about being a fully-actualized adult human person.
Nor is the proliferation of selfies into a generation of women who are old enough to know better a promising development; it's a nightmare. The picture that accompanies my byline on this very website is a selfie. I've posted selfies to Facebook, and Twitter. I always feel bad about it; it always takes several tries to not look stupid, and even now, I kind of hate all of them. "Hey guys, I'm by myself!" my selfie says, "Can you please somehow indicate that other humans are out there so that I do not collapse into my own loneliness????? LOLOLOL" Please, god, no.
Simmons goes on to preemptively defend her defense of the selfie, noting that the media is quick to treat teen girls as perennial victims rather than young women with agency (she cites media coverage of hook up culture as an example). Of course some young women are posting pictures of themselves because they love how they look. But it's absurd to assert that teenagers — girls or boys— are doing anything as public as selfie-posting in a fantastical vacuum devoid of social pressure where somehow they're not relying on others to feel good about themselves. If "pure" selfie queens are so happy with themselves, then why involve social media at all? Why post their face on a forum where people can tell them that they hate it?
Young women take selfies because they don't derive their sense of worth from themselves, they rely on others to bestow their self-worth on them — just as they've been taught. From the time they're itty bitty, little girls are bombarded with images of idealized female forms. They're indoctrinated with Victoria's Secret-style cartoonishly unobtainable passive Sexiness® and told that this is what they should Be When They Grow Up. They're being sold "flirty" child-sized Halloween costumes modeled after "sexy" adult costumes. They're told that they're at their best when they're at their most decorative.
While selfies aren't Yay Girl Power Kum Bah Yahs, they're not indictments of the individuals taking them, either. In a piece for the Telegraph, Harry Wallop argues that selfies are a product of our age of celebrity-obsessed narcissism and could leave young women with low self esteem.
It is an act as modern as it is narcissistic, perfectly capturing the self-regard of our age. But it is also, some think, a worrying trend that could leave young girls, in particular, with low self-esteem.
But I think Wallop's got it backwards. Selfies don't cause self esteem to drop; they're a reflection of the warped way we teach girls to see themselves as decorative. The post-approval-post cycle continues as people become accustomed to immediate e-validation. Which came first: the selfie or feeling like shit because someone said something mean about your face on the internet?
Selfies aren't empowering little sources of pride, nor are they narcissistic exercises by silly, conceited bitches. They're a logical technically enabled response to being brought up to think that what really matters is if other people think you're pretty.