Thursday, July 24, 2014

on selfie shaming

Prepare y'allselves for a bit of organized rambling.


Took these selfies last semester when I was feeling particularly gloomy (just check out that brooding mug!) but also simultaneously happy with my hair...? I don't know exactly why it happened; I only know that one moment I was upset, and the next moment I thought, "You know what I could really use right now?  Some high quality selfies."

Rebecca, a blogger I've followed for a while, once wrote about the bad rap selfies get. She doesn't see a terrible difference between iPhone selfies, her own outfit shots, and the self-portraits people have commissioned for themselves for centuries (we're going back to like ancient sculptures here). If the selfie has become ubiquitous, it may be due to greater accessibility: it's just so much easier for more people to take self-portraits nowadays. As a style blogger, Rebecca actually prefers taking her own photos because she's free to be more creative when directing herself.

Still, I think there's a distinction to be made among different self-portraits that Rebecca doesn't mention. (I'm no history major, though, so someone correct me if I'm wrong!) When people had portraits made for themselves, their motivations were, granted, probably narcissistic to some extent, but also focused on posterity, yes? Before the ease of modern photography, there probably weren't many other ways to remind your descendants who they descended from. These selfies, then, had a larger practical purpose: a way to give future relatives a face to connect their past to. Similarly, people today still get together for professional family portraits.

As for Rebecca, I'd argue her self-portraits are less about showing off her face than 1. creating a record of her personal style that others can draw inspiration from, and 2. simply creating beautiful photographs (her appreciation for aesthetics and different art forms is clear from her other posts). She also makes her living off her blog. Thus she has both practical reasons (i.e. keeping track of her style, making a living) and artistic reasons for taking her "selfies."

Rebecca of The Clothes Horse

To sum up: there's a documentary and/or artistic aspect to many self-portraits that I don't think is necessarily true for ALL selfies taken today. Does this mean that posting selfiesor any photos of yourself, reallywithout an apparently practical or artistic purpose is automatically narcissistic? I don't know. I think selfies might appear narcissistic if they were the only photos that someone ever shared on social media, but then again, I don't think I know anyone who only posts photos of themselves. If anything, most people want to show that they have successful social lives, and because of that, group selfies with friends are just as common as solo selfies.

In this respect, I think that any discussions about the goodness or badness of "selfies" really fall under the larger phenomenon of documenting our lives on social media in the first place, which raises even larger questions. Are we motivated to take selfies, post status updates, and choose profile pics mostly because we want to give the impression that we're funny/healthy/happy/etc. people all the time? Is there a point when our relationship with social media becomes unhealthy?

(It all reminds me of what I was sort of trying to say with the first spoken word poem I ever wrote. One line from the piece: "If a tree falls down in a forest, and no one's around to hear it, does it make a sound? If I fall down in a forest, and no one's around to Instagram my bleeding knees, do I matter to anyone?")

If I have any point at all here, it's that any debate over selfies should go far beyond whether these pictures are themselves narcissistic. Why? Because selfies are really part of a larger phenomenon that warrants discussion: the fact that we are a generation in which ordinary people lead extremely visible lives. We can compare ourselves to others much more easily, and we can tailor the way we appear to others with even greater ease. How is this affecting us?

On a final note, I think selfies themselves can appear vain when they're actually serving the purpose of much-needed personal affirmation. We might take them, for example, because we feel particularly happy about our appearances one day, and maybe that doesn't happen very often, so we try to record it when it does. The selfies above not only distracted me from the blues, but they also gave me a little blessing to appreciate ("Hey at least my hair looks kinda good right now").

I try to avoid excessive selfie-ingthe kind where you're more preoccupied with documenting your face than experiencing whatever moment you're inbut I do believe in loving yourself to a healthy degree. And if you feel like you need some pics to remind yourself that you exist, and that that's good, and it makes you feel a bit more worthwhile... then gal/boy, you take those selfies. No shame.

PS. Random shoutout to Rebecca, by the way, on her new engagement! I already wrote this on her instagram, but it was super exciting news to me considering that I've followed her blog throughout most of her twenties. Congrats!

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